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Millions of people will take a cruise this year, traveling to ports of call near and far. Some of those people will have additional needs that range from mobility impairments (i.e., cane or wheelchair users) to dietary restrictions (i.e., gluten-free or low-salt) to other challenges such as autism.
If your family includes someone with extra needs and you’ve avoided cruises in the past, it’s time to reconsider. The industry has come a long way in providing a pathway for everyone to enjoy a cruise. While there can be hurdles to leap, there usually is a virtual army of people ready and eager to help you have the best vacation of a lifetime. (That said, some cruise lines are better equipped to deal with disabilities than others, which is where this guide will come in handy.)
Why US and Canadian Ports May Be Best
Often, cruise ships that call at US and Canadian ports are better equipped to deal with passengers with disabilities because these countries have more stringent accessibility regulations, says Mike King, owner of Travel Leaders in Fredericksburg, Virginia, part of an international conglomerate of travel agencies. In the US, the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 offers protections against discrimination based on disabilities.
As you explore your options (itinerary, ship size, price point, etc.), check the descriptions of their accessible accommodations and services. Look to newer ships that have ramps for passengers in wheelchairs to exit from inside to outside decks, although there still may be areas on any ship, according to Chuck Mardiks, publicist for Celestyal Cruises ships, “where the assistance of another person is required to exit and re-enter.”
Book an Accessible Cabin
Accessible cabins vary by cruise line, ship and cabin category but have some things in common. Generally, they start with a cabin that doesn’t have a door sill at the entry. The cabin or stateroom door is 32–34 inches wide (rather than the standard 22 inches or so), which allows for easier access for people in wheelchairs or using a walker. The bathroom door is either level with the cabin floor or has a ramp, and the doorway is also 32 to 34 inches wide. Grab bars are installed in the bathroom and the sink/vanity is lower to allow for wheelchair use. The toilet seat is raised. The shower typically has a handheld showerhead and a fold-down bench.
Within the cabin, the clothing rods in the closet are lower than usual, as is the safe. The balcony usually is accessible, but check its size as there isn’t always room for a wheelchair to turn around on a balcony in standard cabins (suite balconies are often much more spacious).
Royal Caribbean says its accessible staterooms “range from 159 square feet to 298 square feet and offer a 5-foot turning radius in sleeping areas, bathrooms and sitting areas for easy maneuverability.”
Carnival Cruise Lines and Holland America Line (owned by Carnival) have three levels of accessible staterooms: “fully accessible” with turning space, accessible routes throughout the cabin and accessible bathrooms; “fully accessible – single side approach,” where only one side of the bed in a cabin is fully accessible for someone in a wheelchair; and “ambulatory accessible” for individuals who don’t require the regular use of a wheelchair, scooter or other similar device.
Disney Cruise Lines says its accessible staterooms feature a minimum of 32-inch doorways, emergency call buttons, ramped bathroom thresholds, bathroom and shower grab bars, roll-in showers, fold-down shower seats, handheld showerheads and refrigerators. There are also free beach wheelchairs available on a first-come-first-served basis on Disney’s Castaway Cay private island, a common port of call on many Disney sailings.
On Norwegian Cruise Line, the company says: “Motorized wheelchairs and scooters are allowed in our accessible staterooms provided that they are powered by gel-cell batteries and the chargers must be adaptable to 110 volts. Should you choose a stateroom that has not been designated as accessible, you will need to bring a collapsible wheelchair, or if you have a motorized wheelchair or scooter, the width must not exceed 26 inches to enter the stateroom door.” Further, when not in use, “All scooters and wheelchairs must be stored in the stateroom. Due to the safety and escape way requirements established by SOLAS [Safely of Life at Sea] regulations, they cannot be stored in the hallways, stairways or any other public area.”
Perhaps the most exciting cruise ship development for wheelchair users is the Magic Carpet moving platform on the new Celebrity Edge. “The world’s first cantilevered, floating platform” that’s about the size of a tennis court (100-feet long by 20-feet wide) can move between Deck 2 and 16. On the top deck, it’s a dining room and party venue. On Deck 14, it’s an extension of the pool deck. At the lower deck, guests can use it to seamlessly board the tenders — without stairs — to go between ship and shore.
(If tendering ashore is a concern for you, look for itinerary where the ship always docks. This makes it much easier for wheelchair users and people with mobility issues to disembark and embark without navigating stairs and transferring to a tender bobbing up and down in the water.)
Does Cruise Ship Size Matter?
Larger, newer ships may be better equipped for those with disabilities because they tend to have more (and larger) elevators, more conveniences (e.g., push buttons to open doors) and larger cabins. Some Princess ships (Golden Princess, Crown Princess and Caribbean Princess) have a free “medallion” for passengers to carry that functions as your ID, spending card (for charging drinks, food and merchandise and a boatload of other things), gambling pass and even unlocks your cabin door as you approach.
If you are on a ship that uses tenders to get to some destinations, and you are traveling with someone who will have to stay on board as a result, then larger ships also have an advantage because they usually have more on board activities during that time.
Can Dialysis Patients Take a Cruise?
If you suffer from kidney issues and require dialysis, you may be required to submit a “fit to sail” clearance letter from your nephrologist and a signed risk acknowledgement letter several weeks before sailing. Dialysis at Sea provides cruises with trained renal care specialists (nephrologists, dialysis nurses and certified technicians) and Fresenius 2008K dialysis machine for treatments during cruises on select Royal Caribbean and Celebrity ships. (Related dietary needs can be accommodated by the ship’s dining staff.)
