That became the common phrase throughout the cruise aboard Royal Caribbean Explorer of the Seas. It’s really hard to not compare cruise lines once you’ve been on a Disney ship. For this blog, I will do my best to focus on what it was instead of what it wasn’t. After all, it’s not Disney.
To start, we stayed overnight in downtown Seattle at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. From the moment we saw the hotel, we were mesmerized by its beauty! It truly is an amazing hotel with great views, great rooms, beautiful lobby, gorgeous inside pool and workout area, and an escalator which kept Gavin occupied for hours. The room was huge, with two queen beds and a very large bathroom. We played on the escalator, swam for a bit, played on the escalator some more, had room service bring us a very delicious dinner, and played on the escalator. We did get to take a walk around the hotel and look at the gorgeous ballroom, the shops on the lower level, and sneak a peek at the upscale restaurant. Back inside our room we shot animal zingers at the ceiling, the walls, and each other for fun. We got great belly laughs from Gavin that night! I would most definitely recommend staying there.
The first day on a new ship is always my favorite with Gavin. I absolutely LOVE to explore with him and take everything in from his point of view. I let him lead me around and we took elevators, stairways inside and out, down corridors and decks, and we had a blast looking at everything. We even found the potty spots for the service dogs. No stone was left unturned in the Gavin tour. We stopped to play some mini golf, look at the Flowrider, and examine the rock climbing. Unfortunately, he was not tall enough for the Flowrider (52”) and not old enough for the rock climbing (6+). Since the mini golf was right next to those off-limit activities, we didn’t play it again during the rest of the cruise because of temptation and possible meltdowns. Larry, Manny and Deanna mingled with the group at lunch and got to know some of the passengers and staff.
Another place we loved to take Gavin was to Johnny Rockets, because they always had the French fries and root beer that he survives on. They do have a surcharge of $6.95 per person to eat there, but they were very generous to our situation and only charged us for Gavin. We were there daily and they only needed two days before they expected us and had his fries and drink ready as he walked in the door. Our first trip there, we were accompanied by Taylor and Shannon, two of the AotS staff. They were so kind and sweet to Gavin, helping him stay focused in his new surrounding and getting him to eat. I mention this because the next day we decided to have a staff member come with us on an excursion in Juneau to help with Gavin. When we showed him the staff bio sheet with the pictures of the AotS staff, he pointed to Taylor as the person he wanted to go with him. Although I’m sure he loved them both, Taylor’s picture was above Shannon’s so there may have been unfair advantage.
The night sky doesn’t appear until 10:30 – 11:00 pm that far north so it was difficult to get that bedtime routine down. Plus, the night sky doesn’t last that long, therefore, around 4 am, the sun is peeking through the curtains. Gavin could get to sleep with the aid of Melatonin, but nothing would help keep him asleep through the sunny 4 am mornings. We survived to tell the tale, though!
The tour began on a bus and took us through the city of Juneau. The bus driver was awesome, knowledgeable, and funny. We saw a bald eagle on a streetlight post along the way. He took us to a catamaran to whale watch. The crew was excellent and very informative. We got to see humpback whales, orcas, and sea lions. The ride was smooth and they positioned themselves in the best spots for viewing and maneuvered to give everybody a chance at great pictures. Afterward, we took the bus up to Mendenhall Glacier visitor center. This place is pretty amazing! They have great exhibits to entertain the youngest and oldest in the group. Gavin was in awe of the mountain goat and bear. Yes, they had the skin of these two animals in the center and Gavin was able to touch, pet, and investigate the orifices of these creatures close up. Outside the center are hiking trails. Eight miles roundtrip can take you to the falls and about 3 miles roundtrip can take you very near the glacier. We chose to look at the glacier from across the lake. It’s a gorgeous area and we loved watching the helicopter tours hover over the glacier. We had our first meltdown as Gavin didn’t want to leave the area. He could’ve walked all day and night to the falls, but unfortunately, the bus would not have waited for us and neither would the ship. With help from Taylor, we got him to the bus and back to the ship with great effort, strength, and perseverance.
Taylor went with us on this excursion as well. We figured she had such great rapport with Gavin and had been a tremendous help so why fix what isn’t broken? First of all, this excursion is backward. Might not matter to some, but when one is dealing with an ASD child who relies heavily on no surprises and very meticulous visual planning for his well-being, it is of the upmost importance. So let’s climb aboard the bus and head over to the Dog Sled Experience first. After telling him the train needs to wait until after the doggies, a very upset Gavin was then escorted into a crowded, tight viewing area where a musher talked for over 30 minutes about what it’s like to be a musher. I’m sure it was fascinating, really, but I didn’t hear most of it since Taylor and I were chasing a bored Gavin around the tight space while he crawled like a gecko and made sure everybody knew he wasn’t enjoying the presentation. We finally made it to the dog viewing area where we all lined up along the edge of a dog run and watched a few dogs parade through while we all reached down and pet them. We watched as the musher hooked up the dogs and took a lap around the corral. The dogs were cute, the musher was very knowledgeable and caring toward his dogs. All was great. Except: Where was the snow? Where were the huskies? Do you have a wolf somewhere? This was a lesson in expectations. It looked like a dirt ranch, but with dogs not cattle. The best part was the puppies. Everybody got to hold and pet a puppy – a future Iditarod sled dog. That was cool. Gavin held and loved the pup with the help of Taylor, who was able to get his attention on the pup for about 2 minutes.
