Until a couple of weeks ago, it felt like it had been eleventy-hundred years since I stepped on a cruise ship. While not quite THAT long, my last sailing was supposed to depart on March 22nd, 2020. I’m sure you can imagine how that went. Our family’s spring break cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas was canceled just a mere couple of days before we were to leave. Little did anyone know that was only the beginning of cruising being completely shut down for well over a year. In fact, many ships still aren’t back in service across the variety of cruise lines and those that are have dramatically altered itineraries, much lower capacity, and a host of requirements in place before you can ever think about arriving at the port. Disney returned to sailing in August with the Disney Dream and the other three ships have slowly started to go back into service since that time. All of the sailings so far have been modified in some fashion and I suspect that will be case for quite some time. In the interest of getting a feel for all of the new procedures and what it is like to sail during ‘COVID times’, I booked a 3-night cruise on the Disney Dream for mid-September. Want the deets? Let me tell you all about it!
You know back when the biggest thing you had to worry about on a cruise was getting it paid in full and making sure your passport wasn’t expired? If only. Every cruise line has different protocols right now, so my experience only pertains to Disney Cruise Line, and these rules continue to evolve. In fact, they changed right before I sailed. Fun times. If you are age 12 and up and aren’t vaccinated, you’re not sailing with Disney. If you are under 12, you have to have a negative COVID PCR test taken between 3 days and 24 hours prior to sailing. Once you arrive at the port, no matter your age, you are given another COVID test that must come back negative before you’re allowed to go into the terminal. Your vaccine card and any negative COVID test results are uploaded to a website and approved by Disney so you are cleared to arrive at the terminal for your sailing. If you get to the terminal without a QR code to show that this was complete, you’re not sailing. Forget to complete your online check-in for the cruise and you’re also not sailing. It is all of these things that your travel agent will help you get through before your cruise, to make sure that you’re all set for smooth sailing.
The kid and I are both vaccinated and I completed our online check-in and uploaded all of the necessary documentation. We were ready to sail! Unfortunately, the hubs had to sit this one out. A quick flight to Orlando and an overnight at the Polynesian resort at Disney started the trip off right! The Polynesian Village has a villa section and the studio rooms there are being renovated. We lucked into a freshly spruced up room and WOWZA! I loved it! I am normally not a carpet fan and I haven’t seen any carpet in the new remodels that Disney has been doing, but this carpet was so plush and nice. The sofa in the picture also is a wall pull-down queen bed and it is SO much more comfortable than the old sleeper sofas that used to be in these rooms. What an upgrade!
Coming to Orlando always means Disney, even if just for a bit, so the kid and I hopped on the monorail over to Magic Kingdom for a few hours. Apparently we missed the memo that some pretty decent rain was headed our way, so we spent the evening running around like drowned rats, er… mice? And yes, that is me in the pic below, trying to take a selfie in the pouring rain while driving a car on the Tomorrowland Speedway, trapped in a poncho. Kids, don’t try this at home.
We were visiting around September 16th, with the 50th anniversary celebration for Walt Disney World starting up on October 1st. We lucked into seeing some of the 50th decor that was already in place, including the newly wrapped monorail. How pretty! These wraps really add a nice touch to the festivities!
After a wet night and dripping our way back to the Polynesian, we had a good night’s sleep before heading out to Hollywood Studios for a couple of hours the next morning. Of course, that time was largely spent in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge but hey, no complaints here! I had picked up a rental car when we landed in Orlando to use to get us to/from the port. Surprisingly, many people think you sail from Orlando and um, yeah… no. Orlando is in the middle of the state, the only water around it would be lakes. Port Canaveral is about an hour drive from Disney, depending on traffic, but it is a pretty easy trip. Disney will transfer you to the Port from their resorts (or the airport) for a fee, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being on the bus with someone who then tested positive for COVID and could thwart my plans to sail. You see, if you get to the port and anyone in your travel party tests positive, none of you are boarding. Talk about some strained family relations when that happens!
We arrive at the port exactly at our assigned port arrival time. After a little snafu with how the cruise line wanted us to hand over our checked luggage, gotta love new procedures, we were directed into the parking garage for our COVID tests. This was super easy. A nurse came over, told us about the tests and how to do them (self-administered while she watched) and a Disney Cruise rep came to our vehicle and provided some additional boarding information. Remember those QR codes I mentioned? At this point, I’ve already had that scanned a few times by various cruise personnel since arriving at the port. We swab our noses and are directed to park in the garage and to stay in the car until we are alerted that we are either cleared to sail (YAY!) or would be denied boarding (BOO!) through the website that we’ve used to upload our previous documents to. Told that this could take up to an hour, I realized that I should’ve brought a drink and some snacks. Hot car, parking garage, and Florida humidity definitely weren’t all that and a bag of chips. After about 45 minutes or so, I got the alert that we were COVID negative and cleared to sail! To the terminal!
