Spring break time!

When spring break rolls around each year, the fam and I take to the open road to recharge and reconnect. This year’s adventure took us to Disney World followed by a Bahamian cruise on the beautiful Disney Wish. Our 12.5 hour drive from Virginia to Florida has been steadily improving over the years as we’ve embraced the backroads and smaller highways instead of opting for traditional Interstate routes. While we do end up on I-95 and I-4 for about half of our trip overall, the other half is spent pleasantly traveling along US-29 and a variety of other smaller roads before we end up on the beast that is I-95. This doesn’t really add any time to our journey and most definitely makes it more interesting. I love driving through the small towns and seeing things you simple can’t as you fly by on the Interstate. Take a look at your route the next time you have a long driving trip. Maybe there are some smaller roads you can venture out on to give you a new perspective!

We arrived in Florida and spent the time before our cruise at the Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge resort. We haven’t stayed at Boulder Ridge in a good while but I opted to return since the rooms there were recently renovated. They’re super nice now and I love the change of bedding (good riddance sofa bed and hello Murphy bed!) and the carpet-less floors. The murphy bed pulls down to reveal that cute Donald Duck tent picture and Chip and Dale are hiding in the pull-down single bed that is also available in the room.

Our main to-do before the cruise was to ride the new TRON Lightcycle / Run roller coaster at Magic Kingdom. This ride opens to the public on April 4th but we had booked a special preview ride for this trip, two previews actually with one before the cruise and one the day we debarked the ship. The coaster was amazing! The ride vehicles look like lightcycles from the movie (Tron came out in 1982) and you ride on them like a motorcycle. There are also accessible ride vehicles at the back of some of the trains that remind me of a convertible VW Beetle. These are called lightrovers and are great for guests with any accessibility or mobility concerns, guests of size, smaller children who might be afraid of the lightcycle positioning, etc. The required height for the attraction is 48″ but it does take off and go very quickly during the experience. The lightrovers seat two guests and have individual lap bars that pull down for each guest, sort of like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train Coaster but WAY more comfortable. I rode the lightrover both times we enjoyed the ride but the hubs and kid took the lightcycles. We all had a great time and I wouldn’t hesitate to go either route, depending on which you were more comfortable with. Note that you likely will have a bit of a wait if you want to go with the lightrover option, but it was worth it to me. The ride time is fairly quick but the experience was worth it. I will say that both times we rode were earlier in the day and I would love to ride at night when all of the lighting is noticeable. I think that will add a lot to the overall enjoyment factor.

The Flower and Garden Festival in Epcot kicked off right before we arrived in Orlando so that was also a stop we had on our list. During the festival, various musical acts perform in the America Gardens Theatre in the evenings. The concerts are free but you can add a dining reservation at a participating restaurant and receive entrance into a reserved seating area for one of that night’s shows. These shows are called Garden Rocks and we saw Daughtry during our visit. The show was fantastic, despite having endless rain for a few hours before the show’s start. I love these concerts and it is such a treat when a performer we like happens to line up with a trip we have scheduled. The other Epcot festivals have performances too (Broadway starts at the Festival of the Arts, the Food & Wine Festival has the Eat to the Beat concerts which have bands similar to Garden Rocks, and then the Festival of the Holidays has the Candlelight Processional with celebrity narrators). All of these are free and all also have the dining package that can be added on for reserved seating for the show.

Before we went to Port Canaveral to board the Wish, we started off with a hearty breakfast at the ever-popular Whispering Canyon Cafe at Wilderness Lodge. This breakfast was delish and our waitress was a total hoot! Sometimes the shenanigans at Whispering Canyon are hit-or-miss but we loved her. There was an unplanned stop afterward on the way to the Port to buy some new shoes for the kid and me… remember that rain at Epcot? Well, our shoes were soaked and attempts to get them dry enough to wear had failed. Always pack two pairs of tennis shoes!

At the Port, we boarded the Wish, had some lunch at Marceline Market and wandered a bit until our stateroom was ready. Then it was time to get settled and do the Muster Drill (back in person again, bummer!!) and start enjoying the ship. We always go with late dinner on our cruises and were fortunate to have our favorite server onboard to help us in the main dining room for dinner each evening. Unfortunately for us, he is being promoted to Assistant Head Server and we won’t be able to request him for our regular server any more. Boo! We’re so happy for him though, he is our absolute fave. We also had brunch in Palo Steakhouse on this cruise and got our fave Palo waitress again so that was a double-treat. When you make those kinds of connections, it really makes each subsequent cruise that much more special when you are able to spend time feeling like old friends. There was quite a bit of snacking at Donald’s Cantina for burritos and bowls for lunch and I’m sure gallons of ice cream was consumed by the hubs. I really like the quick service style food options and set up on the Wish better than the other four ships but I wish they would get rid of the Impossible food and go back to actual veggie burgers. This vegetarian does not eat fake meat!

