Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Disney Cruise to Alaska

Our ship: the Disney Wonder

Captain Mickey on the bow (click on photo to enlarge)

For years, I’ve been bugging Tim about going on a Disney cruise, so finally he booked us onto an Alaskan cruise to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary this week. We flew up to Vancouver very early yesterday (Monday) morning and didn’t get onto the ship until 1PM. I was starving and so immediately went in search of food. Luckily, the Parrot Cay restaurant was serving a buffet lunch. We ate, found our cabin and fell asleep while waiting for our bags. We awoke just in time for the mandatory emergency drill, where we learned how to don our life-jackets (kinda dumb) and then decided to investigate the ship.

First stop: Parrot Cay buffet

We were poking around in the “aft” all by ourselves, when we thought we heard someone yelling on a loudspeaker. Tim guessed it was some crazy person onshore, but it turned out to be the first of what promised to be many “family dance parties” mid-ship on the top deck. Everyone, including Mickey Mouse and friends, was counting down till the ship launched. Adults, as well as kids, were jumping around and singing. It was the perfect start to our weeklong Disney cruise. A few minutes later, the ship left port and we were headed out to the sea.

The welcome wagon

Disney Wonder smoke stack

We’ve been on non-Disney cruises before, including one to Alaska some 15 years ago. So we know that cruises are a time to be pampered and entertained and educated—if you want to be—about your new surroundings. But a Disney cruise is even more special. 

Disney princess gathering: Cinderella, Belle, Ariel,
Rapunzel, and Tiana

For one thing, Mickey and pals are part of every day’s adventure. On Wednesday, for instance, we had breakfast with Pluto, Goofy, Minnie, and Mickey (dressed up in his captain’s regalia) and got to wear crazy hats made out of napkins. Evening entertainment includes “Broadway-style” shows, often featuring Disney characters. And first-run Disney films, like Guardians of the Galaxy, are shown all day in the 200-seat Buena Vista theater. (You haven’t seen Maleficent until you’ve seen it from the second row in 3D!) Even the ship’s smokestack plays “When You Wish Upon a Star” when it blows. It’s all Disney all the time.

Breakfast with Minnie Mouse

Pirate napkin hat (Tim as Jack Sparrow)

Of course, the cruise is also all about nature and the grandeur of Alaska. There’s a naturalist, Doug Jones, on board, who gives fascinating lectures you can attend or watch via the onboard TV. Plus the crew is very good about pointing out any “wonders” they know we’ll want to see. Suddenly the ship’s bells will sound overhead (“When You Wish Upon a Star,” again) and a disembodied voice will announce the first glacier sighting or whales on the port or starboard side. That, then, is our cue to drop everything, grab our cameras and head topside to marvel and take pictures. 

A brisk morning walk topside

Deck 4

Yesterday (Wednesday) we spent most of the day slowly traveling inside the Tracy Arm fjord toward our destination, the South Sawyer glacier. It was a spectacular day—sunny and unusually warm—as Doug Jones explained the amazing terrain we were seeing. Almost everyone was on deck snapping photos and oohing and aahing.

First big glacier sighting

Surrounded by 7000 ft. monoliths

Even Goofy and Donald (below) came
up to see the glaciers

First glimpse of the South Sawyer glacier (center of
photo - click on image to enlarge)

The South Sawyer glacier

The glacier and me from our veranda

Our cabin is a bit cramped but nice. We’ve had better—our last Alaskan cruise cabin was obscenely sumptuous—but we’ve also had much worse—steerage! There’s a desk-and-sofa area (where I am right now), that can be closed-off by a heavy curtain, and we have a small veranda. 

Our cabin

Our man Lorenzo visits the room twice a day, replenishing towels, etc., and generally keeping everything neat. While we’re at dinner, he leaves chocolates and the next day’s schedule of events, called “The Personal Navigator,” which is the single most important resource for planning the following day’s activities. There is so much going on every day that we would be absolutely lost without our “Navigator.”

