by Judy Ross

The best of all worlds can be found on the Disney Wonder

Disney IditarodCourtesy of Disney Cruise Line

I am leaning on my balcony railing on the Disney Wonder soaking up the beauty as we sail north from Vancouver toward the Inside Passage of Alaska.  The twilight lingers, casting a golden glow on the densely treed shore; the stony beaches are scattered with driftwood; the sea is calm.  It is majestic.  I call to my granddaughters Molly and Ella, aged eight and six to come and see the scenery.  They step out to the balcony, give a quick look, and return to their video games.  I should know better.  Kids are not awed by majestic scenery.  However… give them Minnie Mouse skipping through the atrium and ‘awe’ barely describes their reaction. This is precisely why a Disney cruise to Alaska is the perfect solution for extended family.

It is just after the summer solstice at the end of June and four of us (my daughter Aimee and her two daughters) have embarked on a cruise that will take us north to Skagway and then back to both Juneau and Ketchikan.   The goal of Disney is to make every guest of every age feel that the cruise experience is geared for his or her personal enjoyment.  With a destination like Alaska that’s easy. Adults get to immerse themselves in the eye-popping natural beauty with the added bonus of lively lectures from an onboard naturalist who enlightens us about melting glaciers and native wildlife.  The shore excursions cater to all ages and focus on family-friendly local activities like rainforest hikes, gold panning, salmon bakes, and whale watching.  On board, there is fun, fun, fun for everyone – including a grandmother like me whose fun involved escaping with my book and picking up a cappuccino in the Quiet Cove (adults only) part of the ship.

Disney WonderCourtesy Disney Cruise Line

Our first day was spent at sea which was ideal because it gave us time to get our bearings.  The Disney Wonder holds 2400 guests, but, despite the size, she resembles a sleek ocean liner with art nouveau décor and handsome wooden decks that make her feel elegant rather than grandiose.  Clever planning includes separate environments for various age groups and plenty of kid-friendly areas like Goofy’s sports deck with basketball, table tennis and foosball.  The Oceaneer Club for three to ten year-olds was such a hit with my granddaughters we had to drag them away on several occasions.

Disney Wonder_ Verandah StateroomCourtesy Disney Cruise Line

Our verandah stateroom was spacious enough that four of us were able to easily cohabit. Tailored especially for families it featured a king-size bed and separate sitting area.  The divided washrooms had a sink and toilet in one room and shower and sink in the other, which eased our morning routines and at night, the sitting area transformed into bunk beds for the girls.   The crisp nautical motif, and wood details made us feel that we were sailing aboard a personal yacht.

Disney_Pan for GoldCourtesy of Disney Cruise Line

My image of Alaska as snowbound and foggy was soon dispelled as we sailed into Skagway under blue skies on a summer-hot morning.  Our ship moored right in the historic town, once the starting point of the famous Chilkoot Pass where many lost their lives in the search for gold. Wondering why I had packed so much fleece we headed off in t-shirts for our port adventure. We had chosen “The Klondike Family Challenge” which gave us a little taste of everything that happens, or did happen, here.  We panned ‘successfully’ for gold and nailed our prospector’s stake to the wall; we descended into a cold chamber to experience what 40 below zero feels like and we met Matt, the resident musher, and learned about the Iditarod, the 1000 mile Anchorage to Nome dog sled race.  Molly and Ella were able to hold some of his new puppies as he told us he had completed four of these grueling races that involve teams of 16 dogs and last for up to 15 days in sub-zero weather.  “That,” he laughed, “is a lot of time looking at dog’s bums.”

Disney_Ice ClimbingCourtesy Disney Cruise Line

When we reached Juneau, our summer weather turned to fog and drizzle for the 13-mile coach journey to the famous Mendenhall Glacier.  Most of our group chose to remain in the visitors center and look at the glacier through the windows but the four of us hiked along the lakeside path, through misty spruce-scented air, until we reached the stunning waterfall and mystical blue glacier. Later, our appetites keen, we ended the port adventure with a traditional Alaska bake where we feasted on wild sockeye salmon cooked on an open grill and watched bald eagles making lazy sweeps overhead.

Disney_WhalesCourtesy of Disney Cruise Line

This chance to see bald eagles and other wildlife (sea lions, moose, porpoises, bears) in a natural environment is a highlight of any Alaska cruise.  Perhaps, our most dramatic encounter took place in Ketchikan where, again, we had unusually warm weather. We had signed up for a Rainforest Island Adventure which involved boarding a Seahawk Zodiac for the trip out to Bretton Island and a guided walk through a rainforest.  On the way back our boat captain made a sudden u-turn and shouted, “Whales! A pod of Orcas!”  He cut the motors and we watched immense black dorsal fins rise from the sea.   For fifteen minutes we sat spellbound as nine whales performed … leaping, spouting and playing in the waves close enough that we could almost touch them.

Disney_CulinaryCourtesy Disney Cruise Line

Many of the wonderful experiences on this Disney cruise had to do with the ship itself; the stunningly friendly staff, the professional level of entertainment in the theaters, and most surprising to me, the sophisticated, upscale food served in the dining rooms. We had locally sourced seafood like Alaska King crab legs, and sockeye salmon (delivered fresh to the ship in Skagway), and gourmet delicacies like juniper-spiced elk tenderloin, filet of beef and Arctic char. Every meal was a treat for the adults and even if the children ordered chicken fingers they were served fresh vegetables and fruit, a fact that pleased my daughter. We also appreciated the unique Disney feature of rotational dining, which meant that as we moved from one restaurant to another, our wonderful serving team moved and bonded with us.

Disney Wonder_PoolCourtesy Disney Cruise Line

My fondest memory of this Disney experience is the day we sailed up Tracy Arm Fjord, a long, narrow inlet in the Tongass National Forest. Somehow our large ship was able to weave through channels of glassy turquoise seawater dotted with icebergs. We passed harbor seals and their pups basking on icebergs seemingly undaunted by our massive presence. All was silent on board; all sound systems turned off, except for the whispered narration of Doug, the resident naturalist. Up on the top deck the crew handed out hot chocolate and warm blankets and the four of us snuggled on deck chairs and looked out on the majestic scenery. Nobody saying a word. Just as I was wondering if the girls were appreciating this as much as I was, Molly announced out of the blue, “This is really awesome Nana.”  Suddenly, it was all worthwhile.

Originally published in Vacation Magazine Fall/Winter 2016 issue.

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