Bonus vacation or choppy nightmare? Here's what it's like on a cruise ship stuck at sea during a hurricane
There's always a possibility of bad weather and rough seas when you go on a cruise, but cruise lines are well prepared to change course if an approaching storm could be too dangerous to navigate. There are also contingencies if they are unable to return to port as scheduled. Right now, all those playbooks have been dusted off and are in use.
On Monday, Sept. 26, as Hurricane Ian was closing in on Florida, Disney Wish left Port Canaveral for a four-night Bahamas cruise with planned stops at Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney Cruise Line's private island, before a planned return to Port Canaveral on Friday, Sept. 30.
But with Hurricane Ian a dangerous Category 4 storm making landfall in Central Florida, Port Canaveral closed and has ceased all operations until further notice.
Without the option to return to Florida as originally scheduled, Disney Wish — along with other cruise ships — is (temporarily) "stuck" at sea.
While staying at sea and away from the storm is the safest decision, travelers still have a lot of questions, concerns and general curiosity about the change of course. The Points Guy spoke with passengers currently on board Disney Wish to learn what it's like being out at sea for a few extra days during a hurricane.
You'll get frequent updates from the captain
When Disney Wish set sail on Sept. 26, the captain made an announcement that the ship might return to Port Canaveral later in the day than originally planned based on the projected forecast at that time. Matt Roseboom, editor and publisher at Attractions Magazine, is on board the sailing and captured video footage of the initial announcement.
The captain notified guests with flights leaving before 3 p.m. on Sept. 30 to contact their airline to depart later in the day, if possible. He also advised that they were watching Hurricane Ian carefully and would continue to keep passengers updated on the weather throughout the voyage.
Lizzie Meeks, a Disney travel advisor in Nashville, is also on the sailing and explained to TPG that the captain told guests "the port authority will need to assess any damage before giving the ship the green light to move into port and the cruise terminal."
Your itinerary might be adjusted
A cruise ship's schedule of port visits and sea days can be adjusted midcruise for a number of reasons. The weather is certainly one of those reasons — even absent a full-fledged hurricane. But when a hurricane is churning, it is very possible that the ship's itinerary will change.
Related: When will cruise ports in Florida reopen?
For Disney Wish, a port change announcement came on the morning of Sept. 28 when the ship was scheduled to dock at Castaway Cay for the day. Rather than head toward Disney's private island, and toward the storm, the ship turned toward the eastern edge of the Atlantic Ocean where seas would be calmer.
Meeks shared that the winds near Castaway Cay were too strong, with little hope for improvement, so the captain made the decision to sail away from the area.
A day at port became a day at sea, but Disney conjured a bit of its famous "Disney magic" and added more activities throughout the day, according to Roseboom. "They made an announcement and told us to close out of the Disney Cruise app and reopen it to see the new schedule of activities," he said. Mickey and his friends still wore their island outfits to greet guests, even if everyone had to stay on board.
"They've really made an effort to make it a special day," Meeks said. "There have been a ton of new character meet and greets throughout the day, including Marvel, 'Star Wars' and Halloween characters that are typically reserved for special event cruises. New group games and trivia themes have been added, as well as additional times for drink tastings like Champagne, bourbon, gin and more," she added.
Related: What happens when a hurricane hits Disney World
Your cruise might be extended
If a hurricane strikes while you are at sea, it's also possible that you may end up with an extended sailing and extra days on the ship.
That's currently the situation for Carnival Paradise, Carnival Elation, Royal Caribbean's Mariner of the Seas, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Getaway, MSC Cruise's MSC Divina and Disney Wish. With several Florida ports closed due to the storm, the ships cannot return to disembark passengers on schedule.
In such cases, cruise lines have two options: head to a different port up or down the coast to disembark passengers or remain at sea until the ship's home port reopens. Docking at a different port creates a whole new set of issues for passengers who need to return to cars, homes or airports near the originally scheduled port — so that option is rarely used.
Related: At least 5 cruise ships stuck at sea as Hurricane Ian closes Florida ports
In the case of Disney Wish, the first announcement came on the evening of Sept. 27 as the storm moved closer to shore. Based on updated forecasts, the captain announced the ship would not return to port until Saturday or Sunday, after the storm had passed and they could better assess the situation at Port Canaveral. That meant passengers would remain on board one or two days longer than expected.
Before he could even complete the announcement, cheers erupted through the ship, as seen in the below video.
In a subsequent announcement on the afternoon of Sept. 28, the captain updated guests that Disney Wish would return to Port Canaveral on Sunday instead of Friday and that the ship should be able to dock at Castaway Cay on Saturday, Oct. 1.
Even before the extension of this sailing was formally announced, Disney Cruise Line canceled the upcoming Disney Wish sailing that was set to depart Port Canaveral on Friday, Sept. 30, as a safety precaution.
Extra days are generally a good thing
As that announcement was made, audible cheers confirmed that most guests were thrilled that their vacation was just extended indefinitely. "The general sentiment is that people are content and happy about the extra day(s)," Roseboom said.
Cruise ships can easily avoid storms by sailing away from them and chasing better weather. For Disney Wish, at least, the weather has been fairly calm. "The current weather is sunshine with some humidity. We had choppier waves this morning [when the ship was closer to the storm], but from where we are now, you wouldn't even know there was a hurricane in the distance," Meeks said.
Plus, the crew is prepared to innovate to accommodate the extra days. The entertainment staff will schedule more sea-day activities, just as they did when Castaway Cay got canceled.
Guests don't need to worry about running out of food, as cruise ships carry more than just one sailing's worth of food on board. In a pinch, the cruise ship can find a way of picking up provisions in the islands. With two extra days at sea, the ship might run out of specific perishables, like berries, but passengers will still have plenty of choices at every meal.
Because Disney Wish employs a rotational dining schedule, in which passengers are assigned nights at each of the ship's main restaurants, guests must now wait to be told which restaurants they should dine in on the additional nights of the sailing. "Since Disney Cruise Line uses rotational dining, they simply assigned us two more nights of a restaurant. It's really operating like normal in many ways," Meeks said.
You'll have to rearrange travel plans
Roseboom, who resides in Central Florida, is enjoying the extra day or two of vacation, but is equally worried about his house and friends and family back home in the wake of Hurricane Ian. "For cruisers who live outside of Florida, they seem to be mostly happy, but they do have to figure out how to change their flights," he shared.
For Meeks, reality set in as the cheers subsided.
"Some people, including myself, found the news concerning because of travel logistics — changing transfers and flights, booking a hotel room just in case our flights are canceled and communicating with family back home are all stressful and you could feel the tension late last night," she said.
Not only is Port Canaveral closed until Hurricane Ian passes and the wind calms, but Orlando International Airport (MCO) has also shuttered during the storm.
Even once the airport reopens after the storm has passed, it will take some time for planes and crews to get back into position, and longer still to accommodate all of the passengers who have been temporarily stranded in the Central Florida area.
This is one of the reasons why when cruising during hurricane season, it's very important to seriously consider travel insurance, or at least book your trip using a credit card that conveys some built-in trip protections to help minimize the financial impact.
"There are certainly worse places to be 'stuck,'" Meeks told us. "A lot of people have the perspective that we are safe and have much to be thankful for," she added. Crew and passenger safety is the reason cruise lines make the decision to stay at sea past the end of their scheduled itinerary. Yes, it can be inconvenient, but cruise lines do go out of their way to make the most of the experience for their guests, and safety is always the top priority.
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