Beyond the Sea
Wheelchair Accessible Cruise Ship Cabins I Have Known
by Ronald Davies
2000  

I am 71-year-old post polio man and I love to cruise. I am semi-ambulatory and use a mobility scooter. I can stand for short periods and walk with a cane for very short distances, but I fatigue quickly, which is very bad for my Post Polio Syndrome condition.

Cruises are a great way for mobility-disabled persons to experience a relaxing and entertaining vacation. Many cruise itineraries also offer opportunities to visit and explore interesting sites around the world.

Benefits of Cruising

The many benefits of cruising include the fact that you only have to unpack and repack your luggage once. You utilize your cabin for the entire cruise period. Your shipboard dining room, entertainment locations, library etc. are all close by. Today’s ships offer gyms, pools, spas and many interesting learning opportunities. Lectures on topics such as investing, art, culinary, and crafts are often available. Bingo, trivia contests, and gambling in the shipboard casinos are popular. Another benefit is the opportunity to meet persons from all over the world. Most of these ships also offer stage productions and movies in theater/showrooms and movies on cabin TV sets.

My experience has been that the ship's tour councilors generally will advise and assist in making sure that disabled passengers are able to participate in suitable shore tours. Assistance that includes help in loading and unloading scooters and wheelchairs on and off busses. Of course, there are tours what pose too many difficulties but there is always something interesting, or restful, that is available on board.

Most modern cruise ships offer cabins that are modified to allow use by disabled (HC) persons. The only exception that I am aware of is Renaissance Cruises who does not. Modifications vary but generally they offer wide entrance doors to the cabin and to the bathroom. Entries are either ramped or flat. Bath showers are large enough for a wheelchair and offer a handheld showerhead and a fold down shower seat. Most offer raised sinks and toilets. Hand rails and grab bars are pretty standard. Knee spaces are provided under the sink. The rooms are also larger than normal to allow wheeling and storage space. Closets often offer lower hanger bars. Celebrity Cruise Line even offers hangers that can be lowered to hang or retrieve clothes and then raised for storage.

Many ships also offer access aids for hearing and vision-disabled passengers. These may include Braille call buttons and audible arrival sounds for elevators, telephone amplifiers, visual smoke detectors, doorknocker sensors, and text telephones. Service dogs may be permitted, but owners must make their own arrangements at ports of call to take the animals ashore.

I like to cruise so much that I have traveled on four cruises in the last year and have another one scheduled in May of  '99. I have cruised on seven different ships, twice on one of them. I have used travel agents to book the cruises, but I make sure that they are fully aware of what my limitations and needs are and make sure that they pass this on to the cruise line.

Most cruise lines have a special needs department that handles HC cabin arrangements. In many instances, the passenger must provide a doctor’s letter confirming their need for these rooms and also attesting to the fact that the passenger is capable of traveling either alone or with an assistant. I have found that it is important that this letter, or a separate letter, also state which needs are required and which are desirable. Ask to see the cruise line terms and conditions on acceptance of handicapped passengers.

Cruise lines also offer, at extra cost, air arrangements and airport/pier transfers if you have to travel to or from the cruise. I have found that I am better off making my own arrangements but in some instances it may be beneficial to use the cruise line offerings. They may be able to offer lower flight fares and it you are flying to a strange city they may be able to provide better transfer arrangements.

Two of my cruises have been on Norwegian Cruise Line ships the Dynasty, and the Dream. The Dynasty is a smaller ship, about 850 passengers, and more intimate. It has two inside HC cabins and two outside HC cabins that have large windows with the view somewhat restricted by lifeboats kept on the same deck. These rooms are very adequate and have the features listed above. The rooms are located amidships next to elevators.

All of the ship attractions are accessible although there are metal threshold sills on the doors to the outside decks. They are about an inch in height. I was able to mount them with my scooter but the anti-tip caster wheels on the rear caught and would hang my scooter up unless I had some momentum. There was always someone, crew or other passengers, to help overcome this limitation. The theater/showroom is stadium style but there are spaces for wheelchairs and scooters in the back on the entrance level.