Services for the Visually and Hearing Challenged
Menus, elevator floor buttons and signage may be available in Braille on some ships for the visually impaired. In some cases, large print newsletters, menus and shore excursion brochures also are offered; menus may be available in an electronic PDF readable via screen-reading software.
For the hearing impaired, many cruise lines provide a visual/tactile cabin alert system that notifies room occupants of a door knock, a telephone call, the alarm clock or a smoke-detection event. A TTY (teletypewriter) is also available to communicate with Guest Services 24 hours a day. Sign language interpreters are provided on a shared basis for interpreting onboard theater shows, port and shopping presentations, and other major organized activities. (Usually, a cruise line requires 60 days’ notice before sailing for this service.) A safety briefing video with open (always on) captions also is televised in all staterooms throughout the cruise.
On Carnival, company-created TV content has closed captions (which can be turned on an off by the user). Additionally, when available, closed captions are offered for certain in-stateroom TV programs and movies; closed captioning may also be provided for the outdoor movies through a request to guest services once on board. Carnival uses Listen Technologies infrared-based headsets on all its ships to amplify the sound of live, onboard performances in the main theater for those who need the assistance; request them at Guest Services once on board.
Will Children With Disabilities Enjoy the Kids Club?
Nearly all of the major cruise lines — Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Carnival, Disney and Princess — have robust kids clubs and other onboard programming. More and more cruise lines are putting an emphasis on training staff to better work with kids that have a variety of needs.
Jennifer Mizrahi, co-founder and president of Respectability.org, is a Rockville, Maryland, resident who is dyslexic and has ADHD. Her daughter has cerebral palsy from a stroke. They went on a Disney cruise to the Caribbean several years ago when her daughter was about 3. Mizrahi says this was during a period of time “when she had different therapies every day — physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy — and more. We left her in the child care area for kids her age. We gave the staff a tremendous amount of information about how to work with her. They took in every bit of information with joy and interest. Then they made her feel like a star. She played games, danced, laughed, did art and had a blast.
“Yes, the food and the stops on the cruise where great,” she says. “But there was nothing better for her than to be in the play area with the Disney staff, getting to have fun just like any other kid.”
Carnival, for its part, says it works with parents or guardians to include all children within the designated age ranges in its available youth programs. According to the cruise line, each child’s needs are assessed on a case-by-case basis to determine how she or he can be accommodated and integrated in the program to have a fully and equally enjoyable experience. A parent or an assistant is allowed to stay with the child if that is desired.
Autism-Friendly Ships and Sailings
For people on the autism spectrum, travel can be very challenging because it involves a change in the daily pattern … everything from new food to new noises, smells and accommodations. Among the best cruise lines for people with autism are Royal Caribbean, Disney, Celebrity, Norwegian and Carnival because they have implemented training so staff are equipped to deal with the unique traits of someone with autism.
Autism on the Seas is an organization started in 2007 that arranges travel for families with autism. Families can travel either on their own or with a group with its own staff.
Mike Sobbell, the CEO/founder of Autism on the Seas, says the group works with any cruise line, but has a specific arrangement with Royal Caribbean that includes a department that specializes in shore excursions. Autism on the Seas selects about 40 to 50 cruises a year where they provide one staff member to every two autistic children. This means parents can have uninterrupted meals (the staff member stands in the buffet line or retrieves children should they leave the dining table, etc.). They also operate a day care and a night care program so parents can have some private time. Families are given help preparing for the trip, checked in separately at the port and attend a separate muster drill once on board. Special events are scheduled in ship venues away from other passengers.
Sobbell recommends that when families traveling with an autistic member look at shore excursions they “look for those that don’t tie them into a rigid schedule, (such) as with only one bus return from an activity. Perhaps they should take a taxi to a beach so they can return early if necessary.” Sobbell also advises that while first-time cruise families might think a shorter (three- to four-day) cruise is better than a long one, a longer one (four to nine nights) actually gives the family time to settle into a routine and appreciate their vacation. (Autism on the Seas programmed cruises cost about $150 to $180 per person per night.)
You can also look for special events on the cruise ships that may be a good match, such as Family Movie Fun Time, in Disney’s Buena Vista Theatre, where some lights are left on, the volume is turned down and some noise is acceptable in the casual come-and-go environment.
Catering to Dietary Needs Is a Snap
Cruise lines excel when it comes to addressing your dietary requirements (but most ask that you alert them to your specific needs at the time of booking, or at least 60 days before embarkation). Whether you have a seafood allergy, you’re gluten intolerant or must avoid other specific foods, the galley and dining room wait staff are well-trained, and there are often even special menus that cater to specific diets. Talk with the dining room manager, maitre d’ or your waiter to remind them of your needs. For dinner, you will most likely be shown a menu the night before so you can select from the available options for the next night or have the chef customize something just for you.
You don’t have to rule out a cruise vacation just because a member of your party has a disability — it’s entirely possible those needs can be well managed on board. Check the cruise line website and call its guest access team to ask questions. (This is also where using a travel agent specializing in cruise travel can really help.)
Here’s a rundown of the best credit cards to use when booking a cruise.
Have you cruised as a person or family needing special assistance? What was your experience like?
To help continue your planning process:
- Traveling With Children Who Have Special Needs
- Traveling With a Disability in the United States
- Challenges When Traveling With a Child Who Has Special Needs
- Dining at Disney With Food Allergies
- Review of the Disney Dream Cruise to the Bahamas
Featured image by Summer Hull / The Points Guy of Disney’s Castaway Cay
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