For the first time in the history of the world, Disney will be offering cruises to Alaska beginning in May of 2011. Disney is calling up the Disney Wonder cruise ship from the Bahamas, where it has sailed on three to five night itineraries since 1999. The Wonder will be replaced by Disney’s newest ship, the Disney Dream, which is scheduled for its maiden voyage on January 26, 2011. While a full review of the Disney Wonder and its Alaskan itinerary will have to wait until May when Disney actually sails to Alaska, I can introduce you to one of the nation’s most idyllic states and perhaps your next Disney vacation will find you in a destination much different than Orlando.
Disney is offering 18 seven night Alaska cruises between May 3, 2011 and August 30, 2011. There is also a six night repositioning cruise from Los Angeles to Vancouver, British Columbia that departs April 27, 2011 and a five night Vancouver to Los Angeles cruise departing on September 20, 2011. All Alaska cruises depart and return on a Tuesday out of Vancouver, British Columbia. The ports of call are Skagway on day three, Juneau on day four, and Ketchikan on day five. Days two and six are “at sea” and day three is a scenic cruise through the Tracy Arm fjord. In other words, you will have about two and a half days to relax and explore the ship while waiting for your first port of call.
A Very Brief Introduction to the Idea of Cruising to Alaska
Cruising to Alaska has exploded in popularity over the last few years. While the total number of ships has decreased from 2008 to 2011 due to “the economy,” there will still be 30 cruise ships servicing Alaska in 2011. All in all, more than 900,000 people are expected to visit Alaska via cruise ship in 2011. Why the popularity? Cruising in general has become more popular because of the relative ease of the experience. There is just one check-in, whether your cruise is one day or one hundred days. There are no seedy motels or questionable staff. Most of the “basics” are included in the price of the cruise, making budgeting easier. Dinner menus won’t have prices, the buffet is always free, and room service is provided at no additional charge 24 hours a day. How many hotels in the world deliver free milk and cookies at bedtime? Where else can you attend an ice-carving demonstration, followed by a martini tasting, followed by a relaxing swim, followed by a Broadway-style show and dinner? Not a lot of destinations can offer the quality or quantity of activities, entertainment, dining, and recreation that a cruise can.
Once you embark on your cruise, there are very few worries to concern yourself about. The Captain is in charge of getting the ship where it needs to go, the staff makes sure dinner is on time, and a daily schedule of activities will be delivered each day. As you might imagine, one of the benefits of cruising with Disney is their fantastic child care services for infants as young as 12 weeks old, all the way up to 17 years of age. The programs are split into age-appropriate groups and there is no additional charge for activities for kids between the ages of three and seventeen. Care for children under the age of three can be scheduled at the beginning of the cruise for a nominal per-hour fee, giving parents an opportunity to spend a romantic evening together, enjoy a theater show, or share a spa treatment without the interruption of young children. An added bonus of Disney cruises is that kids will actually want to participate in the ship’s activities and they will have an opportunity to make plenty of new friends. In all likelihood, it will be difficult to pry them away from their activities for a little family time.
I am not a big pictures person, but I will make an exception for Alaska.
The Glacier and Days at Sea
Days at sea are an integral part of the cruise experience, allowing for extended relaxation and a chance to experience everything the cruise ship has to offer. One of the nice things about the Alaska itinerary is that it offers days at sea both at the beginning and end of the cruise, allowing you to enjoy time together between the bulk of your shore excursions. Many people feel like they need an additional vacation after returning from Disney World, due to all the early mornings, walking, and the “commando-style touring approach” so many people take. This is the exact opposite of the cruise experience, where the vacation actually is the vacation.
The scenic cruising through Tracy Arm is likely to be one of many highlights of the voyage and the Alaska wilderness is visible from the ship for much of the cruise.
Here is your trusted author in front of the Margerie Glacier at Glacier National Park (not on Disney’s 2011 itinerary, but available on other Alaska cruises). It does get sunny enough that one must squint, despite what you may have heard about Alaska’s weather.
This shot was taken from our balcony, entering Tracy Arm fjord. The water near the glacier has a distinctive green tint and the fjord is narrow enough that it’s possible to see wildlife on shore without binoculars.
