|It wasn't unusual for guests to run into Disney characters onboard the Disney Wonder as it sailed to Tracy Arm. // (c) 2011 Disney Cruise Line; Please note: all images featured in slide show are (c) Susan J. Young|
Editor’s Note: Our cruise editor, Susan Young, was onboard Disney Wonder for a weeklong Alaska sailing last week. Here’s her first-hand report on the ship, itinerary and the aura of sailing with Mickey Mouse and friends.
Early explorers searched for a northwest passage between Atlantic and Pacific oceans, sailing up the Inland Passage, a grouping of islands and narrow channels between western North America and the Pacific Ocean.
Today, this route is known as the “Inside Passage,” a scenic marine highway traveled by cruise ships, cargo vessels, ships of the Alaska Marine Highway system and fishing and pleasure craft. Sailing north, cruisers view scenery of the rugged, rural British Columbian mainland and its scenic islands to the west. Continuing northward, ships cross into the United States. Simply put, the scenery astounds at every turn.
Day 2 (Sailing the Inside Passage) – Day at Sea
As we open the balcony drapes on our first full day of sailing, nature’s majesty is revealed. It’s early in the season so there’s still snow on the mountaintops, even lower level peaks. The outside air temperature is crisp and quite cold. Cruisers are walking the decks, taking photos and viewing the scenery through their binoculars.
Binoculars are a must-have on any Alaska cruise. My friend brought hers from home, while a man outside on the balcony bought his for $199 at the Disney Wonder’s photo shop. It’s the type of item that people just have to have when they think about whale watching or wildlife spotting ashore.
Some relax on the comfortable loungers on the Promenade Deck; we did so for a bit and caught Goofy running with a guest around the loop.
Another popular spot on a day at sea is the adults-only Outlook Café with comfortable seating and promenade windows. It’s a coffee shop of sorts, offering a cappuccino, espresso or specialty tea, available for an added fee. .
Personally, I had to try the Mint Mocha Latte, which I couldn’t resist trying after watching a person at the next table get one. It was the prettiest drink I’ve ever seen. Check out my photo in the slide show. After the waiter delivered mine, a guest seated at the next table asked, “What’s that? I want one of those.” Alas, enthusiasm for the drink seemed to be infectious.
We ate breakfast at Beach Blanket Buffet, where staffers handed out antiseptic wipes to everyone. Norovirus is not uncommon on land in the Pacific Northwest region. It’s a good idea to advise clients to use the wipes. While not a substitute for frequent hand washing, they help. We heard nothing about any illness on our cruise.
Beach Blanket Buffet has a wealth of breakfast items, including cereal, eggs, bacon, sausage, pancakes, omelets made to order at a separate station, and yes, even Mickey Mouse shaped treats (see slide show). Many types of Juice, coffee, milk and myriad pastries were also available. One nice touch was that the croissants – often hard and tough on some lines – were kept warm and soft under a heat lamp.
While the food is excellent here and the venue has both inside and outside seating, it can be packed, particularly on sea days. One helpful hint? If the buffet upstairs looks crowded, head for relaxed, sit-down seating at Triton’s, one of the main dining rooms. There breakfast is less frenetic.
A day at sea at the start of any cruise is a good way to explore the ship. We headed for the Route 66 area. Disney’s creativity shows here with billboard-like signage that showcase 1950s and early 1960s culture. The carpeting resembles a map, showing Route 66 and the cities and towns it runs through. An old gas pump adds a bit of color.
The Route 66 area is also home to Wave Zone, used during port days as a meeting place for some tours and also an activity zone for onboard activities. Don’t miss the Cadillac Lounge; its bar resembles the massive front grill of a pink Cadillac. At night, the Route 66 area is an exclusive entertainment area for adults only.
Daytime activities on Disney Wonder’s first day at sea include a 9 a.m. “Walk a Mile” club jaunt around the Promenade Deck; beer tasting; .and a cooking demonstration with Disney chefs showing guests how to prepare herb seared Alaskan Halibut.
