Arriving Bucharest for our Eastern European Cruise through the Iron Gates

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Athenee Concert Hall as seen from the terrace of the Athenee Palace in Bucharest, Romania.

Boris and I are off to Eastern Europe for another River Cruise.  We will visit Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungry, starting in Bucharest and ending in Budapest.  Serbia will be a new country for me.  Because I wanted to visit Transylvania and a few of the many castles in the region, we are going a few days early.  It will also be nice to  acclimate to the time change by the time the cruise starts.  We have a couple of days on our own, then do some land touring with the cruise line for two days before we get on The Beatrice for our seven-day cruise.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In Bucharest, pork is the most common meat eaten, but this fried chicken served impaled looked pretty good. Has me thinking of Vlad the Impaler (the inspiration for Dracula) whose home we will see tomorrow in Transylvania.

Lots of drama before departure.  Boris’s phone wouldn’t take a charge and it was to be our designated line for international service.  Peabody ran into the street right in front of a car when we opened the door to take the luggage outside-he is just fine.  Then the UBER driver took a route we were not familiar with and gave use some concern about time.  When we arrived at the airport two hours before our international flight to Frankfurt, we thought the worst was behind us.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Early dining, anything before 8:30 or 9 pm, in Bucharest means tourists, older residents, or families with young children. This family was some of the few quests at Vatra when we arrived. Got to love the mom’s bright yellow skirt and watermelon-colored tights.

Then we got to the Lufthansa counter.   I had checked-in on line and it was smooth sailing to check the bags.  The problem was the carry-on bag which had to be so light you couldn’t take electronics aboard and I just won’t check those for fear of breakage or theft.  I was frustrated because I had specifically called about weight and the number of bags.  Since we are Star Alliance Gold I had not anticipated a problem.  Even though I was allowed a carry on and a personal item (purse, etc.) in addition to the checked bags, by having it all in one small rolling bag I exceeded the limit.  Boris was way over.  We weren’t allowed to repack at the counter, so they unchecked the bags and we repacked and reweighed at the open counters down the aisle from Lufthansa.  So much for getting to the airport early.

By the time we got on board, both of us were frustrated.  The flight went fine and we arrived in Frankfurt in time to hustle through the airport to make our second flight to Bucharest.  We had only an hour layover.  We had to go through security again and I was glad we were able to use the priority line.  If you are going through regular security, you  need a layover that lasts a lot longer than an hour.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  No, we are not in France.  This is Bucharest, Romania, sometimes called “Little Paris”.

 

If you want to choose your seat on Lufthansa, you have to pay a fee and book early on line.  Otherwise it is luck of the draw.  In other words, in the summer you are going to end up in a middle seat.  It was worth the extra charge to book early.  When we arrived in Bucharest, the bags came down quickly and we met the hotel driver.  On the twenty-five minute drive in, the driver pointed out several of the landmarks, including the large Soviet-style free press building.  The city has wide, beautifully landscaped boulevards and has been called “Little Paris”.  They even has a replica of the Arc of Triumph.  We drove down the boulevard of the embassies, but he only pointed out the one for Russia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest, Romania

In Bucharest, we are staying at the Hilton Athenee Palace for the first two nights.  The hotel is a city landmark built between 1912 and 1914.  It was the notorious hangout of British spies, the Gestapo, and ladies of the evening.  It has a beautiful ballroom with a stained glass ceiling.  The ballroom was set up for a wedding on the day of our arrival.  The hotel was last removed by Hilton in 1997; Hilton still manages the hotel, but sold it in 2005.  The rooms are badly in need of an update.  The toilet seat didn’t even match the size of the toilet.

 

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ballroom of the Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Lobby of the Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest.

They did upgrade us to a junior suite and the hotel is conveniently located and is considered luxury in Bucharest.  The hotel does feature a casino, spa, a nice Italian restaurant, outdoor dining, and an American bar.  One of my favorite features was the photos in the hotel lobby with comparison pictures of the hotel in 1914 and as renovated in 1997.  We are staying here primarily for the history and the Hilton points.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the Athenee Palace Hotel, there are photos of the original look, next to the post renovation photos. The hotel is due for another upgrade.

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Hotel Athenee back in the day.

“In 1948 the hotel was nationalized by the new Communist government, who famously bugged every room, tapped every phone (and every pay phone within half a mile), and staffed the entire hotel with informers.” In 2005, Dan Halpern wrote in The Walls Have Ears in Travel and Leisure that “[t]he hotel’s general director was an undercover colonel in the Securitate’s Counterespionage Directorate; the hotel’s deputy director was a colonel in the DIE, the Romanian external intelligence organization. The doormen did surveillance; the housekeeping staff photographed all documents in the guests’ rooms. The prostitutes in the lobby and in the bar and in the nightclub reported directly to their employers; the free-speaking bons vivants and Romanian intellectuals hanging around the café, not to mention a number of the guests, had been planted.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. With the hotel’s rich history of spies, Boris felt compelled to purchase, bring with him, and wear his monocle on the terrace of the Athenee Palace.

Boris is in heaven.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  The courtyard at Vatra in Bucharest, serving traditional Romanian food on painted wooden seats in the courtyard or in a more elegant dining room inside.

I was wiped out and decided to rest a bit upon arrival.  We got up later and took a cab to a traditional Romanian restaurant, Vatra, recommended by the concierge.  The weather was perfect to sit outside.  We arrived just after 7pm, really early by Romanian standards.  The restaurant didn’t really start to fill up until about 8:30 pm.  It is not unusual for the locals to go to dinner at 10 pm.

IMG_8651IMG_8649We hadn’t eaten much since our departure from Houston yesterday, so we made up for it here.  We started with an appetizer of pork sausages made with Romanian spices.  Boris also had a meatball soup.  He drank several-light and dark-Romanian beers; I had the homemade lemonade.  The main course for me was meatball made from pork and beef with fried potatoes.  Boris had the cabbage rolls with polenta.  They were served with a garlic paste and bread.  All were fabulous.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Performance in the courtyard at Vatra, Bucharest, Romania

Once the restaurant was full, costumed staff did a traditional dance.  A nice, unexpected treat.  Although we were no longer hungry, we had to partake in dessert.  Boris choose pancakes.  I had the donuts with sour cream and a fruit syrup.  Wow.  Each was big enough for two.  We left nothing.

