When you have an immense number of friends who have sailed on the Disney Cruise Line and perpetually share their magical adventures aboard one of the four ships in the fleet (recent news says there are more ships being added over the next few years!), the desire within to join the club kind of grows day by day (reminds me of kudzu in South Carolina, but in a good way).
I have to admit, though, that I’m one of those moms with one particular paralyzing fear that has prevented her from taking that next step of booking that family vacation on the high seas (and I know I’m not alone). Sure – I’m nervous about becoming seasick (yeah, me) and admit to having had Titanic type nightmares from time to time (yeah, I know, icebergs in the Caribbean not a likely probability), but the most crippling fear I have involves my son’s severe, life-threatening food allergies. The thought of and potential for watching him go anaphylactic while sailing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean has been the primary reason I have not booked our first family cruise….
Last year, just prior to entering his senior year of high school, our oldest asked us to consider a cruise as his graduation gift. Seems far fetched, yes ~ but at least he was asking to go with family and not friends, right? We told him we would take it into consideration, perhaps replacing this for the standard annual family vacation; however, I did tell him that there was only one cruise line I would even consider ~ the Disney Cruise Line (DCL). Why? Well…because…
1) I love Disney (if you know me, this is a no-brainer) and…
2) They are the only ones who have any kind of positive reputation when it comes to handling guests with life-threatening food allergies (to my knowledge, but it would be otherwise hard to convince me anyway).
He was agreeable and I began reading blog posts, asking questions, doing research (namely with the Disney Parks Moms Panel) and chatting with hubby about making this “wish come true” for our soon-to-be graduate. Because of my fears (and a few other issues), this never really came together, however, until about two months before our oldest finally walked across that stage to receive his diploma. Nonetheless, before we knew it, we were booked and preparing for our three day adventure on the Disney Dream!
As a nervous nilly of a mom, I took as many precautions as I could. I noted to our travel agent (Karen, My Path Unwinding) what allergies our 11-year old son has and how severe they actually are. I sent an email through the DCL website and connected with someone in Dining Services to ensure his allergies were noted. I made certain that all of our epinephrine injectors were up to date, that we had enough injectors and Benadryl and that we had packed some sealed packages of safe foods just in case there was nothing for him to eat as a snack during the day (he has two older brothers who vowed to eat their way through the cruise ~ that’s for another blog post).
I also found myself calling DCL just a week before the trip to ensure everything was situated and to make one last attempt at gaining peace of mind. It was at that time that the fabulous Cast Member on the phone mentioned that I should attend one of the “meetings” held on the ship after 1 PM on embarkation day to talk to the dining services specifically. Shortly after that call, I consulted with a Facebook friend of mine, as well as the blog Allergy Free Mouse, to find out any last minute tips. Both my friend and the blog actually reiterated attending this meeting and it then found its way onto my priority “to-do” list.
On the day of embarkation…
Getting onto the ship was a “breeze” and we were able to find our stateroom quickly; however, we were unable to get into our room at that point of the day, so we decided to do a little touring of the ship and make our way to Cabana’s for lunch ~ the Dream’s eighteen station buffet located on Deck 11. This would be our first encounter with food on the ship and I was a tiny bit nervous, but I wasn’t too afraid to ask someone for help. Logan and I approached a Crew Member who was more than willing to assist. Rushawn, from Jamaica, took out a pink slip, asked our stateroom, our son’s name, his allergies and then asked us to tour the buffet to see what he would like to eat. We did just that and came back with an order. Rushawn asked where we were seated and then promised he would bring this out to us promptly.
It wasn’t too long before Logan’s meal of lamb, honey-glazed carrots and steak fries were delivered to him hot and SAFE! A few minutes later, Rushawn returned to deliver an extra special dessert just for Logan – egg-free, peanut-free and tree nut-free. I think I felt a tear leave the corner of my eye and a smile come across my face at that moment. Things were looking really good.
