Terminal Leave Adventures (4): Shipboard life and returning home from a Disney Cruise and an Amphibious deployment

Life aboard the Disney Wonder continues to not be at all bad, but unfortunately it is coming to an end.  In my ongoing comparison and contrast between her and the U. S. Navy’s Wasp class of amphibious assault ships we will look a little deeper at the ships themselves and the things that you can do whilst on board as well as the disheartening return to reality as our ship pulls back into Los Angeles.

For those keeping score, here is where we stand up to this point:   Disney:       7         U. S. Navy:      5

The aesthetics of each ship are predictably very different.  The Wonder, being a kid-oriented and Walt Disney themed vessel is all about the experience of the passengers.  The Navy’s amphibs, on the other hand, are purpose built to take Marines into harm’s way on hostile shores.  Needless to say, the feel of being aboard each ship is like chalk and cheese- worlds apart.

The Wonder’s art deco styling hearkens back to Disney’s beginnings, when Mickey Mouse and friends were bursting on the world scene and the Disney brothers found themselves at the head of an exploding entertainment empire.  The interior of the ship gleams with sweeping arcs and intricate patterns of brushed aluminum and steel which are accented by honey hued lacquered wood paneling that warmly lines the main parts of the ship.  The deeper hues of mahogany accent the railings, fixtures, counters, and bars.  Colorful carpet meets gleaming tile across the decks, and the furniture is reminiscent of a 1930s film noir.

The exterior of the ship (including the promenade, pool decks, and other areas where the interior meets the salt air) is painted a gleaming white in the manner of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, with a nicely patriotic red and blue accent meeting at the waterline on the hull.  There is an incredible level of attention to detail that mirrors the theme parks of Disneyland and Disneyworld. Every part of the ship is always spotless thanks to a tireless crew that is perpetually sweeping and swabbing.  Also like the theme parks there are things to do everywhere.

The Wonder sports two theaters aboard- one for movies and the other for live shows.  We saw a couple of both, and the entertainment venues are tremendous!  My sons were ecstatic to be able to watch the movie Real Steel and my wife really liked The Help, both first run movies that are currently in theaters ashore.  The live shows, like Toy Story, the Musical, were as high quality as any we have seen in a landbound theater.  Of course, it wouldn’t be a Disney experience without the famous characters walking about!  We are constantly running into Pluto, Goofy, and the rest of the cast of characters.  Everyone dresses to the nines for the formal dinners, and I must say that Mickey is a lucky mouse indeed because Minnie looks positively ravishing in her white gown and tiara!  Goofy looks pretty dapper in a tux, too.

Deck 9 is where the party rolls on, and on, and on.  There are three pools (one for adults, one for everyone, and a shallow one with a waterslide just for kids), Jacuzzis everywhere and places to get everything from pizza to hamburgers to coffee to cocktails.  No matter what activities we did on the ship or ashore we always ended up on deck 9, and were happy to be there.  Disney is really magical through the eyes of children, and watching little ones light up when Chip and Dale wander by in their Hawaiian shirts makes your heart melt.

There are clubs for kids of all ages, too.  Infants, toddlers, grade schoolers, tweens, and teens all have dedicated places to go and hang out with their fellow cruisers.  It is great for them because they are never bored- when they get tired of their parents or their siblings they can go off and have a great time.  After a few days we found our kids ditching us earlier and earlier to go to the Oceaneer’s Lab (for our eight year old) and the Edge (for our eleven year old tween).  That made it nice for us parents- the kids were off in a safe and fun environment and we could actually have some time to ourselves for a change!

In the Navy, however, things are a little different.  The ship is a monochromatic palette of black, grey and white occasionally interrupted by the yellow that marks steps on ladderwells so that you don’t trip on them.  Blue decks mark Officer’s Country (which is where officers both live and work), but all in all the ship has a very utilitarian and industrial feel and look.  It is a warship, after all, and being a warship it is just as attentively cared for as the Disney Wonder.  It is clean- not in a sparkly Magic Kingdom kind of way but in a shipshape Navy kind of way.  Sailors (and a few Marines who are assigned to shipboard duties) are endlessly sweeping, painting, and wiping down the ship, and the pride they have in their vessel is evident by the way they painstakingly ensure that everything is orderly and tidy- very important because you never know when something may happen and they may have to drop their brooms and swabs and take up their battle stations.

