Thursday, January 3, 2008

Luxury at the end of the day

It’s 8:20, and Brandon and I return to the Suite to find that Bob has already turned in for the evening. I change into some sweats for lounging around, and we turn the TV – okay, TVs – to the channel showing the Hercules "Muse-ical." The show is really funny, and entertaining – and quite honestly, I think I enjoy it as much or more as I ever have seeing it live. It’s very nice to be relaxing in luxury with the ship’s stage show beamed to our hi-def television!

I show Benjamin the Mater pin, and his eyes bug out! But as he looks through his lanyard for a pin to trade me for it, I realize that all of his pins are either Lilo & Stitch or Cars pins. I just can’t bring myself make him part with any of them, so I give him the pin without requiring a trade in return. I have too many pins anyway.

Brandon is in and out of the Suite during the show, I think wanting to play the part of the independent teenager who gets out on his own at night, but not yet willing to stay away from his family for too long.

After the show, Linda goes to bed and Benjamin heads to the bathtub – he’s delighted that he can see Finding Nemo on the bathroom TV while he’s in the tub. All of us start winding down except Brandon, who goes to Aloft for the “411” teen welcome party. He’s back some time later, saying that there’s not much happening there.

The shipboard TVs always have a couple of movies running on various channels. Since Hercules we’ve been flipping back and forth between Nemo and Jungle Book. Monsters, Inc. will be coming on soon, and I intend to watch some of it from that big, inviting, whirlpool tub, now that Benjamin and Becky have both had their turn.

I run some deliciously hot water, crank up the TV, and lower myself into the tub. It is deep and feels heavenly – and that's before I even turn on the whirlpool jets. I hit the on/off switch, and ...


My sore feet needed this. Heck, my whole body needed this. This is a Disney-lover’s dream, soaking my theme-park aches away while laughing with Mike and Sully. I debate whether to spend the entire night in here.

Then I debate whether to spend the entire cruise in here.

After thirty minutes or so of bliss, I decide to bring my first-class bath experience to an end – for now, at least, knowing we will still be here for a couple more nights.

The kids are tucked into bed, also watching Monsters Inc. on their television, when I get out. We’ve got our traditional early start tomorrow morning – up with Bob to watch the sunrise. Bob is typically an early riser, but I surprised him on our first cruise together in 2003 by getting up on our first morning to join him. We ended up having a great time, drinking coffee, watching the sun rise, and playing basketball on the Wide World of Sports deck. Brandon joined us in 2005, and now Benjamin is planning on continuing the tradition with us.

Let’s see – sunrise will be at 6:57, so an alarm time of 6:40 will do, so long as we have clothes
ready to throw on.

There is one last issue to fix before we go to sleep. There are sliding doors between the kids’ bedroom (formerly the sitting room) and the living room, and between their room and our bedroom. Ideally, we’d like them closed, but the latches are difficult for me to work even in the light, so the kids would for sure have trouble getting them open if they had to get up in the middle of the night. But with the ship rocking, we either need the doors all the way open – where they click in place – or latched.

We finally settle on leaving their door to the living room open. On most mornings that would be an issue with Bob rising early and turning on the TV, but tomorrow we’ll be up early with him.

With that, I set the sleep timers on the TVs and we all quickly fall asleep. Given that we awoke in the Polynesian Resort this morning, got stranded on Test Track, had a bus ride to Port Canaveral, and are now ending the day in the Walter E. Disney Suite on the Disney Wonder, this has been one special and amazing day.

Elephants, pins, and such

We leave Parrot Cay and head up to the Walt Disney Suite – it still makes me giddy to think that it’s ours. The ship is now rocking enough that walking in a straight line is a challenge, and more than once I bump up against the hallway walls. We’re grateful for the handrails provided down the hallways.

When we arrive, we find the beds have been turned down, including the boys’ Murphy bed in the sitting room. The chairs in there fit nicely on either side of the bed. There are chocolates on each bed – not that we’re hungry for them at all! – and there is a towel elephant on the bed in the master bedroom. Awesome.

"Bari," the stuffed bear I got for Becky at the Barbershop Harmony Society convention in Denver (still sporting a lei from the Polynesian), has been placed next to the towel elephant. I'm not sure he knows what to think about it.

Okay, decision time – are we going to go to the 8:30 stage show, Hercules: the Muse-ical? Benjamin and I are semi-interested, but the general consensus seems to be, “no.” We’ve seen it on our previous cruises, it’s been a long day, and we have this wonderful Suite to enjoy. Besides, Hercules will be shown on our in-suite televisions, so we’ll still see the show, but in the comfort of our living room. Or in the sitting room. Or bedroom. Or other bedroom. Or bathroom, for that matter! (Five televisions! Wow!)

There’s pin trading in the atrium until 8:30, and Brandon and I want to go check that out. From past experience, it’s not always a hotbed of trading activity, but there’s usually at least one crew member there with pins to trade, and also DCL pins for sale that can’t be bought anywhere else.

The female crew member at the pin display is very nice. There are some amazing pins for sale, but none that match the one I got here on my last trip, with the Disney Wonder in profile against a star-filled night-sky Mickey shape. It’s one of my two favorites, along with the pin that features the Walt and Mickey “Partners” statue in pewter against a color Cinderella Castle.

The CM does have a Captain Mickey pin available for trade, showing him dressed in his officer whites and throwing a snappy gloved salute. I trade for it – now that I have more pins than my lanyard can hold, I keep several off-lanyard and let the CM have his or her pick, which most of them seem to appreciate over the usual method where guest picks one for them. There’s also a pin featuring Mater from Cars. Ooo, I know Benjamin would want that if he were here, so I trade for it, figuring Benjamin can then trade me for it later.

Brandon has his eye on a Chip and Dale pin the CM is wearing, but alas, he has left his extra “trading pins” in the Suite. The cast member very nicely says, "No problem!" and gives him a set of two identical Tinkerbell “Where Dreams Come True” pins! She then lets Brandon make the trade with one of the free pins and keep the other! That was cool.

She tells us that she will be there each night, and that on the final night of the cruise, several of the officers will be there with their pin collections. We’ll definitely have to be back for that.