Now, everything was completely different from this point on for anyone that has sailed with Disney before. Masks needed to stay on at all times indoors on the ship, including in the terminal at the port before boarding. On Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, you had to be masked indoors (bathrooms), on the tram that takes you around the island, and when near/in the food service areas. So, masks on. Enter the terminal and show your ID and the QR code again. All carry-on baggage then goes through the x-ray and people through the metal detector. Up the escalator to the terminal. Boarding groups, if you’re familiar with those, are kind of a mess. It was 2pm by this point and our boarding group hadn’t been officially called (23, I think) but there were literally only a few other people in the terminal. So we were allowed to board. A photo was still taken of the party before entering the gangway over to the ship. You don’t get your Key to the World cards until you get to the room now, so you’re still scanning QR codes and barcodes up to this point. Then you get to the gangway, where everyone trying to board is spaced six feet apart from other parties. Slowly but surely, you make your way to the ship and your family name is announced as usual as you enter the ship. You’re then directed to a circle on the floor in the main atrium where you stand with your party until all circles are full. Mickey and Minnie are on the atrium stairs to greet everyone from a distance and for photos. Once all circles are full, a very abbreviated version of the typical sail away party happens and you are told to go to your muster station location. Odds are, you’re not going to know what that is, but the crew will look it up for you and tell you where to go. When you get to the muster station location, there is another crew member there who will mark you off and tell you how to use the Disney Cruise Line Navigator app (your new best friend) to take a picture of the muster station sign to ‘prove’ you were there and complete your safety drill process.
Our stateroom was ready by this point, so we were allowed to go straight there and drop our carry-ons. Our room keys were on the fish holder outside of the door in a sealed envelope as well as our lanyards that are complimentary for Castaway Club members. We met our stateroom hostess, checked out the room, and decided we were famished and needed some lunch. Up to deck 11 we went, in search of Cabanas and the lunch buffet. Now, the differences kept coming. First off, you could tell (if you couldn’t already) that the sailing was way under capacity as far as guests. The pool deck was busy but there were tons of empty chairs and really not that many people. Cabanas was EMPTY compared to normal sailings and the crew served your food to you. Tables were aplenty and the crew also poured all drinks for guests. This was super weird for us, normally boarding and lunch at Cabanas is pretty stressful with guests running in all directions and people everywhere. We never found out exactly how many guests were on our sailing, but heard anywhere from 800 to 1,200 passengers, when capacity is 4,000. We never had to hunt for pool chairs, wait for ice cream, wait for drinks, wait for fast food, seek out a theater seat for the nightly show more than a couple of minutes in advance (you were seated by crew and socially distanced in the rows), etc. There are three sit-down dining rooms for dinner and you’re assigned a rotation of the three so you get to enjoy each one without reservations. There were so few people on the sailing that only 2 of the 3 restaurants were open on the first and last nights, meaning there were only 2 and not 3 rotations. And even our rotation was very empty. There were characters everywhere for socially distanced pictures and meets plus lots of the usual onboard activities like animation classes, alcohol tastings, bingo, etc. The spa was open for many treatments but only for guests age 18 and up. Kids clubs were open on a reservation basis but there didn’t seem to be any issues with getting reservations for kids in that age range 4-12. The 11-14 and 14-17 age kid clubs were open as usual, the nursery for babies remains closed.
Disney always does an incredible job of keeping the ship clean and making guests as safe as possible, and this is even more amped up during COVID times. They are very strict with their mask rules and safety measures and I felt no concerns during my trip. Plus we knew that everyone had tested negative as of the day they boarded, so that helped ease my mind (even though I know you can be negative one day and positive another.)
Normally, the sailing I was on would have one day in Nassau, Bahamas and one day at Castaway Cay. Due to what I suspect is some posturing on Disney’s part as a result of some last-minute Bahamian COVID rule changes, Nassau has been removed from many sailings recently and upcoming, including mine. No loss in my opinion, I’m not a Nassau fan at all. We had a day at sea to replace that, which is what I typically use the Nassau day for anyway. Castaway Cay was incredible on this sailing, even more than usual. With the low crowds on the ship, the island felt empty. No need to rush to get a chair, there were whole sections of the family beach areas that had chairs that had never been touched when we left the island around 3pm.
The food was delish as usual and service was top notch. Every crew member we interacted with seemed so happy to be back onboard and in their roles, even with all of the changes. Genuine gratitude to be back at what they loved was evident everywhere we turned. We, as guests, were so happy to be back at sea too, looking for some type of normalcy to move toward.
Sailing away from Castaway Cay is always so sad, but knowing you made great memories helps ease the pain. And aloe, aloe helps ease the pain from the sunburn you never apply enough sunscreen to prevent. (Every.single.time.)
While this sailing was so different from all previous ones, it was still a lot of fun and worth every minute. The kid and I had a blast and made a new friend on Castaway Cay, the tiniest little fish that swam right around us for probably an hour!, plus we returned home with so many memories from our time together. One of the theater shows onboard is called ‘Disney’s Believe’ and is a musical about how a young girl gets her father to believe in magic, as he realizes she is growing up and how much they mean to each other. I remember watching that years ago when my daughter was young and being one of the sobbing moms in the audience… this time was no different as we just celebrated her 17th birthday. It hits you right in the gut every time. COVID or no COVID, we all have a finite time on this rock and we need to get out there and make the most of it!
Until next time!