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Photo @ Jean Janssen. My dessert at Vatra in Bucharest was wonderful donuts covered with cream and fruit syrup.

After our wonderful dinner, we went back to the hotel for drinks on the 5th floor lounge, with an outdoor terrace complete with a view of the Athenee Concert Hall and the Art Museum, the former Royal Palace.  We closed our day with the setting sun.  Tomorrow we are headed to Transylvania.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A side view of the Royal Palace, now an art museum, as seen from the Terrace of the Athenee Palace in Bucharest, Romania.

 

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Castaway Cay and a Fantasy Farewell

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What can I say? Rocky loves the beach. ©Jean Janssen

This is our last full cruise day and we are docking in our third and final port of Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas.  We woke to the Captain’s announcement that bad weather was anticipated and that we were docking early (original arrival was scheduled at 9:30 am) to pick up any clear weather we could.  It was raining when we ported and only a few people were getting off the boat.

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The seas and growing storm clouds at Castaway Cay, Bahamas. ©Jean Janssen

We grabbed a quick breakfast and headed out.  Most of the excursions were cancelled.  On a clear day, you can swim with stingrays, parasail, zip line, fish, ride in a glass-bottom boat, and many more activities on the island.  There are large children’s play areas and water slides.  Some of the snorkeling went forward and the beaches were open.  The 5K race on the old island air strip also went on as planned.  We stopped for a photograph with the ship in the background, but the photographer was really having trouble with the lighting.  He told us he had been out since early morning in the pouring down rain.  All the character greetings had been moved from the island to back on the ship.

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Disney has added some underwater surprises for those choosing to snorkel off Castaway Cay.

Rocky and I boarded the tram.  Since the crowds were thinner we thought we would make a  stop at the family beach to check it out.  This is our second visit to Castaway Cay; last time we visited the adult-only beach, Serenity Bay.  We got off at the second stop and realized that more people had gotten off the boat than we thought.  We looked at each other and went back out to tram terminal to take the alternate tram to Serenity Bay.  We hadn’t lost any time, you have to transfer anyway.  This second tram takes you along the air strip to Serenity Bay.  We saw the last of the runners-they were actually walking-finishing their 5K.

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Although I didn’t spot one at Serenity Bay (or at least not an extensive one), there are gift shops on Castaway Cay.

There are nice restrooms, a picnic area where lunch will later be served, massage huts, and a bar right at the beach entrance.  There are also lots of signs telling guests that this area is only for ones 18 and older.  There is also a sign warning you about sharks, jellyfish, the undertow, etc. as you enter the beach; I wish I had gotten a picture of it.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some people read the sign and turned around and went back.

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The beach at Serenity Bay, Castaway Cay, the Bahamas. ©Jean Janssen

There are always plenty of lounge chairs and short-legged sand chairs.  We both had one of each.  You can also find an umbrella if you prefer the shade.  We usually select the umbrella and then pull a chair into the sun if we want a little vitamin D.  The beach was popular and plenty of adults were enjoying the water as well.  A ship’s server came along the beach to take your order from the bar.  We felt it would be unfriendly not to acknowledge him and place an order.  I can recommend the Bon Voyage.

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The lifeguard stand at Serenity Bay had cones in front of it to insure the lifeguard’s clear and quick passage into the water if needed. This shot is from later in the day when you can see the storm clouds rolling in and the almost deserted beach chairs. ©Jean Janssen

There is a lifeguard on the beach and at one point she was yelling to some people in the water.  Everyone on the beach thought she was trying to get everyone out of the water. Actually, the couple was snorkeling, which you are allowed to do if you are wearing a life vest.  Finally armed with the right equipment, they snorkelers headed back into the water.

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Disney is one of those companies that works really hard at insuring access to all for their entertainment. I loved the wheels on this chair that insured this wheelchair-bound guest had access to the beach. ©Jean Janssen

At each beach on Castaway Cay, there is a bar-b-que picnic area (called Cookie’s on the two family beaches) where lunch is served.  In addition to the extensive salad bar, they were grilling everything you could think of-hamburgers, hotdogs, sausages, chicken, fish, and steaks.  There is also corn on the cob and some really great German potato salad.  A cold soup, chips, ice cream, tea, and soda are also available.  Guests sit on picnic benches.

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In spite of the growing cloud cover, Natasha got her sun and sand at Serenity Bay, Castaway Cay. ©Jean Janssen

A few adults that were hanging out at other beaches came over for a quieter, more relaxing lunch with more food options than at Cookie’s at the family beach.  They strictly enforce this picnic area as adult-only.  I should mention that you can also book a cabana for the day on each of the beaches.  These sell out quickly; book as soon as possible and definitely before boarding the ship.  The couple in front of us in line had a cabana.  They had left their children (with supervision) at the cabana to come over to our area for lunch.

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You can see the raindrops on his shirt, but Rocky was going to stay at the beach as long as possible. This gesture is for his Aunt Emma. ©Jean Janssen

The beach started to clear out after lunch, but die hards like Rocky and I were determined to stay as long as possible.  Our first plan was to stay until 3 and be back on the boat to pack and not miss the evening entertainment.  By two pm, the lifeguards were shutting up the umbrellas, the chairs were almost empty, and the cold front had started to roll in, so we headed back to the tram and ultimately the ship.

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By the time the cold front arrived, Serenity Bay Beach was almost deserted. ©Jean Janssen

Everybody had the same idea and the tram lines by the family beach meant a short wait.  I rode back next to a family visiting from Canada.  Mom was ready to be home and “sleep in her own bed.”  I asked how their trip had gone and she said they enjoyed it but because they had never seen a Star Wars movie and had no interest, yesterday had been rather a bust for them.  Apparently they were in a large family group and her mom had selected this particular week.  At least she had avoided the cold Canadian winter for one week.

