Our family was not new to cruising, but when we boarded the Disney Fantasy at Port Canaveral on October 1, 2016, we were new to cruising during hurricane season. Our seven-day sailing to the Western Caribbean and Castaway Cay instead became an eight-day sailing without Castaway Cay due to Hurricane Matthew churning up Florida’s east coast. This altered sailing opened our eyes to a few of the unique preparations those who choose to sail during hurricane season – June 1 through November 1 in the Caribbean and Bahamas – should take.
1) Parking at the Port
We flew into Orlando International Airport and rented a car for use during both our pre- and post-cruise stay. Other options, like Disney transfers or private transportation companies, exist. For our larger family and extended stay, the rental car option made the most financial sense. We read how easy and convenient it is to park at Port Canaveral. And it was. But we never considered how leaving a vehicle at the port could potentially be a liability should the port sustain damage from a hurricane and not be able to reopen when our sailing was completed. Thankfully, we were able to dock at Port Canaveral a day after we were scheduled to debark. Our rental car, parked on the fourth floor of the parking garage, only had a film of sea spray as evidence of the hurricane-force winds the port sustained two days earlier. Had the hurricane’s eye come ashore at the port – as was predicted at one point – and we had to debark at another port, getting back to our rental car and the suitcase we had left in it for our land vacation would have been quite a headache.
What we learned: It is very rare for Florida ports to be evacuated or inaccessible. However, when considering the various ways to get to the port (Disney transfers, private transfers, one-way rentals, driving, etc.), if the financial considerations are close, not leaving a vehicle at the port is an advantage. If leaving a vehicle at the port, park on a higher level towards the interior of the structure for added protection.
2) Pre- and Post- Cruise Stay
We arrived in Orlando the afternoon prior to our cruise embarkation. We elected to stay on Walt Disney World property and maximize the use of our annual passes that would expire at the end of the month. It is pretty standard cruising advice to recommend traveling close to the port the day prior to embarkation. When traveling during hurricane season, especially by air, this is wise. Even if a hurricane is not in the area of the port, it could still affect air travel in other parts of the country.
After our sailing, we planned to return to Walt Disney World for a few days to ease the return to normal life. This proved helpful when our sailing was extended by a day. Instead of standing in the long line at Guest Services on the ship to alter our flight plans, we sent a simple email to let the hotel know we would arrive one day late.
What we learned: If it is at all possible, building buffer vacation days on each end of the cruise creates a less stressful experience should a sailing be altered.
With five people in one stateroom, I endeavored to pack only what we would need. Disney ships have innovative storage, but only so much can fit in 200 square feet. I planned; I made lists; I packed according to what each person would wear each day. Because we planned a post-cruise stay, I packed a separate suitcase of clothes for those days and left it in the rental car at the port. Which would have been fine. If all had gone according to plan. But it didn’t.
So we found ourselves running low on clean underwear, pajamas, and shorts with one day to go. No problem, I thought. The ship has laundry facilities for guests. Except that most other people were in our same situation. And with two average-size washers and dryers per passenger deck (except Deck Five’s five machines), laundry machines were at a premium. I was able to do a couple of loads, but stalking laundry machines far from my stateroom was not my preferred way to spend the last couple of afternoons and evenings on the ship.
What we learned: The clothes for that buffer part after the cruise should go on the ship. One more suitcase probably won’t make or break what can fit in the room. Alternatively, do a few loads of essential laundry early in the sailing. It’s less busy, and if the sailing is extended, the rush time is avoided. Also of note, pack several days of extra medication or other essentials.
4) Port Adventures
For us, this trip was all about the ship. The only port we planned to leave the ship and visit was Castaway Cay. For the other three scheduled stops, our plan was to enjoy the ship’s amenities with far fewer crowds. So we did not purchase any Port Adventures.
Early in the cruise, our Captain announced we may not be able to visit all of the ports advertised. Hurricane Matthew impacted Jamaica just days before we were scheduled to arrive. Some cruisers had made their own arrangements for excursions there. They were concerned they would not be refunded the amount paid should we not be able to visit the port.
What we learned: Buying Port Adventures through Disney Cruise Line is often more expensive than buying from vendors directly. However, one advantage is that Port Adventures booked through Disney will not be charged if the ship is unable to dock at the port. Check the fine print when booking independently. Disney always reserves the right to alter destinations, and this is not unusual during hurricane season.
5) Purchase Insurance
Purchasing any insurance is calculating the risk vs. benefit. We travel domestically often and usually without travel insurance. However, because cancellation penalties are steep and medical treatment outside of the United States is not covered on our health insurance, we purchase travel insurance when we cruise. This vacation we bought from an independent company, so as to include our airfare and pre- and post-cruise land vacation in the policy.
Because Orlando International Airport was closed for a day and a half, many passengers who needed to change their flights from our scheduled Saturday debarkation to Sunday found flights were not available until Monday. We heard several people who were upset Disney Cruise Line was not compensating them for the added cost of the unplanned extended vacation. These people had not purchased travel insurance.
What we learned: When cruising during hurricane season, most people should buy travel insurance. Research what plans fit best and know what is covered and what is not.
6) Practice Flexibility
We practiced the art of flexibility on this cruise. Instead of debarking our ship about 8:30 a.m. on Saturday and heading to Animal Kingdom to use our FastPasses, we were sailing along the southern coast of Florida. Instead of spending the day at Castaway Cay, our ship docked at Cozumel for a second time. Instead of using the DCL Navigator App to plan our day the last two days of the cruise, we used the paper navigators because the app doesn’t have the functionality to add a day to the cruise. Instead of the smooth debarkation of most Disney Cruises, we waited with everyone on the ship for several hours, eventually leaving the ship about 11:30 a.m. on Sunday.
It was an adventure. And as with most adventures, perspective determines enjoyment. Some cruisers complained about the changes; others embraced them and used the extra opportunities for experiences at Palo, Remy, or at the Senses Spa.
What we learned: Hurricanes can alter plans. We knew we were safe and did our best to enjoy each day as an adventure, concentrating on what we were able to do instead of what we were missing.