Tell your clients that Disney offers numerous naturalist presentations. We were impressed with two excellent ones by Bob Armstrong, a photographer and author of many books about the Great Land. In addition, the stateroom television airs other naturalist lectures about everything from kayaking in Alaska to the Klondike Gold Rush.
Guests might also enjoy jackpot bingo; a generation game, where parents and kids try to show who’s the coolest; a walking ship tour; and Disney character visits for photos. On this day, the lobby was a colorful place with Goofy, Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Pluto, Mickey Mouse and Chip & Dale all showing up at set times to pose with guests, who later may buy the photos at the ship’s photo shop.
Disney provides a first-day-at-sea relief for parents. Infants and toddlers are lovingly cared for at Flounder’s Reef Nursery on Deck 5. Reservations are first come, first served. Older kids will love the activities at Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, which boasts such fun as storybook tales, Wii tennis, Ratatouille cooking school, magic trick action, games and dodgeball.
Dinner this evening for our group was at Triton’s. Service was excellent and the cuisine tasty. That said, we’d like to have seen a bit more diversity and more light seafood options for the menu on certain nights. Still, our salmon this evening was very succulent; salmon is available every night, and it’s perfect for an Alaska voyage.
Many families choose the earlier seating, and even then some little ones were falling asleep at the table, a tribute to Disney’s ability to keep the kids active and occupied all day. And for families dining on the late seating, the ship’s youth activity counselors offer a helpful service. Counselors arrive at 9:15 p.m. at the entrance to Triton’s, Parrot Cay and Animator’s Palace, and if parents so desire, the counselors will take children to the Oceaneer Club and Lab, so parents may have dessert in peace and then head out for a movie, live piano music, dancing or smooth sounds.
Tweens and teens have their own activity options nightly at Edge (11-13 year olds) and Vibe (14-17 year olds). Cruisers 18 to 21 can meet up with newfound friends of a similar age at the College Club Social in Diversions.
Atop the ship near the family pool the Funnel Vision movie screen airs cartoons and movies. Inside, the ship has two large performing venues; the Walt Disney Theater was the place for shows, and the two I took in were well choreographed and entertained both kids and adults alike.
The Golden Mickeys, Disney’s “take off” on the Academy Awards and other award shows, starts with live action video shots of a “red carpet” reporter interviewing children on the ship, a cute touch. Then a young stage worker unexpectedly is tasked with hosting the full awards program. She expresses doubt at her abilities, but is spurred on by others including Bob Iger, president and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, who appears on video with a motivational chat.
Despite her insecurities, the show goes on – with toe tapping live action, clips from such Disney films as Snow White, and stage performance shorts from Toy Story and other Disney classics. Singing, acting and the show flow were classically Disney – very professional and fun.
At the end, not surprisingly, the young stage hand appears in a princess-like dress, turning from an ugly duckling into a swan – and showing the audience that anyone can dream and believe in themselves. The cruise director then appeared and asked people if they liked the show, and instantaneously -- before most adults could answer – a little boy sitting behind us blurted out an emphatic response: “Oh, yes!”
Day 2 – Tracy Arm
Usually when I sail on a ship that’s navigating Tracy Arm, a narrow fjord about 40 miles south of Juneau, we see many other cruise ships. This time, however, we only noticed one other major line’s ship in the fjord. So, this time, the Disney Wonder and its guests seemed blissfully alone with the scenery.
My friend, a first time Alaska visitor, kept repeatedly just staring at the landscape and saying “wow” in response to Tracy Arm’s scenic beauty around every turn. Although she was cold given the outside temperature, she wrapped herself in a blanket to sit on the balcony and just soak in the views.
Balconies offer unprecedented access to scenic views at every turn, and in Alaska, that means a chance to run out unexpectedly when something of interest – like a waterfall or whale – appears unexpectedly.