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Painted boulders on Castaway Cay.

Back on the ship we decided to get our packing done.  The final production show Wishes is this evening, but Rocky was toying with the idea of going to see Rogue One again since it was being offered in 3D.  I can’t tell you about Wishes, because we got the packing done and headed to the movie.

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I am going to miss these guys. Aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

After the movie, we went to our last dinner in the Enchanted Garden.  They will put your tips on your cruise statement, but Disney provides envelopes it you want to give the cast members the acknowledgement form and even something extra.  After saying goodbye to our table mates and servers, we headed to the room so Rocky could take off his dinner clothes and we could put a few more things in the suitcases.  Our checked bags have to be outside the room by 10:30 pm.

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Rocky, Pluto, and Natasha on the Disney Fantasy.

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My dad did this great imitation of Donald Duck’s voice and ever since then Donald has been my favorite.

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This one if for my mom. Daisy Duck is her favorite. Think that might have something to do with my Dad’s great imitation of Donald’s voice?

After we got the luggage out, we went to the farewell party, See Ya Real Soon.  For the first 15 minutes (it was more like 20), the characters sign autograph books and take pictures with the guests.  Rocky and I went for it, getting pictures with Mikey, Donald, Goofy, Pluto, and Daisy.

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Golden Mickeys fell from the ceiling during the See Ya Real Soon show. ©Jean Janssen

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The See Ya Real Soon show closes the cruise’s entertainment aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

For the last 10 minutes, the Princesses appear on stage and the other characters head to the stairs where they do a closing number.  Rocky reminded me that Mikey never says goodbye, it is always “See Ya Real Soon.”  At the end of the number, golden Mickeys fell from the ceiling; I took a few back to the cabin in my hair.  Each character then got his personal send off.

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©Jean Janssen M-I-C K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E

After the show, it is off to bed.  We have an early wake-up call to make the first bus for our late morning flight out of the Orlando airport.  If you are using Disney transportation, you can not book a departure flight before 11:30 am.  Ours is at 11:40.  We were able to check-in for our flight, get boarding passes, and check our luggage on the ship.  We put special tags on the bags when they were set outside our room.  At the cruise terminal, the regular airline tags are attached and the bags go directly to the plane.  If customs (in the cruise terminal) wants to inspect your bags, you will be pulled aside.

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©Jean Janssen The Disney Fantasy at anchor in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

When we left the ship, we went straight to customs without having to collect our bags.  When we arrived at the airport, we went straight to security because we already had boarding passes.  Security at Orlando can be a zoo because of all the travelers; give yourself plenty of time.  Our bus got us from the cruise terminal to the airport in under 45 minutes.

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©Jean Janssen From the deck of the Disney Fantasy.

It was a fabulous trip.  If you like Disney, you will love this cruise.  If you like Star Wars, you would love this cruise.  Rocky and I had a wonderful time.  See Ya Real Soon…Natasha.

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Star Wars Day at Sea aboard the Disney Fantasy

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Natasha, Rocky, and Storm Troopers on Star Wars Day at Sea aboard the Disney Fantasy.

There have been teasers all week, but this is our last sea day and the culmination of the Star Wars cruise aboard the Disney Fantasy.  On schedule, we got up and went to the Royal Court dining room for brunch.  Ship guests are already out in force (pardon the pun) in costume to enjoy the day.  Don’t worry, if you don’t bring anything to wear the Disney gift shops aboard to there to help you out.  It is Star Wars Day at Sea.

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Some of the guests went all out with their costumes for Star Wars Day at Sea. ©Jean Janssen

Brunch was not the elaborate buffet I have had on some ships, but rather an extended breakfast menu with lunch-type options.  This is the only sit-down venue available today for breakfast or lunch.  We ended up having really fun waiters and it was a great start to our day.  The food was ho-hum, but the experience was fun.

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This guest was dressed as an Imperial Officer for Star Wars Day at Sea. ©Jean Janssen

When you arrive on the ship at the beginning of the week you are given a selection form to rank 5 special character experiences for Star Wars Day at Sea.  It was due a couple of days ago.  Last night we got tickets to two events (our first and third choices).  They tell you they will try to get you at least one of your top three choices and I was anticipating only one ticket and was excited to have the two opportunities.  We also went to a presentation earlier in the week that got us an additional ticket (to see our fourth choice).  Since one of the five options was an Jedi training for children, the most popular selection but not one we wanted, we got most of the character greetings we hoped for.  We will miss out on C3PO and R2D2.

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What a way to start our character greetings on Star Wars Day at Sea-Darth Vader.            ©Jean Janssen

We decided to get in line early for our 10:30 am meet and greet and were surprised to find that they had already started the photo sessions.  So go early and avoid the line.  We started at the top of the chain with Darth Vader who had several prerecorded messages he could share with you.  Rocky and I are dressed in Stormtrooper shirts, so Vader let me know that “the Empire appreciates your support.”  We did individual pictures and one together.  The ship had set up cool backgrounds too.  This photo shoot was in the Tube and the cave-like setting fit the mood.

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Guests of all ages enjoyed getting into costume. I loved this Leia and her scoundrel, Han. ©Jean Janssen

Disney has done a good job of using somewhat out of the way venues that guests wouldn’t normally venture to at this time of day so as to be not too “in your face” to guests who did’t have tickets.  Without tickets, you were unable to get in.  You might just not have got this selection, but most of the guests missed out simply because they did not turn in the form.

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The Rebels-Rocky, Chewbacca, and Natasha-at Star Wars Day at Sea.

After Vader we headed to our second meet and greet with Chewbacca.  The appreciative greeting I got from Vader was reversed here with Chewie.  He was most disappointed when he saw my shirt.  I told him that I was a rebel spy that had infiltrated the stormtrooper ranks.  He really wasn’t buying that, but we got a good picture anyway.

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Love that this family had dressed their youngest as a Ewok. ©Jean Janssen

We did note that there were more people dressed in the dark side theme at the Vader shoot, while Chewie attracted guests dressed as Rebels.  There were also lots of family groups and parents with young children there to see Chewbacca.  My favorite family had dressed their youngest as an Ewok.