We thank the CM and then turn towards the midship stairs. We’re going up a deck to the ship’s two onboard stores, Mickey’s Mates and Treasure Ketch. Treasure Ketch has mostly high-end stuff – watches, jewelry, and the like, while Mickey’s Mates has clothes, hats, toys, etc., and is usually the place I’m more likely to spend money. However, I do duck into Treasure Ketch, as they now also have a line of Castaway Club clothing, kept behind the sales counter, that you can only buy if you are on your second or subsequent cruise.

I’d like to find another Disney Cruise Line cap, but I’m not seeing anything that really catches my attention. The Castaway Club stuff is okay, but it’s all red – red t-shirts, red hats – and that’s not really what I want. I leave without making a purchase today, but I know I’ll have more time later to come back and shop.

Parrot Cay entertainment

Our entrees arrive. Benjamin has ordered pizza (what else?) and fries. He goes slowly on them, but insists that they taste good and that he is feeling better. I’ve got the mixed grill. I’d never ordered it here before, because on previous trips it seemed too close to the low-carb diet I’d been on in the past, but it always looked good when someone else got it. It really is delicious.

I ask Assistant Server Nino if his name is pronounced “NEE-no” (as I’ve heard Sutas calling him) or “NEEN-yo.” He tells me it’s actually “NEEN-yo,” but on board the ship a lot of the other CMs call him “NEE-no,” and he’s gotten used to it.

Nino and Sutas are very enjoyable servers, not only efficient and attentive, but also able to spend time conversing and entertaining us. Nino entertains the recovering Benjamin with a bit of kids’ menu origami, folding the page into a giraffe. At least, he says it’s a giraffe. It does have a long neck, but it still takes quite a lot of imagination to call it a giraffe. Maybe a llama?

As we are finishing our entrees, the Parrot Cay entertainment starts, with all the servers, led by the head servers, dancing in a line around the restaurant to “Hot, Hot, Hot.” Brandon immediately hops up to join the line. Does Benjamin feel like dancing? No, he doesn’t, but he seems to enjoy the music. He’s looking much, much better.

How much better we come to understand just about ten seconds later, when another server invites Benjamin to dance. This time, he shrugs and stands up with a smile to join the dance line! We watch the boys as they parade around Parrot Cay, Brandon bopping around with as much energy as anybody, and Benjamin not dancing much, but smiling from ear to ear. It’s a fun time.

After that musical interlude, Brandon and Benjamin return to the table, and Sutas comes to take our dessert order. Mmm, cruise ship dessert! I order the Chocolate-Espresso Walnut Cake, Becky and Linda each order the Ice Cream Sundae, and Benjamin asks for the “Rich Chocolate Pudding” from the kids’ menu. Bob reminds Sutas of his Mickey Bar request, and Brandon joins him.

While we wait for the desserts, Sutas entertains the kids – and the rest of us – with some brain teaser-type puzzles, using the crayons on the table. He first lays down four crayons in the shape of a simple stemware glass, with a salt shaker “in” the glass, and then tells us to recreate the shape with the salt shaker on the outside of the glass by moving only two crayons. Sutas then leaves to go about his work while we try to figure it out.

Our whole table gets involved in the puzzle, and I’m really admiring both Sutas and Nino already. They are different from Nick, but these type of puzzles are perfect from Brandon and Benjamin – and a great way to make the wait time fly by.

When we demonstrate that we’ve solved the first puzzle, Sutas leaves another, and then another, and before we know it, desserts are here, and we almost don’t want to quit the puzzles to eat them. Almost.

We have a laugh at Bob’s requested Mickey Bar – he is given two Mickey Bars on a plate. Brandon just has one Mickey Bar, but it is dressed up with chocolate syrup, marshmallows, and sprinkles! Brandon marvels, “And it’s all free!” We remind him that, more accurately, it is all "paid for."

My chocolate cake is just the right size, and pretty soon we’ve wolfed down all that we can. I glance at my watch – we’ve been here almost two hours. We normally don’t linger over a meal like this, but the time just flew. Sutas and Nino are great, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them again over the next couple of days.

Apart from Benjamin’s incident, which seems to be fully past us now, this was a great first dinner onboard.

Dinner, interrupted

With Benjamin thinking he might need to, um, be sick, he knows to head to the nearest restroom. Unfortunately, there are none right within view in the restaurants on board. We point him out the exit and down the hallway with the word that there are restrooms right by the stairwells, and we send Brandon with him to help guide him there.

Within a couple of minutes a bowl of delicious Cream of Sweet Onion soup is placed in front of me, but we haven’t heard back from either son, so I get up to go check on them. The soup will have to wait – though it would be easier to leave it I hadn’t been able to smell it first.

I walk out of the restaurant and down the short hall to the closest elevator/stair landing and step into the snug men’s room there. One stall is in use. “Benjamin? Brandon?” I call out. “No,” says an unfamiliar voice. Hmm.

If they are not in the closest bathroom, where are they?

As I step back out in the hallway and turn towards the Promenade Lounge, I see Brandon coming towards me. He reports that Benjamin got sick on the carpet a little further along. In the stress of the moment, they missed the closest set of bathrooms and kept going. Lovely.

Brandon says that Benjamin is not alone – he’s being tended to by a crew member in the Lounge. I thank Brandon and send him back to supper, and then start down the hallway to the other end of the Lounge. Except I find the walkway blocked from each direction by a row of chairs. Oh. That must be… the place. Wow, these Disney crew members are efficient.

I step into the Lounge and spot Benjamin in a chair at the far end. A female crew member is wiping his face with a washcloth, and he himself is sipping ginger ale from a can with a straw in it. He looks a little pale, but otherwise all right.

I introduce myself to the crew member and apologize for the inconvenience, but she is very gracious and tells us both not to worry about it at all – it happens. She’s very good at putting us both at ease. She recommends getting Benjamin a little fresh air up on Deck 4.

Benjamin confirms he’s good to move, so I thank the cast member and we step out of the Promenade Lounge and head upstairs to Deck 4, using the large staircase near Shutters. We go to the nearest doorway to the outside deck and find it blocked off for some reason. I turn to lead Benjamin to the next closest door, but he says he just wants to sit for a few minutes. That’s fine. There are a couple of chairs nearby, so we sit.