We really enjoy spending time on the pool deck, watching movies on the funnel, reading, and just relaxing. After a long day, it is always nice to come back to the stateroom to find a cool towel/blanket animal too. I loved this wiener dog!

Since we sailed on the Wish in September, we skipped all of the nighttime shows and spent more time enjoying the other activities onboard. Drawing classes have always been a hit with us but this time we spent most of our time in various trivia events. We’ve always been trivia fans but I think we went to more trivia on this one cruise than we’ve ever done on all of our prior sailings combined! The kid is a Star Wars expert and we won Star Wars trivia plus Disney villains trivia and Disney food trivia. We almost won a couple of others, losing a tie-breaker on one and just coming in close to the top at a few more. Oddly enough, our favorite trivia was 90s music trivia. We didn’t win but we were very close. There was some guy who knew everything (isn’t there always!) and we hit a song none of us had ever heard of. But the best part was the packed room and everyone singing along when we were going through the answers. So much fun and definitely on our list for next cruise!

Our cruise was a 4-night Bahamian so it had one day at sea, one in Nassau, and one at Disney’s island, Castaway Cay. Nassau is probably my least favorite port I’ve ever been to so we never get off there. Our sea day was packed on the ship but that let up some when people adventured into Nassau. The Wish is a very large ship but with our cruise being over a spring break period, it was very, very full. Much more full than it was in September and reported to be a little more full even over what we had for the rest of the month. I will say it is very nice to have an adult child now so we can spend our time in the 18+ areas to help break up the crowds. The hubs and the kid rode the Aqua Mouse water rollercoaster and really liked it. I did not — major fear of getting stuck in/on a waterslide keeps me from most of those ‘adventures’. See the lifeguard walking in the tube in the picture below? That was to retrieve someone who got stuck. Fear unlocked!

Speaking of adult-only areas, Serenity Bay on Castaway Cay was at the top of our to-dos for this cruise. We have never been over to the adult section of the island since we have always sailed with a child. However, it was time to get over there since the kid is now 18! I was very happy to see that there were plenty of chairs and umbrellas there and the beach is a nice long walking beach. The water was pleasant and bar service was great! There is also a smaller version of the lunch restaurants there and it had some other food options that Cookies and Cookies Too don’t have! I loved it there and can’t wait to spend more time at Serenity Bay in the future. Castaway Cay as a whole never disappoints!

After the cruise, we drove back to Disney to do our second Tron preview. I was very quickly reminded why we do not stay at off-site hotels and do not drive ourselves to Magic Kingdom. Parking in the world’s biggest parking lot, having to take the tram to the Transportation and Ticket Center, boarding the ferry and waiting for it to fill (the monorail was mobbed), then going across the lake to Magic Kingdom… No way. If I had to do that every time I wanted to go to Magic Kingdom, I would lose my mind. I remember that from years ago when I visited as a child but I have stayed on-site for every trip since and will NEVER go back. We’ve parked in the Hollywood Studios and Epcot lots in the last couple of years for random reasons and that too is definitely not my cup of tea. Doing that every day of a trip, what a nightmare.

Our drive home was filled with so very much traffic until we finally were back to our backroads. This trip coincided with Bike Week in Daytona Beach so both legs of the trip were filled with motorcycles and guests headed to/from Daytona. That plus all of the regular I-95 and spring break traffic meant backups, delays, and accidents galore. But once we were back on our little roads, it was smooth sailing once again.

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber


Land, sea, and stars… an 18th birthday to remember!

At the Benson house, we like to travel to celebrate milestones. When the kid’s 18th birthday rolled around, we knew we had to go big. To celebrate, we did a whirlwind trip to visit Walt Disney World, a brief stopover at Universal Orlando, a 3-night cruise on the Disney Wish, and a 2-night stay on the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser. It was an incredible week away and the memories we made will definitely stay with us forever. Since we’ve been to Disney so many times before, I’ll touch on that but my big focus will be our time on the Wish followed by the Starcruiser adventure.

