Monday, February 15, 2010

Disney Cruise Lines Disembarcation Debacle

Nothing like a negative experience to get the alliterative juices flowing: Disney's Dumbo Disaster, Dismal Disney... so many choices. Why the petulance? Read on.

Here we are Monday morning after overnighting in Issaquah and getting ready for a quick trip home before flying from Bellingham Tuesday (tomorrow - Yikes!) and flying to Buenos Aires Wednesday after an overnight in Los Angeles.

Our cruise on the Disney Magic with three sweet grandchildren and their parents was terrific right up until the very end. The employees are uniformly excellent, the ship itself is beautiful and well equipped, the entertainment is in a (Disney) class of its own, and even the food was surprisingly good for a line catering to families with young children. For example, Palo, the specialty restaurant, offered a champagne brunch about as lavish as anything we've enjoyed at sea or ashore. Their dinner menu, the service, and the food were also superb.

No, Brian outlined our complaints in a Cruise Critic thread titled Disney Magic Stuck in Bahamas!

Rather than rewrite it all, we'll just paste it below:

Disembarkation Debacle


Originally Posted by DLaForce
I was on the ship that was stuck and we just got home. We had to leave Grand Cayman early due to weather and everyone was wondering why we didn't leave Castaway Cay early as well. The crew stated they knew the bad weather was coming but that they didn't think it was so fast. The ship tried to leave twice in the evening and we kept being blown into the bay. We even hit the wooden pole marking the channel (about 10 feet from the rocks). We tried to leave at 2:30 am and twice around noon the next day. Finally made it out around 4:30 pm on Saturday. We were eating in AP and it felt like eating in a massage chair the entire restaurant was shaking.

Disney offered free phone calls but not internet (3rd party vendor). People were waiting in line for up to 9 hours and there were a ton of chairs on the third floor. However, they were terrific in getting together another day planned (i.e. activities, kids club open). They also offered 20% off to people when booking another cruise whether they were on the ship still or not.

This is a long post, but then it's been a long couple of days...

We were on the Magic as well in party of seven, including three young children. The Disney reputation for organization and, for want of a better term, crowd control, suffered greatly IMO during this episode, especially the disembarkation "process."

First, as you point out the weather was clearly problematic. "Captain John" blamed the third-party tender providers for requiring everyone to return to the ship at Grand Cayman no later than 2:00 p.m. He said they had spoken to them "to no avail" (or similar words) and implied that he would have remained in port had it been his decision. Considering what happened at Castaway Cay, that seems significant.

Second, there was much talk of the weather as we arrived at the somewhat aptly named Castaway Cay, both from the captain and Peter, the cruise director... we were very fortunate the weather was so wonderful, it was an "envelope," it might get worse later in the day but it would be beautiful for much of our stay, etc. We were actually quite surprised to step out on deck and find that it was quite cloudy - still, no complaints about the weather while we were there.

Yes, there was a lot of talk about the weather, but it was the captain and his fellow "cast members" who apparently didn't do anything about it (please pardon the sarcasm but it's been a grueling trip back to the West Coast where I'm writing this).

As anyone who has visited either Castaway Cay or HAL's similar Half Moon Cay knows, it's a very controlled environment. Unlike a regular port, the passengers are readily available and could have been loaded back on the ship early. That was a judgment call, and IMO the Captain and Disney made a mistake in judgment that cost us, for example, several hundred dollars in airline change fees and a lot of aggravation.

Fellow passengers standing in line at the airport said that the ship usually "backed in" to its dock. Perhaps other posters can confirm or deny if that is the practice. We docked bow first, so the challenge the captain faced was to back out with strong wave action and gale-force winds, causing him to hit the pole, as a fellow passenger told us he had captured on video. It would seem there would have been greater control and power had we been able to leave the deck and head out bow first. It's not all that reassuring to be a on ship trying to back out and repeatedly failing in weather conditions that are obviously extremely challenging. The captain had talked about trying to get Bahamian tugs at one point but they apparently didn't want to venture out in this weather.

The facts speak for themselves. We've been on ships in the middle of the Atlantic in far worse conditions. The mistake was in not leaving Castaway Cay early, a mistake the tender providers at Grand Cayman did NOT make.

Yes, the crew was excellent in throwing together a program for the day. Our grandkids were very happy in the Kids Club and the six-year-old almost had to be pried out after dinner. The dinner was a repeat, so-so but certainly ample. A couple of the adults attended the evening's show, which the comedian and juggler made much of having thrown together. They did their best but we left after the first half hour and I'll say no more.

Yes, the lines for the phone were extremely long and we heard a rumor of people waiting up to six hours, similar to what you heard. Two of us had brought laptops and we called the front desk, who confirmed we could use the Internet for travel arrangements and would not be charged. We confirmed that by phone afterwards and also via the final bill. There were NO Internet charges. We also used communicated with a relative ashore by text message on our cell phone to make some travel changes for rental cars and hotels. We "bit the bullet" and called our airline on our wireless while still docked at Castaway Cay and subject to the Bahamian provider. With AT & T we're guessing it will be about two dollars a minute, worth it to snag a later flight out Sunday.

