Terminal Leave Adventures (1): How a Disney Cruise is completely unlike an Amphibious Deployment

I know I promised another post or two on the joys of checking out, but before I introduce you to the most precious of all military documents (the checkout sheet) I must first drag you along on my first vacation since going on terminal leave. Terminal leave (“terminal” in milspeak) you may recall from previous postings is when you use up your remaining vacation time (leave) before your end of active service (EAS). It is, in effect, getting paid to do nothing. Or for going on vacation. I have done a little bit of nothing on terminal, which is nice, and am now headed off for a family vacation. Of terminal leave so far I am a fan!

My current phase of doing nothing includes taking the family on a Disney cruise. We live in San Diego and the Disney corporation was kind enough to park one of their most excellent cruise ships – the Disney Wonder – in Los Angeles for a couple of years. For the record and in the interest of full disclosure, I absolutely love pretty much everything Disney. I love the parks, the movies, and how they have managed to create a magical world that every kid (and some adults like me) loves, even though as they approach their teenage years they will deny it. If I could work at Disney it would be a dream come true! Hmm…maybe a career change that involves working for a mouse….but I digress.

I have spent no small amount of time aboard United States Navy vessels. Big ones, like the nuclear aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower, little amphibious landing craft, and pretty much everything in between. The bulk of my time at sea and in port has been aboard the various ships of the Navy’s Amphibious Fleet, which is affectionately known as the “Gator Navy”. There are several different classifications of ships in the gator navy, but they can all be broken down into two basic categories- Big Decks and Small Decks. Big Decks are the size and shape of World War II aircraft carriers- huge flat flight decks that hold dozens of helicopters and attack jets as well as a huge well deck below that holds amphibious vehicles and small boats. And well over a thousand Marines in addition to the Navy crew. Small Decks are just that- smaller ships with smaller flight decks capable of holding a few helicopters. They also have well decks and storage spaces for amphibious tractors and boats, and berthing for hundreds of Marines.

This is the first time, however, that I will be getting underway on a no-kidding cruise ship. I have been on plenty of day excursions in Hawaii and Alaska, but never have I or my family boarded a ginormous seagoing hotel. So for the next few posts I am going to write about the differences between deploying with the United States Navy’s gator fleet and shipping out on a ship from Mickey’s armada. In addition to comparing and contrasting the differences, I am going to keep score and by the time we’re done you will be able to make an informed decision as to what you would like to do with a week of your life- join the Navy or cruise with Disney. Pick the winner and place your bets now!

Today’s communiqué is all about the first part of any shipboard trip- getting on board. I have to start with a few blinding flashes of the obvious (BFOs- a classic TLA or Three Letter Acronym), the first of which is that the biggest difference between the two is that you get to take your family with you on a cruise and you get to take everyone you work with on a deployment. Each has its pros and cons depending on your situation- if you are single, then a cruise with Mickey and crew probably isn’t your bag. If your family drives you nuts, then a deployment may not be such a bad gig. At any rate it all comes out in the wash.

Back to today’s theme, which is a side by side comparison of the boarding process. Boarding a ship is a little different from any other form of transportation. When you board a plane, for example, you go to the airport, check your bags, and run the gauntlet of security to make it to your plane. Once you get to your gate, a few hapless gate agents line you up and herd you onto the plane. Once aboard, you hope for space to shove your bag and wedge yourself into your seat. Only then does your trip really start. Boarding a ship, however, is a horse of a completely different color.

The actual process of getting onto a seagoing vessel is the same whether you are boarding a cruise ship or an aircraft carrier. The difference is in the details. Let’s take a look at just what those differing details are…..

The first part is getting to the pier. Ships, unlike airplanes, require huge bodies of water to sail in. As such, you need to get to where the ship is so that you can climb aboard and begin your cruise. In the military, the trip to the ship usually begins hours and hours before you actually embark. In typical martial fashion, everyone must meet at their place of work, draw their equipment from the armory and have their equipment inspected, piled up, unpiled, reinspected, and then loaded onto a big truck for the trip to the pier. Only after several pointless and unpleasant hours of milling about do you get to board the bus for the ride down to meet the ship. After answering “here!” to countless rollcalls, your bus rolls down the road at a blistering speed of 55 miles an hour and you are on your way.

For a pleasure cruise it is a little different. We got up, packed our bags, got into our car, and drove to the pier. Coffee and snacks in hand, there were smiling faces all around as we sped towards our vacation, well mostly smiles, except when the kids were fighting…which works out to be about 50% of the time. At any rate, we drove straight to the pier and parked our car. It took less than three hours, over half of which was on the highway. Time difference between the two: about 12 hours. The first point goes to Disney.

Running score: Disney: 1 U. S. Navy: 0

Okay, so the first part of the journey is over. As some famous Chinese philosopher once said, even a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step. Our first step brought us to the pier, and now we need to look at the steps that will take us aboard the ship. The Marine bus arrives at the pier, and Marines step off the bus. The pier is almost industrial in it character- lots of machinery about, and all of it looks uniformly drab. “Battleship Grey” is the color of the ships, and even the equipment is either painted the same drab color or is so grimy that it blends into the monotonously dull background. Ropes and equipment are scattered about, and as you try not to break your ankle by tripping over it there is a Marine, usually a Gunnery Sergeant, howling for you to line up and get counted. This goes on for about an hour, after which the Gunny happily reports that all of the Marines are present. I have always found the whole process odd, though, because unless someone mysteriously vaporized while the bus was on the road the same number of people should get off of it as got on. That concept, however, flies in the face of hundreds of years of tradition, so the repetitive counting continues.

