On Site: Sailing With "The Mouse" in Alaska Onboard Disney Wonder - Part Four


One of the most popular activities in Juneau is a trip to the nearby Mendenhall Glacier. // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young

State capital cities are often in unusual spots.  Such is the case with Juneau, Alaska, a city that can only be reached by airplane or boat. Juneau’s main road runs 45 miles along a mountainous coastline and then abruptly ends. No roads connect Juneau to the rest of the state.

Juneau isn’t Alaska’s largest city by population. That’s Anchorage. And it’s southeastern Alaska location along the Inside Passage is far from the state’s interior mass, it’s the  largest capital city by land mass in the United States at some 3,248 square miles. Much of that is comprised within the Tongass National Forest, a temperate rainforest.  

Downtown Juneau is nestled at the base of the 4,000-foot Mount Juneau. The 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield has multiple glaciers and is just a short distance away.

Originally, Juneau was a fishing outpost for the local Tlingit Indians until gold was discovered in a creek off the Gastineau Channel. The Tlingit chief provided gold ore samples to George Pilz in trade for blankets and work for the tribe. He also agreed to lead prospectors Richard Harris and Joseph Juneau to the discovery. In fact, Juneau’s original city name was Harrisburg, before Harris fell out of favor with the locals.

Several gold mines operated in Juneau and the nearby community of Douglas through the first half of the 20th century. Before the Alaska-Juneau Gold Mining Company’s mine closed in 1944, it had produced more than $80 million in gold.

Tourists often head for a small outdoor pavilion for superb views of the glacier. // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young

Disney Wonder in Juneau

Disney Wonder typically docks by 7:45 a.m. On our voyage, this was at a pier in an industrial area south of the city center. Shuttles ran regularly for those who wished to go downtown.

Clients who want to explore on their own should check the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau website for options. A free Alaska State Capitol building tour is offered weekdays in the summer. The capitol building was originally a territorial structure constructed in 1931.

Just a few blocks away is the Governor’s Mansion; visitors can’t normally tour it, but they can view it from the sidewalk. One National Historic Landmark is St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Church on Fifth Street; it boasts a gold onion dome, a reminder of the former Russian presence in North America.

Museum buffs might head for the modest Juneau-Douglas City Museum; admission is $4 per person. Or, for $5 per person, your clients might explore the state’s history and culture at the more extensive Alaska State Museum. This museum specializes in history, culture, Russian heritage, and a large gallery showcasing native American heritage. Both museums are downtown.

A bit further afoot is Last Chance Mining Museum, a hands-on museum that features tools and machines once utilized in the world’s largest and more advanced hardrock gold mine. It’s a 45-minute walk to the end of Basin Road to reach the museum, and visitors should key an eye out for bears, porcupines and eagles along the way.

Downtown in the area easily accessible from the cruise piers, shoppers will find plenty of internationally known jewelry stores, along with souvenir shops selling native American crafts, Alaskan art, everything salmon and souvenirs.

Coffee lovers might take home specialty coffees from Heritage Coffee Company; it’s been roasting coffee in Juneau for 37 years.

Tourists love having an Alaskan brew at the Red Dog Saloon, where Wyatt Earp’s gun from Nome, stuffer critters and Alaska memorabilia are displayed. And for dining with a sense of history, the historic Gold Room in the Westmark Baranof Hotel has been operating for more than 35 years.

For spectacular views, head for the Mount Roberts Tramway, which is owned and operated by Gold Belt Inc., an Alaska native corporation. After the steep tram ride up the 1,800-foot mountain visitors enjoy such activities as a bald eagle raptor show, nature center, free native American movie, shopping in a large gift shop, seafood and Alaskan beer at the on-site restaurant and nature trails for all levels of hikers. One trail is handicapped accessible.

If you go on the trails, it’s a lovely hike. But be sure clients know where they’re headed, leave food behind, take a bottle of water, wear sturdy foot gear, make noise along the trail, hike with a companion and assure there’s enough time to get back to the ship.

I spotted a bear on one of the trails on a previous visit. The tramway’s website has photos of coyotes and a bear family spotted by a wildlife photographer last year. The site also has a video about safe hiking practices.

Just for the ease of our time ashore, I bought our tramway tickets from Disney in advance. Disney’s “Mount Roberts Tramway at Leisure” ticket prices are $27 per person for those 10 and up, $13 for kids 6 to 9. Kids under five are admitted free.

