|The Disney Wonder, docked in Skagway // (c) 2011 Susan J. Young |
In 1896, gold was discovered 600 miles from Skagway, Alaska at Rabbit Creek, a tributary of the Klondike River in the Yukon Territory. People worldwide raced to reach the Klondike gold fields, making Skagway, Alaska, a wild boom town. By 1898, more than 100,000 “stampeders,” as they were called, had set off to reach the gold fields.
Thousands of fortune hunters headed north, and many undertook a treacherous journey on foot over the often-snow-covered White Pass or Chilkoot Pass on foot. Some reached the Canadian border, many died along the way. The few who reached the Klondike often returned to lawless Skagway and lost their fortune in the town’s 80 saloons, three breweries, many brothels and gambling parlors. Con artists and thieves, including Soapy Smith, the town’s mayor, helped the unwary lighten their wallets.
Today, Skagway is a small town, home to 800 permanent residents who have discovered that tourism is the new treasure. This year, 25 ships from different lines will make 375 port calls at Skagway, the northernmost point on an Inside Passage cruise. By the end of the summer season, Skagway will have hosted nearly 700,000 cruise passengers.
For many, the colorful Gold Rush history is the draw. Others head off for hiking, biking, river rafting, horseback riding or kayaking. Shoppers walk the compact downtown area in search of jewelry, souvenirs and local crafts. In early June, I arrived in Skagway on a Disney Wonder cruise, a modern day prospector in search of treasured experiences ashore.
Up to the White Pass
One of Skagway’s most popular excursions is the train ride on the White Pass & Yukon Route railway (www.wpyr.com
) ride up to White Pass. It’s often a “must do” for first time visitors eager to learn about Gold Rush history and desiring to take in the area’s scenic beauty in a stunning way. The three-hour, 40-mile roundtrip rail journey climbs from tidewater level at Skagway to the summit of the 2,865-foot White Pass.
What’s interesting about the train ride as an excursion option? You can combine it with a host of other options; the train stopped halfway through its upward climb, for example, for people to disembark for a trek to a glacier.
We booked the five-hour “Gold Dredge and White Pass Railway” trip, priced at $176 per person for those 10 and up, and $99 for children 3 to 9. It included a one-way ride on the railway to Fraser, BC, followed by a motorcoach ride back down the Klondike Highway for a stop at a 1937-era Klondike gold dredge for a tour and gold panning.
Guests on our tour gathered in the WaveZone, within the Route 66 area onboard Disney Wonder. The ship’s shore excursion staff checked tickets and passports; this tour crosses the border into Canada so everyone, including the smallest kids, must have a passport. Then a Disney representative led our group outside and onto a motorcoach, which took a short drive into town. Our motorcoach guide advised us which train car to board.
Hint? Tell your clients to sit on the left side of the train, if possible, as it ascends up the mountainsides to the White Pass summit. That way, they’ll be facing the valley and get a better sense of things. While the right side has its own pluses, including a brief snapshot view of Skagway’s Gold Rush Cemetery and thin waterfalls cascading down the mountainsides, people tend to gravitate to the left side as the train ride progresses.
But, if your clients can’t get a seat on the left and it’s a roundtrip train ride, they’ll probably snag a window perch for great views on the way down. How? On several past roundtrip rides I’ve taken on this train, the guide usually comes over the PA system with an announcement asking guests to switch sides for the return down the mountain. That said, my ride was one-way, so that wasn’t an option.
Whichever tour you pick on the train, typically each cruise line group has its own car, so guests from Disney won’t mix with those of other lines or independent travelers on their own. Each car has a small outside viewing platform, where guests can take turn snapping photos of the mountains, waterfalls, deep valleys and the wild rushing river below. Guests are not permitted to walk between the train cars.
The conductor walks through soon after the train leaves the station; he checks tickets and gives a brief safety demonstration. Each railcar has a drinking water receptacle with paper cups, as well as a bathroom. Each guest receives a small booklet that describes the train ride and highlights, and a guide also provides commentary over the train’s PA system.
Against all odds, the narrow gauge White Pass & Yukon Route railway was built in just 26 months over treacherous terrain. Opened in 1898, it began taking on passengers just as the Gold Rush era was starting to wind down. Today, the influx of tourism dollars helps keep this historic train running.
