Panama Cruise ‘04 
Cruising with Kieron and my Dad
By Alex Yates 2004

 The Yates Family.


Alex Yates (in aqua dress) with her sons,
Nik (standing) and Kieron (seated on her right).
Her father, Colin Holmes, is seated on the far left.

I’m am a self confessed cruise-aholic, I admit it, I’m addicted to all-you-can-eat buffets, someone else doing the dishes, having my bed made and a chocolate left on the pillow, traveling on board a gently rocking ship lulling me to sleep at night, exotic destinations, and all of it paid for before I set foot on the ship!

 

Having taken other kinds of vacations with my son, Kieron, who uses a power wheelchair, I have come to the conclusion that cruises are the way to go. They offer me the biggest bang for my buck ,and they accommodate Kieron's special needs magnificently. I get a break because Kieron can access the children’s’ programs, and I don’t have to cook a thing!

 

When Kieron and his twin brother Nik were 11, I took a Panama Canal cruise; it was 18 days of bliss. I also took my father, who has had a stroke and also uses a wheelchair. What an adventure that was! I took the boys, my dad, my caregiver for Kieron, and a caregiver for my dad, who happened to be Kieron’s special student assistant.

 

We drove in my huge wheelchair accessible van to Seattle to catch our flight to San Juan. Our group included six people, two manual chairs one power chair, one scooter, two battery chargers, one commode chair, incontinence supplies, enough luggage to last six people 18 days and high spirits!

 

The drive was easy; but unloading at Seattle Airport was hell. I had to put the van in long-term parking, get us all checked in, break down the power chair and the scooter, all late at night, in the rain, for a midnight flight. The airline placed us all in first class, which was really nice, and certainly made the flight less painful. The boys were troopers-- they didn’t complain and were very patient. They even managed to sleep!

 

We had to change planes in Houston, Texas, but the changeover was quite painless. When we got to San Juan, there was a wheelchair accessible van waiting to transport us to the cruise ship, and we were on board before most people had gotten from the airport to the ship! Waiting for us on the dock were the children’s’ program counselors, who welcomed the boys on board with programs and gifts.

 

Our cabin was awesome, we had two regular beds, a bunk bed that folded up into the wall, and at night they brought in a very comfortable roll away bed. The bathroom was a dream, with a roll in shower, grab bars everywhere, a height-adjustable sink, and a mirror that you could change the angle on. The closets had a pull down bar that allowed a person in a wheelchair to access the clothes hanger bar. A huge window looked out onto the port. The hallway outside the cabin was wide and accommodated Kieron’s power chair at night when it was recharging .My dad and his attendant were next door.

 

There was plenty of space. Our two cabin staff were wonderful, helpful, attentive and constantly cheerful! The children’s’ program had a fantastic area completely dedicated to looking after the children according to their ages. There was a huge ball pit, a kids only pool, Nintendo game stations, huge TV sets, craft areas, and qualified staff, who very quickly took over the care of Kieron from my caregiver Erin so that she could go off and have some fun as well.

 

Programs for the children started right after breakfast, with scavenger hunts, t shirt painting, and visits to parts of the ship that the rest of us weren’t allowed in. Who knows what else they got up to? I didn’t need to know. Most cruise ships provide parents with a walkie-talkie system, so if there are any problems, the staff can get hold of a parent quickly. This certainly affords peace of mind. The food was magnificent. Usually at breakfast, we went to the gorgeous buffet, and attentive wait staff were always available to carry trays to the table and to get us more if we asked.

 

On days where we were not in a port, the choice of activities was more than you could possibly imagine--many of those were not “my kind of thing,” but many of them were fun, relaxing or exciting. Sometimes I just wanted to lie on a deck chair and “catch some rays."

 

Port days there was always a choice of taking an excursion, (paying extra), “going it alone,” ,or staying on board ship. In Aruba, we took a taxi to a hotel and used their beach. It was a bit complicated with Kieron’s manual chair, and of course, sand is always a challenge. However, when there’s a will, there’s a way and we managed.

 

It was the boys’ first experience of being in the ocean and they loved it. If you take shore excursions organized by the ship, they usually have good knowledge of how accessible each trip is and can advise you as to the ease of getting around in different ports.