Now to the debacle. Instructions were that we were to completely vacate our staterooms as soon as we went to breakfast, as early as 6:30 a.m., i.e. "take your day packs with you and make yourselves comfortable in the common areas." We had tipped our cabin attendants generously, and tipped them for the extra day as well. One employee had mentioned that they often lost out in these situations because most passengers naturally didn't tip them for the extra day aboard and the next load of passengers were angry at missing a day of their cruise and consequently tipped a lot less.

So we stayed in our staterooms until about 8:30 a.m. We then saw the Disney Theatre was virtually deserted and sat in there with a few dozen other passengers. We mentioned to some employees making preparations for the opening night show on the next cruise that it wouldn't cost Disney a lot to run some cartoons on the big screens for kids and, amazingly, they started doing that a few minutes later, albeit without sound.

Throughout this time we heard further profuse apologies from Peter that they couldn't get enough CBP staff to work the ship, because of all of the other ships in the main port. We were also told that we wouldn't be docking at the main terminal because it was full, but we weren't told (or at least we didn't hear) the specific location of our terminal, which turned out to be Terminal 3. Had we known how important this information would be, we would have asked the Front Desk.

At around 9:00 a.m. an employee entered and made an announcements to people sitting behind us (we were halfway down) and then left. People started to exit and we asked what he'd said. Apparently he'd said we could now leave the ship, a bizarre way to inform people, sort of a word-of-mouth pass-the-rumor along approach.

The stairways were crammed with people all the way down to Deck One. We walked to the aft. Again, the stairways were packed, an extremely unsafe situation after all of the emphasis on safety throughout. We managed to catch an elevator and fall in with the crowd heading for the gangway. By now, Disney had apparently given up and just wanted us all off the ship. For the first time for us two grandparents in upwards of 200 days of cruising on a variety of lines (Princess, Celebrity, HAL, RCCL, Oceania, Cunard), we walked off without a swipe of the key card in a stream of humanity.

We proceed with the rest of the line toward the small building where our luggage was stored. Terminal 3 is used for small ships (gambling ships?) and the employees confirmed it was completely inadequate for a ship of this size. We eventually managed to get our luggage, but we feel for the people who absolutely needed porter assistance. They were few and far between and the room was so crowded it was very difficult for the few porters available to make their way back in. The "smart" passengers were leaving the room, getting a porter, and bringing him back in. Others waited patiently in the room with their hands up.

In our case, the four adults could just barely manage the luggage, car seats, and three young children. We then rejoined the line to leave. NO passport check, but a cheerful CBP officer removed our Customs declaration (nothing to declare, thank goodness) from my pocket, as my hands were full. "Welcome to Ellis Island," I said, and he grinned and said "Oh yeah."

We then emerged into the 45 degree breezy day (as the ship warned us). Now there was yet another huge lineup for people to cross a street into a parking lot where buses were waiting to take people either to the airport or the parking lot. Where were the loud hailers to direct passengers or at least tell him the situation? There were employees and they were no doubt doing their best. One told us "don't yell at me. I'm doing my best" before we'd said a word to her so there's little doubt they were bearing the brunt of passenger dissatisfaction.

We were well off the ship and announcements were being made to those on board. The only announcements we'd heard were a combination of repeated calls by name for non-Americans to report for Immigration inspection on board and repeated apologies for the lack of CBP officials and "it's completely out of our control." Yes, it was out of control.

We had a private prepaid shuttle and gathered it was fair to jump the line if we weren't waiting for a bus. By now the little children were quite cold as the sweaters we'd pulled out for them weren't meant for staying outside for any length of time in this weather.

We ended up waiting nearly 40 minutes for our shuttle, which isn't specifically Disney's fault. We repeatedly told the dispatcher where we were and it wasn't until the third call that it eventually seemed to dawn on them that the Disney Magic was not docked in its usual spot.

We may well request compensation, probably a futile gesture, for our airline change fees. Could we make suggestions? Yes, we most certainly could, but they're the experts, aren't they? Better communications on board, better communications at "Port Canaveral" so shuttle drivers know where to go, employees with loud hailers, some kind of order rather than word-of-mouth for disembarking passenggers, etc.

We still have nothing against the Disney Cruise Line, and we've had problems disembarking a couple of other times, including a lengthy delay in September on Jewel of The Seas in Boston. At that time, however, it was Grandma and Grandpa on their own. A shipload of children, including our own precious ones, adds a new dynamic and the passengers were not well served yesterday. We can only hope Disney learns from the experience and does a lot better next time.


We didn't go into detail in the Cruise Critic post, but the shuttle experience was another comedy of errors and misunderstandings, all on their part we hasten to add. When the shuttle finally showed up, there were two Canadian women on board who told us they'd been driving around for the past half hour after being picked up from another ship while the driver looked for us. They had reserved and paid for a "private shuttle" and so had we and we thought there was no way we could physically fit into a large Ford van.

Eventually we did, though, with people sitting with items on their laps or under their feet, or jammed into the front passenger seat, with two of the three grandkids on laps quite unsafely. Still, we made it, but we'd suggest that Logan Transportation, should they remain in business, establish better communication between their dispatchers and their drivers.

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