Allow me to give a short introduction to who I am... My name is Diana (I go by Dee Dee) and my Husband is Tony. Tony is the one in a wheelchair. He was hit head-on by a drunk driver in 1988 and, while he can walk very short distances, most of his transport is in a manual wheelchair. His left leg has been fused at the knee – so that adds length to the chair. Oh, and he was 6’8” when he had his wreck. Because of the injuries he’s now 6’5” on one side and 6’3” on the other. The Navy decided that would be an easier thing for him to transport in cars and such. We live in Atlanta and traveling is a passion of both of us. Cruising is our chosen way to travel, though we do fly to get where we are going!
We chose this wheelchair accessible cruise to Alaska (onboard the Carnival Miracle, sailing from Seattle) because it was a place neither of us had been to. We both wanted to go, so off we went!
Two days in wheelchair accessible Seattle
With my Husband’s injuries (and his height), he is limited to where he can sit in a plane, so we have to buy first class seats. We flew into Seattle two full days and an evening before the cruise so we could explore the city, and that was WELL worth it to us! We scheduled an airport pick-up via Super Shuttle and reserved a wheelchair accessible van, which they provided! It was a bit of a wait (maybe an hour?) for them to arrive at the airport, but once we were on board we had no other problems!
We stayed at the Holiday Inn Express near the Cruise Terminal so we could get to the cruise ship fairly easily. The Holiday Inn was clean and the staff were friendly – we were very happy with staying there. They had a roll-in shower for Tony to use and the facility was completely accessible. The hotel just a block from great restaurants – and because of the time difference from Atlanta to Seattle we had to take some time to adjust. It was dinner time for us, but they were still on late lunch. We ate a small meal at a local diner and we were not disappointed. We planned to eater dinner later, but went back to the room and fell asleep. (Darn Jet Lag!)
The second day we had to visit the VA because my husband had a temporary crown fall off (just his luck) – thankfully, they were able to fix it. On our way to the VA, we got a taxi driver who was really willing to give us tours and details about their city. This was a great service to us, but we also are ones that like to try and venture out to see things on our own. The driver gave us some great tips. He had a family member that was in a wheelchair, so he was being as genuine as possible in trying to help us! Later this evening we went to a wonderful seafood dinner (I’ll be darned - I can’t remember the name...but man it was good!)
The last day before we got on the cruise we took a ride out on Seattle's public transit to the Space Needle. All of this was perfectly accessible and the ride was quite enjoyable. A different way to see the city! The metro/light rail train passed by the sports stadiums for the Seahawks and the Mariners and landed at the end of a rail yard - here, we had to switch to another train to get to the Space Needle. That was a quick ride and just as enjoyable, and it landed us in a mall! We looked around for a few moments but went on to the Space Needle, which IS handicap accessible – to an extent. You can go up in the elevator to the top and be on the inside of the exploration deck, but to get to the outside there are stairs. Tony stayed inside and I ventured out to the outer deck for some photo ops! I was happy; he’s not such a fan of heights! Riding the transport back to the hotel was just as easy as the ride out!
Editor's Note: The Space Needle now features stair lifts, which allow wheelchair users to access the outdoor deck. When I last visited in September 2014, these were temporarily out of order - call ahead to verify that they are operational. --John
The next morning was spent preparing to set sail on what would be a VERY memorable trip! We gathered our bags and loaded into the hotel shuttle, which took us to the port. Check-in was quick and easy and there were handlers available to help push Tony up the ramp (he doesn’t have a motorized chair). Once on the ship, the biggest issue is getting on the elevators the first day. Everyone is trying to navigate their “home” for the week, and (just speaking quite frankly here) most people don’t want to save space in the lift for someone with a wheelchair. This can be frustrating, but in time we got our turn. My husband is a lot more patient with this than I am... so he balances me out and reminds me to just breathe. Once we are able to move more freely on the ship and get to our room – the rest of the week goes about as scheduled and eventually everyone gets used to the elevators and making room.