Next we headed to the Costume Celebration in the Lobby Atrium.  This was not a costume contest, but a chance to show off your creation.  There were some pretty good ones.

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The Costume Celebration at Star Wars Day at Sea. ©Jean Janssen

It will come as no surprise that this is a day filled with Star Wars trivia options.  Trivia was in the daily Navigator and there were trivia contests at every age level throughout the day.  They even have a super fan contest tonight.  For those that need a little education, they offer a Star Wars 101 class on board.  We decided to enhance our Star Wars education with a lecture from Shawn Kelly, an animator with Lucasfilms’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).  Kelly started there as an intern and has worked himself up through the ranks, having now worked on 29 films including all three Star Wars prequels, Jurassic World, Pirates of the Caribbean, Pacific Rim, and Avengers.  He is the lead animator on all of the Transformer films.

Kelly was so excited about the opportunities he had had in his career and to be part of Star Wars Day at Sea.  He was on board with his family.  He showed clips of the animation process at various stages and even showed us some behind the scenes work on Rogue One which will be shown on board tonight.  Rocky and I have seen the movie, but it will be fun to look for these elements when we see the movie again tonight.  Shawn Kelly’s presentation was one of the highlights of the trip for me.

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Boba Fett walked among the guests aboard the Disney Fantasy looking for rebel spies. ©Jean Janssen

Next it was up to deck 11 for Pool Patrol.  Stroomtroopers filtered through the pool deck looking for rebel spies and Boba Fett made an arial entrance onto the deck to assist with the search.  Even those who were unwilling to give up a day in the sun by the pool for the inside Star Wars events got a taste of this special day through the Pool Patrol.  There were almost too many events to do everything, but enough variety for alternative tastes.

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Looking for rebel spies in the Lobby Atrium of the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Next it was time for our last scheduled meet and greet of the day with either Kylo Ren or Captain Phasma.  We ended up meeting the captain who looked us over as potential recruits.  I am not sure I passed muster in spite of the shirt I was wearing.  Afterwards, we went to McGill’s Pub for an adult animation class.  We learned how to draw Yoda and had a nice cider in the process.  Finally it was back to the atrium to see if any other characters might appear.

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Bounty hunters roamed the atrium of the Disney Fantasy in search of rebel spies. ©Jean Janssen

We started out at the top of the atrium where the changeling from Episode Two was sneaking around.  She was really into character and pretended to stalk me as I tried to get pictures.  I finally just walked up so we could get a picture together.  Kinda cool that they had the bounty hunters out and about.

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Natasha and the changeling from Episode Two. ©Theodore Crane

There is not a production or entertainer on stage tonight, but rather there is a showing of Rogue One, the most recent Star Wars saga release, in both the Walt Disney Theater (the production stage) and the Buena Vista Theater (the movie theater).  We opted for the more comfy seats in the movie theater.  I really like Rouge One, perhaps a little darker than the other Star Wars movies, and enjoyed looking for the details that Shawn Kelly had told us about earlier in the day.

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C3PO and Tusken raiders at Summon the Force aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Throughout the Star Wars Day at Sea, the cast members-all Disney employees are called cast members-wear special Star Wars name tags.  There were announcements over the PA regarding the invasion and continued search for the rebel spies, and even the captain gave his announcements including galactic data.  When we got to the dining room, our waiters also had special outfits for the event.  All of the menu items were named for different planets and themes from the Star Wars universe.

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Summon the Force was on the pool deck to close the Star Wars Day at Sea onboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

To end the evening we were back up on the pool deck for Summon the Force and an attempt to rid ourselves of the First Order invaders.  They do a cheesy stage show just like they do on Pirate Night.  It is really not about the plot of the play but the opportunity for the crowd to cheer or boo as they showcase the characters.

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R2D2 and the Jawas at Summon the Force aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

The invading order was vanquished and our ship’s captain restored to command of the vessel.  Of course, it wouldn’t be Disney if the evening didn’t end in Fireworks.  We have had fireworks at sea twice on this trip, truly special.

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Chewie and R2D2 lead the rebels to victory aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Fireworks were followed by a special buffet (we had a similar one on Pirate’s Night aboard the Wonder) and a Galactic Dance Party.  What a day!  A Star Wars fan couldn’t ask for more.

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St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and a First Order Invasion

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A view of the Harbor in St. Thomas as seen from Paradise Point. ©Jean Janssen

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Magen’s Bay, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

Having been to St. Thomas many times, we decided not to book an excursion.  I highly recommend the beaches on St. Thomas, Magen’s Bay being perhaps the most popular.  It is a rather interesting ride out there too.  You don’t necessarily need to book an excursion, there is plenty of local transportation to and from the beaches.  You can rent chairs and umbrellas and purchase food and drinks at the beach.  There is an admission charge.  For US visitors, you also have the advantage of not having to exchange currency.  Just be sure you give yourself plenty of time to get back to the ship.

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Trunk Bay, St. John’s, US Virgin Islands

Another wonderful option is hopping the ferry to St. John’s and enjoying Trunk Bay, which I have done on several visits.  This is a perfect spot for snorkeling.  St. John’s is much quieter than St. Thomas, 2/3 of the island is a National Park.  While St. Thomas is the land of the franchises (as our guide on Tortola referred to it), St. John’s is more about discovering nature in a serene setting.  That’s today.  Before the islands were conquered by the Dutch West Indian Company, this was a notorious pirate outpost.

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All those red roofs on the bottom of the photograph? Shopping, Shopping, and Shopping at Havensight Mall on St. Thomas. ©Jean Janssen

St. Thomas is perhaps the first major Caribbean shopping port and still offers a variety of shopping opportunities.  There is lots of strip center shopping right near the cruise pier, but serious shoppers will take a cab to downtown to visit the long established locations.

