By Paula Conway
Originally printed on NYDailyNews.com
The idea of a Disney cruise to Alaska did not initially strike me as awesome. But it’s wonderful to be surprised — and I was by the Disney Wonder’s tour.
The well-named Wonder, which has helped Disney make news in the cruise industry, can be pricey. The company’s journeys to Alaska start at $1,225 per person. But the 964-foot-long, family-friendly vessel takes its passengers to some memory-making moments along the way.
The first such stop on the Alaska itinerary is the Tracy Arm Fjord, a dead-end inlet in the Tongass National Forest, to visit one of the most beautiful natural glaciers still standing in this southernmost part of Alaska. The Wonder gently sails through Tracy Arm at a quiet crawl, so as not to disturb the forest wildlife. Lush green mountains with snowcaps, and waterfalls created by melting snowcaps, can be viewed along the way.
During the three-hour crawl, chunks of ice begin to appear in the water alongside the ship; first one, then two, then several. They range in size, from those about the length of a suitcase to those as big as a small house. Sea lions, bald eagles and black bears appear here and there.
Of course the gift shop on the Wonder is stocked with what you need: binoculars and winter woolies to sit on deck and observe the wonders of Alaska. Warm blankets and hot chocolate with whipped cream are offered for pure comfort and enjoyment as you bask in the Alaska sun and cool air. Curiously, the water is like that of the Caribbean; a glacial blue due to the microscopic sediment in the water. Reaching the dead end, there’s a massive blue-and-white glacier wedged between two mountains. This is an overwhelming sight. The ship turns 360 degrees so that all passengers get the perfect picture. It is, in a word, awesome.
Next up: Skagway, a Gold Rush town of the Old West. A mere eight blocks of a town, Skagway dates back to the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. Popular nature tours include: the Klondike Gold Dredge and White Pass Railway; a variety of mounting hiking and biking adventures; and glacier discoveries by helicopter.
We decided to head into town to The Red Onion Saloon, dating back to 1847. Home to one of the most famous former brothels in Alaska, the saloon has a sign outside that reads, “$5 for 15 minutes,” just like the old days.
After a hearty lunch, we took the brothel tour, for $5, with a costumed guide who explained how business was conducted. Men were escorted to a room by a large and burly bouncer to meet their courtesan, paid their $5 directly to her, and then 15 minutes later, were dragged out by the same bouncer. Of the $5 fee, the lady-in-waiting only made $1.25. But as our guide pointed out, most ladies received more than the $5 — since there’s no price a satisfied customer would not pay and repeat business was common.
Families with children will enjoy the Klondike Gold Dredge adventure, boarding a vintage rail car for a 95-minute, narrated, 3,000-foot climb over steep, cliff-hanging turns to the historic White Pass along the Yukon gold route. This is the same route stampeders trekked through in search of gold in the late 1890s. At the Klondike Gold Dredge, kids will try their turn at gold panning, with gold guaranteed in every pan. The staff weighs the gold and fashions a memorable keepsake from your adventure.
In Juneau, the third stop on the Disney Alaska itinerary, we boarded the Mount Roberts Tramway, Juneau’s top attraction, which takes guests nearly 2,000 feet to the top of Mount Roberts. A 3,000-foot platform allows for remarkable views of the town of Juneau, with sweeping vistas of the wildlife surrounding the area of Glacier Bay.
We embarked on one of the many hiking trails and hiked another 300 feet up. The crisp mountain air was breathtaking and the trail system well designated, with interpretive markers describing the many flowers, plants, trees, birds and animals you may find along the loop trail. If your visit in Juneau is quick, this is an ideal adventure, which is also walking distance from the ship’s dock.
In Ketchikan, we boarded an impeccably maintained De Haviland Beaver floatplane, the world’s most famous bush plane. Our pilot took us over the Tongass National Forest on the way to the historic George Inlet Lodge for a feast of smoked salmon and Dungeness crab. Having never been in a float plane, I assumed that we would experience a bumpy ride. Not so.
The water takeoff and landing were seamless and our 1950s-era plane a treat to ride in, especially because operations ceased on building De Haviland Beaver floatplanes in 1967. Each and every float plane used today is consistently refurbished and maintained as a vintage piece. At the George Inlet Lodge, our host entertained us with stories of Alaska and Ketchikan as we munched on a bottomless bowl of enormous crabs with drawn butter and warm breads.
Green-thumb guests will love Victoria, Canada, the final stop on the itinerary. A classic English-style, double-decker bus at the pier took us for one hour of sightseeing around Victoria. Highlights visited include Beacon Hill Park, legislative buildings, the inner harbor and the famous Empress Hotel. Tours for nature lovers include the Butchart and Butterfly Gardens. At the Butchart Gadens, there’s even an afternoon tea.
One observation: On this itinerary there were a number of handicapped guests, and they seemed to face an absence of challenges on board. Disney ships are designed for wheelchairs and scooters to navigate the hallways, dining areas and decks without trouble. Access to adventures may be a bit limited, but most accommodate wheelchairs and scooters, and there’s always a Disney representative on hand to help you and your family along the way. It is truly a kerfuffle-free experience on Disney ships.
A family adventure for the entire family awaits on the Disney Wonder to Alaska.
IF YOU GO
Disney Alaska cruises start at $1,225 per person and the best deals are available the further out you book. To book your 7-day Alaska Disney cruise, visit disneycruise.disney.go.com/ or call 800-951-3532. You can also often find some great deals on Disney cruises on Cruise Critic (cruisecritic.com), Best Price Cruises (bestpricecruises.com), and Orbitz (orbitz.com).
The Disney Wonder Alaska itinerary sails from Seattle. Delta operates daily non-stop flights from JFK to Seattle, visit delta.com or call 800-323-2323.
Wheelchairs and electric scooters can be booked in advance through Special Needs at Sea and will be delivered to your cabin and waiting for you upon arrival. Visit specialneedsatsea.com. Rates are provided upon reservation request.