We started our trip at the Grand Floridian resort, kicking off with time at Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I finally got to ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the newest coaster in Epcot. Let me say, not for those who suffer from motion sickness, but I absolutely loved every second of it! This coaster is so innovative with the way the ride vehicles move throughout the experience and how the soundtrack really brings it all together. I ended up riding it three times in this super short trip to the parks and cannot wait to ride it again! I love how fun it is to celebrate at Disney, the little unexpected surprises and terrific Cast Members make it even more memorable. We were chatting with a Starbucks Cast Member and noticed that my daughter had a Haunted Mansion shirt on. They shared how they both love that attraction and she made a special surprise just for Hailey!

Starbucks with a Haunted Mansion bride added on!

Popping over to Universal Orlando for a night at Sapphire Falls resort, we were so fortunate (LOL) to enjoy an evening at CityWalk during the worst thunderstorm I’ve seen in a long time. The hardest and heaviest rain, ponding everywhere, and getting stuck in a small store while trying to wait out the storm… so much fun! We did come home with new shoes, a beach towel, and umbrella I wasn’t expecting to add to my collection. The hubs braved the same storm while enjoying Halloween Horror Nights in Universal Studios but man, hours of a major downpour were not in the plan!

Moving right along, we drove over to Port Canaveral and boarded the newest ship in the Disney Cruise Line fleet, the Disney Wish. This is the 5th ship in the fleet and very different in layout and offerings from the first four. Since we were celebrating, we opted to go with a Concierge level room, which took the cruise to a whole new level of pampering! It took a bit to get used to the new flow of the ship, but once we got the hang of it, we were smooth sailing.

We had some friends staying in the Wish Tower Suite (aka the funnel), so we were able to go there and check out the palace that was their room (thanks Kelley!!). Talk about incredible! That room was huge and the bathroom… OMG!!

Concierge was great with the private lounge and pool, sundeck (perfect for an afternoon nap!), early entry to the nightly shows plus free popcorn, upgraded bath amenities, in-room sodas and waters, the best table locations each night in the main dining rooms for dinner, and so much more! Loved it!! Ten out of ten, would do concierge again. We were able to get a family cabana at Castaway Cay too (super hard since there are a very limited number available) and enjoyed soaking up the sun in our own private hideaway for the day.

The new restaurants onboard are great with tasty food and fun show experiences. My favorite, surprisingly, was Arendelle. This is the Frozen themed restaurant and the show for that meal is incredible. I really liked the show in the Worlds of Marvel restaurant as well but the food there was my least favorite. 1923, the third main dining room for dinner, didn’t have a show but was beautifully decorated and we really enjoyed the atmosphere and food there. The Little Mermaid is a fantastic evening show in the Walt Disney Theatre, the level of talent there was incredible! We never made it to the AquaMouse, the first Disney water attraction at sea. A three-night cruise is just so short, some things have to get tossed to the side to experience next time! Something we did experience a good bit, the laundry room onboard. Who does laundry on a cruise? This girl. I’m so happy to report that there is just one laundry room on the Wish and it is huge, with so many machines. For someone who has done laundry on all four ships and been frustrated time and time again, this was the best!! Look folks, it’s the little things…

Now we’re on to my most favorite part, our voyage on the Star Wars Galactic Starcruiser! This is the ‘Star Wars hotel’ at Disney and is unlike any hotel experience in the world. The voyages on the Starcruiser are only for two nights and are an all-inclusive experience. The only things you pay extra for are souvenirs and alcohol. These two nights are not cheap by any means. If you read about the voyages online, you’ll find plenty of people grousing about the cost, it not being ‘Star Wars enough’, etc. As a family of three huge Star Wars fans (movies, books, animated shows, live-action shows, video games), I’m here to tell you that that is all noise. This was one of the best things we have ever done, and we enjoyed every single second.

The voyage starts by arriving at the Starcruiser, which is located behind Batuu (Star Wars Land) in Hollywood Studios. The hotel looks pretty non-descript from the outside. When you arrive at the entrance, you’re greeted, and a team helps unload your bags. If you have a car, it is valet parked during the trip. You’re given your Starcruiser databand (a Starcruiser-exclusive MagicBand) and the arrival team will help you set up the Disney PlayParks app, if you haven’t already set that up, for each guest. If you’ve ever used the datapad function in Batuu during a visit to Hollywood Studios, this is a gigantic extension of how that works. You’re using the datapad to do missions and get messages throughout your voyage.