Near the end of the 26 mile fjord, you will run into (not literally, hopefully) the magnificent Sawyer Glacier (not to be confused with Tom Sawyer’s Island at the Magic Kingdom). It is surrounded by mountains that stand more than 7,000 feet high.
Days at sea are marked by the beauty of the Alaska coast. One of the advantages of a cruise is seeing so much of the Alaska wilderness in a short period of time.
It is possible and somewhat common to see whales and other wildlife while out in the open water. Instead of looking for whales to suddenly pop out of the water and say hello, look for their spouts. When you see their forceful breathing and the residual cloud of mist, wait for the whale’s tail to pop out of the water as it goes into a dive.
According to the Disney Wonder’s itinerary, Skagway is the first stop. During the winter months, it has a population well under 1,000 people. This is due in part to the fact that it is one of only three Southeast Alaskan communities that is attached to a road system and the fact that Alaska in the winter is very depressing. The ship will dock a short distance from town. An inexpensive ($2 or so) shuttle will be offered or you are welcome to walk the ten or so minutes it takes to get to downtown Skagway. The most popular excursion in Skagway is the White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad, which is a three and a half hour train ride up the 2,835 foot summit of White Pass. If you decide to do this, I would highly recommend booking it at the train station, which is very easy to find because the entire city is basically one road. If you decide to ride the train, you may want to consider going one-way rather than round trip. While the ride is fun, it comes back down the same way it went up. The scenery and view are both breathtaking, but three and a half hours of dense trees can become a bit much. More information is available at: http://wpyr.com/index.html.
This is the train photographed from across the tracks. A round trip fare runs $112 per adult and $56 per child from the train station. Prices will likely be slightly higher through Disney. It is expensive, but the odds of riding a train along the original 1898 Klondike gold rush railroad outside of Skagway are somewhat low. Nearly 450,000 people ride the railroad every year, which is a testament to its popularity and value.
Another shot of the track up White Pass. Trees for days.
There is a lot of history in Skagway, most of which goes back to the time of the Klondike gold rush. There is plenty to see and do merely by walking through town. For a list of possible excursions outside of what the cruise line offers, see http://www.skagway.com/activities.html. The visitor’s center offers free walking tours. If you have extra time, I would highly recommend checking it out.
Juneau is Alaska’s capital city. While Sarah Palin, the city’s biggest asset, is long gone, Juneau still has a lot to offer. There is a wider variety of excursions in Juneau than in either Ketchikan or Skagway, including dog-sled races, float plane and helicopter rides, rainforest zipline adventures, an 1800 foot climb in an aerial tram, whale watching, salmon bakes, bike rides, salmon hatchery trips, fishing, and a slew of excursions that combine activities. Any excursion should include a trip to Mendenhall Glacier, but don’t be tricked into paying an arm and a leg to include it in your excursion or purchase tickets separately through the cruise line. There are inexpensive ($8 or so) bus tickets sold everywhere on the cruise ship dock and the cost to enter the visitor’s center is just $3 per person. There are many trails surrounding Mendenhall that are also free to hike and easily accessible from where the bus drops people off. The Alaska State Museum in Juneau is another inexpensive way to spend part of the day. The cost is just $5 per person in the summer and offers an interesting look at the history of Alaska and the acquisition of the territory in particular. As you will come to learn, the purchase of Alaska was known by many as “Seward’s Folly.” At the time, 2.3 cents per acre was considered a substantial sum of money, especially for something as large and remote as Alaska.
Unlike Skagway, it is possible to pull right up into downtown Juneau, depending on where Disney parks the ship. This was taken right from our balcony overlooking the city. There is another dock further down the road that necessitates a short bus ride into town, but Disney should be able to find a berth right alongside the city.