Within 15 minutes, our train powered by a diesel locomotive began its journey out of Skagway on a 95-minute climb nearly 3,000 feet up to the White Pass. Along the way our train traversed over 20 miles of steep grades of up to 3.9 percent. We loved the cliff-hanging turns, views to raging whitewater below, the crossing of several bridges and trestles, as well as two tunnels.
Clients will also view a steel cantilever bridge, the tallest of its kind in the world when constructed in 1902. Other highlights include views of Bridal Veil Falls, Inspiration Point, Dead Horse Gulch and the original “Trail of '98” over which the gold seekers trekked in search of their fortunes. The train may stop at certain points to let off guests who also are going hiking to a glacier.
Train cars are both original and replica models, and pulled or pushed by diesel locomotives. If clients are train aficionados, Disney also offers a “steam train” option on the White Pass and Yukon Railway. Later in the day, we observed the historic steam locomotive puffing billowy white steam as it left Skagway on its journey north. Cost for this option is a bit pricier at $214 for those 10 and up, $105 for those 3 to 9. .
I find that children often are interested in the train for about a half hour, then lose interest and are totally bored. Too often grandparents or parents believe the little ones will find it “fascinating,” but that’s often not the case. Kids used to techno-toys or constant attention and play action will be looking for something to do – like the four-year old on our train constantly pouring drinks of water, to the delight of her grandfather and the agitation of many of the passengers on our car. One little boy asked his mother, “Can I go back to the ship and play now?”
If you have clients who insist on booking this for young children, definitely tell them to consider booking the “White Pass Scenic Railway including an Exclusive Youth Activity,” at $169 for ages 10 and up, and $99 for 5 to 9. This trip includes the normal ride up to the summit, where kids stay with their parents, but at the summit, the kids head for a separate “supervised activity” car for the southbound journey. Disney Cruise Line youth activity counselors lead sing-alongs, initiate an I-Spy game using binoculars and offer other children’s activities. A guide also serves up Gold Rush era stories for the kids.
It’s voluntary for parents to allow their kids to participate in the youth activity program on the train. But once children go to the youth activity train car, they must remain there for the entire 90-minute descending journey. Parents can talk via phone to their kids, and glimpse them through the train windows, but kids and parents can’t transfer back and forth.
On that downward journey, the rest of the family will enjoy a champagne or sparkling cider toast and receive a Christmas ornament of distinction, to welcome them into the "White Pass Summit Club."
I was traveling with my former neighbor and friend Nancy. She hadn’t ever been to Skagway, so we booked the one-way train ride that included a gold dredge tour as the second part of the excursion. Thus, we disembarked the train in Fraser, BC; Canadian customs and immigration boarded the train, checked passports, and gave the all clear.
Soon we were re-boarding the same coach that had taken us to the train depot earlier in the day. Our motorcoach driver provided commentary as we began the return trip to Skagway via the Klondike Highway, which connects Whitehorse in the Yukon with Skagway. The coach made two scenic overlook stops, including one atop Skagway, giving tour goers great views of town, the local airport, and the Disney Wonder in port.
In Search of Gold
Our motorcoach then headed for Klondike Gold Fields
), an attraction just outside Skagway. Several “colorful characters” in period clothing welcomed us, explained how prospectors search for gold and talked about what’s to see and do at the attraction, including gold panning, the gold dredge tour, a restaurant and microbrewery.
We just needed a quick bite mid-day and opted for a tasty and robust $4 taco at the restaurant’s taco bar. The gift shop, by the way, sells mouthwatering, warm chocolate chip cookies and hot popcorn.
Each guest on this tour is given a round pan with soil and rock material and then sent to water bins to begin panning for their fortune. Keep in mind that there is no gold in Skagway, so the earthen material comes from Canada. Even novices usually secure a few bits of glitter in the bottom of the pan. Staff provide helpful panning tips.
At the gift shop, a staffer weighed my gold flakes. Surprisingly, I had about $14 worth, my friend Nancy about $11. While the attraction won’t buy the gold flakes, it’s fun to know what your stash is worth. And, of course, some tourists buy jewelry that holds the gold flakes.
Next, we took a short tour of a 350-ton gold dredge, once used in the Klondike gold fields. A costumed guide relates tales of the miners who toiled on the dredge under the midnight sun. Tour goers view mining antiques, archival photographs and the inside and outside of the dredge.