Like all good cruise ships, there are plenty of “free” (i.e., pre-paid) food options—a liability for most travelers! Breakfast and lunch are served during designated times at many spots throughout the ship: Goofy’s Galley, Beach Blanket Buffet, Pinocchio’s Pizzeria, Pluto’s Dog House.
Before . . .

And after (Tim with not one but two hot dogs!)

In addition, the crew hosted a barbecue on Wednesday to help while away the time as we crept our way toward the glacier. Needless to say, it was a feeding frenzy, even though we had just eaten breakfast only three hours before.

Animator's Palette: the most Disneyesque of the
ship's restaurants

Note the giant paint brushes holding up the ceiling
(click on photo to enlarge)

Dinner, on the other hand, is much less freeform. Although the meals rotate among three of the ship’s larger restaurants, we are all assigned a table number and eat with the same folks every night. We selected the early seating—5:45PM as opposed to 8:15PM—and are happily part of a great group of diners. 

Our wonderful tablemates: Blake, Rebecca, G, Tim, Amy, and me

Courses are selected off a menu and you are encouraged to order as much as you want. For those who like to dine alone or just get away from their kids, there’s also an “adults only” Italian restaurant, called Palo, that is “price fixe” and requires reservations. The food is supposed to be exceptional, though so far we’ve been perfectly happy with our group meals.

First night dinner (Monday)

Formal night (Tuesday)
Semi-formal night (Friday)

Our ship docked at three ports along the Inside Passage: Skagway, Juneau, and Ketchican. Of the three, Skagway was the smallest (pop. 862) but also the most magnificent, located at the mouth of a lush glacier-made valley. Though the town is now mostly t-shirt shops and jewelry stores, it was once the launching point for thousands of prospectors stampeding into the Yukon gold rush in the late 1890s. 

Docking at dawn in Skagway

Historic Skagway buildings

A nice surprise: flowers in bloom everywhere

Feeling adventurous, we decided to ride the White Pass & YukonRoute narrow-gauge railway 20 miles to the Canadian border and back again. Built over just two years during the late 19th century, the tracks start at sea-level and climb up the side of the Coast Mountains for almost 3000 feet—totally outside my normal comfort zone (terrible fear of heights), still the views were incredible. This was certainly a highlight of the trip.

Inside our small railroad car

The train ahead of us, crawling alongside the edge 
of the mountain (click on photo to enlarge)

Riding over the wooden trestle (gag!)

The old wooden trestle, no longer in use (thank goodness!)

The next day (Friday), we pulled into Juneau, Alaska’s state capitol. We spent a couple of hours strolling through town and visited the tiny (compared to California) capitol building. 

Pulling into Juneau

Juneau, Alaska's state capitol

Looking at our ship from shore

Stumbling upon the campaign headquarters for U.S. Senate candidate Mark Begich, I quickly entered, saying, “Hey, I didn’t know there were Democrats in Alaska!” Turns out one of the campaign managers was a young guy from Pasadena, who temporarily relocated to Alaska in hopes of helping Begich win a key seat in the Senate. We wished them lots of luck.

Today (Saturday) we’re in Ketchikan, known locally as the Salmon Capital of the World. It’s also the southern-most town on the cruise, so tonight we begin our journey back to Vancouver. Ketchican is picturesque, with its totem poles and hundred-year-old wooden homes. But we’ve been here before, so opted to walk around town on our own, instead of paying top dollar for an onshore tour. Tomorrow we start packing for home.

Picturesque Ketchikan

With Mickey and Minnie

With Goofy

It’s been a truly wonderful week, filled with fun, unusually beautiful weather, and gorgeous scenery. Being on a ship, where everything is taken care of by an excellent crew, is just heaven. Plus, you never know when you might run into Mickey Mouse, a fairy tale princess, or a Pixar character.

 Pixar night (Friday): Russell from Up

My favorite: Woody from Toy Story

Tim's favorites: Mr. and Mrs. Incredible from
The Incredibles

We loved it all so much that we’ve already booked another Disney cruise, from San Diego to Vancouver, in May 2015. Does anybody want to join us?

With Jesse and Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story

Donald Duck and nephews on the stern

See ya real soon!