You’re escorted in to watch a brief video about safety during your voyage and then you’re taken to a launch pod to send you up to the Starcruiser itself. This Starcruiser is known as the Halcyon from the Chandrila Star Line and it has been taking guests around the galaxy from Core Worlds to the Outer Rim. When you exit the launch pod, you enter the enormous atrium of the Halcyon. This is the hub of the action throughout your journey. The bridge of the ship is off the atrium, there’s a bar (the Sublight Lounge), a retail spot for your Halcyon memorabilia purchases, and so much to explore! You are taken to your cabin (there are 100 cabins onboard) and shown the highlights of the room as well as how to operate your in-room droid D3-09. Your luggage is delivered straight to your cabin, so no need to fuss with the heavy lifting! Most of the rooms are standard cabins but there are a few suites onboard as well. For the three of us, a standard cabin was more than sufficient. We had a queen bed, two in-wall bunks (twins), and a pull-down twin bed for a 5th adult. You have a viewport that shows the view out into space during your travels (you can close it at night) and some other creature comforts like a pull-out desk and a TV if you need to keep up with what is going on back on your home planet. The bunk beds were really cool and more spacious than they look. They had a neat blanket like a sleeping bag without the zipper that was super comfy. The panel on the right below is where you tap your databand to contact D3-09.

What doesn’t the ship or rooms have? Windows! Remember, you’re in space so your viewport is your window to what is going on outside. I’ve heard some people say that would make them insane but you really don’t notice the lack of a window. There is a climate simulator that you can go into to simulate what the climate is like on Batuu (i.e. somewhere for you to go outside if you get claustrophobic) but it is just open air and you still can’t see the horizon, just some of the sky.

Climate Simulator

Speaking of Batuu, you do get a day (8am-4pm) to spend on an excursion to Batuu. Now, I’m guessing if you’re traveling on the Starcruiser that you’ve spent a good bit of time in Batuu already, so you’d likely do like we did and just visit long enough to do your missions and come back to the ship. You’re paying that higher price point to be able to enjoy the ship, so enjoy the ship! Guests to Batuu are given a special pin to wear so they’re easily identifiable to the Batuu crew. Your MyDisneyExperience app is preloaded with an anytime pass to ride Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run while you’re in Batuu. There are missions surrounding each of these but you don’t actually have to ride them if you don’t have time, the ride goes down, etc. You can still complete the missions regardless. We stopped for a drink in Oga’s Cantina (reservations still required but Starcruiser can help you book that) as there was also a mission related to Oga’s. Ultimately, we spent very little time on Batuu and hurried back to the ship for lunch and more fun! Oh! To get back and forth between Batuu and the Starcruiser, you traveled in a launch pod. I’ve heard the stories on the interwebs about how these don’t look like much from the outside but they are super fun on the inside. Very authentic looking and definitely part of the whole experience of heading to the planet for a visit.

I keep talking about missions and you’re probably wondering what that means. So, if you’ve ever used the datapad in Batuu before, you’ll know what I mean (kind of). What happens is that you board the ship and you’re sent various messages during the voyage about places you need to go, things you need to do, people you need to talk to. Even D3-09 is part of the action! Do you have to play along? Nope. Should you? YES!! You can also stay in costume for the entire experience if you’d like, just wear your favorite Star Wars t-shirt, or wear regular clothes. Nobody will judge you! The group of folks sailing with you are most likely huge Star Wars fans (or wet blankets, but they will become obvious pretty quickly and stay out of the fun) and be just as into the action as you are. After you choose your alliances, you’ll soon find yourself running around the ship trying to help your chosen side succeed. I’m not going to spoil any of the storyline, but you’ll find familiar faces (old and new) and some new friends onboard during your journey.

Don’t mind us, just hacking a few things…

Besides the missions, you also get to participate in lightsaber training and bridge operations training. If you’ve bought a lightsaber in Batuu at Savi’s or Dok Ondar’s, you know how cool those are. Imagine using one and actually deflecting hits! So. Much. Fun! Bridge Ops is super, and you get to work at every station in the bridge, maybe with more action than you were bargaining for! There is ALWAYS something going on aboard the ship and the more you explore, the more fun you’ll have. Think of it sort of like an Escape Room, except you’re not trying to get out! There is even a game like Bingo you can play that is based on the planets of Star Wars as well as separate activities for the Loth Cat Crew (the younger children onboard). The Sublight Lounge has an electronic Sabaac game table if you want to see if you’d have been able to beat Lando to win the Millennium Falcon like Han did.

