Like so many family-oriented couples, Kim and I found ourselves approaching the empty nest stage of our lives having never enjoyed a romantic vacation without the kids. A cruise holiday had always been on our bucket list, but we never even had a serious discussion about embarking on one.
One morning this past winter I realized that I was having more difficulty transferring from my bed to my wheelchair. At that moment I had an epiphany. What was I waiting for? I wasn’t going to get any better- only worse. I would never be more capable of enjoying a vacation than I was right then. Later that same day I presented my case to Kim. I was either very persuasive, or it was simply an inspired idea, because she instantly embraced the concept of us going on a cruise (or the third possibility is that she always wanted to go on one, but her New England frugality kept those feelings properly suppressed).
We spent a couple of weeks exploring our options. Much of the research involved finding a cruise line, a cruise ship, and ports of call that were more handicapped accessible than average. I referred to my friend Candy Harrington’s book 101 Accessible Vacations for some guidance. Since this was our first cruise experience, we worked through a disability travel agency, Snail’s Pace Special Travel Services. Eventually we booked the Royal Caribbean cruise line, Freedom of the Seas ship, and a Western Caribbean itinerary- with an April 18th scheduled departure. Below is a map of our cruise route.
Royal Caribbean offers wheelchair accessible rooms that are about 1.5 times larger than standard staterooms (for the same price). This leaves ample space for maneuvering a wheelchair. Just as importantly, the bathroom is extra roomy, and laden with grab bars. Because this was a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for us, we splurged for a room with a balcony (accessible). The public areas in these ships are highly accessible too. All the public restrooms have pushbutton door openers for both the outside door and the handicapped stall door. Most of the other public doors are also automatic. These are rare accessibility features for even the most progressive buildings on shore.
we pushed these beds together
accessible balcony and accessible glass of beer
Kim and I shared the planning duties. I made packing lists and spreadsheets. That’s what I do- bring order to chaos. I dealt with the travel agent and the cruise line. Kim researched activities on the ship and at the ports, to plan our entertainment and sightseeing. She joined Facebook cruising groups to learn more about this type of vacationing. We both did a lot of shopping for “cruise clothes.”
So why am I writing about this experience? Is this the what it is like for a disabled person to cruise post? Is it the cruising with MS post, or is it the taking my iBOT on a Caribbean cruise post? Really, it's not written from any one of these perspectives. I’m just sharing with you what this adventure was like for Kim and me, given our unique challenges. Take from it what you will. No matter your reason for reading, hopefully you will find this post to be amusing, informative, or maybe it is just boring enough for you to read when counting sheep has failed.
The first leg of the journey was the flight from Portland, Maine to Orlando, Florida. One of the big packing decisions we had to make was whether or not to burden ourselves with my manual wheelchair. I've owned this chair for over a year, but I've probably spent a grand total of 30 minutes sitting in it. I really love the iBOT, and I don't enjoy the manual wheelchair at all. Yet, it seemed like an unacceptable risk to embark on this dream vacation without any backup mobility device, just in case there was some sort of problem with the iBOT. There was never any consideration given to going on this trip without my iBOT. So, reluctantly, we packed up the manual wheelchair and the stuff that goes with it, our three big bags, our two carry-ons, and headed to the airport. As we were unloading our gear from the minivan at the Portland airport it became immediately apparent to us that the manual wheelchair was no burden at all, but rather a very useful luggage cart. Who knew?
I had not flown in a year, but nothing had changed for me. I still drove my iBOT to the mouth of the plane and then transferred to what is called an “aisle chair” or a “straight back chair.” I took the computer controller and the foot rests off the iBOT and folded the seatback down. This essentially put the iBOT in what I call “armadillo mode.” I instructed the baggage handler on how to set and release the brake on the iBOT so he could push the chair around easily. Two strapping men got me down the aisle in the aisle chair and I transfer to my seat. Standard stuff.
airplane aisle chair
iBOT standard mode
iBOT armadillo mode
On the trip to Orlando we had a short layover at Reagan International Airport, so I arranged for my iBOT to go directly from one plane to the other, just like all the other luggage. I was transferred from gate to gate in one of those ultra-flattering airport wheelchairs.
When we arrived in Orlando my iBOT was brought up to the mouth of the plane. I transferred from the aisle chair to the iBOT, reassembled it, and it started up just fine -- the same as the other dozen or so times I've flown with it. Kim and I went to baggage claim and picked up our bags and our cart/wheelchair and went to the taxi stand. We found a wheelchair taxi without too much difficulty and were transported to our hotel just a couple of miles from the airport. We spent the night there and then on Sunday morning our prearranged wheelchair van took us from Orlando to Port Canaveral, Florida, where the Freedom of the Seas and our dream vacation awaited us.
view of ship from beach later in cruise
After being issued our boarding documents we were told to hang out in a special section of the waiting area. I soon realized that I was being herded together with all the other cripples (no offense…none taken). We watched as a wedding party boarded the ship, and then the cripples went next. What a fine looking parade we were- wheelchairs, scooters, walkers, canes, too old, too fat, bearded lady, sword swallower, you name it. But I didn’t feel conspicuous. These are my peeps now.
And so began our cruise vacation- flawlessly. But what challenges awaited us on the high seas (cue ominous music here)?
To be continued…click here