Norwegian Cruise Line recently sold the Dynasty and after some refurbishing it will become one of ships on a new line to be named Crown. Many cruisers like the intimacy of these smaller ships.

The Dream is larger, about 1750+ passengers. It has 13 HC cabins. My cabin, #921A, was categorized as a suite and was quite large with a near floor to ceiling window. It had all of these HC features listed above. All of the ship spaces were accessible except the topmost deck where there is only a basketball court and some exercise space. It has the same outside deck doorsill complication as the Dynasty. The Dream theater/showroom has ramps from front to back and group type chairs and table seating where room can be made for wheelchairs. There are also spaces at the rear of the room.

The third ship, which I have been on twice, is the Celebrity Cruise Line Mercury. The Mercury is larger with 2200-plus passengers, It, and its sister ships the Century and Galaxy, have eight handicapped rooms, one inside and seven outside, and all located on Deck 5 amidships. My first room was #5044, a very large inside room with all the fore mentioned HC features. The second room #5062 was not quite as large but more than ample. It has a large window with an unrestricted view.

All of the Mercury spaces are accessible except for the 13th deck where there is only a golf simulator. All of the doors to the outside decks had ramps on the sills. The theater is stadium seating with steps, but there are HC spaces and reserved HC seating on the main level near the entrance.

Manual wheelchair users should expect lots of carpeted areas on cruise ships, so there will be no need to visit the gym for exercise.

I am not interested in swimming pools, so I did not pay much attention to them. My impression is that they would present some entry/exit problems due to the distance from the deck level to the water level. It appeared to be about three feet on the Dream and the Dynasty. This apparently is to prevent splashing when there are rough seas. On the Mercury the distance was less because they had splash basins located around the pool. All the ships have hot tub spas. On the Dream, there was a step or two down to the tub level. Only one of the four hot tubs on the Mercury, the one on deck 12, was accessible. The rest all had multiple steps.

My next cruise will be on the Princess Line 1950+ Passenger Sea Princess. Princess has the reputation for outstanding handicapped facilities. This ship and sister ships, the Sun and Dawn Princesses, each have 18 handicapped cabins. They also have a special WC transporting gangway mechanism that aids embarkation and disembarkation.

On all of these ships, the staff members have been very receptive to the needs of HC passengers. Some of the dining options include buffets, and there was always a staff member available to propel manual wheelchairs, assist with food trays and locate appropriate seating. All ships offer gourmet seated dinning, but generally they have early and late seating times. Since I need some time to get ready in the morning, and since I like to dine later in the evening, I always select the late seating. Late seating offers breakfast around 8:30 to 9:00, lunch at 1:30 and dinner at 8:30 to 8:45. There are also buffet options for breakfast and lunch over a more extended period. Room service (24 hours) is also an option and generally offers a wide range of menu items during normal dining hours and a more basic offering during the remainder of the time. In general, there is always some level of food service available 24 hours a day.

When considering a cruise itinerary, it is important to determine if the ship docks or tenders at the ports visited. At ports where tendering is required the ship anchors off shore and takes passengers ashore on smaller boats. The transfer from the ship to the boats and from the boats to the pier may present problems for HC passengers. If you do tender, be sure to make the assisting crew members know exactly what your limitations are and determine just how they are going to affect the transfers. Many of the crewmembers are international and may have limited English language skills. If you have any reservations about their understanding ask for a ships officer. They will understand English better.

Cruises offer HC persons a great way to experience new places, meet interesting people, and generally have a relaxing time. If you are interested, you may wish to visit www.access-able.com They offer many details on various ships including the number of HC cabins and specifically what HC modifications have been incorporated. Other web sites offering this type information, in less detail, are www.fieldingtravel.com/cf/index.html and www.wheelhouse.com Many of the cruise line web sites also offer details.

Sure there may be some ship activities and shore tours that you will not be able to do but then, we face these situations just about every day so my motto is "LET’S CRUISE!"

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