General commentary about cruising from a wheelchair user's point of view
The cruise lines do have accessible rooms with wider doors; though it is max width of typically 31 inches. This is ample space for most wheelchairs, but it’s a really tight fit for my husband’s chair. Most of the accessible cabins are close to elevators, so there’s not too much of a transition/trek required. Our cabin had a shower seat that pulls down for sitting, or if the seat is left up it is completely roll-in ready. The sinks didn’t seem to be a different height, but the bathrooms are bigger because of the allowance for wheelchairs. There are also extra drains so the water doesn’t roll into the room. We often get a balcony room (as personal preference) and there have not been any problems getting his chair out to the balcony. They have ramps that help make getting over the threshold easier. Tony can and does roll himself quite a lot, but I know it’s tiring because a large majority of the ship is carpeted. I would think an electronic wheelchair would navigate around much easier.
There are many areas on the ship that are designed with a lot of ease for most passengers with special needs, but there are also many areas that are not quite as easy. A lot of the doors are automatic and will slide with a sensor, especially in public areas. There are some doors that are not automatic and may even have a bit of a lip (threshold). These aren’t quite as accessible, but typically there are other areas that you can get to that do have the accessibility. Going to the buffet is good and quite tasty, but often times I make those trips for Tony because it’s difficult for him to hold a tray and roll his chair. I simply will make 2 trips and he finds a table - it’s an even exchange for us. Most areas are wheelchair friendly, though some areas you have to make longer treks to find elevators. The staff on most cruise ships are friendly and will help when and where they can. Those are the types of things you may find as you go, but you’re also going to be given a “map” of the ship upon embarkation, so you can study and get to know the boat fairly easily. There are also many areas around the ship that have public restrooms that are handicap accessible.
As far as excursions go, cruise lines offer many different types of them and they typically will state if they are easy, moderate or extreme with their difficulty. Some even offer some excursions that are specifically designed for wheelchair users.
Cruising on the Carnival Miracle
The first day on this cruise was a day at sea, so relaxing was on the schedule; that and getting to know the ship's layout a bit. We actually slept the first night about 14 hours. Guess that’s what jet lag will do to you!
The next day was an “on boat” excursion through Tracy Arm Fjord. This is such a beautifully scenic area so we went to the top deck and took pictures. You would think it would be cold in Alaska, but wearing a light jacket and jeans was comfortable (it was late August - summertime). The high was around 60 degrees fahrenheit.
On this day the ship offered a limited excursion to people who could easily get off the ship. Since Tony couldn’t go, he felt it was an opportunity for me to get some really good pictures. The excursion was fantastic, but they didn’t have the ability to take someone on a wheelchair due to the transfer in the middle of the water without a pier. I was on a smaller boat that was able to go a bit deeper into the Fjords.
The views were simply magnificent, but at one point we saw a glacier split - it almost turned our small boat over from the crash in the water and the subsequent wave. The driver of the boat mentioned that he’d never seen one break apart that big – and he had been driving it for almost 10 years! I was elated to see something so rare. Did you know when you get to the inside of an iceberg it is actually blue? Well, not really but the light reflecting makes it appear that way!
On the way back to the cruise ship, a couple of Orcas swam next to the small boat – they were so close we could pet them (YES - In the wild! How exciting; especially if you love animals like I do!). This Orca “couple” had actually been together since the 70’s – at least that’s how far back it was documented! They mate for life, like a lot of other sea life.
Once I got back to the boat, the rest of the evening was spent relaxing with Tony and enjoying the sights. We saw numerous humpback whales, eagles and some other wildlife on the land and alongside the ship. That night was our first elegant night (on a 7-night cruise there are 2 nights like this). This is an evening designed to dress-up a bit and really feel “fancy.” This special dinner included lobster, steak, caviar and escargot. Really, just about anything you can want!
We enjoyed the entertainment onboard, and saw shows in the theater almost every night. There are special places for wheelchairs that are handicap friendly. We also visited the comedy club quite often. The comedians had family-friendly shows in the evening, but would transition at night to the adult only shows (usually after 9 p.m.). These were a lot of fun. There were tables, couches and chairs so the flexibility of situating a wheelchair was readily available.
