While there are some fancy ships cruising the seas these days, there was something uniquely special about crossing the Atlantic Ocean in the 1930s. On a recent trip to Long Beach, California, I was able to tour the “very last example of a superliner from the Golden Age of Ocean Travel,” the RMS Queen Mary.
The flagship of the Cunard Line, Queen Mary was launched in 1934 and crossed the North Atlantic Ocean weekly, traveling from Southampton, U.K. to Cherbourg, France and ultimately to New York City. Queen Mary embarked on her maiden passenger voyage in May 1936.
The 81,000-ton ship, consisting of 12 decks, was one of the largest in the world. Queen Mary measured 1,019.4 feet in length, 118 feet across and 181 feet high. 4 powerful steam turbine engines allowed her to capture the Blue Riband in August 1936, after crossing the Atlantic in record time. The RMS Queen Mary held the title of fastest ocean liner until 1952, with a maximum speed of 33 knots (38 mph).
The Tour & Accessibility
I should start off by saying that the tour is NOT fully wheelchair accessible. In the 1930s, the world was not focused on accessibility, there was no European Union or United Nations and the ADA did not exist.
That said, the ship has been made accessible wherever possible, and the self-guided tour is enjoyable even to those with limitations. While the self-guided audio tour normally costs $29 plus a $2 ticketing fee, I was offered admission for $14.50 plus the fee – that’s half off.
If you are touring the ship in a wheelchair, you won’t be able to reach the bridge, engine room or the ship’s bow. Three big disappointments, I know, but you will still see a lot.
Once you have purchased a ticket at the booth outside the ship, you’ll enter and take the elevator to level 4. The first thing you’ll see is the luxurious Main Hall, still in its original trim and elegance. This hall is now home to a few souvenir shops. During its time as a passenger ship, this hall was accessible only to first class passengers.
You’ll walk down the hall on the right to pick-up your audio guide. Be sure to bring a government-issued photo ID, as you’ll have to hand this over in exchange for the audio headset.
The Promenade, just steps away from the Main Hall, was also reserved for first class passengers. The planks lining the promenade are for the most part original to the ship. You’re rolling on history, so this is not a place to do doughnuts in a power wheelchair! 😉
Today, the Promenade is lined with a few shops and restaurants – and even a Starbucks Coffee! One of these restaurants is the Chelsea Chowder House & Bar, which offers a modern menu consisting of steak and seafood. The restaurant receives 4 stars from TripAdvisor, and may be a great choice for lunch or dinner. Great views are available from the large windows, looking out over Queensway Bay and the Los Angeles River towards the downtown waterfront of Long Beach.
At the ship’s aft, or rear, you’ll be able to head out onto the upper level of the Sun Deck. When I visited, there was a private party down on the lower portion of the deck, so I decided not to take photographs. There is a much more impressive outdoor (and wheelchair accessible) deck that I will discuss later.
The audio tour next led me to level A, which I was able to access using one of the ship’s original elevators. The first stop was a fire station filled with equipment. I need not explain the purpose of this room, but I do want to point out the large metal door in the photo above.
This door was one of many on the ship that was designed to block water. This added to the safety of the ship, as it could mitigate disaster, protect the ship from sinking, or be used if a section of the ship was intentionally flooded to suppress fire. Because RMS Queen Mary was constructed primarily of wood, the greatest danger was fire.
Across the hall from the fire station is a room dedicated to the ship’s military history. The room was full when I passed by, so I skipped it and listened to the audio guide instead.
During World War II, RMS Queen Mary was used as a troop transport vessel. The ship’s speed allowed it to evade enemy submarines, and it made countless Atlantic crossings without incident. Queen Mary earned the title “Grey Ghost,” as she appeared almost invisible out on the ocean. In December 1942, the ship set a record when it carried 16,042 American soldiers from New York to Great Britain – the most ever transported on a boat. That record stands today.