A short while later, after having been able to drop our carry-on stuff off in our room, we “bumped” into the dining staff at Royal Palace, where these dining sessions that had been mentioned to me were being held. There was no line and we were immediately invited to sit down with two very professional Crew Members who had their computers fired up and ready to go. They asked for our stateroom number, our son’s name, confirmed his allergies were listed and then noticed that we had been seated at a table with another family of three. They grew concerned for a moment and decided to make some “magic happen,” placing us at a table that seated just the five of us. They did this in an effort to prevent cross contamination from those who may not understand the situation. That gave this momma another huge sigh of relief. While one worked on the seating arrangements, another provided Logan with a menu so that he could pre-order his meal for that evening. We found out our dining rotation for the trip would be Royal Palace, Animator’s Palate and then Enchanted Garden for the final night. Rotational dining is phenomenal!! I love it!! We also knew ahead of time that our two servers would follow us for all three dinners, thus building up more of a trust with regard to our son’s allergy situation. I could not have asked for a better situation…….
Until dinnertime came around…
We had been asked by the Crew Members earlier to arrive at The Royal Palace and ask for Ivo, who would then provide us with the new table number. Again, this was another seamless process and we were cordially escorted to our elegant round table for five near a beautiful Snow White portrait. We were situated around the perimeter of the room at Table #29, where we could see out the window at those walking by, yet we didn’t feel as if our meal was violated by onlookers or the like. It was a rather majestic room, as a matter of fact, told to us to be modeled after the theme for Beauty and the Beast, though the other Disney princesses were highlighted in various portraits around the room.
Our server, Samsara (Sam), immediately introduced himself to us (I’ll talk about how he made our dinners memorable in another post). He was a very bright, bubbly young man from Indonesia with a beautiful accent and a tremendous smile. He was patient, understanding and proved himself knowledgeable of who we were, identifying each of us correctly by name. He then shared with us how he would be with us each night for our 8:15 PM meals. We then discussed Logan’s food allergies, how his pre-order had already been placed and how his meals would be managed throughout the cruise. At that point, I really had no worries. I felt comfortable trusting my son’s life with our servers.
It came time for meals to be delivered. Alberto, our assistant server (another bubbly young man with a beautiful accent, this one from the Dominican Republic), approached our table with plates in hand and proceeded to first deliver Logan’s lamb chops. I stopped him before he could place the plate on the table and asked why Logan’s allergy plate had not been delivered separately. He was not sure how to answer that and I proceeded to share how the potential for cross contamination grows when the server has his hands on several plates, some of which could have severe allergens on them. He tried to assure me that things were safe and that Disney takes great care in safely providing meals for those with food allergies and I assured him that I was well aware of that, but that I was also a mother of a child who had suffered the consequences of cross contamination such as this in the past. I was not about to see it happen again….not on a cruise ship and not on the first night.
This caught the ears of the Head Server, Mavis Joyce (she was from St. Vincent). At the time, I had no idea she served in that capacity, but she overheard our pleasant and calm conversation and immediately jumped in to calm the waters. She put me at ease (I really wasn’t that stressed, to be honest, just direct and informative) and took on the role herself of being Logan’s private server for the rest of the cruise. I was floored and relieved. She took Logan’s plate so she could replace it, told us she would personally deliver his plates each meal, take his orders every night for the next day, plan a delicious dessert for him after each dinner and ensure that his safety was of utmost priority. I was humbled. I was excited. I was…relieved! I felt like Logan had been pixie-dusted and that my prayers were being answered.
I then remembered having been told to ask our server(s) where they would be working for breakfast and lunch and to simply follow them there so that our son’s food allergies were already known and noted, alleviating the need to reiterate the severity of his condition over and over again. So, I asked Mavis Joyce where she would be and if she would mind if we followed her service for breakfast and lunch for the rest of the cruise. She welcomed the idea and it was set.
Another sigh of relief escapes…
One exception to the above was the day we were at Castaway Cay. On this day, the chefs cook up a tremendous and hearty BBQ at Cookie’s and Cookie’s 2 on the island. There are hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, corn cobs and more for everyone to enjoy – and you can eat until your heart is content, if you have that kind of appetite in the extreme heat! I’ll tell ya ~ it was a scorcher the day we went!