This short dredge tour concluded our Disney shore excursion. Your clients on this tour will reboard the motorcoach for the short trip back to the ship. The driver also will drop them off downtown if they wish to spend time shopping or exploring the historic district.
Going to the Dogs
Another fairly new option? Providing your clients’ ship doesn’t depart for a few hours and there is plenty of time, they might alternatively stay independently at Klondike Gold Fields to enjoy a sled dog experience. We did so, as Disney Wonder didn’t sail until late evening.
Disney offers a full-bodied“Glacier Flightseeing and Dog Mushing” excursion that’s a terrific half-day choice for those who want to learn first-hand about mushing and enjoy spectacular aerial views of the scenery. But it’s pricey at $549 for adults and $495 for kids.
So, if clients just want a “short taste” of what the sled dog experience is all about, Klondike Gold Fields’ 45-minute sled dog program is appealing at just $25 per person.
Clients will listen to an interesting talk by a real musher, view a short film about the history of sled dogs and the Iditarod race, look at the equipment used in mushing, and “meet and greet” the dogs. In addition, tour goers will watch a short demonstration of mushing as the dogs are hitched to a sled with rubber wheels. The mushing team then races along a short course, with the dogs yelping in glee. I must say the dogs on our tour were incredibly eager to run and clearly happy critters.
No, we didn’t get to mush ourselves, but I just wanted a taste of the sled dog experience, not a three-hour experience. T
The absolute highlight during our visit, though, was the chance to hold tiny sled dog puppies -- fuzzy balls of fur that had just opened their eyes the day before our visit. Even the men became real softies when clinging to these cuties.
If your cruise clients opt to stay at the Klondike Gold Fields attraction beyond their scheduled motorcoach tour departure time -- as we did to stay for the sled dog program -- the attraction will provide a free one-way pass for the city’s S.M.A.R.T mini-bus. Running every half hour on our visit day, the mini-bus will pick clients up just outside the ticket office and take them downtown. From there, it’s just a short walk to the ship.
Exploring Historic Skagway
Clients interested in a self-guided walking tour might print out a map or two in advance of their visit. Check the good maps which can be printed from the Skagway Convention and Visitors Bureau
) site or ask for one at the CVB’s visitor center at Second and Broadway.
We got off the S.M.A.R.T mini-bus at Seventh Avenue and walked to the Skagway Museum on Spring Street. Located in a former college building, the museum is on the first floor; the second floor houses Skagway’s City Hall. The museum offers a good snapshot look at Skagway’s history from prehistoric times to the present. Clients will learn about local cultures and view cultural, flora, fauna and World War II exhibits.
While at the museum, look up to view the American Bald Eagle. Clients will also peruse Native American beadwork, baskets and carvings, as well as Gold Rush era artifacts. There are several fascinating exhibits on the town’s World War II history.
For cruisers who are dying for a “bear” siting in Alaska, the museum’s big stuffed grizzly on its hind legs makes a great photo opportunity for those who haven’t seen a bear in the wild. Admission to the museum is $7 for adults. It takes about 30 to 60 minutes to peruse the exhibits, depending on your pace.
If your clients are shoppers, they’ll find Alaska souvenirs, Russian nesting dolls, local artwork, Native American crafts and jewelry shops of all types along Broadway. Benches are sprinkled along this main drag, so a spouse can sit while the other partner shops.
Hungry and thirsty? Skagway Brewing Company
), Seventh and Broadway, sells micro-brewed beers, burgers and other casual fare. Nearby, Alaska Garden Gourmet
) serves up Alaska seafood and tapas prepared with local produce. One fun option at Second and Broadway is the Red Onion Saloon
), a combination bar, restaurant and brothel museum.
Short on funds after too much shopping? Tell clients to head for the Wells Fargo Bank ATM at Sixth and Broadway.
For a superb selection of books on Skagway, Alaska and the Yukon, check out Skagway News Depot and Books
) on Broadway near Third Avenue.
For musical entertainment with a look back to the Gold Rush era, head for Eagles Hall
at Sixth Street and Broadway and buy a ticket for the “Days of ’98 Show,” (www.thedaysof98show.com
), self-proclaimed as the longest running show in the North. It’s a hoot of a melodrama that tells the story of Skagway and its former mayor, Soapy Smith, a con artist and outlaw.