 

As a consequence Kieron and I stayed on board in Cartagena, Columbia, but Nik and Erin went ashore, and my dad and his caregiver tooled around in the port area for a while. We had a couple of days at sea after that and loved the on-board life.  Kieron became a gourmand, and enjoyed escargot, swordfish, sweetbreads, you name it. If it sounded interesting, he was gonna try it! Nik, on the other hand, when faced with these incredible menus, would ask for burgers, French fries and hot dogs! Identical twins and one is into escargot and the other burgers!

 

The dining staff were amazing. They quickly took responsibility for making sure Kieron’s food arrived already cut up for him, and that his plate guard was washed and returned to us between courses. The assistant waiter entered into a competition to see if he could keep Nik's juice cup permanently filled, and the Maitre’D made a special trip to the warehouse in Cartagena to supply Nik with Fruit Loops because he asked for them!

 

The Panama Canal itself is an incredible feat of engineering. The story of how it was built is an amazing tale of persistence under the most brutal of conditions, and in “The Galaxy,” which is a moderately large cruise ship, we just fit between the walls of the Gatun Locks, you could have stepped off the side of the ship onto the lock wall with no stretch at all.

 

When we reached the Pacific, it was quite noticeable that the swell of the ocean was different, and on the West Coast we visited Costa Rica, and several Ports of call in Mexico. We got out everywhere--we swam on the public beach in Puerto Vallarta, took a taxi to the shopping centers in Acapulco, went sailing on a catamaran in Cabo San Lucas and visited the San Diego Zoo when we reached California.

 

We flew home from Los Angeles and had to spend an unplanned night in Seattle because my van runs on propane, and getting propane in Washington State late on a Sunday night was impossible!

 

It was a truly magical trip. I learned so much about how to travel with wheelchairs and how not to. Some things were not very successful. For example, my dad did not get on well with the support person we had found for him, (Kieron's special student assistant). if I were doing it again, I would work harder with my father on finding a compatible companion for him.

 

Also, I had just recently started dating Jim (now my husband) and we left him behind. I missed him so much.

 

We had a fantastic travel agent, who did a huge amount of forward planning and preparation for us, so transfers were all arranged between planes and ships. The two wheelchair accessible cabins were arranged, and even though some things went less smoothly than I would have liked, traveling with two people, who both have mobility impairments is a challenge, and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

 

We got an incredible price for our trip. Again having a travel agent who understands your needs, and your budget really helps. Not all cruise ship companies are created equal; some have very different policies about what they charge 3rd and 4th passengers in the same cabin. The company we traveled with offered $299 per child for the boys for the entire trip. We had to pay for flights on top of that, and, of course, there are always add-ons.

 

I paid for Erin, my caregivers’ full fare, plus on occasion when we wished her to come with us on shore excursions, I  paid that, too, but I did  not pay her an hourly rate. She shared a cabin with me and the boys, and all incidental expenses she incurred were her responsibility. Erin and I had already agreed that a free holiday would be her “pay.”

 

I really got a chance to relax completely.  I did take advantage of a couple of overpriced but truly gorgeous spa treatments, and we went to some fabulous destinations. The food was superlative, the pampering was heavenly, and for 18 whole days, I didn’t wash a single dish!

 

Having become hooked on cruising, Jim and I took a European cruise (without children) a couple of fun Pacific Coast  3-day cruise packages, with 3 days added on , once in  Las Vegas, and once in San Francisco. I decided I loved it so much that I became a travel agent myself, and since then we have taken the boys to Disneyland, Mazatlan, and on a Caribbean cruise. I have helped a number of families, who have a child with extra support needs to find the right vacation, not always cruises, but cruising is my passion, and over the years it has become much more affordable, so now you can get cruses for the same price as an all-inclusive to Mexico, so it makes a lot of sense.

 

Jim and I are planning a trip to England next year with the boys to show them their roots, and we are hoping to do a home exchange with someone who also has a disability and has an adapted home. That would be an adventure!!

 

You can contact me at ayates@travelmasters.ca

 or 1-250-953-5740 or 1-888-953-9906.

http://www.travelmasters.ca/consultants/victoria/consultants.asp?consultant=aYates

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