Everyone said it’d be easy. Cruising, that is. Ships are handicapped accessible, right? So in the fog following my primary progressive multiple sclerosis diagnosis, last winter, I called the travel agents at Expedia, eager to escape our snowy winter and icy sidewalks.
I’d cruised-toured just seven months earlier, a 40th birthday trip-of-a-lifetime to Alaska, and though I was undiagnosed, my PPMS had already taken most of the feeling from my legs. I clung to my friend Lindsay as we hiked, visited a sled-dog camp and went whitewater rafting on the Mendenhall River. Now, six months later, my disease had progressed even more, and I was using a walker and scooter to get around. Would cruising really be as easy as I thought?
Our son, 7 at the time, begged for a Disney cruise. An Expedia travel agent walked me through the handicapped-accessible cabins available on a sailing in early March, then asked me to share, if I didn’t mind, why I needed an accessible cabin. Her answer sealed my decision to go as much as my diagnosis: a week earlier, she had also been diagnosed with PPMS.
Only MSers and our friends with mobility issues will understand this, but I will never forget how it felt to step out of the Fort Lauderdale airport onto dry concrete. It had been snowy and icy at home for the past four months, and being able to walk without looking at my feet or fear of falling was, quite simply, priceless.
And our accessible cabin on the Disney Wonder, with a verandah off of the back of the ship, was the largest I’d ever stayed in. The spacious bathroom had a roll-in shower, grab bars, ADA toilet and an emergency pull cord, easing my worries about navigating that space.
And the cruise itself? In some ways, it’s easy. Disney’s customer service is unparalleled, and their staffers were quick to open doors and carry my buffet trays. My husband and son also took turns opening many doors for me. We shook our heads at the many able-bodied passengers who would sweep past us to enter the elevators, prompting long waits for a lift. And reaching the public accessible bathroom on Deck 4 was not easy when you’re having lunch on Deck 9.
What I couldn’t have predicted was the lack of accessibility in the shore excursions. The ship stopped in Cozumel, Mexico, and we were excited to take Colin into his first foreign country to swim with the dolphins. The only problem? I couldn’t go. Even though my husband could get in the water with Colin, I wouldn’t even be able to access the viewing platform, reachable by a set of cobblestone steps. Travelers with walkers are not allowed to negotiate those stairs. Of all of the shore excursions offered, the only one with a solidly accessible option was a tequila tasting. I declined.
Instead, we stayed on the ship while nearly all of the other 2,400 passengers disembarked for the day. And really, that worked out OK. Colin had the waterslide and pool practically to himself, and I was able to sit in a shaded area dangling my legs into the pool and watch. I learned quickly that sitting out in the sun with my morning coffee — even at 8 a.m. — would torpedo my day. But Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, had accessible trams, beach-ready wheelchairs and accessible places to eat and play, and for the first time in years, I went snorkeling in the crystalline blue water.
Like MS itself, cruising wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. But it gave my family and I hope that we could in fact continue to travel and try new things. And we’re hoping to go again later this year—to a destination that’s new to all three of us.