Wheels on a Cruise

Wheels on a Cruise

Many readers might wonder what it’s like to experience a cruise in a wheelchair. After two cruises on two different cruise lines, I will share my experience. I am not an expert but these are my insights after more than a half dozen cruises, two in a wheelchair.

Getting on and off:

  • Handicap guests complete a form noting specific needs prior to sailing. Ship staff provided everything I noted on that form with the staff on the second cruise even including the bed top at chair level. That was huge! [High bed tops typically found in handicap hotel rooms remove independence from those in wheelchairs.]
  • Parking was convenient & nearby – no need to use a bus to get from the parking to the ship.
  • Staff was visible to help and expedited lines to ease weaving through the intense congestion.
  • Staff was helpful getting me up and down gangplanks when they were not ADA compliant (narrow and steep).

Ship:

  • Longer cruises attract older cruisers.
  • The staff was more than accommodating and always gracious.
  • There were definitely others on both cruises with mobility handicaps.
  • Needs of those in wheelchairs fell in two categories:
    • Necessary: Birth defects such as cerebral palsy (CP), disease such as multiple sclerosis (MS), amputee, spinal cord injury (SCI), etc.
    • Convenient: People who can stand and walk but it has become problematic due to heart, brain, breathing, ambulatory issues, etc.
  • Cruising was convenient because once settled in our room, there was no need to cart around suitcases which are impossible to carry, hold, or wheel.
  • Both cruise ships were around 2,500 passengers. I would consider these to be medium size ships. Both seemed optimal for size. I believe a larger ship would be more difficult to move around. Rolling from bow to stern or stern to bow can be a long trip, especially if necessary multiple times per day.
  • Anyone who likes to gamble can rest assured that casinos can quickly be located due to the smell of stale smoke and a blue haze in the air as one gets close.
  • Most ship floors were carpeted which was never easy. Some of the hallways had hidden dips which threw the chair to one side then the other so I sometimes looked like a drunken sailor. Both ships had a floor that had an outdoor walkway from bow to stern. This was a hard surface and much easier to navigate.

Stateroom:

  • Rooms were larger to accommodate a wheelchair plus provide the ability to wheel around room and bathroom. Note: anyone who needs a scooter or wheelchair for convenience must keep it in ones room. None can be left in hallways.
  • Bathrooms were uniquely designed with a roll under sink, no curb to the shower, a fold down bench, and flexible (reachable) showerheads.
  • The first cruise line had a special stateroom entry door. When pushed, it continued to open and stayed open for about 30 seconds when it slowly closed on its own or it would close with a gentle nudge. The other cruise had a heavy door which was difficult to open unassisted.
  • Even handicapped rooms were carpeted which surprised me.
  • Most passengers in common walkways were accommodating of the chair and moved to the side. Not all, however.
  • Rooms near an elevator were more efficient. Our room on one ship was about midway between two elevators. Since hallways were carpeted, that repeated trip was difficult.

Shows:

  • Shows were accessible only on the main level, not from the balcony level. Our most recent ship had two accessible areas, one near each entry door. The one had an area free of fixed seats where one could bring a wheelchair. The problem was that the fixed chairs in front of us were high, thus blocking the view of the stage. The other was an area that accommodated about 3 wheelchairs, scooters, or companions on available folding chairs. The view from there was unobstructed and nearby fixed chairs were available and marked for companions.
  • The MC announced prior to each show that the seats marked for handicapped were to be respected. Not surprisingly, there were typically some who loved the convenience of the area and sat there anyway. I was often reminded of a posting I saw once from another SCI acquaintance, “Stupidity does not qualify as a handicap for reserved parking” (or seating).

Dining:

  • Dining was accessible. One cruise had assigned tables and staff removed a chair. The other cruise had flexible seating hours and locations. Staff was excellent about helping push me across the carpet which tended to be the thickest on the ship and also removed a chair to provide space.
  • We preferred to eat in a dining hall and enjoy the service. Cafeteria style eating was more difficult. I would need to rest a plate precariously on my lap. On one cruise, staff would notice and offer to help me. On the other cruise, either my husband or I needed to ask for assistance. The thing I learned quickly was that staff wants to be very generous with helping sizes. Even requests to scoop a very small amount resulted in medium to large scoops which culminateded in an over-heaping plate for me and an awful lot of waste. It’s possible that the language was a barrier.

Excursions:

  • We did not find one accessible excursion on either cruise. Some excursion descriptions noted that customers needed to get into the bus or van independently or with assistance. One trip was advertised as completely handicap accessible for those in wheelchairs. Both cruise lines had a designated phone line serviced by staff trained in handicap needs and facilities. I called the special line twice, speaking with two different people who both assured me that this particular excursion was, indeed, a good solution for me, a paraplegic. It was not. The on-board cruise staff had all my information regarding handicap needs. Even though they knew it was not accessible, they made no effort to notify us ahead of time. We only learned by chance the night prior to the excursion. When we asked, they promised to refund our money by mail but there was no effort on their part to make up for it.
  • Some but not all ports have a place for those in wheelchairs to get off and explore at least a bit. Some allow direct access into town and others have a small area with shops in which to browse. By observation, these occur either in very large cities or in more remote docking areas where local vendors or cruise lines build small shops and a simulated taste of the island or country.
  • Any port that requires tending off the ship (using smaller boats to get to land from an anchored ship) is not wheelchair accessible.
  • There remains a lot to do on a cruise ship even if one cannot get off. Be sure to bring books to read.

All things considered, cruising provided wonderful experiences.

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