After two years of non-cruising, we made our triumphant return to the Disney Dream last week for a four-night spin around the Bahamas. It had a lot of ups and downs, and certainly some weirdness because of Covid, but I did intermittently have the opportunity to completely turn off my brain and leave the world behind. That's why we keep doing these things. It's vacation travel without the stress of travel or having to make decisions.
First off, pre-pandemic, we had two cruises booked. The first would have been the Dream's last sailing before shutting down, a three-nighter out of Canaveral. They allowed cancellations up until the day before because of the impending doom, and we opted to do that. It wasn't out of safety concerns at that point, it was because we had an asshat president that might now allow Americans off of ships in the case of infection. In retrospect, I kind of wish we would have taken the cruise. We let Disney hold the fare in this case, which also helped us retain the onboard credit associated with the reservation. The second one we had booked was Alaska at the end of June 2020, and it was just going to be me and Diana for our longest no-child vacation. Simon was going to stay in Seattle with his cousins. That one was cancelled for us, obviously. If we allowed them to hold that fare, we would have had a 125% credit, but given how uncertain the world felt at the time, and how expensive it was, I wanted the money back. In any case, the earlier three-night was the basis for this one, and since the money felt long gone, and we were looking for reasons to celebrate, we decided to do this one in concierge.
The testing protocol evolved a bit, but at this point, adults have to be fully vaccinated to sail. Their crew is too, and they all need a booster by some approaching date. Kids need a negative PCR test taken between 1 and 3 days before boarding, although that changed too since 5 and up can now get the vaccine. Simon got his right away, so he was fully vaccinated (including the two weeks) by about five days, meaning we didn't have to do any advance testing. Once you arrive, you have to do a rapid test, which is just swabbing the inside of your nose, and then wait in your car before you can board. We had our results in about a half-hour, but had to wait another half-hour after that because the Coast Guard was onboard doing an inspection.
Onboard policy is to use a mask indoors unless you're eating or drinking. Of course, most of what you do on the ship is eating and drinking, so it's a little weird, especially given the testing. The ship was operating at reduced capacity, which in this case it sounds like it was around 2,500 guests. They can do 4,000 if every room is at capacity. The dining rooms have fewer tables, and they stagger seating in the theater to the point that not everyone can see every show. The theatrical thing is odd, because our local theater is operating near capacity with masks. Now, pre-omicron variant, given the testing protocols, a lot of what they're doing exceeds the science. But then this week, a Royal Caribbean cruise with similar testing protocol (and way more people) generated 48 cases. With the variant, vaccination has to be up to booster level, so the rules might make more sense now. Honestly, it's not a big deal at this point, as I'm used to it.
Check-in is radically different since before the pandemic. First, the bag drop-off area is more than double the length, so it doesn't get backed up. Once you enter the terminal, you first queue in a largely expanded front of the building to check-in. There are still separate lines for Platinum Castaway Club and concierge, but now you're just walking up to people with devices. You do most of the work yourself days before arriving. You upload photos of yourself, used for security and ID'ing photos, as well as images of your passports. The agent scans your passports to confirm it's you after scanning a QR code you got from your check-in, and that's it. The inside of the terminal now it just has seating to wait, including the concierge lounge, but with the slightly late start, we basically boarded immediately.
You board again using the QR code, because they do not issue your key cards in the terminal. They are instead found at your room, which is not available until 1:30 (or immediately in concierge). I'm not sure how they handle room charges at this point, unless you just tell them the room number. I don't imagine there would be a high fraud rate given the surveillance on the ship, so it's probably good enough. They gave us gold stickers to wear in the terminal to identify as concierge, which I didn't understand at first. It turns out that this is in part to get you into the concierge lounge, but then onboard, it's because they do a full-service lunch instead of having you go to the buffet in Cabanas.
As you enter the ship, as before, one of the crew members asks your family name, and they announce on the microphone, "Please welcome the Puzzoni Family!" to the claps and cheers of other crew. I know it seems a bit much, but this really does set the tone for the service that you can expect. This is one of the few times that you experience any kind of crowd control, and it's reminiscent of the early pandemic. They put you on a circle on the floor, and when a certain number of families are in, Mickey and Minnie do a little song and dance on the deck above. Then they hustle you into Royal Palace for lunch, since everyone boarding first is concierge.
Lunch is as fancy as dinner typically is, and the service top notch. Complimentary drinks, too, which is consistent with service in the lounge most of the day. It was a little too fancy and limited for me though, since I don't eat red meat or seafood, so I literally got kids' chicken tenders and steak fries. This poor-poultry thing became a trend, because the buffet offerings have been vastly scaled back. I'll get to that later.
There is no in-person muster drill, and instead you can watch the bits about life jackets and such from your room. But you do have to go to your assembly station before 4:30 and use the phone app to capture the sign at your station, where a crew member can answer questions. This is vastly more efficient than making everyone onboard go to their spot all at the same time.
After tagging our assembly station, we went to our room, where the key cards are in the clip next to the door. Inside they had the standard lanyards, which we find useful, especially when you're wearing things without pockets. The room that we had was more of a standard sized verandah room, but with the concierge upgrades. The carper is thicker and more exotic, the bathrooms use an exotic black tile (which makes shaving hard because it's so dark), better art, better furniture and a much bigger TV. It's definitely a nicer room, but it's not the real benefit of concierge. The location, decks 11 and 12, all the way forward, are the best parts of the room. You also have access to a three-person concierge team that basically can make all kinds of things happen (more on that later). You also have the lounge, where you can get snacks, bottled drinks/wine most of the day, and a more full complimentary bar from 5 to 10 every night. There's also a private outdoor deck, partially covered, with its own hot tub. We used that almost immediately. They also give you the best area possible to watch the fireworks at sea. On our cruise, all of this came with about a 35% premium. Was it worth it? I guess it depends on how much you value and use the extra service. We did quite a bit, but if it was just for status, no, it wouldn't be worth it. I estimate we had the equivalent of $400 in drinks, so that closed the gap a little.
