Our second Spina Bifida Young Adults’ Cruise is now history. Fifty four cruisers came together on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas March 23 – 30 and had the time of their lives. Our 2013 cruise was an enormous success and 2014 just may have exceeded it! We had quite a few return cruisers who were now seasoned “pros” and were able and more than willing to assist the “newbies” with all their questions and concerns. Freedom of the Seas is a sister ship to the Independence that was home to our first cruise so many found comfort in the close resemblance of the two ships and the ease of knowing where everything was.
Most of our cruisers arrived in Orlando a day early and stayed at nearby airport hotels. Several of us were at Springhill Suites and enjoyed “hanging out” together at the hotel and going out for dinner. Royal Caribbean worked with us on providing accessible transfers to the ship in Port Canaveral the next morning and picked up from five different hotels on a staggered schedule. The embarkation process at Port Canaveral was one of the smoothest and most efficient I have encountered in my 26 years of cruising! They had us boarding the ship by 11am with no long lines or waiting. Fantastic!!
Everyone headed to the Windjammer Buffet where we all managed to find one another and the process of renewing friendships and starting new ones began. Not too difficult to find each other as 34 were either using wheelchairs or scooters and many knew each other from the last cruise or previous Spina Bifida Conferences. We came together from all over the United States and you could “feel” the excitement as Face Book Friends met for the first time. The Buffett staff was very attentive and asked if people wanted help with carrying trays and reaching items while I was busy handing out T-shirts, totes and name badges.
The group came together formally at dinner that night and the Dining Room staff had done a great job of giving us tables at the front of the dining room and removing chairs where needed so all wheelchairs could be comfortably accommodated. They had put little signs on the tables with our group name so that everyone could sit at any of the designated tables on subsequent nights. I encouraged that so people could meet each other and get to know one another. It works very well and no one feels left out.
Day 2 was supposed to be a port call at Coco Cay but rough waters caused the ship to skip this stop. No worries though as there is so much to do on board and everyone had a great time hanging by the pool and exploring the ship. Day 2 was also the first (of two) formal nights so everyone had time to relax and then dress in their finest for dinner. This was followed by a private cocktail party just for our group and a great time was had by all as everyone enjoyed the ever flowing rum punch.
The next day was another day at sea and by now everyone was feeling quite comfortable and finding their way around the ship without too many problems. Several ladies took part in a private cupcake decorating class at the Cupcake Cupboard and turned cupcakes into cheeseburgers and fries. Lots of talent here!
St. Thomas was our first port of call and we were greeted with sunshine and warm weather to the delight of all our cruisers who had been living through the brutal winter that so many were enduring. Their attitude was “bring on the heat and the sun”! Anything was better than all the snow and cold they had left behind. About 20 of us had signed up for an accessible tour to Coral World and Mountain Top along with a scenic tour of St. Thomas. Not sure the tour operators were quite ready for all the wheelchairs that greeted them and the fact that very few could actually walk. However, they rose to the task and did an outstanding job. All the wheelchairs got their wheels popped off and went ahead in a separate vehicle. When the passenger bus pulled up, there were the wheelchairs, reassembled and all lined up waiting for their occupants! It’s very scary for a full time wheelchair user to be separated from their chair, let alone let it go in another truck, but we proved that they could trust our tour operator and everything went very well. Many finished up the day with a stop at Senor Frogs for a drink or two before heading back to the ship.
My second year on this amazing cruise…and an amazing experience yet again! The level of fun and sense of being carefree are even greater with unforgettable memories with old friends, and many new ones too. I pray that Debra and Michell know just how life-changing the journey that they have organized has imprinted the lives of all of us on it. We are so different in this world, but for one week, we felt like we were all the same around each other (and we liked it)..(one cruiser’s comments)
Our cruisers turned out to be night owls beginning with Trivia after dinner, then socializing at the Pub on the Promenade followed by late night Karaoke into the wee hours of the morning. I understand that Café Promenade with 24 hour snacks was a big hit for a 2am rendezvous! Many also found the Viking Crown Lounge a great place to chill out after a long day of vacationing.
St. Maarten was the second port stop on our itinerary and our group breathed sighs of relief when they were greeted with a very nice accessible bus saying St. Maarten Accessible Tours along its side. They had vehicles to hold the wheelchairs and scooters but everyone was a lot more confident now and transfers were much easier so the tour moved along quite efficiently. We took a tour around the island with a brief stop at Orient Beach known for being “clothing optional”. We then headed out to the Butterfly Farm and learned all about the life cycle of the butterflies in a beautiful setting filled with foliage and flowers. On we went to a shopping area along the water but the crowds and lack of curb cuts made access difficult for most and was not very conducive. Many times a bus or car was parked blocking a ramp which was frustrating for the members of our group and the bathroom facilities were scarce and not very accessible. We did have a good lunch at a local restaurant and enjoyed the day despite the inconveniences.
One of the highlights of our trip was watching two of our group members on the Flow Rider. They proved that “where there’s a will, there’s a way” and I was so pleased to see people try things that were new and difficult. Several of us enjoyed lunch at Johnny Rocket’s and at Sorrento’s for pizza. Towards the end of the week we did encounter some large waves and experienced the “motion on the ocean” but nothing was able to dampen our spirits or take away from the glorious time everyone was having.
It is very special for people with disabilities to be able to come together and feel that they are “normal” and to be with others “just like them”. I commend the crew and staff of Freedom of the Seas and the other ships I have taken groups on for their caring and compassion and the other guests for realizing that we are all the same….we just want to enjoy life the to the fullest regardless of any limitations we may have. Cruising, with proper planning and foresight, allows us to do this. Our relationship with Royal Caribbean helps us to deliver the WOW just like they do time and time again.
Kim Burdick: It was so great meeting up w/ friends I haven’t seen in person in ages and to make some great new friends too. I never see adults that look like me or have any of my SB issues so it was great to have that experience besides all the fun. We definitely know how to have a good time. Debra Kerper thanks for such a great time!
Haley Baker: Made a resolution today: As long as Debra Stein Briscoe Kerper is cruising, so are we! Easy Access Travel has been one of the biggest blessings in my life.
Mallorie Irene Shibley: Thanks for everything debra you are so sweet as well for putting this all together and making it happen. We had a blast!
Michelle Flaherty: Many of you know that my mom has been a travel agent for many years – ever since I was a kid. She is my favorite travel agent and I’d recommend her services to anyone looking to plan a great trip! That being said, the trip I went on last week was stellar!! It was arranged by Debra Kerper and her agency EASY ACCESS TRAVEL. It is a travel agency that specializes in organizing trips and tours for those with mobility difficulties (w/c users, those who use crutches, cane users, slow walkers, amputees, etc…) The cruise I was on went off without a hitch. It was perfect. I enjoyed every moment — even when the boat was especially rocky during a storm on our last night! Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!!
Anyways, if you or someone in your family has a mobility disability and you would like to plan a trip that’ll meet your unique needs and have everything taken care of by a true professional, give Debra a call. She’ll hook you up!
Denise Maples: The sea really was like having total freedom!