Touring the “Disney Dream”

Last year, before becoming a travel agent was anywhere on my life radar, I had the rare opportunity to spend a day aboard a brand new cruise ship, the Disney Dream. One of my childhood friends is employed by Disney and therefore has the ability to invite family and friends aboard the ship, either for a tour (such as we did) or to actually cruise. It’s a pretty wonderful and generous perk provided by Disney Cruise Line!

Disney Dream

Disney Dream

Disney Dream cruises from Port Canaveral, Florida on 3 to 5 day itineraries to the Bahamas. You can combine your cruise vacation with several days at Walt Disney World resort, as they are only an hour apart.

We had to send my friend our credentials (names, birth dates, drivers license numbers, DNA samples) to her prior our tour date. That way, getting through security would be easy peasy.

Oh – and I’m just kidding about the DNA sample.

We arrived to Port Canaveral and were in awe. There’s just something about being in a cruise port and seeing these massive ships en masse – and PC isn’t even one of the busiest ports! (Ever been to Miami?)

Disney Dream is a lovely ship. It’s a LARGE ship. We were welcomed onboard and were instantly in awe with the decor inside the main atrium. It’s elegant. Opulent. Disney truly pays attention to detail.

The Grand Atrium
from avidcruiser.com

She showed us around the public areas of the ship, pointing out the framed photos that actually changed as you stand in front of them. I’m a full-grown adult and was completely mesmerize, so I can only imagine how much a kid would’ve freaked out about this really cool feature. These paintings and photos are strategically placed throughout the ship.

We then headed to Cabanas to grab some lunch. Okay, we already know that cruise ship eating is the LIFE, and Disney did not disappoint! I wish I could tell you what we ate…just know we had plates full of food and stuffed ourselves silly. I want to stretch out and say I had shrimp or crab. All I know is my belly was happy after that meal. And dessert? Don’t even get me started. YUM.

Dessert Bar at Cabanas
from allears.net

Our tour guide tried to take us to some of the other restaurants, but they were closed as people began to arrive on the ship for their vacation. I really wanted to see the Enchanted Forest, which apparently TRANSFORMS as guests dine..but the doors were locked. (insert sad face)
Next she took us to the nightlife area of the ship. Most of the bars and nightclubs are located in close proximity to one another; although this is a Disney cruise, there is PLENTY of adult playtime available too. We were completely blown away by these venues. We checked out the nightclub, Evolution, and wished a DJ was there so we could dance! (The rhythm is always gonna getcha) The champagne bar, Pink, had such an appealing decor that we had trouble leaving the spot; it feels like you’re inside of a champagne bottle. No lie. This led us directly to Skyline, another bar with a backdrop that changes to a different cityscape while you relax. Loved it.

Skyline Bar
from disneycruiseblog.com

At this point it was time to visit the restroom. I wouldn’t normally mention the bathroom, but these public bathrooms were like none I’d ever seen before. They were so different that I had to take a picture. (which I’ll have to find later)

Finally we made it to the Lido Deck and did we REALLY wanted to do: got in line to ride the AquaDuck, Disney’s first at-sea water coaster. We changed into swimsuits and ascended the staircase into the funnel, where boarding for the AquaDuck occurs. There already was quite a line! We climbed into the two man rafts and took off! Chutes of water propel you throughout the ride, over small dips and bumps, around the top of the ship. It wasn’t the most exhilarating ride I’ve ever been on, but it was a lot of fun. Not to mention, we were doing this on a cruise ship!

AquaDuck

From there, we headed over to Senses Spa to check out the Rainforest Room. This included 4 or 5 different “shower pods”, where you could tailor the type of shower you experienced. They had shower options that gave you hot water, cool water, sideways water, water from below…crazy stuff. Naturally, since I was still in my swimsuit I was the guinea pig. Everyone stood around and laughed as I was attacked by water. Glad I could be of service, people…

This was an adventure...

Unfortunately we weren’t able to see any staterooms or suites, as this wasn’t an “official” ship tour. We were able to see crew quarters and man…please don’t ever complain about the size of your cabin again…the crew lives in cubbyholes! Our tour guide was fortunate enough to have her own room, but some folks aren’t so lucky.

One thing that really struck me was the manner in which guests board the ship. As you step off of the gangway onto the ship, your name is read aloud and everyone applauds. You feel like royalty! (advice: don’t cruise Disney Cruise Line if you are trying to be covert..because your name is announced to EVERYONE).

All in all, it was an amazing day aboard a beautiful cruise ship. I would LOVE to sail on Disney Dream one day in the future. There is so much to offer couples or families of any size!

For more information about booking a Disney Cruise, contact Bon Voyage by Barbour!

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Travel Tuesday: When Your Cruise Itinerary Changes!