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Another view from Paradise Point in St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands. ©Jean Janssen

Not setting an alarm, it will come as no surprise to those of you following this series of blog posts that Rocky and I overslept.  We have a 4 pm departure from St. Thomas which meant I really didn’t want to leave the beach any later than 2 pm.  We wouldn’t have had much time, so we grabbed a snack on board and then left the ship to try the St. Thomas Paradise Point Skyride.  It was a beautiful sunny day and I am sorry we missed the bay with such perfect beach weather.

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The St. Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point. ©Jean Janssen

If you are docked at the main cruise terminal, Havensight Mall Dock, also known as West Indian Company Dock, you can just walk over.  I say that because 2 of the 5 large cruise ships in town that day were not at this dock.  They had a pretty significant cab ride over.  We looked for the base of the sky ride and just followed that to the ticket window.  The ticket price is $21 or $10.50 for children.  We could purchase tickets from Guest Relations on the ship or at the ride itself for the same price.

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The Norwegian Epic was also in Tortola yesterday. Like yesterday, they left earlier than we did. You can see how the boats churn up the sand in the bay. In the distance you can see the two other cruise ships docked at a more remote location. ©Jean Janssen

There are some stairs up to the loading platform, but they offer chairs to sit in while you wait for the ride.  They travel in sets of three cars and during our visit they were putting about 6 adults in each car.  It was a fairly quick ride up to the top where there are restrooms, a few gift shops, and a restaurant and bar.  This is all about the view and the opportunity to take pictures.

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The St. Thomas Skyride to Paradise Point. ©Jean Janssen

We ran into some people we had met on the ship who had snagged a table right by the railing and joined them for drinks.  The specialty here is the Bushwacker and according to Rocky it will put you under the table.  I tried a drink that tasted like a Key Lime pie; there wasn’t much alcohol in it.  After our friends headed back to the ship, we moved to their side of the table and enjoyed the view.  We ordered some nachos and margaritas and hung out until about an hour before the ship was scheduled to leave.

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We were a little too early for the opening of the Ooh La La Champagne with its boudoir decor.

Back on board we took showers and then went to Mass as it is now Lent.  Then we checked out the character greetings in the Lobby and the Bars in Europa.  I didn’t give up alcohol for Lent.  La Piazza with its carousel bar, O’Gills Pub, and Ooh La La Champagne Bar all carry their themes out well.  We were too early for drinks, so we went out on the deck and watched the sun set.

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Sunset from the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Tonight’s show is by Hypnotist Ricky Kalmon, by some reports one of the two best shows on the cruise.  Rocky and I were not really intrigued by a hypnosis show, but we did head over to see the Character Dance Party in the atrium before dinner.

We are back in the Animator’s Palate tonight and I stand corrected regarding my assessment of this restaurant being not as much fun as the Animator’s Palate on the Wonder.  Tonight was great.  When you arrive, you create your own character which is whisked away by the servers before dinner.  I thought we would see them again up on the screens.  It was so much more than that.  Throughout dinner, they played scenes involving food from Disney movies and cartoons.  At the end, they show a film featuring our drawing as animated characters. Really clever.  Each of us was a given a certificate and our names appeared in the credits at the end of the film.

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Phasma appears to announce the First Order invasion of our ship and the search for the Regal Spy from the balcony above the atrium in the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

At the end of dinner, our head waiter told us to head out to the atrium for a not to be missed event.  Additional lighting had been added and then over the ships intercom, it was announced that the First Order had invaded our ship.  The Phasma character from Episode 7:  The Force Awakens then appeared on the Balcony to announce they were searching for a rebel spy.  Her stormtroopers filtered through the guests on levels 3,4, and 5 conducting their “search”.  It was a simple gesture, but it set the mood for the day ahead.  By walking through the crowd, they engaged everyone in the Star Wars event.  The day ended with the crowd excited about the coming Star Wars Day at Sea.

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Stormtroppers filtered through the crowds at all levels of the atrium searching for the Rebel Spy on the eve of the Star Wars Day at Sea aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

We get an hour back tonight, so Rocky and I went to the late night showing of the Force Awakens.  We are very excited about the day ahead.

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The anticipation is building for the Star Wars Day at Sea. ©Jean Janssen

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Tortola in the British Virgin Islands and a Pirate’s Life for Me.

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Natasha’s view on Jost Van Dyke beach, Tortola, British Virgin Islands. ©Jean Janssen

We have been so bad about sleeping late that we bit the bullet and scheduled an early (7:30 am) beach excursion for today.  I am not sure if I have ever been to Tortola before.  We ordered room service (only Continental breakfast offerings on this Disney ship) and met our group in the theater.  It is mostly families with children which perhaps explains why they give a full 15 minute delay before they actually escort us ashore to our boat.  Unlike some ships where the tour information is in the daily program, you must refer to your tour tickets for place and meeting times.  Once on the excursion boat, we had a 45 minute ride over to White Bay and the beach on the island of Jost Van Dyke.

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This barge transferred guests from the boat through the shallows to beach at White Bay on the island of Jost Van Dyke in the British Virgin Islands. ©Jean Janssen

The outside seats on the boat were fun, but you should count on a little spray.  Just as we arrived it also started to rain.  Most of these showers are light and don’t last very long.  Just outside the shallow section of the beach, the boat stopped and a barge came over to take us to shore.  It took three trips to get everyone there.  You walked a ramp to reach the beach and could totally avoid the water if you wanted to.  They also required you to wear a life vest on the barge to travel the very short distance to shore.  I would have rather hopped off the boat and just walked in, but I am sure this barge service is someone’s livelihood.

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The Soggy Dollar Bar on White Bay, Jost Van Dyke Island, British Virgin Islands. The birthplace of the painkiller.

We settled in on some lounge chairs under the palm trees.  This half day excursion will put us back at the ship around lunch time.  The famous Soggy Dollar Bar is a short walk down the beach from our chairs.  The bar is the birthplace of the painkiller, a rum cocktail, and got its name from patrons from boats who would wade ashore with soggy money to buy their drinks back when there was no road or dock to reach the bar.  There is a road now, but still no dock.  Our savvy shipmates figured out that you could also get a painkiller at the bar a few steps away from our beach chairs and at a cheaper price than at the Soggy Dollar.