You may show up at any time during your port day. Clients also may purchase tickets same day at the on-site ticket office; pricing is the same as Disney’s price for adults, and actually 50 cents more for kids.  

My advice for cruisers is to book an early morning tour and then enjoy the tramway after the tour, staying at the top of the mountain for as long as time permits.

A salmon bake is one activity associated with Juneau, and it is incorporated into several of Disney's shore trips. // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young

We started our day in Juneau by booking Disney’s “Alaska Salmon Bake, Glacier and Hatchery,” a five-hour tour that includes a motorcoach ride to what’s considered the top natural attraction in the Juneau area, the Mendenhall Glacier. This shore excursion, which is mild in intensity, also includes a visit to a salmon hatchery and a salmon bake for $90, ages 10 and up, and $60 for ages 3 to 9.

En route we had a brief look at downtown, but the motorcoach operating this tour doesn’t motor by the state capital or Governor’s Mansion or into the interior of town; it stays along the coastal road. So, if clients want to just get a bit more downtown viewing by coach, they might alternatively book a tour that includes that; one is Disney’s “Deluxe Tour of Juneau,” priced at $125 for ages 10 and up, and $69 for those ages 3 to 9.

Our motorcoach was bound for the Mendenhall Glacier, though. It’s the only glacier truly accessible by road and about 13 miles from downtown Juneau. When clients get off the motorcoach, they should jot down the number of their coach. Coaches are not permitted to stay at the drop-off point; they return at the appropriate time to pick up guests. They all look alike, so it’s crucial to know the bus number.

I’ve been to Mendenhall three times and I recommend cruisers start by heading to the open air pavilion just up from the coach drop off point. It’s a great spot for photos of the glacier, with sections of glacial blue ice cascading into the water. The blue color fades as the ice is exposed to air and its crystalline structure breaks down.

Mendenhall is stunning, although it’s been “retreating” up the valley since the 1700s. The glacier’s face is about one-half mile wide and 100 feet above the waterline.

Head for the stairs or a ramp leading to the U.S. Forest Service’s Visitor Center at Mendenhall Glacier. Elevator access is also available at an entrance a bit further along.  

Some cruise line shore excursions include time at the glacier to get out and walk around, but not admission to the visitor center. To really understand what glaciers are all about, clients should select a tour that includes admission to the visitor center, or simply buy the $3 per person admission upon getting there.

The center’s 11-minute “Magnificent Mendenhall” movie gives a good overview. From the center’s floor-to-ceiling windows clients will enjoy stunning views of the Mendenhall Glacier and a nearby waterfall. Inside the center, clients will also peruse eco-exhibits and touch a wall of glacier ice. The center has clean restrooms and a compact bookstore on site.

Usually, the tour allows guests a bit of time to do some exploration around the glacier or a nearby stream; there are boardwalk walkways and trails. At one overwater viewing platform adjacent to Steep Creek and a parking lot, visitors who arrive from late July to  September during the salmon spawning season might see bears, as I did on a past trip.

If clients go on the trails, even for just a short stretch, they should take a map, walk with a companion, tell someone where they are going, understand the time it takes to complete a trail walk, take absolutely no food, take bottled water only, and be sure of timing to meet back up with the motorcoach.

On this trip, we ventured a short distance onto several different trail areas, just to get a snapshot look at the experience. It’s a 45-minute walk up to the Nugget Falls, so clients might not have time to go in both directions during a shore trip. 

At the Macauley Salmon Hatchery, visitors can touch sea creatures in a tank. // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young

Our coach was on time for our pick-up, the driver-guide was courteous and friendly, and soon we were off to the Macaulay Salmon Hatchery, one of the five largest salmon hatcheries in Alaska; it’s permitted to incubate 121 million chum, 50 million pink, 1.5 million coho and 950,000 chinook salmon eggs annually.

Early in the summer cruise season, as was the case on our voyage, the salmon aren’t yet “running,” so there isn’t a lot to see outdoors here, but the hatchery guide explains the process. Clients who go in July or August have more to view.

That said, tell clients to scan the trees in the forest viewable from the hatchery. On our visit we spotted five or more bald eagles.  

Inside the hatchery building are a modest number of marine exhibits. At a touch tank, visitors reach in to run their fingers over starfish and other sea creatures. A mounted bear exhibit gives visitors the flavor of what it would be like to meet an actual bear on a local trail.