For guests in Logan’s situation, the chefs prepare special meals that are waiting for them as soon as they are ready to eat. Mavis Joyce recommended that we show up between 11:45 and 12, giving the staff enough time to get into the swing of things, but not too far into the lunch crowd for things to get crazy. We did just that. Logan had a burger with lettuce and tomato, fries and fruit ready for him, as well as his very own container of raspberry sorbet!! We are talking an entire pint of Haagen-Dazs raspberry sorbet!!! Unfortunately, the heat was a little much and he had a difficult time finishing his meal (hmmm…he was, of course, all about taking that sorbet with him back to the beach to finish), but to know that there was no chance of his going hungry while on the island made us happy. AND – once again…..no reactions!
Here’s a quick rundown of what Logan’s meals looked like for the cruise:
Lunch at Cabana’s: Lamb, steak fries, honey-glazed carrots and brownie with chocolate chip cookies on top (picture shown above).
The Royal Palace: His own basket of allergy-free rolls, duck confit (appetizer), roasted rack of lamb medium, ice cream sundae
Breakfast at Cabana’s: Mickey waffles (egg-free, peanut-free and tree nut-free), bacon, sausage and watermelon (no photo)
Lunch at Cabana’s: Steak, fries and strawberries. (no photo)
Animator’s Palate: Baked potato and cheddar cheese soup, ginger-teriyaki dusted angus beef tenderloin, chocolate lava cake
Breakfast at Enchanted Garden: Mickey waffles (egg-free, peanut-free and tree nut-free), bacon, sausage and watermelon
Lunch at Cookie’s: Hamburger with lettuce / tomato, fries and raspberry sorbet (no photos)
Enchanted Garden: Romaine wedge with Italian dressing (vs Romano dressing), slow roasted prime rib and Mickey Bar (as well as the chocolate lava cake!)
Breakfast at Enchanted Garden: (you eat your last breakfast at the restaurant where you had your last dining rotation) Nature’s Path waffles, sausage, bacon and fruit
Saying thank you…
On the final night, which would have been our night at Enchanted Garden, we had opportunity to thank Mavis Joyce (as well as the other servers) personally for the outstanding hospitality, kindness, patience, compassion and assistance with ensuring that our meals were uneventful and safe for our son. Logan, at that moment, made me a very proud mom as he confidently asked if he could take on the responsibility and privilege of presenting Mavis Joyce, his own new personal friend, with our gift to her for providing him a relaxing, comfortable, amazing and reaction-free experience. I was touched. She was touched. The hugs they shared throughout the cruise were priceless. She truly made his experience more magical than we could have hoped. Sure – there are stories out there about Mickey bars and bags of allergen-safe treats showing up in staterooms….but that’s not what we needed. We needed the personal connection, the reliable service and true compassion when it came to this part of our cruise. Mavis Joyce did just that and I do not believe I will ever be able to thank her enough. I will have to be better prepared to say “thank you” the next time.
Now, you’ve heard me talk a lot about one particular server, the head server for our dining team. This is not to discount the two who took care of the rest of us during our meals. Sam and Alberto were tremendous and I look forward to talking about them more in future posts about the cruise. Stay tuned…
As I close out this very long post…
I have a favor to ask of you. If you would, please SHARE this post. Why? I’m not asking for my benefit. No. I ask because posts like this are what became the encouragement and reassuring I, as a parent of a food allergy child, needed in order to take that step to say our family (or rather I) was ready for a cruise. I still won’t trust any other cruise line and I eagerly anticipate booking that next sea adventure with DCL. I just ask that, should you know other parents who struggle with the fear of traveling on a cruise ship because of their child’s severe, life-threatening food allergies…perhaps this particular post may give them the peace that there is at least one cruise line who does take this seriously and who cares enough to provide you and your child as much of a care-free, worry-free and safe experience as possible while traveling with them.
Thank you, Disney Cruise Line, and thank you, Mavis Joyce, for making our trip extremely magical and getting us hooked on sailing the high seas with Mickey!
Until the next high sea adventure!