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From our beach chairs on Jost Van Dyke, we could see the islands of St. Thomas and St. Johns. ©Jean Janssen

Jost Van Dyke Island is actually the smallest island, at 3 square miles, of the four main islands that make up the British Virgin Islands.  The rumor is that the island is named for a Dutch Privateer (and sometimes pirate), Joost van Dyk.  Van Dyk assisted the Dutch Admirals who attacked San Juan, Puerto Rico and plundered the Spanish Treasure Fleet.  The Spanish retaliated by attacking Tortola, which is when van Dyk fled to the island that now bears his name.

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The beach at White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Islands. ©Jean Janssen

Jost Van Dyke has less than 300 residents (298 in the last census).  Its main industry is tourism, particularly yachting tourism.  The beach at White Bay was fabulous with beautiful sand, few shells, and crystal clear water.  You could wade right into the shallow water bare-footed.  I actually spent quite a bit of time in the water.  The rain would come and go, but it didn’t deter us.

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These two well-behaved young ladies scooped up water to build their sand castles on the beach at White Bay, Jost Van Dyke, British Virgin Island. ©Jean Janssen

I really don’t like to wear headphones at the beach because I enjoy the sound of the water, but I was tempted today.  Rocky put his on.  The children loved the beach, but there was lots of screaming.  There were also a lot of parents enjoying their painkillers and not doing much to supervise their children.

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The ariel search before diving in for fish. ©Jean Janssen

Perhaps my favorite pastime on the beach, in the water and out, was watching the pelicans and other seabirds dive into the water to feed.  Sometimes they completed submerged themselves.

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Natasha and Rocky at White Bay on Jost Van Dyke Island just before heading back to Tortola. ©Jean Janssen

All too soon, our excursion was over.  I thought it might be too long a day, so we did not go for the full day option which included lunch (primarily because of cost and the fact they said that umbrellas were not available).  I wish we had chosen to stay the full day.  The food did smell good.  We had to reverse the process of the two boats to get back and frankly I think we spent more time in transit than we did on the beach.

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Our view of Tortola from the Cabanas buffet aboard the Disney Fantasy was beautiful. ©Jean Janssen

Once back, we went to the ship for lunch.  Rocky decided to take in an afternoon movie.  I decided to check out the Caribbean’s newest shopping port.  There were lots of cute, typical Caribbean shops a few steps from the pier.  Most were smaller than in other cruise ports and those with promotional offers had been cleared out by the morning shoppers.  I did use the slow, but free, internet to check on a few things.  I got back in time to meet Rocky for the movie.

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The Baths at Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

I should mention that another popular excursion was to Virgin Gorda.  The Virgin Gorda excursions were sold out before Rocky and I booked the cruise.  Virgin Gorda is the second largest of the British Virgin Islands.  “Christopher Columbus is said to have named the island ‘The Fat Virgin’, because the island’s profile on the horizon looks like a fat woman lying on her side.”  The most popular tourist spot is the baths where granite boulders form grottoes, tunnels, tidal pools, and arches.  Swimming and snorkeling in the area is popular.

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Minnie Mouse in her pirate attire aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

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Goofy dressed up for Pirate Night aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Tonight we are back in the Royal Court for dinner and it is also Pirate night.  This is a popular celebration on all of the Disney ships that sail in the Caribbean.  We enjoyed Pirate Night on our last Disney cruise on the Wonder out of Galveston, Texas.  One of the things that I love about the character greetings is that the characters also get into the day’s celebration and dress for the theme.  You can take pictures with Mikey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald, and Daisy every day and they will always look different.

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Captain Hook and Smee signing autographs on Pirate Night aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

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Daisy in her pirate attire aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Pirate Night is also a good time to spot characters like Captain Hook and Smee, Peter Pan, and Jack Sparrow.  It is not only the characters that get dressed up for the event.   Lots of the guests come in full costume.  Rocky did a better job than I did pulling his outfit together.  They will give you a pirate bandana on the ship, so everyone will have a little something.

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Rocky in his pirate gear. ©Jean Janssen

In addition to the characters being available around the ship, there was a pirate celebration with Mickey on the pool deck between the two dinner seatings and pirate themed games for children and adults throughout the evening.  We started our night with Michael Holly’s full show and learned he started performing as a juggler in Disneyland back in his teens.  For years now he has had a full Vegas show, but retains his Disney connection with the cruise ship appearances.  There was a lot of guest interaction in this show.

There are always special items available to commemorate these Disney events.  Our assistant waiter Graham showed us the special pirate mug with multiple light settings, which he referred to as the rave, slowing down, and morning after settings for our adult only table.  He even offered a special dance.  After having him do the dance three times, I had to buy a mug.

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Up on the pool deck aboard the Disney Fantasy for Pirate Night. ©Jean Janssen.

We headed to the pool deck after dinner and it was already full of guests so we stood to see the pirate show on stage, Jack Sparrow’s appearance, and the Buccaneer Blast Fireworks.  Even before the show, I loved seeing the aquaduck all lit up for the evening.  Disney always does a great job with fireworks.  There were the first to do fireworks at sea and are currently the only company providing this type of entertainment.

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Disney is currently the only cruise line giving you fireworks at sea. ©Jean Janssen

Tomorrow is St. Thomas, part of the US Virgin Islands and a Caribbean port we have visited often.

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Families on the beach in White Bay on Jost Van Dyke Island. ©Jean Janssen

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Sea Days aboard the Disney Fantasy

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Meeting some of the Disney Princesses aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

We are starting the cruise with two sea days and Rocky and I couldn’t be happier.  They are featuring a Star Wars movie each day of the cruise.  We are headed out to the pool this morning and going to catch Episode 5:  The Empire Strikes Back this afternoon.  A little more ship exploring is on tap as well.  Tonight is formal night and we visit Animator’s Palate for dinner.