He sips his ginger ale reports that he feels a lot better – which is often the case after an upset stomach. We just rest there for 5 or 10 minutes, and then Benjamin says he’s ready to go back to the restaurant. Funny, but his main concern, now that he feels better, is that he’ll have to give back the Sprite he ordered at Parrot Cay because he now has a ginger ale! I assure him that no one will mind if he keeps both drinks.

We go through Shutters to the aft stairs, to avoid walking past the Promenade Lounge, and then drop down to Deck 3 and return our table in Parrot Cay. Benjamin really does look much better, but we still admonish him to take it easy, and especially go slow on eating much. He doesn’t seem to need us to tell him that, though.

My soup’s still here, and tastes wonderful.

Rough seas

The ship is noticeably rocking as we prepare to go to dinner. It’s not at all violent, more of a gentle swaying, and not so much as to knock you off your feet. But it is constant, over and over and over, and that can cause problems.

Benjamin is feeling the effects.

We don’t have any chewable Dramamine handy, but we find a suitable dose in pill form for him to take. Unfortunately, Benjamin has never taken a pill before. Given his marginally queasy state and the stress of swallowing a pill for the first time, it takes a bit of trying for him to get it down, but he eventually does.

I hope we’ve given it to him in time.

Off we go to Parrot Cay. The midship elevators take us to Deck 3, and we walk down the port-side hallway past the Promenade Lounge where we waited for our table at lunch. Our table, number 55, is right in the middle of the restaurant. Waiting to greet us as soon as we are seated are our server and assistant server, Sutas from Thailand, and Nino from the Philippines.

We’ve been curious about our servers – we spend so much time with them on the ship, since they rotate from restaurant to restaurant with us, that they can really add a lot of magic to a cruise. The boys absolutely adored Nick, our goofy and endearing Croatian server in 2003; okay, we all adored him. He was sweet and wonderful and fun, and easily was the favorite part of our cruise. Sunil & Sara, our 2005 team, on the other hand, gave great service, but were just not as personable or fun. Granted, Nick set the bar high – any future server will have a hard time living up to his standard.

Already Sutas and Nino seem to be an improvement over our last cruise. They are warm, friendly, and funny as we introduce ourselves to them.

Benjamin is still looking a little queasy, but says he’s okay for now. The ship is still rocking noticeably, and even I am starting to feel the effects. We forge ahead with ordering from the Parrot Cay menu. I order my favorite appetizer at this place, the Baked Crab Martinique, a delicious cheesy crab concoction, as well as a bowl of the Cream of Sweet Onion Soup.

Bob tells Sutas that for dessert later, he might pass on the fancier items and just have a Mickey bar. Sutas gives him a mischievous double take and laughingly says, “Can I see a photo i.d.? That’s for kids!” He tells Bob not to worry, he’ll take care of him.

Nino brings our sodas, and Sutas delivers some warm banana bread and sesame rolls. It may have only been a few hours since lunch, but they still taste fantastic. Then the appetizers arrive, and I dig into the Crab Martinique. Yummm! It is very, very good.

Sutas is just starting to deliver our soups and salads when Benjamin signals that he thinks he’s going to be sick.

At our beck and call

Shortly after I return to the Walt Disney Suite, our doorbell – yes, the Walt Disney Suite has a doorbell – rings. At the door are Lars and Thabi (pronounced like “Tabby”), our concierges. They make an interesting pair, standing next to each other. Lars, from Germany, is quite tall, while South African Thabi is, um… not. Both, however, are extraordinarily friendly.

They’ve come to invite us to the concierge reception tomorrow afternoon while we are docked in Nassau, and to give us information about our coming ports of call and events onboard the ship. We’re given a printed page with the DCL logo and personalized with our family names and suite, showing the weather forecast for the next day. They're really giving us the royal treatment!

We enjoy the information, but honestly admit to them that we might not get off the ship in Nassau. Heck, we might not even go to the stage show, Hercules, this evening. We’ve got this amazing Suite, a once in a lifetime kind of experience, and so, we tell them, we might just be in here relaxing and enjoying it!

Thabi is quick to respond, “I don’t blame you! I’d do that, too!”

Lars does give us one bit of bad news. Disney’s new luggage check-out, where they take your bags off the ship and give them directly to your airline, won’t work for us. To minimize the risk of bags not making your flight, they don’t do that when your flight leaves earlier than 11:25 a.m. Ours is scheduled for 11:15, just ten minutes too early. Oh, well – they’ll still take the bags off the ship, but we just have to claim them and take them through customs ourselves, then give them to the airline reps there at the port. It’s still not much of a hassle.

Bob brings up the single Castaway Club gift bag issue delicately, by asking them if they are familiar with the expression, “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” Thabi doesn’t know the phrase, but Lars says they have the same saying in German. They assure us that they’ll see “if they have any extras” and get a gift bag for Bob and Linda by the end of the voyage.

Lars and Thabi tell us how to contact them by phone, and urge us to call, day or night, someone will answer, and they love to help, so please call if we need anything! Thabi adds, “Even if you just want to know the time, call!”

Bob asks if they can adjust the weather. They laugh and say that it should be much nicer in Nassau tomorrow.

With a cheerful goodbye, Lars and Thabi depart, and for us it’s time for supper. Time to head back to Parrot Cay. I’m thankful that we have a reserved table this time.

Farewell Florida

Normally as the ship leaves, I’ll stay on Deck 10, watching the Port slip by, but today it really is too cold for that. So, Bob and I walk forward on Deck 9, which is mostly enclosed. I pull up a chair next to the glass and enjoy our departure. There is an opening in the glass which lets just enough breeze through to let me experience some of the feeling of our increasing speed.

A pilot boat is alongside us, guiding the ship out of the channel. I look around and try to spot a few landmarks, primarily the location of various Cape Canaveral webcams I watch throughout the year to get my Disney Cruise Line “fix.” Let’s see, there’s the Canaveral Radisson off in the distance. It has a great web-controllable camera. Its view of the Disney ships in port is partially blocked, but as they are departing, you can turn the camera to follow them. Someone is probably doing that right now! That's cool to think about.

We pass the coast line – there’s another building with a camera on it – and I say goodbye to land for now. The pilot boat stays with us for a short while after we’re past the land, and then drops back and out of sight. We really start picking up speed now that we’re in the open water.