The Well Deck, accessed via a door next to the fire station, was designed to allow sea water to pass across the ship. This made sailing at high speed much more comfortable for passengers.
The well deck sits below the decks above, in a sort of recessed manner. The ship’s bow is fore of the well deck, and the remainder of the ship (including one of the Promenade Level bars & restaurants) is to the deck’s aft.
It was nice to take a peek out in the sunlight, and explore this small portion of the deck which is accessible.
After finishing up on the well deck, the audio guide led me around a few corners and to one end of the ship’s longest hallway – the A-Deck Passageway. The hallway is lined by staterooms, which have been preserved over the years. The hallway is interesting, because it extends the entire length of the ship, and actually “dips” towards the center.
This curved passageway (at the bottom) is partly due to the fact that ships are not rectangular blocks, and due to the wood construction of the ship. Don’t worry, the decks aren’t cracking – this is just how the ship was designed – RMS Queen Mary is meant to be flexible.
N9ow that my tour was coming to an end, I decided to check-out the 4-D Theater. My ticket had also included access to one of two 4-D films showing in the theater – my choice!
The two films were BBC’s Planet Earth, which I had seen previously, and a Spongebob Squarepants film. The running time on each feature was about 15 minutes – so you’ll survive without popcorn.
Wheelchair accessible seating and parking spaces are at the rear of the theater. I chose a wheelchair space right in the center, to get the best view. I now believe this decision limited my 4-D experience, as the shooting water, air affects, bubbles, etc. weren’t directed towards me (or the projector just a few feet above my head!). Next time, I’d shoot for a seat on one of the ends, to see if I “feel” more of the “4th dimension.”
You’ll need to venture back to the main deck in order to return the audio guide. Once you’ve done that, swing to the left and check out the Observation Bar, which overlooks the ship’s bow and the Well Deck you previously visited. There are wheelchair accessible tables near the bar, or you can venture outside to the patio/balcony seating. Just ask one of the staff to direct you to the wheelchair accessible route.
The Observation Bar is cool, because it is original to the ship and has been featured in countless Hollywood movies. Some of the most popular films that have filmed scenes aboard Queen Mary include The Aviator, Pearl Harbor, Being John Malkovich, What Women Want, The Godfather (Part II), Harlem Nights and The Talented mr. Ripley, among others.
The number of public bathrooms aboard the ship is limited , but there are some accessible options. If you need to use the loo, ask a staff member where to locate one – this will save you time searching the very large ship. Here are a couple of photos from bathrooms I encountered on my tour:
Although there was plenty of room in the accessible toilet stalls, the rest of the bathrooms were a tight squeeze! Be careful in navigating these areas with your wheelchair.
Driving or booking a wheelchair accessible taxi is the easiest way, but there are other options. I was staying at the Hyatt Regency Long Beach hotel across the harbor, and decided to roll the 1.6 miles to the Queen Mary. Don’t do this! There are some steep grades you’ll have to face, especially when crossing the river. The sidewalks leading to the park and property surrounding the ship need serious attention, and the route is confusing.
If you’d like to save money on transportation, the BEST option is to ride the city’s free tourist bus route, labeled Passport. The Passport Bus is completely free and wheelchair accessible, with a ramp and securement straps for all chairs. I used the bus to return to my hotel. Passport took 10-15 minutes and dropped me about a block away from the Hyatt. This was the way to go!
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that I am deeply fascinated by history. The RMS Queen Mary is a historical treasure, and well worth a visit. We are so fortunate that this British ocean liner has been preserved for all of us to see, and it’s docked right here in the United States!
The ship is massive, and I recommend reserving between 90 minutes and two hours for your tour. If you like to read and listen to everything, add an extra half hour.
Despite the limited access, I’m confident you’ll have an enjoyable time exploring this magnificent piece of oceanic travel history!
Are you interested in visiting the RMS Queen Mary?
If you’ve toured her already, what did you enjoy most?
Let me know in the comments below!