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Wandering around the ship we found lots of interactive activities, including this “painting” of a pirate ship you could steer around. The popular treasure hunt from the Disney Parks is also found on the ship. ©Jean Janssen

We slept in this morning and missed breakfast.  Hey, we are on vacation.  We put on our swimsuits, lots of sunscreen, and coverups and headed up to deck 11 for the buffet and pools.  It was unbelievably full.  You could not see any water in the pool or hot tubs, just children’s heads bobbing up and down.  I am not sure any of the children had the space to swim.  The Funnel Vision, the large outdoor movie screen, was showing Disney movies and most of the eyes were glued to it.  The adults-only pool, with chairs mostly in shaded areas, was equally crowded.  We decided to try some of the inside games on the ship.

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Palo, the Disney Fantasy’s specialty Italian Restaurant, is also found on the other Disney cruise ships. ©Jean Janssen

On this Disney cruise, people really went for the group games, whether for children or adults only.  Rocky checked out the Movie Quotes Trivia and was on the second place team, losing by only one point.  He said it was a little frustrating because they picked really obscure quotes.  Also popular with the adults, were the wine and alcohol tastings (there is a fee for these).  All of our table mates were participating in at least one tasting.

The speciality restaurants, for which there is also a fee, only operate in the evenings.  This afternoon the doors were open, so I popped over to see the menus and what the rooms looked like.  We tried Palo, an Italian restaurant which is also on the Wonder, on our last Disney cruise.  It is very good.  We considered the other option, Remy, a French restaurant.  The menu at Remy is fixed and not all the items interested us so we decided to skip booking a speciality restaurant.  One of the couples from our table are going to Remy tonight to celebrate her birthday, so we will get the lowdown from Erika and Nick.  Both speciality restaurants are small so you might want to book before you go.  However, we like to find out what our dining rotation is and what night is formal night before we book, so we waited to check it out on the ship.

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Remy, the fixed-menu French speciality restaurant, aboard the Disney Fantasy.               ©Jean Janssen

With the pool crowded, we decided to see a Star Wars movie in the afternoon.  Next it was back to get dressed for formal night and the first of three big stage shows in the Walt Disney Theater.  The Musical Aladdin was presented.  It was very well done.  Next Rocky and I had to work in our pictures in Formal Attire.

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Animator’s Palate aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Tonight’s dining is in Animator’s Palate.  Gone were the wonderful screens from the Wonder where the picture slowly gains more color.  We had a show by Crush from Finding Nemo.  Both Laura and I were of the opinion that we like the Wonder’s version of this restaurant better.  They did have great chairs though.  However, the highlight of the evening was Crush’s direct interaction with our table.  He is on screen, but spoke directly to us and replied with facial expressions appropriate to his comments much like the characters do at the Monster’s Inc. presentation in the Magic Kingdom.  They use cameras and actors with facial monitors.

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Love the chairs in Animator’s Palate aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Laura and Kyle were on their honeymoon and Laura’s dad had booked their cruise through the Disney Vacation Club.  Dad had let them know about the occasion and apparently it had been passed on to Crush who insisted that Kyle stand and sing to Laura in “whale”.  Kyle was a good sport and it was hysterical.

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The Tube, dance club and bar, aboard the Disney Fantasy.

After dinner, we went down to the Europa area of the ship reserved for adults after 9 pm.  There are a series of uniquely themed bars.  At last night’s introductory show we saw a comedian juggler who is doing an adults-only show tonight.  He was performing in The Tube, named for the London underground system (in the USA we call them subways).  The theme was well carried out in the signage to the Union Jack in colored lights on the ceiling.  This venue is also the dance club.  We enjoyed Michael Holly’s tightrope walking and juggling.  At the end they kicked us out because so many people wanted to come in and play the next game.  You did have the option to keep your seat if you wanted to participate.  Having missed the pool today, that is definitely on the agenda for tomorrow.  I want to tackle that AquaDuck.

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The AquaDuck aboard the Disney Fantasy.

So we slept in again.  Vacation and we lost an hour on the time change.  No breakfast, but we got an early lunch before heading to see Dr. Strange in 3D in the Buena Vista Theater.  After the movie we went straight to the Duck.  It was overcast and threatening rain so the crowds were a little thinner on the pool deck.  I have to say I was a little nervous.  There are high winds today so you are required to ride in pairs.  That is ok with me; I prefer to ride with Rocky.  The wait was shorter today.  Lots of parents riding with their children.  At least no one filmed me rolling into the tube.

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The AquaDuck.

I did it and it was great fun.  Rocky and I toweled off and made a potty stop.  I told you I was nervous.  They were doing a Moana Sing Along in the Walt Disney Theater and lots of the children were otherwise occupied.  It was raining by now, the line had gotten really short, and so we just looked at each other and knew it was time to ride again.  Awesome.  Natasha’s tip for day:  Ride the AquaDuck while it is raining and enjoy the short lines.  Then ride it again, and again, and again.

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Rocky had unknowingly dressed to match his Princess.

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The Queen of Hearts let us all know she was done for the evening. ©Jean Janssen

With a great sense of accomplishment we headed inside to check out the characters in the Atrium and get showers in preparation for tonight’s second big show, Wishes.  The theme of Wishes is moving on with your life while still embracing the things that bring you joy.  It centers around three high school seniors who met at Disneyland as children on the occasion of their last trip to the park before high school graduation.  They learn lots of lessons along the way from Disney Characters preforming popular songs from Disney Movies.  I would rate this show as not to be missed.

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The Enchanted Garden aboard the Disney Fantasy. Note the changing light color on the ceiling and the center fountain. ©Jean Janssen

Afterwards was dinner in The Enchanted Garden, the last of the three main dining rooms.  The theme is carried out through the illusion of a glass conservatory where day turns to night as the colors change and the “light bulbs” open as a flower would.  I like this restaurant very much.  Occasionally, buffets are also served here.  We got the Remy report from Erika and Nick, who enjoyed it very much.  Full, Erika made the mistake of ordering nothing for dessert.

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This is what happens when you have cheeky waiters and order nothing for dessert. At the Enchanted Garden aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Tomorrow we have an early excursion (7:30) and we have overslept each morning.  That means we should go to bed early.  Instead we went to the 10:30 pm showing of Episode 6:  Return of the Jedi and set an alarm for the next morning.  Embrace the opportunity!