Definitely stop into the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park Visitor Center
) at the corner of Second and Broadway. If time permits, watch the film “Days of Adventure, Dreams of Gold.” The park service has purchased 15 historic Skagway buildings due to their Gold Rush era significance; 14 have been restored.
One is the Mascot Saloon, an authentic 1910 saloon with its stately and ornate bar and saloon artifacts. The U.S. National Park Service offers guided walking tours, which includes this saloon building and other sites.
Another park-service-owned historic structure is the Moore House, built by the founder of Skagway, Captain William Moore and his son J. Bernard Moore; it’s restored to its 1904 appearance and furnished with many original family possessions.
If clients opt for a more full-bodied day of exploring around Skagway and don’t wish to book the train, what’s available? Based on numerous trips to the area, I personally recommend horseback riding in the adjacent Gold Rush era town of Dyea, now a ghost town with just a few remaining foundations of the past. Dyea once rivaled Skagway in Gold Rush era prosperity as the gateway to the Chilkoot Pass.
Disney offers a “Chilkoot Horseback Adventure” for $174 per person, which includes transportation to and from Dyea, 105-minute guided trail ride and refreshments and a snack. Horseback riders must be 12 years or older, at least 4'10" tall and weigh no more than 250 pounds.
The cruise line also offers plenty of active shore adventures including zip lining, hiking, biking and river rafting. But if your clients want an outdoor experience that’s a bit milder, consider Disney’s “Eagle Preserve Float Adventure and Lynn Fjord Cruise,” essentially a short boat ride to Haines, Alaska, a relaxing, 90-minute raft float trip through the eagle preserve, followed by a picnic lunch, tour of Haines and boat ride back to Skagway.
Tell clients to look for white, round objects in the trees; they’re likely bald eagle heads, which stick out vividly from the green trees. Binoculars are handy to have on most Alaska tours, including this one.
Of course, on Disney Wonder, clients might just stay on the ship if they’ve been to Skagway before. For example, the ship’s Vista Spa fields a 75-minute “Chocolate Indulgence Body” with a half-body massage for $141 or 100 minutes with a full-body massage for $178. Or, you might choose a facial, manicure or pedicure.
With Disney’s 10/10/30 package, clients may schedule any three signature treatments on a port day and receive 10, 20 and 30 percent discounts on all three treatments. Among the port day specials offered during our Skagway port visit was a 25-minute bamboo massage and a 25-minute foot massage for $109.
For those who do go ashore, the fun will continue back on the ship. On our Skagway port day, Pinocchio, Cinderella, Jiminy Cricket, Goofy and Max were ready to pose with guests for photos at various times between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., throughout the ship. A College Club Social, or young adults 18-21, was scheduled for the Cove Café.
As for movies, Disney “owns” a lot of them. Thus, families enjoyed showings of “Toy Story 2” and “The Lion King” on our Skagway port day, while adults and older kids flocked to “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" (rated PG-13).
Dinner tonight on the Skagway port day is “Alaska Night” with one enticing and unusual item, Elk, on the menu. Beyond the fish, beef and other savory entree choices, though, I didn’t see any crab as an entrée, so I requested two crab appetizers as a main course. Our thoughtful waiter tripled my portion and I loved it. I looked around and others had also taken my approach and asked for large orders of the crab as a main course, rather than an appetizer.
Family fun this evening includes “So You Think You Know Your Family,” a fun game show, and “Family Karaoke,” both at Studio Sea.
Adult-exclusive entertainment this evening also included a 10 p.m. liquor and coffee tasting, piano and vocal favorites in the Cadillac Lounge, a comedic performance, dancing at WaveBands, a College Social for those 18-21 at Cove Café, and a Rock N’ Country party featuring the Walt Disney Theatre Performers at WaveBands.
After a full day in Skagway, Disney Wonder
sailed at 7:45 p.m. for Juneau, AK
, Alaska’s capital city. Stay tuned for an upcoming report on Juneau, Ketchikan and the final sailing day back to Vancouver. From Gold Rush era history to scenic beauty, Skagway, Alaska, entices cruisers with its plethora of outdoor activities and sightseeing options.