The next day’s trip was a bus ride into Canada from the Port of Skagway. There was storage for Tony's manual wheelchair onboard - we folded it up and put it in the luggage area. This particular bus did have a restroom, but was not friendly to his needs. There were handicapped restrooms at a few stops along the way - so it wasn’t that much of an issue for him. Tony only got off the bus at longer stops, because it’s not the easiest for him to get on and off. I opened the bus windows for him to be able to look out and see everything. I was able to go take pictures so he could see for himself.
The sights in this area were simply magnificent. So much untouched beauty. Once we got into the Yukon area, we had a stop for a meal and could go ride with the sled dogs they had around. I went over to pet them, but chose not to ride. It was nice to just relax a bit and take in the sights. The bus ride was a one-way journey, and we took a train back to the port.
The train had a wheelchair lift and car we were in was fully accessible. The ride was amazing, winding through the mountainous area like the old Gold Rushers did. The train conductor was in the car ahead of ours and would occasionally come to check on Tony and make sure he was able to see everything. I really enjoyed that extra touch and I know it made Tony feel special! Their stories of the miners and their treks across the terrain were as descriptive as possible making you feel as if you were there with them. I’d go do this again if we ever make it back there. We do hope to go again!
Juneau was our next port of call. This one did not disappoint. We were on an excursion to go whale watching. After a short bus ride, we boarded a small boat that would take us out to and area known for humpback whale sightings. Everything was wheelchair accessible. They had ramps to the boat and even a wheelchair available to wheel him onto the boat. The people in Juneau were amazing; everyone was very gracious and so attentive.
The ride out to the whale-watching grounds was gorgeous. My husband is not one who would say things like “wow this is gorgeous scenery,” but this place took his breath away! He even had to take a video to send to his friends so they could have a glimpse of what we were seeing. The air was clean and crisp and the water was sparkling. We came upon the first whale and watched it blow and dive. Just a few moments passed and about 6 more came up and we watched a mother playing with her calf for a while. Finally, we got to see one of the whales breach! It was simply amazing to see how large these magnificent creatures are!
Once we had seen enough of the humpback whales, the boat's captain took us over to meet the sea lions. They were complete jokesters! They played and “laughed” with one another. They would wave at the people on the boats as we rode by. Certainly this was an experience worth having. On the ride back we got to see a bald eagle in the tree next to where we were stopped. You don’t really get how large and commanding their appearance is until you see one that close, even for the short moment we were next to him.
After Juneau, we spent the next day at sea. Our itinerary contained a stop in Ketchikan. For some reason, though, our ship was not allowed to dock. We took advantage of this extra time and relaxed by reading some good books and taking in the scenery. I love to have the down time with Tony, so we were happy with the extra day. This evening was our second night of elegance. It was just as nice as the first one, but sometimes going to the pizza bar is just as much fun! That’s where you could find us and man was it GOOD!
The last stop on this cruise was to Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Tony was not feeling well, so he chose to stay on ship. I went ashore and did a bike tour of the city. The area was gorgeous and full of amazing history. Victoria has the second largest group of Chinese immigrants, second only to the United States. Their Chinatown was actually built and designed by a famous Japanese architect from the late 1800’s.
In Old Victoria, the houses had painted steps. This was to let people coming through know if there was space available in the house. Red stairs meant they had no room, green ones meant there was a vacancy. If the steps were painted yellow, you could stay only if you considered marrying their single daughter. This was a very interesting story to learn!
Although it was a beautiful area, I knew our vacation was about to come to an end. I went back to the ship to prepare for our journey back to the United States. The following morning, we arrived back into the Port of Seattle for debarkation. This process went very smoothly. We had made arrangements with the cruise line to take us directly to the airport. Accessibility at SeaTac Airport was fantastic. An airline attendant helped push Tony through the airport. Our flight back home to Atlanta went off without any problems.
I would have to say that our cruise to Alaska was the trip of a lifetime. We will certainly look forward to the day when we decide to visit again.
DeeDee & Tony shared this story for the benefit of wheelchair travelers everywhere.
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