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I always love the towel animals they leave in the room. Tonight we came back to find my favorite of the week. This monkey even had our gold pirate coins on his head as hair.      ©Jean Janssen

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A Caribbean Cruise aboard the Disney Fantasy

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Natasha with the honorary ship’s captain of the Disney Fantasy in the atrium lobby.

Rocky and I are taking a cruise to the Caribbean aboard the Disney Fantasy, one of Disney’s two newer cruise ships.  Our first Disney cruise was out of Galveston aboard the Wonder, one of the older two ships.  This time we are flying to Orlando and taking the ship’s transfer to Cape Canaveral.  I avoided Disney cruises for many years because they are priced higher than other cruises at this amenity level.  However, once you take one (and if you love Disney as much as I do) you understand the price difference in the level of entertainment that the experience affords.

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Dumbo makes his appearance on the rear of the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Admittedly most of the cruisers have small children, especially during a school week.  However, there are also families with home-schooled children and parents who have taken their children out of school to go to DisneyWorld and its on-water extension.  You will also find plenty of retired couples, young married (or dating) couples (including honeymooners), and a few mothers and sons looking for another type of Disney experience beyond the parks.

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Rey’s speeder from Episode 7: The Force Awakens is in the lobby of the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

Another plus of this cruise, available only on the Disney Fantasy January-April, is that it has a Star Wars Theme.  That guarantees you one full day of Star Wars activities with a few teasers along the way.  It also means you will travel with other Star Wars enthusiasts.  You have all now figured out how I got Rocky to go on this cruise with me.

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Disney Cruise Terminal in Cape Canaveral, Florida. ©Jean Janssen

We took an early Saturday morning flight into Orlando and headed to the Magical Express Transfer desk on level one on the B side of the main concourse (same place you go for the free transfer to the park).  There was a long line that was not moving waiting to load the buses.  We found out that there was fog at the port and that the entry of the ship into dock was delayed by three hours.  Glad I wasn’t flying out that day; I would have missed my flight.  Although it was not their fault, a Disney representative went up to each family directly and explained the situation.  They also sent an email.

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Model of the Disney Magic, one of the original Disney cruise ships, in the Cape Canaveral Disney Cruise Terminal Building. ©Jean Janssen

Once the line starting moving, they loaded people slowly as not to flood the port terminal with arrivals.  The drive to the port would normally take 45 minutes.  This day it took two hours, most of the time within sight of the terminal building.  The delay was due to heavy traffic and the periodic raising of the drawbridge.  Three cruise lines depart out of Cape Canaveral-Disney, Norwegian, and Carnival.  Once inside, things moved very quickly in this very attractive building.

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Rocky at the ship entrance in the Disney Cruise Terminal in Cape Canaveral, Florida.      ©Jean Janssen

Rocky and I booked this cruise late, hoping to catch a deal.  There were only two rooms left at the time.  Of course the ship was sold out when we boarded.  We usually book balcony rooms, but we have ocean view this time with a porthole window.  The window has a cushion so you can sit there and read.  Yes, Natasha tried it.  No, it was definitely designed for a child.  We dropped our carry-on bags at the room and headed to the buffet and to explore the ship a little.

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You don’t want to go too fast on the AquaDuck or you may fly out of one of the openings in the tube and straight into one of the main stacks on the ship like Donald did aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

One of the unique attractions on this ship is the AquaDuck.  There is also a waterside, but the AquaDuck is a water flume ride in and outside of plastic tubing that goes out over the water and through one of the main stacks of the ship.  You ride in double-seated tubes.  It is on our bucket list for the cruise.

Tonight we met our dining partners in one of the three main dining rooms.  Ship guests rotate between three main dining rooms each with a different theme and entertainment.  Your servers go with you and you are seating with the same group each time.  We were seated with two young married couples, one on their delayed honeymoon.  They are all more closer in age to Rocky than to me.  The guys are all big Star Wars fans and those details dominated tonight’s conversation.

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Bread basket in the Royal Court Dining room aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

We usually take first seating, but it was not available and is also much earlier on the Disney ship (before 6).  First seating is the one with most of the small children and it is not a slow leisurely meal.  It is rushed through for the sake of the children.  We were first seating on our first Disney cruise.  When traveling on a Disney cruise, I highly recommend the second seating for parties with all adults or adults and older children.  We started our rotation in the Royal Court, the most ornate dining room just off the atrium lobby.  Here the waiters dress like Prince Charming.  My favorite detail however was the bread basket that looked like a coach.  Our second seating dinner was at a much more relaxed pace.

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Minnie Mouse greeting fans on the 4th four balcony into the atrium on the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

The Disney characters are out in full force this evening in the atrium.  They are available for photographs all week and their appearance schedule is in the daily program.  Parents also bring along autograph books and blank frames for the characters to sign.  You will have far more opportunities for pictures and shorter lines on the cruise ships than you do at the parks if this experience is anything like ours was on the Wonder.  On that first trip, I met a parent who told me that is why they came on the cruise.  They wanted to give their younger child a Disney experience, but felt safer in this environment than in one of the parks.  Greeting characters was a big plus for them.  They planned on taking their children to the parks when they were older.

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Ship guests dressed up to see Belle aboard the Disney Fantasy. ©Jean Janssen

In spite of the weather delay, the ship was turned around quickly and we left the port on time.  We had the benefit of putting pre-printed tags on our luggage in Houston and not worrying about it again until it appeared at our cabin.  Disney pulled the luggage when it came off the plane in Orlando (MCO) and delivered it to the port and then to our stateroom.  I was just a little nervous about it, but it arrived prior to the ship pulling away from the pier.  After, the welcome show, dinner, and getting up really early for our departure, we were tired and in bed before 11.  We had planned to go see the late showing of Episode 4:  A New Hope, the original Star Wars Movie from 1977, but just couldn’t keep our eyes open. With two sea days ahead of us, we look forward to relaxing on the high seas and catching most of the Star Wars movies which will be shown throughout the week.

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Rocky, Goofy, and Natasha aboard the Disney Fantasy.

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