There are things to do aboard ship as well.  Lots of things.  99% of those things involve making sure that the ship is shipshape (for the crew) and we Marines are making sure that our combat equipment is ready for any contingency.  Seawater is remarkably corrosive, so each and every day Marines are conducting maintenance on their gear- endlessly wiping protective grease and oil off of trucks and guns and tanks, inspecting for rust, and reapplying another waterproof layer….only to be repeated again and again in the days ahead.  Leaders attend meetings and briefings to stay current on world events, planning to respond to the situations within steaming range ship and her sisters.  Warships seldom sail alone, and our Big Deck the command and control ship for a little fleet (called an Amphibious Ready Group, or ARG in acronymical fashion) of amphibs that consists of the Big Deck and two Small Decks, all loaded with several thousand Marines and enough combat gear to assault a beach, help evacuate those in need, or respond to natural disasters like tsunamis and hurricanes.

In addition to taking care of equipment Marines work out.  They hit the gym (which is an impressive collection of free weights, cardio machines, and the like) and they can run around the flight deck when it is not being used as an airport.  They can go to the library to read or check out books, watch TV in their berthing spaces (if they brought a small TV with them, of course!), or sleep when they don’t have to be on duty.  They can even go swimming onboard ship- on special occasions.  There is no leisure pool aboard, but in cases where the well deck (the part of the ship where the amphibious vehicles and landing boats are kept) is free of vehicles the ship can actually fill it with water- creating an enormous swimming pool.  The ship is designed to flood the well deck so that boats can float in and out during landing operations, and when no boats are aboard it becomes the largest shipboard swimming pool on earth.  No diving board, though…and it isn’t heated.  And it doesn’t happen often.  But, when it does, it is a unique experience!

So, back to our competition.  Our current score rests at seven to four in favor of Disney.  We will assign two points in this round; one for the ambiance of the ship and the second for things to do aboard.  The first point has to go to Disney for the sheer elegance of the Wonder- if ever there could be a replication of the Magic Kingdom at sea then the Disney cruising fleet has made it possible.  The second point for things to do aboard ship is a close call, but it has to go to the Navy and Marine team.  After all, you can swim on both ships but only with the Navy and Marines can you do really manly things like perform maintenance on tanks after breakfast and assault a beach after lunch.  Point, Department of the Navy.

Running score:                                  Disney:                 8              U. S. Navy:          5

That brings us to the end of our deployment with Disney and the Navy.  My first post explained the differences between the boarding experience, so now let’s take a look at disembarkation.

Leaving the Wonder was a pretty simple process, really.  We watched a video that described the things we had to do to depart the ship – things like “don’t leave anything behind!” and “review your bill before departing…”.  We tagged our luggage with the colorful tags that our cabin steward thoughtfully provided and packed very carefully (and it was a pleasant surprise to learn that our luggage would be taken ashore for us if we left outside our stateroom the evening before reaching port), but receiving a bill for all of the cocktails and souvenirs and sundry items that we purchased was a jarring experience.  You definitely pay for the fun you have on a cruise!

The colored tags were part of the debarking process.  We were “Purple Minnies” (because we had purple tags with a fetching picture of Minnie Mouse), meaning our bagtags were purple which suited my oldest son because that is his favorite color.  We were called to disembark based on our tag color, so after our last breakfast aboard ship we queued up and waited for the call.  Soon enough we heard the call for “Purple Minnies!” and we walked back out the ornate door that we passed through as we boarded just a short week before.  We followed the crowd to U. S. Customs, where a bored customs agent scrutinized our passports and perfunctorily waved us back to U. S. soil.  We wandered over to baggage claim, got our bags, and drove home.  Very anticlimactic.

Contrast the deflation of departing the Wonder with the sheer exuberance of returning from a military deployment.  First of all, there are a lot of ways to get off the ship- you can ride in a helicopter, splash across the beach in a landing craft, or swim ashore aboard an amphibious assault vehicle.  Or walk down the gangplank when the ship docks pierside, of course.  The best part is that there is a tremendously heartfelt reunion waiting for you- complete with banners, flags, and your family jumping up and down because they haven’t seen you in six months or more.  Talk about an emotional event!  Many Marines and Sailors will first meet children they have never seen because they were born while they were underway, and young lovers will embrace with the passion only possible in the wonderful world of true love.  It is one of the most heartwarming and and emotional things you will ever witness, and to be a participant is unforgettable.  This one goes to the U. S. Navy and Marine Corps!

So, after much consideration and internal debate, I must tally the final score as follows:

Final score:                        Disney:                              U. S. Navy:          6

So, even though the U. S. Navy (with their Marines embarked) are the absolutely baddest thing ever to sail the seven seas they can’t best the Disney cruise ship Wonder  in the underway experience department.  You can join the Navy and see the world, but you can’t do it with Mickey and Minnie mouse (or with your kids!) unless you book a pleasure cruise with the Disney Armada.

With this my terminal leave adventure comes to a close, and it is time to get back to work.  I left you, my constant reader, sitting at the edge of your seat in anticipation of joining me in the checking out process.  My next post will introduce you to that most excellent document, the checkout sheet, and bring you along the rocks and shoals of my final departure from active service.  Keep reading!