While you’re doing all of the missions and gathering intel, you definitely work up an appetite! Meals and snacks are provided and were delish! All types of foods were available for a variety of dietary needs. I am a vegetarian and had no issues finding something to eat. Oh yeah, blue and green milk are both on tap! Breakfast and lunch are buffet-style and dinner is served plated with a show/entertainment. We scored a reservation at the Captain’s Table for our second night, which allowed us to be even more in the action and also get a few extra courses with our meal. The first night, our table was front-and-center of the stage so we could take in the performance that night with a fantastic view. Each evening, there were also snacks available in the atrium and we had a big dessert party the last night.

The crew of the Halcyon was incredible. They go out of their way to help you and make you come away with the best experience possible. I was blown away by how well everyone follows the storyline and comes together to end the voyage with a bang! The other guests onboard our sailing were largely adults of all ages (late teens up to probably late 60s-early 70s) and a handful of kids probably under age 10. We often say that we’re huge nerds, especially when it comes to Star Wars, and we were in heaven! We found our people!

If you’re only “kind of” into Star Wars or know nothing about Star Wars, save your money and stay elsewhere. Honestly, that’s for no other reason than to not drag down everyone who enjoys it. If some of your family is really into Star Wars but others aren’t, have the others stay somewhere else and meet up with them after your two-night stay on the Starcruiser is finished. This is the place to geek out and get into the action (or watch from the sidelines but you’ll want to understand what you’re watching) and live your Star Wars dreams!

Enjoy the bridge!

That’s it for now! Gotta rest up from this one!



Back on the High Seas with Disney!

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!

The carpet was oh so fluffy!

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.

Selfies are not my specialty

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!

Clearly I didn’t look up at the clouds, I was too focused on the monorail!

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.

Hey guys! We’re finally back!

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.

Look at all the… people?
Mummy Goofy was onboard to greet us for our Halloween on the High Seas sailing

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.

A truly private island paradise!

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.

Cucumber Garden Roll from Enchanted Garden restaurant, so pretty!

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.)

Sand in my shoes and memories on my mind!

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!

Dreaming of the Dream…

Until next time!

xoxo, Amber

Waterfalls, whales, and wilderness

About a month ago, I was sailing aboard the Disney Wonder through Alaska’s Inside Passage. It was an amazing adventure, filled with so many unexpected sights and sounds. From the moment the kid and I landed in Vancouver to begin our journey, until we boarded our flight back home, both of us were filled with excitement and wonder. I’ll hit the highlights on our trip and maybe that will inspire you to want to visit the “Last Frontier” too.

The trip began with a 1am arrival into Vancouver, British Columbia. Night flights, yuck. The kid got the benefit of a first class flight though, so that always helps make the late night easier to deal with. We overnighted in Richmond BC, near the airport and then made our way to the Port of Vancouver the next morning. Vancouver is such an interesting city. Big city but with a friendly feel and focus on the environment and outdoor activity. We spent almost two days there after the cruise so I’ll come back to Vancouver later on.

Aboard the Wonder, our stateroom was in the best spot. We were deck 5, aft, on the starboard side in a deluxe oceanview stateroom with Navigator’s verandah. That is a fancy way of saying that the verandah was partially enclosed. On an Alaskan cruise, that was spectacular! It helped keep the chill out somewhat and I loved the cozy cushioned bench.

Our navigator's verandah view

The view from our Navigator’s verandah room

Deck 5 aft is pretty convenient, not far from the Buena Vista Theatre, the kids clubs, and right near the aft elevators to go up/down to food. Anyway, we settled in and set sail for Alaska! Our cruise was a unique, 5-night itinerary with a stop in Ketchikan, Alaska, cruising through the Inside Passage, and a day (aboard the ship) viewing the Dawes Glacier, plus two days at sea. Normally, Alaskan sailings are at least 7-nights, which I’d definitely love to try next time. Alaskan sailings with Disney are so different from the Bahamian and Caribbean sailings I’m used to. No ‘Pirates in the Caribbean’ nights with fireworks, instead there are ‘Freezing the Night Away’ themed parties with Frozen characters and a Pixar Pals dance party inside the Lobby Atrium. Mickey, Minnie, and the gang are dressed up in their cold weather gear, and pool towels are replaced with blankets on the pool deck. Hot cocoa flows freely and gloves, scarves, and hats are available for purchase onboard.