She was, of course, proactively searching by binoculars for a bear, a common activity of both new and experienced Alaska cruisers. But, it seems the best spotting happen when you least expect it, and she never did see a bear on this cruise, but some fellow guests did.
But before entering Tracy Arm we had our first spotting of wildlife -- two whales. Besides the thrill of seeing the “blow,” we watched as one of the whales turned over and its tail rose out of the water. Add that to the backdrop of snow-covered mountainous scenery and pristine waters – now filled with bobbing ice floes here and there – and it was a magnificent sight.
Named after Civil War General Benjamin Franklin Tracy, a Union officer, Tracy Arm is known for its narrow channel with many turns. At the end of the channel are the twin North and South Sawyer Glaciers. The 30-mile trip in and out of the channel is a highlight.
Personally, I like this day trip as much as sailing Glacier Bay, as one can get exceptionally close to the sides of the fjord. We spotted an eagle nest on a nearby island as well.
As we reached the area close to the glaciers, the ice floes intensified. We viewed massive pieces of glacial ice floating out to sea. Some were the size of small boxes, others as large as cars. Because glacial ice cannot reflect the color blue, the ice floes take on a bluish glow. The landscape has sounds as well as sights, as water sloshes over the ice floes mimicking the sounds of lapping waves at a beach.
A naturalist provided commentary on the top deck, but it wasn’t piped onto balconies due to environmental considerations for not disturbing wildlife. Still, we opted to remain on our balcony for the transit through Tracy Arm. It’s a way to enjoy the close-up natural sites in a more relaxing manner – going back inside to get warm at times and then racing out again.
As we approached the glacier area, the ice floes were extensive – limiting our access to the glacier. We got a decent view of it, though, as the captain turned the ship for the return trip. A more impressive sight, though, was of the seals and their pups lounging on the ice floes.
They seemed oblivious to the huge ship, although some slid into the water when people on the ship talked loudly. For the best wildlife viewing, remain silent and just observe. One seal, though, seemed to take civilization in stride, never moving from his perch on the glacial ice.
While Disney fields a full range of activities this day during the Tracy Arm transit, for most adults, the fjord navigation is likely to be a highlight. After a few minutes of viewing scenery, however, the kids, of course, are likely to be more enthralled by the kids’ and teen programs that run throughout the day.
At dinner, we opted to switch to early seating. For Floridians, dining at 8:15 p.m. is just too late; I hate going to bed full at 11 p.m. We spoke to the restaurant manager who kindly offered to try to find us seating, although he said he couldn’t promise.
But to his credit, he tried hard, called us daily with updates and we were accommodated well. That said, I personally would have liked to see a more anytime dining option in one or several of those three main restaurants for those who desire it.
But we were blessed that on this evening, guests who planned to eat in Animator’s Palate opted for Palo, nicely freeing up a table for us. Animator’s Palate is a signature dining venue, as the walls of the restaurant field drawings from animators of the most beloved Disney characters.
Throughout the dinner, these are gradually lighted in various colors, so the room itself becomes a conversation piece – and helps keep the little ones occupied, although a family with a young boy at our table didn’t have to occupy him. He was very interested in coloring the activity paper provided by Disney, although his dad became a bit weary of leaning over every minute to do the next step.
Our food was good this night, but the service a bit lacking. The assistant waiter clearly didn’t have any interest in serving customers who weren’t in her regular group, but instead temporary guests at the table. That said, the good news is that she was the only Disney staffer onboard who we felt wasn’t up to Disney’s usual stellar standard.
Overall, the Disney crew was superb in all ways. Maintenance staffers, purser’s desk staff, dining room servers, engineering crew and housekeeping staff (even those not our own) greeted us warmly.
In our next update, we’ll look at Disney’s port day in Skagway, gateway to the Klondike. We’ll ride the train, go gold panning and meet up with some sled dogs, tour the local museum, and, of course, shop for souvenirs. Stay tuned for our next installment!