Smooth Cruise

Wheelchair users found Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas to be a fun and accessible cruise ship.

My husband Jerry, who uses a power wheelchair, has been my “guinea pig” for 18 years. I documented accessibility and did research even before I had clients.

For the past eight years, my company, Wheelchair Escapes, has helped people with various disabilities travel to many places. My largest group (34) sailed together on January 24–31, 2010. They ranged in age from 37 to about 80.

Starting from Port Canaveral, Fla., we sailed for a day, then docked at Labadee, Haiti. Our ship, Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, carried 175 pallets of food, water, and medicine for earthquake survivors in Port au Prince. We watched as United Nations trucks and soldiers came for these supplies. They started at 8:00 a.m., and when we left at 5:00 p.m., many pallets still remained on the dock.

Next we spent a day each in Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and Cozumel. The last day was at sea, before returning to Port Canaveral. Obtaining accessible accommodations for those who needed them was no problem on Freedom of the Seas. The ship has 32 accessible cabins in five different categories.

Oxygen for one traveler—who needed it on his flight, at the hotel for the prenight stay, during the cruise, on the post-cruise hotel stay, and on the plane on the way home—was taken care of. Delivery of a power chair and a scooter for two others was set. (On the morning of the cruise, the scooter user decided the ship was too big for her to use her manual chair, so I called Andrew at Special Needs at Sea, and he had a scooter in her cabin within a couple of hours on a Sunday!)

Some of my clients hadn’t traveled since becoming power-chair users. Some had never cruised. My biggest challenge was coordinating the wheelchair-accessible transportation from the airport to the hotel, from the hotel to the ship, and from the ship back to the airport.

This group included two senior power-chair users from California; one from Texas (who had never cruised before); six from Illinois, one of whom has a power chair, was the oxygen user, and had not cruised before; two from Maryland; three from Massachusetts, one who rented the scooter last minute; six from New Hampshire—one traveling with his own power chair, one using a manual chair and renting a power chair, and one scooter user (who had never cruised before); and 12 from Florida, some of whom had never cruised before.

It was great to meet these clients firsthand and see the difference this trip made in their lives. “Everything was first class, from the staff to the food, entertainment, and the accessible accommodations. We look forward to other trips with Kristy,” say Joy and Al, who are from California.

One of the special treats my clients can participate in is a dolphin encounter. I work with a company in Cozumel that has been able to take six of my clients into the water to interact with a dolphin. Barbara’s husband Steve was one who took advantage of this opportunity.

“The look on Steve’s face was well worth the price of the dolphin encounter,” Barbara says.

At the end of the trip, five vehicles pulled up and took 20 of us back to the airport. Al and Joy were impressed with having accessible transportation waiting for them at the airport and the port. They had cruised before but said this was the best one for accessibility.

According to scooter users/first-time cruisers Dee and Wally, “The crew was fantastic, friendly, and helpful. The Freedom was great for our disabilities.”

For Bob and Corinne, the stress was gone. “Being first-time, wheelchair-access-required cruisers, what may have been a stressful vacation experience was an extremely pleasant and enjoyable trip. The Freedom provided the most completely accessible outfitted accommodations we’ve encountered anywhere.”

I visited them shortly after we boarded to make sure they were happy. They were so pleased with their cabin and accessible bathroom, they decided to sit there and enjoy it before going exploring.

Norine and Don had sailed with me in 2004, when we went through the Panama Canal. They couldn’t believe how wonderful this large ship was. Norine enjoyed the fact that there was always someone available to help with Don’s plate at the buffet.

Debra was happy she made the last-minute decision to rent a scooter. She could not imagine the size of the Freedom of the Seas, and the scooter really saved her strength. “The best parts were the ice show and the dolphin encounter,” says Debra. This was her first trip without her mom, and she is already planning her next cruise.

Joe and some of the others liked the accessible tour on Grand Cayman. “Max was the best tour guide we have ever had,” Joe says. “He took the time to pull over and explain what we were seeing. He didn’t just drive by.”

This was the first cruise for Christine, who does not have a disability. She was amazed at the overall value cruising offers and is booking her next one.

“The food was unbelievable,” says Christine, who took my advice and tried a cold soup every night. Her problem was trying to rate, which was better than the others. “The staterooms were first class, daily activities were numerous, and the theater shows and the ice show were fantastic!”

“We thought we would never be able to cruise again,” say Phyllis and Ken. Ken was injured in a surgery gone awry last year and now cannot walk. They chose to travel with us so they could learn the ins and outs of wheelchair travel. They were pleasantly surprised at the wonderful accessible cabin, bath, and balcony and look forward to their next trip.

Royal Caribbean has enhanced its private resort at Labadee. It has a dock and many cement paths that are wheelchair accessible. Some beach wheelchairs are available, too.

Hershel, who was traveling for the first time with his power chair and oxygen, was pleased his wife could relax and enjoy the cruise as much as he did, because all the details were taken care of. “Having accessible vehicles gave me the freedom to bring my power chair and for my wife not to have to take apart and load my scooter into a car,” he says. “She could relax and enjoy our first cruise experience.”

As for me, it was a gratifying “working vacation.” I made many new friends. I watched as my happy clients spread their wings and did things they thought they would never do.

In honor of them, I did something I had never done. I had the opportunity to swim through an underwater cave. I took courage from my clients and went for it. I thought it would be disconcerting to look up and not see the top, but I just swam toward the light and out the other end.

Coordinating cruises is emotionally rewarding work. Helping to make sure someone’s vacation meets their needs and surpasses their expectations is my goal. When I receive comments and photos from my clients and know I have helped open the world of travel to them, I know I have succeeded.

 

Contact: 866-382-3596 (toll-free) / Kristy Lacroix

 

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