One thing I really loved was the naturalist presentations we were able to attend. These are free sessions onboard during the cruise where you learn more about things related to Alaska and its wildlife. Doug Jones was our cruise’s naturalist and I gather that he’s been with the Wonder since it began the Alaska sailings some years back. He has lived in Alaska for almost his entire life and worked most recently at the Mendenhall Glacier. Super knowledgeable and friendly, he was such a great addition to the cruise. We learned about bears, whales, glaciers, and Alaska in general. He even posted his stateroom number so guests could drop by to talk if they had questions for him!

Dawes Glacier was definitely a sight. It took a long time to sail down the fjord to the glacier itself. Once we were in the right position, the captain stopped the ship, slowly rotating from Port to Starboard from time to time, so everyone would have a great view.  It was so cold once we got back to the glacier, as expected, so coats plus hats and gloves were definitely needed. We spent some time up on the top deck, some down on deck 4 (which is an outer deck area on the Disney ships), and then the rest of the time watching from our balcony. Being down closer to the water on deck 4 and from our stateroom on deck 5 was the best! You could see the icebergs floating so slowly through the water, bobbing and cracking as they drifted along. The sound of the ice and the stillness of the area was breathtaking. It was so quiet, even being on a cruise ship with a couple of thousand other people, that I was astounded. So quiet that you can hear ice cracking… amazing.  The blueness of the ice, the fog, the little trickling waterfalls down the mountains… such memories.

Dawes Glacier

The Dawes Glacier

Glacier day was followed by our day in Ketchikan and what a long port day that was! We had time to enjoy the port until close to 8pm, which was perfect for being able to go out on an excursion and still be able to enjoy the town before returning to the Wonder. Our excursion took us on an enclosed catamaran to the Misty Fjords National Monument Wilderness, a several hour roundtrip adventure. We saw New Eddystock Rock, a volcanic plug that still stands upright and exposed, apparently a rare thing to see standing. Seals, salmon, bald eagles, waterfalls, and rock walls carved by glaciers filled our day. A delightful way to spend a chunk of our port time.

Misty Fjords

Glacier carved rock, the photo doesn’t do this justice. So magnificent!

After the excursion, we explored Ketchikan’s shops at the port (very touristy) and then made our way to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show. This was a highlight of the trip too. Those guys had skills! It was remarkable how fast they performed their skill tests and they kept the audience entertained throughout. It was a crazy hot and sunny day in Ketchikan, a city that gets over 160 inches of rain per year and is normally much cooler. Everyone was remarking how hot it was and how we lucked out with the weather. I think Mickey might have had a hand in that — or maybe Pudge? Did someone feed Pudge a peanut butter sandwich that day? LOL.

The Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show

Chop that wood!

So the cruise was incredible but came to an end so quickly. Back on dry land in Vancouver, we checked into our hotel and headed out to explore. Stanley Park was high on my list of to-dos because of the variety of things to enjoy there. It’s no wonder there’s so much to do, with about a thousand acres in the park! We enjoyed the Vancouver Aquarium (sea otters!), dinner at Stanley’s Bar & Grill, and a showing of Disney’s Newsies at the Malkin Bowl during the Theatre Under the Stars series (front row seats, baby!)

Sea Otter

One of the cute sea otters at the Vancouver Aquarium

The next day had more city exploration, a full route ride on the Hop On, Hop Off bus, a ride on Flyover Canada! (so much fun, like Soarin’ in Epcot but I liked it better!), and a tour with Fans of Vancouver of Hollywood North (so much fun, a must do for TV and movie fans!) So many films and TV shows are filmed in and around Vancouver that surely one of your faves had some Vancouver footage. The Marine Building in particular was visually stunning. I’d love to go back and look closer at the intricate detail inside and outside of the building.

The Marine building

The inside of the Marine Building in Vancouver. Many tv shows and movies have filmed inside here but the architectural features are stunning in person.

Alas, our time in Vancouver drew to a close as well. We grabbed our luggage from storage at the hotel and hopped on the Skytrain back to the airport to fly home. Another yucky night flight, but we made it back home, filled with so many memories of our time in Alaska and Canada.

Until next time!




Retirement Magic with the whole fam!