Bob takes his leave, saying that he’s heading back to the Suite. I decide to stay a bit longer.

The ship turns southeast, and
I snap a picture looking back up the Port Canaveral waterway. After that, I decide to go explore a bit. I walk down Deck 9 and go into the midship elevators. Let’s see what this deck party in the atrium looks like.

As I descend past Deck 5 and the atrium comes into view through the glass elevator wall, it becomes clear that the deck party looks, um, over. No band, no characters, no crowds. There are some people hanging around the door to Triton’s, waiting for it to open for dinner, but otherwise not much is happening.

I stay on the lift and head back to the Suite on Deck 8.

Quiet departure...?

Note: Sorry that my usual trickle of posts has dwindled to a drip in recent days. I was out of town this past week competing with the Vocal Majority chorus (full story at The World of Wombat) and I fell behind on writing the trip report. I've caught up enough now that I can resume the usual, um, trickle. Thanks for your patience.

We step out onto Deck 10, and the cold wind hits us with a blast. Combined with the icy drizzle, it’s pretty miserable weather – but my spirits are flying high. Our cruise is about to really get underway!

We walk along the starboard rail until we are in front of the forward funnel. It’s bizarrely quiet, given that on previous trips music from the deck party was blaring. Here we have only the whistling wind. There are only a few other souls wandering around, unlike the hundreds hugging the rail in normal weather.

In the absence of the usual Mickey-led countdown from the stage below, I check my Mickey watch – it is almost 5:00. Bob and I are steeling ourselves to be surprised by the “When You Wish Upon a Star” horn. It should be really loud without any other noises around.

Without any fanfare – or horn – we look down to the terminal building below us and see that the ship has started moving laterally away from the dock. It’s kind of surreal, at least compared to the normal departure. There’s no band and no characters (at least not up here!). There are hardly any people. Looking down to the terminal, which is now noticeable begin to slip away as we build forward momentum, there are no DCL cast members with Mickey gloves on waving goodbye. It’s cold, wet, and very, very quiet.

But watching this 83,000-ton vessel leave port is still incredible.

There still has been no horn. Usually it’s timed with the deck party countdown, right when we begin to pull away from the dock, but that time has passed. The Disney terminal is well behind us now. Surely they’re not going to skip the horn?

In concession to the weather, Bob goes down to the more wind-shielded Deck 9 and finds a dry spot to wait. Brandon heads up towards the bow of the ship, I’m guessing to have a “I’m king of the world” moment to himself. Still no horn.

Finally, even my “this is no big deal I grew up in Colorado” disdain for the weather crumbles, and I go down to Deck 9 to join Bob. We’re still in front of the horn, still outside, but just a bit more shielded from the cold.

The ship is turning east down the Port Canaveral channel to the ocean, and I’m about to give up waiting and go walk around, when Captain Henry comes over the speakers to announce that the ship’s horn is about to sound. The handful of people around us cover their ears tightly. I do not.

Seconds slip by. Knowing that it’s coming, but not exactly when, is a delicious kind of anticipation –


It is loud.


Okay, not covering my ears may not have been the brightest thing, standing in front of a ship's horn. Disney fanatic that I am, though, I figure that there are worse things in life than having “When You Wish Upon a Star” ringing in my ears!

Final pre-sail details

Climbing up all those stairs is a chore, but it’s a very nice reward to be able to rest in the Walt Disney Suite when we make it back to Deck 8!

Captain Henry (Andersson, our ship’s captain for the third time in a row aboard the Wonder) comes over the loud speakers announcing that we will be facing rough seas tonight until about 10:30, and tells us that, even with the ship’s stabilizers, there still may be seasickness. If you have Dramamine, he advises, take it now!

Point taken.

Okay, what to do next? Traditionally we head up to Deck 10 and watch the sail-away party, held on the stage by the Goofy pool on Deck 9. But as we’re discussing this, our cruise director, Christiaan, comes over the speakers to announce that, because of the chilly, wet weather, the sail-away party is being moved indoors. Okay, he’s a cruise director, so he doesn’t say it all matter-of-fact like that. It’s more bubbly and excited, all “Are we going to let a little weather spoil the fun? No!!” It definitely takes a certain personality type to do his job. And it’s not the same personality type as me.

The “Adventures Away” sail away party will be held in the atrium instead. Brandon and Benjamin ask if they can go on to the party, and we let them head out. While no place is ever perfectly safe, the ship is a pretty controlled environment. They’ve both shown themselves to be pretty responsible, and we’re confident at their age, now, letting them loose with just a few safety rules.

At 4:30 Becky and Linda head out to check out the spa. They’ve never taken advantage of any of its services before, and they want to take a look, and possible set up a time for some pampering.

That leaves Bob and me. We each decide we still want to go up on deck and watch us head out of the port. That’s also the main attraction to me – the sail away party has always been fun, but secondary. I’d rather enjoy the experience of this beautiful but massive ship maneuvering out from the mainland to the open seas. Plus, both Bob and I want to risk our eardrums and stand in front of the ship’s horn when it sounds. What can I say, we live on the edge.

As it is, luggage is beginning to arrive, and Bob and I are able to direct which piece of luggage goes to which side of the suite. Never had to do that before! I hang our hanging clothes in our walk-in closet – mine and the boys’ on one side, Becky’s on the other, having to push aside the white terry-cloth bathrobes that are provided there. As at the Polynesian, I pull a few things from the suitcase and tuck them into drawers, and then use a trick I didn’t know on my previous two cruises – clearing floor space by sliding the suitcases under the bed.

Brandon returns to the cabin, reporting that Benjamin stayed at the sail-away party after they went exploring the ship some more. Brandon played some basketball again for a few minutes with 9-10 other guys, and then came back here to the suite.

Soon it’s getting close to 5:00, so Brandon, Bob and I put on our jackets and head up into the wet chill to Deck 10.

Lifeboat drill

Clad in our orange life jackets, we file out of the Suite and follow the signs in the corridor to the forward stairs – no elevators during the drill, except for those with mobility issues – and begin our descent to Deck 4, where all of the assembly stations are. We are assigned to Assembly Station D, out the forward stairwell door on the port side and to the left.