For the past 10.5 months, Mr. B and I have been extremely excited about our 10 Day Mediterranean Cruise booked on the Norwegian Jade. We chose this vacation based on the price and itinerary; it embarks from Rome – which is one of my top 5 places I want to visit – and had an overnight port-of-call scheduled in Alexandria, Egypt. Mr. B has been fascinated by Egyptian culture as long as I’ve known him, and seeing the Pyramids is a dream of his. I wasn’t arguing with the idea either. We had a great overnight tour planned with Ramses Tours that would take us to the Giza Plateau to see the Sphinx and Pyramids, along with a dinner cruise down the Nile River. I was also determined to get a pic on top of a camel in front of a Pyramid, no matter how much they may stink or spit.

Well, if you’ve watched the news in the past few months, you’ll recall that there was a lot of unrest in Egypt, Libya and other predominately Muslim countries in September, all of which stemmed from a viral video that made a mockery of the Prophet Muhammad. (this is a no no). The video led to an outbreak of violence in the region and, unfortunately, the loss of several American lives due to misguided Anti-American rage.
We kept a close eye on the situation, as our cruise was rapidly approaching. Royal Caribbean ended up cancelling their scheduled stop in Alexandia for Mariner of the Seas as a direct result of the protests and violence. That was probably a good call, as it was in the heat of the protests. In the meantime, my fellow cruisers and I remained in communication. Once it appeared the worst had passed, we all breathed a collective sigh of relief and continued our Cairo planning.

But not so fast. In early October, one of my fellow cruisers received an email from Norwegian that included the following statement:

We believe the ports in Egypt remain viable ports of call at the present time. However, because of the situation in the region and the feedback from guests, the company is cancelling Norwegian Jade’s scheduled stops in Egypt from November 21, 2012 to April 17, 2013 and will call in Istanbul, Turkey and Naples, Italy instead.

Upon reading this, I may or may not have collapsed onto the floor via a well-executed “wall slide”…

This is a Wall Slide

We understood that Norwegian did what they felt was in the best interest of its passengers. We understand that Egypt is unstable. We also understand that we are getting two new ports instead of the one we are missing. But we didn’t LIKE it. Especially since three earlier sailings are still docking in Alexandria.

While chatting with Mr. B and my fellow cruisers, I realized that we were all coping with this sudden change very similarly; we were all experiencing the Five Stages of Grief, as identified by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. (and yes, I used Wikipedia as a resource. Please don’t judge)

1. Denial

When I first saw that email, I refused to believe its authenticity. In spite of how detailed the information was – complete with a new itinerary – and the option to switch to one of those earlier sailings, I couldn’t accept that it was real. I checked NCL.com the next morning and our online itinerary still showed us going to Egypt. It wasn’t until I actually called and spoke with a human that I understood that we were no longer going to Alexandria.

It took Mr. B about two more days to realize that we were no longer going to Egypt.

2. Anger

Oh we were MAD. Some of my fellow cruisers cancelled their trip, either having been to or having no interest in our new ports of call. Others wrote strongly-worded letters to Norwegian or posted on their Facebook page. Others promised to never cruise NCL again. We just skulked about, really. I couldn’t see anything shaped like a pyramid without getting mad. When our Welcome Aboard kit arrived in the mail, Mr. B. smacked it to the floor. Just angry.

3. Bargaining

At this point, I attempted to change our sailing. Once Norwegian ensured that we could swap to one of the earlier dates, we spent the next several hours emailing our supervisors to confirm that we could get the earlier dates off instead. However, once we checked the cost of changing our flights, we realized that we couldn’t handle the $1300 increase in our fare (which didn’t include change fees). So much for that plan. (I’m a travel agent not a miracle worker!)

4. Depression

This stage didn’t last long. We were bummed for a minute, before realizing that we still had an AMAZING opportunity to cruise the Mediterranean, which is not an experience afforded to many. What was there to be sad about?

5. Acceptance

I’m here…I don’t know if Mr. B is just yet. I finally began researching our new ports of call, and you know what? We may not be going to Egypt, but we ARE going to some pretty interesting places! I’m looking forward to exploring Sultanahmet in Istanbul and taking pictures of the Amalfi Coast. Cairo isn’t going anywhere (God Willing), and hopefully we will have a chance to get there some day. We WILL enjoy our vacation, no matter what!

Preview the Top Deck of “Royal Princess”

Princess Cruise Line’s newest ship, Royal Princess, will have her maiden journey in summer 2013. They just released the following video to give curious cruisers a preview of the ship’s top deck and….WOW. The Seawalk and Light Show are SO cool. But I am not sure if my opinion is in the majority: do features like these inspire you to book a cruise?

Travel Tuesday: Visiting Universal Orlando

Post UPDATED for 2014!

My goal with these Tuesday posts is to highlight a specific location or element of vacationing; there is so much to cover and I feel that I’ve been dedicating a lot of time and attention lately to cruising. As you can probably tell, cruise vacations are what I know best and are therefore my niche, but that’s not the only thing I know.
Today, I’m going to focus on an extremely popular family vacation destination that isn’t Walt Disney World: Universal Orlando resort.


