Freedom of the Seas (Western Caribbean)- March 2016

This past March we decided to escape a not so bad Canadian winter and head down south for a couple days in Florida and then a week long Caribbean cruise.
For the first time since Shawn’s accident we not only flew out of a different airport but a different airline! I am all for trying new things but I had to admit I was a little nervous not knowing if it would be a good change or a bad change. I have to say flying out of Ottawa airport was much nicer than the craziness of the Toronto airport. We have always been back and forth with travelling out of Ottawa but up to this point have only travelled with Air Canada and the choice of flights didn’t match up with our travel plans. Also, Air Canada generally flies smaller aircraft out of the Ottawa airport and those planes to do accommodate wheelchairs the size of Shawn’s. So we chose to fly West Jet to Orlando. We have a medical file with Air Canada but not West Jet so I did make some extra calls to their medical desk office to emphasize the importance of the first row seat and that we could not be switched from the seat assignment. I am happy to say that we did receive the correct paid for seats for our whole group on both flights. This is sometimes a big issue with Air Canada so I was happy that did not happen.
Ottawa airport is easily accessible and a much better drive than dealing with Toronto traffic. I had called the parking facilities at the airport ahead of time because we wanted to leave our accessible van in an accessible spot but we were bringing our permit with us to Florida. It was no problem at all. I was just instructed to make a couple copies of the permit. One was to stay in the van and the other I just had to drop off at the parking office, located beside the car rental desks. We normally use valet parking at Pearson but Ottawa does not have this service. It ended up being fine because we were able to find accessible parking close to the terminal entrance.
When we arrived at the terminal I couldn’t believe how quiet and few people there were. It was a nice surprise. Check-in with West Jet was very smooth; security checkpoint and customs were all very easy and with very short lines. The West Jet departure lounge was quite small from what we were used to and there is only one small restaurant. Luckily we got there early because the place filled up pretty quick. The service from West Jet really was outstanding and they were very accommodating with us. I would have to say the only negatives we encountered were that the seats in Plus class are very narrow, which reminded me of an Air Canada Rouge class seat but at least the bulkhead offered more legroom. The other negative would be that going out the only inflight entertainment was a tiny screen with movies that play on a continuous loop. The movies are not on-demand so you basically have to start watching the minute the plane takes off or you miss out on the beginning of the movie. On the way back there was no in-flight entertainment at all, no Ipads, no tiny screens…nothing. I have never been on a plane that offers nothing. Thankfully we all had fully charged devices and pre-loaded movies on your Ipads. There are no charging ports on either flight so making sure our devices were at 100% was pretty key. I feel sorry for all the parents on the last day of March Break coming back from Orlando that had no way of entertaining their kids for 3 hours. Yikes!
Plus class is nothing like Business Class on Air Canada but the fares are a lot less so you can’t expect that. You do get a complimentary meal from the inflight menu and alcoholic beverages. I am not sure Plus would be the best option for us on a long flight but certainly for a 3-hour flight to Florida it was fine.
We arrived in Orlando and collected the wheelchair and baggage and I called the company that I had pre-arranged for a wheelchair accessible van. Not sure if you read my blog on Hawaii but we had a very bad experience with a wheelchair van rental company so I was very nervous that it wouldn’t show up. Originally I had booked with the same company as Hawaii but once that all happened I changed my reservation to a different company. I have to say I was very pleased with the service we received. The driver with the van showed up about 10 minutes after we called and he met us right outside the ground transportation doors. After a quick exchange we got into the van and headed to the hotel we had booked for the next 2 nights in Lake Buena Vista. We booked a hotel right near downtown Disney that had an easy access to Hollywood Studios. We wanted to be near Hollywood Studios because we were spending the next day there since my youngest wanted to do the Jedi Training and see the new Star Wars Force Awakens attractions. We have done Disney many times so we knew there would be no accessibility issues so I won’t spend much time on that portion of the trip. If you are interested in knowing more about Disney then check out my previous blog as we spent our whole vacation there. The hotel we chose was very nice and the accessible rooms had 2 Queen Beds and a Balcony and were quite spacious.
So we arrived in Orlando on a Wednesday, went to Hollywood Studios on the Thursday and then Friday we checked out and headed to Dunedin, on the Gulf Coast. We had tickets to see the Blue Jays in Spring Training. It is a very affordable way to see a game if you are in Florida. The tickets were about $30 USD each and the wheelchair accessible section is right behind home plate. This was one of the reasons we decided to go with the wheelchair van rental rather than rely on shuttles. So the 1.5-hour drive to Dunedin ended up being about 2.5 hours because of an accident on the Interstate. Since we got there right at game time all the accessible spots were gone and only street parking was available. It was very busy and very hard to find parking so that was kind of a annoying but we were still excited to be there. The accessible seating is right behind home plate and the only access is a ramp on the far side of the stadium. Since we got there after the game started it was very crowded and hard to get the wheelchair through the crowds standing around but we did it. We enjoyed the game and then were on our way to the opposite coast because our ship was leaving from Port Canaveral on Sunday. Google maps showed the drive to be a couple hours from Dunedin to Cocoa Beach. By the time the game ended and we got to the van we were right in the middle of rush hour. It was crazy! It took us 5 hours to get to our hotel in Cocoa Beach. Probably not one of my best planning ideas. It was a long day for Shawn and a lot of sitting in his chair so he was very happy once we got to the hotel in Cocoa Beach. The hotel we booked was very centrally located, offered free breakfast and the accessible room was spacious with 2 Queen Beds.
One thing I forgot to mention was the medical equipment rentals. Since we moved hotels a couple times we had to pay a delivery fee each time. The shower commode rental was so expensive for this trip that I am researching owning our own portable shower commode. We do enough travelling that it will pay for itself in about 3 trips.
Sunday we boarded Freedom of the Sea, and since we had the rental van we drove it there and parked in the cruise parkade. The parking attendant told us that accessible vehicles do not pay for parking so that was a good piece of information to know but since it was a rental getting picked up anyways we would not have paid regardless. I have to say that we have sailed out of every port in Florida and Port Canaveral was by far my favourite. It seemed very well organized and not rushed and crazy like a lot of the ports. We dropped our luggage off and headed to the special needs check-in. We are platinum members with Royal Caribbean but it always seems faster to use the special needs line. Check-in was quick and easy and we were boarding the ship very soon after we got there. As always the staterooms are not ready until around 1-1:30 so instead of battling the Windjammer crowds we camped out in the Champagne Lounge on Deck 4. The beverage package sign-ups can be done at either the Champagne Lounge or the Schooner Bar, both on deck 4. So we ordered a couple drinks, grabbed a couple pizzas from Sorrento’s on deck 5 and waited for our room to be ready.
We had booked this stateroom almost a year and a half in advance because an accessible balcony Junior Suite that sleeps 6 is very hard to get. I have to say this was probably not only the largest room we have ever stayed in but the largest balcony as well. The room had a king size bed, pullout sofa and small cubby with twin bunk beds, which is where the kids chose to sleep. The bunk bed room was very small and did not have any windows but the kids loved it. There was a tall wardrobe, night table and a curtain that pulled across for privacy.
Freedom of the Seas is a beautiful ship and the sister ship of the Liberty of the Seas, which was our first ever cruise. They have done some remodeling and everything looked great.
We were on a Western Caribbean itinerary on this cruise. We had 2 sea days, Labadee, Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; Georgetown, Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico.