It is indeed still very chilly and windy, and we are surprised to find our crew member “station captain” wearing shorts. She’s cheerful but admits that she is cold.

We are instructed to line up coming out from the wall, a single line per stateroom. It dawns on me that we are one of only four cabins on the ship that may have six or more people in our line, as just the Category 1 and Category 2 suites – two each – sleep seven people.

We line up with the tallest in the back, shortest in the front. Brandon is jubilant that he is behind his mom for the first time. Poor Benjamin is at the front, exposed the most to the cold, while I am doing great snuggled in at the back behind Bob. As other cruisers arrive and fill in to our right, I am downright cozy. The dad to my right comments about how comfortable we are with our families blocking us from the cold. I agree and toss out a “Thanks, Bob!” to my father-in-law. (Funny, but his "You're so welcome" seems just a tad sarcastic!)

The lifeboat drill proceeds as it always does – once we’re in place, we just stand and listen until we’re dismissed. There are instructions over the PA system, telling us about the emergency horn signal and that we’re to do just what we’ve done now if we hear it, that is, go to our cabins, dress quickly for the weather, get our life preservers and come line up at our stations. Then the signal is sounded – seven short blasts of the horn followed by one long blast. No “When You Wish Upon a Star” on the horn in an emergency, folks… though it occurs to me that they could always just play “Poor Unfortunate Souls” instead.

Our station captain gives a roll call of the few cabins that she hasn’t spotted, and then we are dismissed. The whole drill takes only about ten minutes once we’re in place, and then we can go back inside to warm up. The “work” part of the cruise is over, and now the fun part can begin in earnest!

Wait, I spoke too soon. While the elevators are in use again, they are packed with everyone returning at once, so the stairs are the faster option. But that means four decks' worths of stairs to climb on my still theme-park-weary feet!

Relaxing in luxury

Brandon opens the envelope that was waiting for him as we entered the suite, and finds a personal invitation to him to come to the teen club, Aloft, for the “411” meeting tonight. That’s a nice touch.

He and Benjamin want to get out and explore the ship for a few minutes, so we let them go with warnings to be back very soon!

We have a a little time still to explore our Suite before the 4:00 lifeboat drill. On the coffee table in the living room is the typical menu of services, including room services options, that all cabins get. But there is an additional concierge folder, which has a few pages of personalized stationery for us, a list of DVDs we can order from the concierge, and full menus from each of the three main onboard restaurants – as concierge-level guests, we can get anything off of the menu of any of the restaurants delivered by room service!

In fact, there is a separate, metal-covered menu from Palo, the exclusive adults-only restaurant. Bob tells us that, according to Lars, only guests in the two Disney Suites can order room service from Palo. Hmmm. I may have to see about getting to try Palo’s famous chocolate soufflĂ©!

I peruse the bookshelves in the sitting room and find a book on etiquette. Those always seem to be interesting reading to me – mostly to see how far I deviate from what is socially acceptable, I suppose. I’m curious whether these books have any connection to Walt Disney. Upon finding that the book I’ve chosen was published in the 1980’s, though, I suspect not. Still, I setting down in a comfortable chair by the veranda door and read a little to relax.

Brandon and Benjamin return with reports that they went up to Deck 9, got a few pictures on deck, and Brandon briefly joined a pickup basketball game on the Wide World of Sports deck. And they saw a rainbow!

It’s approaching 4:00 now, and in-cabin announcements (preceded by the delightful “When You Wish Upon a Star” chime) are urging us to begin assembling on Deck 4. Time to don our life jackets.

Bob and I pull the life preservers out of our walk-in closets. They are a different design than I recall from previous cruises, both less bulky and able to fold up smaller for storage in the closet.

Knowing that it is still cold outside, we all put on jackets before we add the life preservers. It takes just a second to figure out how the life vests go on. Wearing these things is always entertaining – okay, really it’s just entertaining seeing other people in your family wearing them – and the contrast between being dressed for going into the ocean and the luxury of the Suite is striking. I try not to think of Titanic.

Sleeping arrangements

Back inside the suite (or should I say, the Suite, capital ‘S’!), I note that the fruit basket is not the only thing left for us – there’s also a cool, useful black and red Castaway Club bag on the bed in the Master Bedroom. It contains a couple of reusable drink bottles, mesh beach bag, notebook and pen, and a few other goodies, all branded with the DCL logo. Every repeat cruiser gets a gift like this – in the past we’ve received pins and a beach towel.

Bob and Linda confirm that there is not another bag in the other bedroom. Just one? That doesn’t seem right. Maybe it’s a “one per stateroom” deal, but I’d think both families should get one – we did book two staterooms initially, after all. It’s not something we’ll press, I’m sure, given that it’s hard to complain that we’re being deprived when we’ve been upgraded to Category 1, but we still might mention it.

Now that we’ve explored, we need to figure out our living arrangements for the next few days. One surprising thing we find is that the Walt Disney Suite, while advertised to hold up to seven cruisers, actually has beds enough for ten! The “permanent” beds – the queen bed in the master bedroom and the twin beds in the second bedroom – sleep four. Above each bed in the second bedroom are pull-down bunks, like those found in many staterooms, so that's room for another two people. The Murphy bed in the sitting room sleeps another two, and then the couch in the living room converts to a bed that also sleeps two. It's kind of mind-boggling to think that ten people, adults even, could sleep in a single "stateroom" aboard a ship in absolute comfort!

We discuss various arrangements of where we'll each sleep. If Becky and the boys and I took the second bedroom together, with Bob & Linda in the master suite, it might be problematic when Becky or I stay up later than the boys, but it would definitely work. We couldn’t put the boys on the living room couch, because Bob likes to rise early and turn on the news. Brandon and Benjamin are most eager to sleep on the Murphy bed, but that would put them next to Bob and Linda if they were in the master bedroom.

The arrangement that seems to work best is to put Becky and me in the master bedroom, Brandon and Benjamin on the Murphy bed, and Becky’s parents in the second bedroom. That will have the larger bathroom for the four of us Randalls, and give Bob and Linda their own private facilities, even though it means sleeping apart in two twin beds. I feel a bit guilty about taking the master bedroom when we wouldn’t even be here were it not for Bob and Linda, but they assure us that they’re fine with this arrangement, so that's what we settle on.