At the cruise terminal things are a little different. I parked the car in the lot (after being directed there by a very cheerful and helpful lady at the security gate) and within seconds there was a passenger shuttle pulling up behind us. I had barely started unloading bags from the car when the driver was taking them from me and loading them aboard. Within a minute or two, we were riding to the terminal, bags in hand and smiles back on our faces. Time difference: 58 minutes, and I didn’t even have to take rollcall. Point to Disney.

Running score: Disney: 2 U. S. Navy: 0

Back to the Navy pier. After being successfully counted, Marines head over to the truck that contains their baggage. When you deploy you tend to take a lot of stuff- usually a seabag (duffel bag to landlubbers), a parachute bag (even though you don’t have a parachute; it is stuffed with other things), an enormous backpack, and a gym bag or two. With the exception of your gym bag all of those items of luggage are jammed in the back of a truck that you helped load back at your unit parking lot. In true coolie fashion, you all line up and a few intrepid souls climb aboard the truck to unload your gear. Bags and packs are soon flying out of the truck and make their way down the chain of Marines where it is piled up for distribution. After an hour or so of hearing Marines call out luggage locations to each other – “Smith- seabag! Jones- pack!”- you have gathered your tiny mountain of personal equipment into a mound. The best part is that you get to lug the stuff aboard yourself. Good thing you are in shape…

At the Disney pier our cheerful driver pulled up to the curb and helped offload our luggage. Another cheerful soul, a porter this time, took our luggage and loaded it on a cart. At the cost of a five dollar tip our family’s gear was wheeled off to the ship, where the staff would deliver it to our room that afternoon. We shouldered our carryon bags (a total of three between the four of us) and headed for the terminal. Time saved: an hour. Backs not strained: four. Joy at not lugging it all ourselves: priceless! Point Disney.

Running score: Disney: 3 U. S. Navy: 0

Off to board the ship. In military parlance it is known as “crossing the brow”. I am not exactly sure why, but that is what they call it. At any rate, you grab all of your gear and do you best Sherpa imitation as you stagger beneath your private mountain of militaria. In the egalitarian fashion peculiar to the American military each Marine is expected to tote his load aboard- no lackeys or porters about to take it aboard. Up the ladder (navy-speak for stairs) you go, grunting and struggling to carry as much of your gear up the steep series of ramps and stairs. As you reach the top of the gangplank (which is no small feat, because the gangplank to the ship is dozens of feet off the ground) you must unceremoniously dump your load and request permission to come aboard from the first Sailor that you see: the bemused and usually arrogant sailor known as the Officer of the Deck, or OOD. Much to his unbridled glee he watches you divest yourself of your seabag, pack, parachute bag, and whatever else you are carrying in order to perform the obligatory boarding dance. With a groan and the weighty thump of military luggage hitting the steel deck you begin the age old nautical tradition. As the “guest” coming aboard the Captain’s ship you are expected to come to the position of attention, turn to face the national ensign (the ensign is the nation’s flag that flies from the yardarm jutting from the back of the ship), salute, and then face the OOD, salute again, and formally request permission to come aboard. The OOD returns your salute, grants your request, and chuckles as you reassume you pack mule impersonation and stagger past him and on to the ship. His tittering ceases only as the next poor Marine arrives before him, his presence announced by the crash of olive drab luggage slamming into the deckplates.

Again, Disney presents a completely different experience. Instead of a cluttered and dingy Navy pier, we passed through a pair of open doors into the cool air conditioned interior of a cruise passenger terminal. Not two feet from the door was a pleasant young lady who asked to see our travel documents. With a smile she pointed us to the escalator (!) that would bring us to the boarding processing center. As we emerged from the top of the lift we saw travellers similar to ourselves queued up at a couple of long counters. Several very nice and attentive staffmembers asked us if we had completed our travel documents (“not all of them….” “Well, please let me help!”) and after taking a few minutes to complete our boarding process, we went through security and headed for the ship. The security line was pretty much like the one at the airport- a metal detector for people and an x-ray machine for carryons. The good news, however, was that liquids are allowed on board. This is pretty important, because we had three bottles of wine in our carryons- three bottles which would have landed me in the ship’s brig had I attempted to take them aboard a Navy ship! We made it through security (without removing our belts and shoes!) we were greeted by several cheery gentlemen wearing big white Mickey Mouse hands. They waved us forward (hard to mistake that gesture with such impressive four fingered mitts!) and asked each of my sons to give them “four”. Laughing as they did so, my kids were eating it up. So were their parents! We presented our boarding cards, and with a happy “Welcome Aboard!” we walked out towards the ship. A pair of photographers snapped a family vacation shot (“Smile! You can pick up your pictures onboard!”) and we were finally about to climb aboard the Disney Wonder. Fortunately, the escalator had brought us up to the level of the gangplank, so we didn’t have a single stair to climb. We walked along the covered gangplank (no beating sun or rain would sully our approach…) until we crossed over to the ship itself. Two lovely twentysomething girls in immaculate white uniforms enthusiastically welcomed us to the ship asked us our name. “The Grices,” said my oldest son. Lifting a microphone to her lips, the lovely young lady announced our arrival. “Please welcome the Grice Family to the Disney Wonder!”, and as we stepped onto the luxurious carpet we were greeted by the applause of a waiting receiving line of the ship’s officers and crew. And I didn’t even have to ask permission to come aboard. No question- another point for Disney!

Running score: Disney: 4 U. S. Navy: 0

Well, the Disney Cruise Line has a pretty impressive lead so far, and we just got aboard the ship. Will the Navy catch up in the days ahead? Will Disney falter? Only those intrepid enough to keep reading will find out…….

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6 responses to “Terminal Leave Adventures (1): How a Disney Cruise is completely unlike an Amphibious Deployment

  1. Mike – love the detail (from someone who knows Disney a lot better than Navy). Will Navy earn any points??? Keep ’em coming.

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