Simon had a chance to buy some stuff through school as gifts for us, but he forgot, and felt pretty terrible, so this is where the concierge folks helped. Diana found a great ornament in one of the gift shops, so she asked one of the concierge folks to get it and charge it to the room (with Platinum discount). Then she got a hold of Simon and set up some scenario where he would understand that he could give us the ornament as a gift, and helped him wrap it. She really went out of her way to sell it and help, and that was fantastic. The service around the ship is always good, but this was next level.
On the Nassau day, where we never get off the ship (and non-vaccinated kids aren't allowed off outside of organized shore excursions), we started the morning with a pedicure. I normally like to get a massage, but we tried something different. I rather enjoyed it. It actually included a hot stone massage for my lower legs, and I'm all about the hot stone. The pedicurist complimented me on my feet, making some stereotypical comment about the feet of men. And of course I got black nail polish, because it's included in the price regardless, and I can feel like a rock star.
We also did another mixology class, which was not the usual hands-on situation because Covid. Still gets you a nice variety of drinks over an hour, and the knowledge of how to make them, for $25 a piece. Totally worth it, always entertaining.
The next day was supposed to be our day at Castaway Cay, the private island, but the weather made it impossible to dock. Winds were in excess of 35 knots (40 mph) with the associated currents. With the wind moving perpendicular to the ship, there was no way in hell they were going to get it into that narrow and shallow channel. I was up on deck for the second attempt, and the water was blowing up on the pier. Fortunately, even though the other three ships were in the tropics, none of them were scheduled to be there the next day, so we returned the next day.
Our actual Castaway day was just beautiful, though the water was impossibly cold. Air temperature peaked at 72, and with the weather the day before, this was disappointing but not surprising. I went back to the ship early with the intention of going back (because of food), but Diana and Simon gave it up too because it just wasn't fun. I did get a couple of hours on the beach though, and that was wonderful.
Now let's talk about the food. The buffet situations have fewer options than they used to, whether it's because of Covid protocols (they serve over the counter, not self-service) or supply chain or just someone made that decision. As someone who only eats poultry for protein, this is a problem. The island menu used to have both Cajun chicken and a breaded spicy option, but the latter was gone, and the former was dry as hell, and not good. Onboard, the Cabanas lunch options were all the same the second and third days, with only some dry "grilled" chicken and tenders. Gone were the carved turkey and robust Asian options. Breakfast was also the same stuff, whereas they used to have red potatoes one day, hashbrowns another, etc., now offering just overcooked tater tots.
When I went back to the ship from the beach to get something at the counter service (a turkey burger that they thankfully were still offering), a officer in the culinary org started chatting with me, and I expressed my frustration about the options. At first he just listened, but then he busted out a note pad and started writing things down, and asked me for my name and room number. That night at dinner, the head server brought us champaign and thanked us for the feedback, assuring us that they took it very seriously. I wasn't being "that guy," and frankly felt a little high maintenance, but they went out of their way to correct for my concern. That feeling of being taken care of is why we've taken 20 cruises with them.
Our dinner service was fantastic as usual, with the best wait staff. They're so reliably excellent. As usual, there was no problem getting the tomato soup I love from the other restaurants. The entrees were tasty and the desserts beautiful. We also did our usual brunch at Palo (free for Platinum members), and it was as usual among the best meals I've ever had. They don't do the normal buffet (because Covid), but have probably about two-thirds of the items available, you just have to ask for them from the list. I'm not a fancy person, but the Palo experience is fancy and I love it.
One of the things that Disney has pushed hard on is reliance on a phone app, something they've also done in the theme parks. This is problematic in some ways because the last thing I want to do on a cruise is look at my phone, but everyone does now because you have to. The experience is, at best, a mixed bag, but mostly not great. We give Simon a little iPod (he's too young for a phone), and using that, we can chat message each other around the ship, giving him the relative freedom to do as he wishes. The problem is that it barely works much of the time. At one point it stopped working entirely, and our concierge friends had to reset something from their end before it would work again. They also have QR codes on tables and in the bars for menus, but the "dcl://" protocol doesn't register correctly on Android phones, making the codes useless. The online itinerary and plans almost never worked for Diana, so if you wanted to check and see what time your pedicure was, good luck. It was even worse on the day they had to swap for at-sea instead of Castaway. Under load, it just didn't work for anyone. What did work reliably was additional optional tipping, viewing your folio, and the chat feature to concierge and/or guest services. The only saving grace is that, unlike the theme park counterpart, this one doesn't drain your battery constantly.
The most difficult part of the cruise this time was the parenting. Simon was difficult at times, especially the middle two days. We're starting to see that it's not just the side effects of ADHD meds, or autism, but it's also the fact that he's right in the tween range and we can see the changes coming. He's a super emotional kid, and now everything seems like it's in a heightened state for him. I love him dearly, but I selfishly don't want to be around him in these situations, especially on vacation. But other times, he was independent and thankful for the cruise and generally fun to be around.
Overall, I was just so happy to be at sea. The sound of the ocean is extraordinary for me, and I'm not sure why. I wonder if it's just because it provides a kind of white noise for me that let's my brain relax. I just love to be there.
I booked a placeholder, which gets us 10% off the prevailing fares, with no specific plans about when we might use it. We're also booked for the inaugural sailing of the Wish this summer, which will be super cool to be on a new ship.