The hatchery’s gift shop is a good spot to buy salmon of all types, gifts and books. In a nice hospitality touch, visitors are invited to have a cup of free coffee.

Then, our tour group reboarded the motorcoach and headed for the Salmon Bake. Getting off the coach, smoke rises from a large outdoor grilling area where salmon filets are being cooked. Guests serve themselves at a cafeteria style line, with various “mayonnaise” salad dishes, as well as grilled chicken, macaroni and cheese and other cook-out fare. Then they line up for someone to slide a hot, grilled salmon filet onto their plate. The salmon was yummy, the other stuff just so-so.

I’ve visited this attraction twice in past years and have highly recommended this experience to others. But this year, I felt the experience – at least on my visit -- had lost a bit of its luster. Food choices seemed more limited and staff were not as attentive to the serving line and its appearance. Plates were missing, food was spilled.

It was an okay experience, from my perspective, but still fun for those who haven’t been to a salmon bake, it’s an option. There is also a short walking trail along a creek that leads to a waterfall.  

Another issue for this Salmon Bake outing was that everyone went out to pick up the motorcoach (not the cruise line coach) provided to take guests from many different lines back to their ships. It was a zoo. People couldn’t board the first or even the second bus, due to the crowd. Then cruisers began to jockey for position to be sure they caught the next coach. This is a definite “could be improved” facet of the experience. On-site supervision from the attraction during this process was very lacking.

Still, I enjoyed this tour and particularly the glacier visit. Back in town, the bus driver pulled our motorcoach into the parking lot next to the Mount Roberts Tramway, highly convenient for anyone taking the tram.

We flashed our pre-purchased “Mount Roberts Tramway at Leisure” shore excursion tickets from Disney, boarded the tram and then soared up the mountainside. The ticket is worth it for the views on the tram and from the top.

We didn’t have much time, so we just walked around a bit, bought some souvenirs in the gift shop and headed back down. A shuttle bus took us from the tramway parking lot to the Disney Wonder, which typically sails at 4:30 p.m. from Juneau.

Back on the ship, kids on our voyage were abuzz with anticipation for the showing of “Toy Story 2, the Musical” at 6 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. in the Walt Disney Theater. I’ve attended the show in the past and it’s quite entertaining.

The “Pirates IN the Caribbean” entertainment program, which the line presents at 9:45 p.m. on the top deck, was forced inside on our cruise, due to inclement weather. Related activities throughout the afternoon and early evening include a pirate game show, a pirate trivia quest and even pirate double-up bingo.

Due to Alaskan maritime laws, no fireworks are permitted (as guests might normally see on a similar pirates program for one of the line’s Bahamas itineraries). Still, it was fun watching the little pirates – both boys and girls – walking ‘round the ship in pirate attire.

Not surprisingly, Mickey’s Mates, Deck 4 forward, sells pirate-themed clothing and accessories. From my observation, the line was doing a very brisk business in onboard revenue in selling anything related to pirate fare.

As our cruise was more than half over, some guests headed to the Internet Café or onto their laptop for Wi-Fi to touch base with friends and family. Disney offers packages of minutes -- $55 for 100 minutes, $100 for 250 minutes and $150 for 500 minutes. Per minute rate without a package is $.75 a minute. The ship also has ship-wide Wi-Fi, which I found very convenient from the stateroom. It also worked well.

On this night, we opted for room service. We wanted simple fare so we ordered hot dogs, fries and chocolate chip cookies. The food was both prompt and delicious. Disney’s room service is 24 hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner, as well as snacks throughout the day and a more limited menu after 11:30 p.m. and throughout the night.  

I slept well on Disney Wonder; the beds were comfortable and cabin service for turn-down was professional. Our cabin steward was very friendly and accommodating on special requests.  

One thing I didn’t like in the stateroom were the constant calls with pre-recorded messages. While I appreciated the “live” calls from the restaurant manager or shore desk with information we needed to know, the pre-recorded messages about this or that – forcing up to pull up the message menu and go through all those -- were intrusive.

All in all, though, I enjoyed my time ashore in Juneau and the shipboard experience on Disney Wonder. Stay tuned for the shoreside experience about Ketchikan, the next port, before we sail back to Vancouver with the Mouse.

Visit www.disneytravelagents.com.


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