I feel guilty all over again when I sink into the queen-size bed with thoughts of, “Mine, mine, all mine!!!”

WED Suite cont'd

Back through the living room, the room on the other side is a simple sitting room, with two comfortable chairs and its own television. I know from research beforehand that there is a Murphy bed in this room that sleeps two.

The sitting room leads to the master bedroom. Ahhh – the master bedroom of the Walter E. Disney Suite. Just saying it sounds luxurious! It has a queen-sized bed, two nightstands, dresser, vanity/desk, and another television with its own DVD player. There’s a big walk-in closet – or rather “walk-through,” since it also connects with the entrance hallway – with hanging and storage space on each side behind polished wooden doors.

Then there’s the master bathroom. Wow. I wish my bathroom at home were this nice and spacious! There are two sinks with plenty of counter space, a ginormous whirlpool tub at one end, and a separate glass shower stall at the other – with two shower heads.

And in the cabinet above the sinks is the suite’s fifth television, fully in view from the whirlpool tub. I think I’m going to have to spend some time there.

There are bookshelves all over and photographs of Walt Disney everywhere. It’s just all too wonderful. Our jaws are scraping the floor, at least figuratively, taking in all of this space and luxury and trying to wrap our brains around the concept that it is all ours for the next three days!

I’m still videoing, although already I can tell it’s not going to be very good. Besides the delay in getting in (and the poor quality video my cheapo digital camera takes anyway), with every new room we’re having to find and try the various light switches until the lights come on, meaning that half of the video will be dark.

Now that I’ve gone through all the rooms, I head through the sitting room for the veranda door.

I start fiddling with the lock and handle with my free hand, with no success in opening the door. After a minute or so of this, I finally stop the video and devote my whole attention to getting the door open. As it turns out, the lock is mislabeled. Once I turn it in the direction that says “lock,” I can open the door.

Brandon and I step out onto the looooong veranda. This is too cool. It’s just as narrow as a standard veranda, but about 4 or 5 times as long! Brandon has to make the point by leaving me through one door, racing through the suite, and then emerging 40 feet away from me at the other door!

I can’t help but think of our 2003 trip, when we were upgraded to two Category 3 (one-bedroom) suites. Because the suites were at the back of the ship, their verandas were actually both wide and long. In fact, Bob & Linda’s, at the very aft of the ship, may have been longer than this one. But this Disney Suite veranda has something that those in 2003 did not – privacy!! Because of the layout of the decks, people could look down on us from Deck 9 when we were on our verandas in 2003. Here, no one can look down from above. It’s pretty nice.

Of course, it’s also still cold, wet, and windy. Unless that changes, we won’t be spending too much time on the verandas anyway! (And frankly, when we’ve got a magnificent suite indoors, the outdoors loses some of its appeal.)

At last – the Walter E. Disney Suite!

We finally realize that no one is making a move to open the door, so everyone goes for their card at once. Bob’s the first with his at the ready. He slides it in, pulls it out, and – green light! The door to the Walt Disney Suite opened for us!!

This is so cool! We step through the door and into a long hallway. There are doors on either side, but we’ll explore those later. The hall leads us into the main living room, the biggest room in the suite.

It has a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table. This is the room that used to have the baby grand piano, but it has been removed – and, according to the lady at DCL that I talked to when we were upgraded, it was just for show, never a functional piano.

The wall behind the couch is covered with curtains, through which we can see our veranda. (Our 40-foot veranda!) Since the doors behind the couch are blocked, though, we apparently access the veranda through other rooms.

Turning around at the couch and facing the opposite wall, the one split by the entrance hallway, to the left is a media center with a DVD player and a rather nice flat-screen, Hi-Def television. It’s not big by home theater standards by any means, maybe 25”, but it’s a pretty decent size for onboard a cruise ship.

It turns out to be one of five televisions in the suite.

Still in the living room, same wall as the TV, but on the opposite side of the hallway, there are cabinets that open to reveal a wet bar. It has stemware available and is stocked with Evian water bottles.

The living room connects with two smaller rooms, one on each end. “Smaller” being a relative term, of course: each of them is as big or bigger than the sitting areas in a Category 4 stateroom (the highest non-concierge; the Walt and Roy Disney Suites are Category 1). The room to the aft – to the left coming from the entrance hallway – is a dining room with seating for eight.

There’s a large (!) gift platter of fresh fruit, wrapped in plastic and tied off with a Disney Cruise Line ribbon, sitting on the dining room table, along with a “welcome aboard” note from Lars and our other concierge, Thabi. Life is good.

To the right are curtains and a door to the veranda. To the left, another room, this one the smaller bedroom. Again, “smaller” is relative – the room contains two twin beds, a desk, a dresser, and a television! It also has a walk-in closet, which connects back to the entrance hallway. There is a bathroom with sink/counter/mirror space, and an almost full-size, deep whirlpool tub!

I can’t wait to see what the big bedroom looks like!

Concierge service

Finally satisfied, we head out of Parrot Cay, down the hallway, through the atrium, between the midship elevators and down the “Route 66” corridor, with its highway-map carpeting. “Cars” fan Benjamin suddenly has a new appreciation for the theming of this area!

We walk into the Cadillac Lounge, where the concierge meeting is being held, and are greeted warmly. We tell them we need to check in Benjamin, and he and I are directed to have a seat on a couch. A female crew member joins us and pulls up our paperwork on her handheld computer. She goes over all of what to expect, and discusses the use of the pager, and talks with Benjamin about different activities for his age.

Okay, even with the online enrollment before we left, this isn’t much faster than it used to be. I must admit my “no hurries, no worries” attitude is already showing cracks – I wanna see the Walt Disney Suite! But I take a deep breath and decide to be patient, particularly when I think that this may be our last time to put either kid into a club.

Brandon, being a teen now, doesn’t have a sign-in, but the CM tells him of a “411” session at 9:30 tonight in Aloft. He gives a non-committal, fully “teenager” nod and grunt of acknowledgement.

Bob, Linda, and Becky pass the time talking with Lars, a tall, friendly CM from Germany, who is one of our concierges. Eventually the check-in for Benjamin is done, but we all keep talking for several minutes. Everyone here is extraordinarily nice.