With the variety and quality of shore excursions in Juneau, I would recommend making it the destination of your “signature experience.” Just like you might plan a special day at Disney World with Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party or a special meal at the California Grill, you may want to plan one extravagant excursion in Alaska. Of course, your budget may allow you to “go big” during every opportunity or make budgeting a bigger concern. Either way, there is plenty to enjoy in Alaska on any budget. In Juneau I have thoroughly enjoyed the aerial tram, whale watching, the fish hatchery, the state museum, Mendenhall Glacier, as well as meandering down the road to Red Dog Saloon for some shopping and a beer. The more expensive float plane, dog sledding, and helicopter rides are out of my budget, but no one who has gone on this sort of trip has not thoroughly bragged about the experience. If you are planning one of the more expensive excursions, make sure to note the length of the helicopter/plane/dog sled ride. The total time of the excursion may be five hours, but the time in the air or on the glacier is usually substantially less. Still, it may be a once in a lifetime opportunity and I would recommend taking full advantage of what Juneau has to offer.
This picture was taken during our whale watching excursion. The camera is not zoomed in, which gives you a sense of how close the whales can get to the boat. While more expensive than a bus ride through town, whale watching is a good value.
Here we are leaving Juneau at sunset. You’ll definitely want to be watching the shore as you leave Juneau on your way to Ketchikan. Whale sightings are particularly common in this area as well. Hopefully Disney will have a naturist on board to point out whales and explain some of the history of Alaska.
Admittedly, Ketchikan is my least favorite of the major Alaskan ports. Sitka is a lot more interesting because it has a rich Russian history, but Ketchikan is a favorite of the cruise lines because it affords such a large variety of jewelry stores. I am not sure how much Disney will push shopping and jewelry in particular, but the constant “hard sell” of stores like Diamonds International will probably become annoying by the end of your cruise. Be wary of the stores the cruise line “recommends” or “guarantees.” The stores that are “recommended” pay a sizable chunk of money to have this “distinction” and it is truly meaningless. A majority of these stores also employ people that are shipped in from out of the country for the summer and do not support the local economies. Look for stores that are not advertised by the cruise line and diligently research reputable stores before the start of your voyage if you are considering a sizable jewelry or gold purchase. Alaska is part of the United States (obviously) and the prices are not necessarily any better than you might find at home. Plus, you can easily return to the local store, whereas dealing with a jeweler in Alaska will be more difficult.
Ketchikan is another stop where the boat will pull right up to the heart of the city.
Ketchikan from our balcony
There is a more limited number of things to do in Ketchikan, compared to Skagway or Juneau and no signature experience comes to mind. There are float planes, fishing trips, walking tours, a totem pole park, and similar excursions offered. This past year we enjoyed doing The Ketchikan Duck Tour, which is about a one hour narrated drive through the city followed by a 30 minute boat ride through the Tongass Narrows. At a cost of about $35 per person, it’s a reasonable alternative to the various bus tours. The boat ride is little more than a slow crawl along the shore, but it’s fun to get out on the water if you’ve never “done the ducks” before. You will learn about the history of the city and have the opportunity to ask questions. As you may already know, “The Ducks” are amphibious automobiles/boats that travel both on roads and water. The most interesting part is the boat ride, which features a relatively closeup view of eagles in the “wild.”
Eagles perched on rocks, seen from The Duck out on the water.
Another popular spot to tour is Ketchikan’s former red light district, which is now populated with shops rather than prostitutes. Alaska can’t have everything I guess.
It’s too bad they don’t offer gondola rides like Venice. Anyone want to invest?
There will be no shortage of goods to purchase in Ketchikan. In fact, it will make you wonder why Disney doesn’t add more shops to its theme parks.
Looks like about a “7” on the crowd scale. Recommended Cities: Ketchikan, Skagway, Juneau; Cities to Avoid: Sitka, Anchorage, Fairbanks
That’s Alaska in a Nutshell
Alaska is an outstanding foray into the life of cruising, not only because it is so accessible, but also because it is so much fun. If you’re looking for something a little different, but still want to experience “Disney magic,” a Disney cruise to Alaska may be just the thing. Cruises to Alaska are also offered by a host of other companies including Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Celebrity, and others. We will have to wait and see how Disney stands up against the competition. My guess is that they will do very well because they have a polished product that has been incredibly successful in the Bahamas. Hopefully that tradition of excellence will extend to Alaska for 2011 and the foreseeable future.