First things first: Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are owned by different companies. Some of you may know this, but many do not. There is no business relationship between the two parks, so if you go to Orlando with plans to visit both parks, expect to purchase two separate tickets.
Universal Orlando resort is comprised of three different elements – two theme parks (Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios) and their entertainment complex, Citywalk.
Universal Studios Florida is the original component of this now-vast theme park resort. The park opened in 1990 with the promise of letting its visitors “ride the movies”. And that it does. The attractions at Universal Studios are heavily based on both classic and contemporary films, with featured attractions such as “Revenge of the Mummy” (my personal favorite), “Twister”, “Shrek 4:D”, “The Simpsons Ride” and “Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem”. Over the years, they have redesigned and updated some of these rides to appeal to more contemporary audiences – for example, “The Simpsons Ride” used to be “Back to the Future”. They also added the park’s only bonafide roller coaster, Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, in 2009. The park itself is split up into 6 different areas: Production Central, New York, San Francisco **, World Expo, Hollywood, and Woody Woodpecker’s KidZone.

* UPDATE: 2013 saw the addition of “Transformers 3-D” and a full expansion of The Simpsons region, complete with Springfield-inspired restaurants and shops.

Universal Studios is the home of some pretty great annual events that you don’t want to miss! Mardi Gras runs from February to April and features a nightly parade – with beads! – and a “free” concert every weekend by a national recording artist. Mardi Gras 2012 featured Kelly Clarkson, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper and Boyz II Men, to name just a few. (The concert is included with the cost of admission.) Another extremely popular event is Halloween Horror Nights, which runs from late September until early November. The park is transformed with haunted houses and random frights designed to scare the pants off of its visitors; for this reason, this is not the place for the kiddies. Halloween Horror Nights is NOT included with the price of admission; expect to pay a separate entrance fee.

Islands of Adventure is the sister park to Universal Studios Orlando. It opened in 1999 and is heavily focused in thrill rides and your typical “amusement park” atmosphere. This park is also home of the wildly popular Harry Potter attraction – “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” – which opened in 2010. They went so far as to completely reconstruct Hogwarts, which is truly a sight to behold! While Islands of Adventure has attractions that are film-based (Jurassic Park, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey), the goal of most of the rides are to get a scream out of the park’s guests (just check out The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which is my favorite ride in the park!!). Islands of Adventure also has Seuss Landing, with several rides designed for the little ones in your family.

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

** UPDATE: 2014 will see the Diagon Alley expansion of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, which will be situated within Universal Studios and has replaced the San Francisco/Amity region of the park. A real life Hogwarts Express will link the two components together, however a park ticket granted admission to BOTH parks will be needed to experience them both!

Universal Citywalk is the third component to Universal Orlando Resort. The area is filled with restaurants, shops and nightclubs and charges no separate admission price to explore the area. Once you park in the garage, you will be directed into Citywalk before you arrive to the theme parks, which are connected to Citywalk on two different ends. After 10pm, the nightlife at Citywalk begins to pick up and the 8 nightclubs and bars on the property start jumpin’! At this point, the clubs begin charging a cover for entry. If you plan to bar hop, you can purchase a Citywalk Party Pass for $11.99 (which, in my opinion, is completely worth the cost).

In addition to its multiple attractions, Universal Orlando Resort offers three hotels that are located on the property: The Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Two MAJOR benefits to staying at one of these hotels, in addition to your proximity to the theme parks, are the fact that you will earn a FREE express pass with the purchase of park admission (express pass = skip the lines) and early access to” The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” at Islands of Adventure.

*** UPDATE: Universal’s newest resort, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, opens on March 31, 2014. This is a moderate and value priced resort that will allow families to enjoy the on-site amenities of Universal Orlando Resort in family suites or standard rooms.

 

Wet ‘n’ Wild Waterpark is also owned by Universal, and is located just down the street from the resort. This park is the home to some of the CRAZIEST waterslides you’ll ever see including the Bomb Bay, which will literally drop you 76 feet, almost vertically. If you prefer less action, there’s always the lazy river or the wave pool!

So there you have it – a comprehensive overview of Universal Orlando Resort. Interested? Here are the all-important details about pricing, as well as my personal recommendations on when to visit:

Ticket Prices (for 2014 season):

1 day, 1 park ticket : $92 (adult), $88 (child ages 3-9), 0-2 free

1 day, 2 park ticket : $128 (adult), $122 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

2 day, 2 park ticket: $146.99 (adult), $136.99 (child)

** admission to both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure

When to Visit:

Peak tourist season runs, understandably,  from June until September. Additional peak seasons are Spring Break (usually during March or April) and in December around Christmas/New Years. Kids are out of school and many working adults take vacation during these periods, so expect large crowds and long lines. In the summer, also be prepared to melt in the central Florida sun.

Being a Florida resident, we know to avoid theme parks during these peak seasons. If you want a less chaotic and more comfortable vacation, I strongly suggest you think out of the box. If possible, plan your vacation during January/February, or September through November. If this is not realistic for you and your family, aim for the early summer. Many international groups arrive to Orlando in July/August, making the parks unbearably crowded (in my opinion).

Although I love Disney for its nostalgia, I have to say that Universal Orlando is my favorite theme park in Florida. We’ve been there more times than I can count – thanks to annual passes – and have a wonderful time each visit. This vacation is fun for a family with kids or adults who just love having a good time!