Okay, enough of nice… let’s get to the suite!!! We say our goodbyes and thanks and turn towards the fore bank of elevators. We squeeze in to the first available elevator – shipboard lifts are not that large – and press the button for deck 8. This is getting exciting now!

At deck 8, we turn to the port hallway and begin walking aft, heading for number 8030… let’s see, 8018… 8022… 26… 28… And we’re here – number 8030. Stylish metal lettering on the door reads "Walter E. Disney Suite"! There’s an envelope at the door, addressed to Brandon. That’s a good sign, but the true test will be when we stick one of our Key to the World cards in the door and are rewarded with a green light!

I stand back and start recording video on my camera – I want to capture our first view of the shipboard Shangri-La and everyone’s reactions to it. And so we stand at the doorway… not going in.

Why are we not going in?

Heh. In all of our anticipation and excitement, none of us have thought to get out a KTTW card!

Buffet bliss

Shaking off the rudeness of the stupid guest is not easy, but we do our best and enjoy our food. It is a decent spread as always – lots of fruit, vegetable dishes, carved meats, salmon, and of course large, peel-and-eat shrimp. I’m not in a very adventurous mood, food-wise, so I get some chicken, rice pilaf, seasoned potatoes, cheese cubes, bread and butter – and a corn dog.

Our table is right up against a starboard-side porthole, behind my chair, meaning I can watch all of the dockhands working below. Now that we are onboard the ship and our hunger is being satisfied, there is a very strong change of mood among us. We are no longer in any hurry, there’s no place we have to be at any time, and everything we could possibly need is available to us without any stress or distance to travel. Because of that, we settle in, take things slow, and relaaaaaaaaax…

It’s this “no care in the world” feeling that really makes a cruise worthwhile!

Consequently, even without having to wait for food once we were seated, we spend over an hour having a slow, relaxed, casual lunch. Sure, we’re anxious to get to the Walt Disney Suite, but… no hurries, no worries. We’ll get there eventually.

In fact, since the timing is working out, we decide to head straight from Parrot Cay to the concierge meeting in the Cadillac Lounge. We can get Benjamin checked in and meet our concierge staff, and then we’ll be free to head upstairs with all of our “required” tasks behind us (with the exception of the lifeboat drill at 4:00). Yes, it means waiting a bit more to see our suite, but (a) every added bit we put it off just builds the anticipation, and (b) I have a feeling that once we’re in there, we won’t want to leave!

Dessert time! Again, the spread is wonderful – cakes, pies, cheesecake, tarts, more fruit. Cruise life being what it is, we sample all of it. I know some people diet and exercise as a lifestyle and do not break their routine on vacations, even on a cruise, and Disney is wonderful to accommodate those people… but I’m not one of them. To me, the point of the diet and exercise at home is so that I can enjoy all of the food while I’m here!

We do restrain ourselves a bit – just a bit – but mainly because our dinnertime, back here in Parrot Cay, is just four hours away.

Stupid Cruiser Trick

There’s a limit to this pampering thing, of course – it doesn’t speed up our wait for a table at Parrot Cay. Forty-five minutes after we sign in, we're pretty hungry, and finally our names are called. We hear our family name, "party of six," and we go to the crew member with the waiting list, and she directs us to the restaurant. We walk up the hallway and then stand at the entrance to Parrot Cay for a couple of minutes waiting on a server to take us to a specific table.

There is a smaller group ahead of us, and one lone middle-aged guy milling around nearby. The smaller party is seated, and by the time a server comes for us, the lone guy has worked his way ahead of us.

"Party of six?" the server asks.

"Yes" I answer, but so does the other guy standing nearby! Color me confused.

Now, I have no idea what's going on, but the server is in a rush and doesn't notice anything out of place. He takes off at a brisk walk through the restaurant, with the seven of us in tow -- the six of us plus the other guy.

The server barely slows down to indicate a table for six and then moves on. And then… then the lone guy plops himself down in one of the chairs!

We stand there stunned. It finally dawns on me that this guy is cutting in line, stealing our table -- he heard "party of 6" and planted himself ahead of us.

We're almost too dumbfounded to say anything, but we protest to the guy that we were the party of six that was called. No, it was him, he smugly says. Where's your family, then? We ask.

"Oh, they're on their way," he replies -- as he pulls out his cell phone to call them.

We flag a nearby server and sputter out the situation. Thankfully, another table for six is open and we are seated in it immediately. I gather that the server considers this a solution to the issue and doesn't do anything to the other (balding, ugly) dude -- who to him is also a paying customer on the first day of his cruise, I'm sure.

Within a few minutes we've given our drink order and are headed for the buffet. The line-cutting idiot is still smugly sitting at the table alone, waiting for his family. So, apart from looks that could kill from each member of our family (which he studiously avoids meeting), he gets away with it.

So... we decide shake it off, let it go, and enjoy lunch and the rest of our cruise. But it bugs me that someone can act so selfish and inconsiderate and not suffer any consequences – apart from just having to be who he is. Which, now that I think about it, is a pretty severe punishment.

Onto our new floating home

The six of us approach the portal, shaped like Mickey’s head, and present our i.d.’s and KTTW cards. We are waved into the passageway, where our cards are scanned and we are officially cleared to board. Yay!

Something new happens at this point – Bob and Linda are handed an envelope with their names on it. Not sure what that’s about, but I guess we’ll find out soon enough.

We toss down our bags and pose for the welcome aboard picture – I’ve had to learn to suppress my impatience and just get this over with – and then we regather our belongings and head for the gangway, where tarps have been lowered on both sides to protect us from the cold wind and rain as we walk across to the ship.

We step onto the Disney Wonder. Ahhhhh, it’s good to be back. A cheerful young crew member welcomes us aboard and asks our family name and where we’re from. I know what’s coming next, and I’m determined this time not to be trying to take pictures so I can fully enjoy her announcement over the loudspeakers: “Please welcome the Murdock and Randall families from Texas!” Crew members applaud us as we walk across the beautiful three-story atrium.

It never fails to make us feel like royalty.