Retirement… that thing everyone dreams of. My stepfather retired this year after many, many years in the work force and his gift to himself (and us!) was a family cruise on the Disney Magic.

The crew was a party of fifteen and included my husband and daughter, my sister and nieces, my brother and sister-in-law and his sons, my stepsister and two of her children, plus my mom and stepdad.  While I book a lot of multi-generational trips and my family has done a few, we had never vacationed with all fifteen of us together.  Concerned, was I?  Yes, young padawan, I was.  The kids ranged from 8 to 16 and then the adults ranged from 30+.  We all have big personalities and being together on a cruise ship for 6 days seemed like maybe we’d need a little Magic to make it back in one piece.

We started our journey in Richmond, flying down to Fort Lauderdale for the night.  Most Disney Cruises depart from Port Canaveral but this particular sailing went out of Miami.  For many air travelers, Fort Lauderdale is a cheaper route than flying direct into Miami so we took that option.  After taking a shuttle van (15 people plus a week’s worth of luggage!) to the Port of Miami, we were on the ship and ready for the fun.  The Port of Miami experience was very different from Port Canaveral sailings and I’d definitely prefer to sail from Port Canaveral.  Miami was just missing that ‘Disney feel’ for me personally.

Onboard, we ate and ate (and ate and ate) all week long.  The never-ending ice cream was the cat’s meow for the kiddos (and my husband.)   The weather was delightful with an occasional rain shower and despite some rough water, I think we couldn’t have asked for better.  We enjoyed two days at sea with a day in Cozumel, Mexico plus a day at Castaway Cay (Disney’s island in the Bahamas) mixed in.

Cozumel was a blast with a little shopping and then a half day excursion out on Polaris RZRs to a beach and Punta Sur Eco Park.  The beach was plagued by seaweed which has been a huge problem off and on all year in the Caribbean but we didn’t let it get us down.  You haven’t lived until you’ve waded through feet and feet of squishy seaweed. Blech!  The RZRs were a blast and everyone loved the ride around the island.  We did get soaked by a quick downpour — less than exciting going 80 km/hr with no windshield in the pouring rain — but it was all good.

Castaway Cay never disappoints with the calm waters and bright sunshine.  Hours were spent floating and laughing in the ocean there.  It was shocking how much the water depth in the lagoons changed during the course of the day, I had not noticed that big of a difference in the past.  It went from say 4-5 feet max in the morning to well over 8 feet by early afternoon out by the lagoon edges.  The shoreline was also really eroded, I’m guessing from Hurricane Joaquin but not sure.  I have never seen a drop off like there was on this visit from the beach chairs to the shoreline.

Service, excellent.  Food, divine.  Activities, great. Hey, we even met Jack and Sally from Nightmare before Christmas and trick-or-treated on the boat!

After the cruise, we went back to Fort Lauderdale and went out on a brief trip to Everglades Holiday Park home of the Gator Boys of Animal Planet fame.  An airboat ride through the Everglades followed by a quick gator show and some gator bites (not for me!) rounded out the trip before our flight home.  The airboat was so much fun!  I would love to do that again.

Overall, we saw a lot, did a lot, and ate even more.  Disney Cruises never disappoint.  You know what the best part was though?  Bonding with my family.  I’m not one to be sappy but I tell you, this was the best trip.  I spent some quality time with my brother and sister and I will treasure that forever.  I’ve never spent any real time with my stepsister or her kiddos and that was a great addition.  Super kids and I’m happy they were with us on this journey.  I expected to have fun and maybe a little conflict while all together in close quarters, which of course happened, but I wouldn’t change a thing.  I can’t wait to plan the next adventure to get us all back together.

A special thanks to my stepdad, Mike, for taking us on this journey.  It means more to me than you’ll ever know and I know I’m not the only one.  You brought us all together and that’s no small feat.  ❤

Dessert at Animator's Palate

A rainbow from Palo

A rainbow from Palo, at the rear of the ship.  It is a double rainbow with a reflection going horizontally across from the restaurant lights.

RAZRs at Punta Sur Eco Park

RZRs at Punta Sur Eco Park in Cozumel

A Lobster!

A Lobster!

The Magic waiting at Castaway Cay

The Magic waiting at Castaway Cay

Reflections in the Everglades

Reflections in the Everglades

The Pumpkin Tree

Amber and Mickey

Amber and Mickey

Gator Boy!

Gator Boy!