Labadee, Haiti

Labadee was our first stop and our second time visiting Royal Caribbean’s private island. Months prior to our cruise I noticed that there was an accessible cabana that came up on my excursions list in my RC account. I emailed the special needs excursion desk to get more information. So basically there is a ramp to the cabana and that was pretty much it. From where the paved walkway ends and the ramp begins there is about 150 feet of sand. Not just that but once inside the cabana there are 2 loungers and then a step up to a couch, which is not accessible. Knowing that Labadee has sand wheelchairs that can be used to take you into the cabana we decided to book it and give it a try. These cabanas are quite expensive but they do offer comfort for the whole day, coolers of bottled water, water floaties and your own personal cabana boy for the entire duration of the day. Now the beach chairs are not left with you so you have to still have your personal wheelchair in case you need to use the bathroom or just move around at all. We had rented a folding wheelchair because I wasn’t sure the power chair would work on the sand. Once there I did find the sand quite packed so a power chair may have driven over it but I can’t say for sure. The beach wheelchair did come back once our cabana attendant called for it. Locals are the ones pushing the chair to and from the ship so gratuities are expected of course. Overall this was my favourite day because we were all able to enjoy the day together. Shawn was able to sit in a nice shaded cabana but had a great view of his kids playing on the beach and in the water. I also should mention that there are trams that can take you to and from the cabana but they are not wheelchair accessible. We used it to take us to the restaurant to grab some food and bring it back for Shawn though.

Falmouth, Jamaica

Originally we had booked an accessible excursion with a private company in Jamaica that has accessible shuttle buses. We decided not to do an excursion when we looked at how much travel time was required to get anywhere from Falmouth. It is not near anything and anything that was a close driving distance wasn’t of any real interest to us. The port area was nice enough to stroll around the shops and have a bite to eat at Margarittaville. Margarittaville gets very busy so you may have to wait a bit for a table that is accessible or near the entrance because it is quite crowded and the tables are close together, making it difficult for a wheelchair to maneuver. There is a pool but once again crazy busy and crowded. Expect ridiculously expensive meals and drinks and pretty poor service. It was a fun atmosphere regardless.

Grand Cayman

This stop was a tendered port so Shawn decided not to attempt to get off. The boats that we were on did have ramps but they were very steep and narrow. It could be possible for maybe a manual chair but I was too nervous to try it with a power chair. I ended up doing an excursion with the kids and Shawn stayed back and enjoyed a quiet ship. Since most people were off the ship it was like having the run of the place. No crowds and no waiting for elevators.

Cozumel, Mexico

Our final stop was in Cozumel. We ended up going through the same private company we went through last year. Since I had used them before I knew to book the raised roof accessible van (see Vision of the Seas review). It was a bit chaotic when we got to the taxi stand and we were just told to tell the dispatcher that we had pre-booked a van. They had no idea what we were talking about it and it probably was close to 30 minutes of waiting and talking to several people at the taxi stand before someone knew which van to call for us. It was all so unorganized and while we were waiting we saw several accessible taxis that were just there and pick up other wheelchair users. So I think that in the future we would not pre-book a private shuttle because it is expensive so we would just take our chances that we could just catch a taxi at the taxi stand. We booked the private shuttle for 5 hours but we decided to spend the entire time at Paradise Beach. It was very accessible and lots for the kids to do and a fun environment. We got there early enough that we were able to get a nice spot in the shade for Shawn to watch the kids play in the pool.

 

Overall we had a great time and even though we have considered trying a different type of vacation (i.e. all inclusive), I think we will probably just continue taking cruises as they are hassle free and we always have such a great time!

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