As it is just 1:00, it’s a bit early for us to try to get into our cabin – I mean, our suite – so we head for lunch. As a change, and because the weather is chilly on deck, we’d decided some time ago to head for the (indoor, enclosed) Parrot Cay restaurant for lunch rather than the Beach Blanket Buffet on Deck 9. We stay on Deck 3 and turn down the long port walkway towards Parrot Cay.

There are not a whole lot of holiday decorations still up on the ship, but we do pass a big gingerbread house at the base of a large staircase. It’s not as grand or as detailed as the ones in the WDW resorts, but it’s still pretty cool.

Uh oh. With the chilly weather, it looks like we’re not the only ones who have had the idea to go to Parrot Cay. There’s a cast member at the entrance with a waiting list. Not much to do but join in. We give him our name and party size, and then he directs us to have a seat in the nearby Promenade Lounge to wait.

We find a set of chairs to relax in, and Bob and Linda open up their mystery envelope. It turns out to be for all of us, since all six of us are in the same suite together. It contains a “welcome aboard” card signed by our concierge staff, a separate invitation to the concierge meet-and-greet in the Cadillac Lounge this afternoon. There are also two full-sized printed pages, which turn out to be personalized itineraries for our family, giving dining rotations (confirming what I gleaned from our cards – Parrot Cay, Triton’s, and then Animator’s Palate), show times, concierge-level-only events, and other items.

How cool! I really could get used to being pampered.

Why wait?

We grab our carry-ons and climb off the bus. Benjamin’s a little droopy – I think he slept pretty hard on the bus – but he’s able to get moving pretty quickly.

Into the security line we go. There’s a line ahead of us, but it moves steadily. We use the time to clear ourselves of metal – jackets, lanyards, pins, cameras, phones, watches, all go into our carry-ons or are in our hands ready to put in the basket.

When it comes our turn, I’m the first in our group through the metal detector. BEEEP. I immediately suspect my belt buckle, which I took a chance leaving on since the cruise line doesn’t turn its detectors up as high. Belt off, then back through the machine, and… BEEEP. Shoot.

I’m pulled aside to be wanded, wondering what I’ve overlooked. The security guard, an older man, is friendly and apologetic as he waves the wand over me.

It beeps in front of my right pocket. That can’t be right. There’s nothing in that pocket but a piece of trash. I pull out the trash – an empty packet that once contained an eyeglass wipe – and the guard runs the wand past it. Beep! That was it! Apparently those little packets contain a lot of metal.

While I’ve been wanded, most of the rest of my group has made it through the checkpoint. I grab my stuff from the bins, trying to gather it all up and get quickly out of the way, without letting my beltless pants fall down. Not as easy as it sounds.

Once we have all of our stuff, we step onto the large escalator and up we go into the main part of the terminal. This is a beautiful building, one that Disney put a lot of thought and effort into, and I’ve always thought it a shame that it’s overshadowed by the ships themselves. Since we’re already checked in, it’s easy to rush through without stopping to enjoy the place.

The holiday decorations here are clever – oversized Christmas tree ornaments hung from the columns by giant gloved Mickey hands! Too cute.

“Sailor Goofy” is greeting people in front of the ship model in the middle of the terminal.

Although we don’t have to check in for the cruise, having done so back at the Polynesian on our arrival at Walt Disney World, Benjamin and I have one stop to make. Since our last cruise, Disney Cruise Line has put much of the check-in process onto their website. Cruisers can now enter all of their information, print the cruise contract, sign up for shore excursions, and enroll kids in the kids’ clubs before leaving home. We passed on shore excursions for this trip, and Brandon’s now a teenager and too old for the Oceaneer’s Lab, but we did sign Benjamin up online a couple of months ago. Rather than visiting the Lab onboard, we are now supposed to go to a new kids’ club desk in the terminal to get our pager.

Hopefully with the paperwork completed online already, this will be a speedy process and we can get on the ship quickly. But when Benjamin and I reach the check-in desk at the far end of the terminal, there are 25-30 people waiting in line. Even though there are 3 or 4 attendants checking kids in, I don’t think this is going to go fast at all!

A female crew member is at the entrance to the queue. I question whether we have to go through this (long) check-in even though we’ve enrolled Benjamin online, and she confirms that we do. Sigh. I’m resigning myself to the delay, and then… then the crew member spots the KTTW card at the end of my lanyard. My gold KTTW card.

“But actually you can just go to the concierge meeting and they’ll sign him up. That will be a lot faster.”

I’m all smiles. Okay, this concierge-level thing does have its perks. I thank the CM, and Benjamin and I turn away from the lengthy line to rejoin our family.

It’s time to board the ship!

Rollin’, rollin’, rollin’

About twenty minutes into the bus ride, the driver rolls the cruise line’s video. It’s a lot like the Magical Express one, with the Disney characters playing the part of guests on vacation, but this time geared towards checking in at the port and enjoying life onboard the ship.

They use the same gag with Stitch checking in and using a “Wanted” poster as his i.d. It still makes me laugh.

For the most part, I just keep my eyes closed and try to nap a bit. There’s not a whole lot to look at on this trip, scenery-wise, and I can use the rest. I never fully sleep, but I come close to nodding off from time to time.

I do listen with one ear to the video, and open my eyes enough every now and then to keep track of where we are. I like to be awake when we first come in view of the port.

My get-alert time is when we encounter the signs directing traffic to turn off of our roadway to go to the Kennedy Space Center – the port is only a few minutes away then. We pass the exchange where 407 heads north to I-95, and I know we’re close. The video comes to an end. Just past State Highway 1, we cross the Indian River, and from its bridge we can see the Disney Wonder in the distance for the first time. Almost there!

Across the Banana River we go, and then we take the cloverleaf exit and turn toward the north, to make the winding loop that will take us past Disney’s terminal and then back to it, which has the nice effect of giving us an extended viewing of the ship as it sits in port, waiting for us!

Our driver announces that we have been cleared straight in to the terminal building! We pull in and park alongside the terminal and, as usual, we are instructed to wait in our seats until a cruise line rep tells us otherwise.

The cruise reps are waiting for the bus and climb on board immediately. They give us the short talk we’ve heard before, about going through security and then about who needs to check in upstairs (not us) and who can go straight onto the ship (us!), and then clear us to get off the bus.

We’re here!