We boarded the bus again and trekked through the highway portion of the excursion. We were supposed to stop at Tormented Valley and Pitchfork Falls for photo ops, but we took those photos going about 45 mph. After a grueling drive, with a boring bus driver, a speaker on its last leg crackling as he spoke, and no wildlife to be seen for hundreds of miles, we finally reach the train station. YAY! But wait! Now we have to stay on the hot, idling bus, because the train cars are being cleaned. Gavin starts meltdown mode! He wants off NOW. He sees the train right there in front of us, but we can’t leave???!! Larry gets off the bus and talks to the driver, who agrees that Gavin needs off the bus before we have blood on our hands. As we exit the bus, Larry tells us, “The driver said to just go ahead and take Gavin onto the train.” YAY! Man, I love when people GET IT! So we get on the train before all of the other passengers and Gavin has time to use the potty, walk around the train car to get his wiggles out, and go from seat to seat to seat to find the very best seat. That right there helped him so much during the train ride through the narrow gauge railway. We did not see animals, but we did see Sasquatch and Oswald. Apparently, past travelers through the railway understood the lack of wildlife along the way and kindly provided comic relief with little statues set out along the path.
The highlight of the trip for me is when Taylor and I brought Gavin out onto the platform between the train cars so he could feel the wind on his face and the thrill of standing right above the railroad while the train chugged along. His smiles were enough to light up the long, dark tunnels we traveled through.
Okay, again look at the title of the excursion. Notice first on the list. Yeah, didn’t happen. We started with Victoria Highlights on a bus. Taylor sat with Gavin and kept him happy and occupied during the bus ride. We saw wildlife! A peacock at a petting zoo along the road. So we head to our first stop: Miniature World. I really need to find out how to get the true information on these excursions because dealing with social stories, schedules, and expectations for an ASD child is complicated enough without these forks in the road. So his first words were, “BUG ZOO!!!!” Yes, Gav, I’m really sorry this isn’t the Bug Zoo, but let’s just take a look inside and explore! If you know Gavin, then you understand that with every new experience, room, place, etc. he needs to take a “hot lap”. This is done in high speed and he appears to not really be taking anything in, but in reality he’s taking it ALL in and preparing his brain so that he can do his second lap to hit those things that stuck in his brain during the first lap. This is how he processes. So we do the “hot lap” at breakneck speed and hit the exit door. Now we have to go back, because to exit the door means we can’t come back in. Another thing about Gavin is that he hates to go “back”, “u-turn”, reverse direction, or in any other way go back from the direction he just came. Why? Who knows??? I sure don’t, but we’ve had to deal with this quirk since he was 18 months. So Taylor and I try to get him to go back, explaining that we missed the airplanes, we missed the trains, and oh so much more! It works and we get him reluctantly to take another lap through mini world.
He really enjoyed the trains and planes very much, but started asking for the Bug Zoo again so Larry finds the tour guide and she says we can walk to the Bug Zoo ahead of the group and gives us directions. We walk him over and explain to the Bug Zoo people about Gavin. They Get IT!! They agree to let us go through ahead of the group. Gavin proceeds to do his “hot lap”, taking in all the bug displays at 60 mph. Thankfully, the Bug Zoo is set up in a circular type setting so it works perfectly. His 2nd lap is slower as he takes in the beetles and roaches and his 3rd lap goes even better with him taking in the spiders, stick bugs, and grasshoppers. By the 4th lap, he’s done. We exit and buy him some souvenirs and start to figure out what to do now. The tour guide arrives and tells us our group gets a private room where we all sit around the room in a semi-circle and listen to presentations for each insect and wait patiently while the bug is passed around….NOPE. Not going to happen with the Gavman.
So we walk down to the water area, grab a water taxi and begin our trek back to the ship. While on the water taxi, Gav gets to see a Sea Plane land in the water next to us! Cool! He enjoys the ride so much, but we eventually get kicked off and start our walk back to the ship. On the way, there is a park so he stops to play. He had a great time sliding, climbing, and playing. We walk the rest of the way back and shop for some more souvenirs. He’s been a trooper, I tell you!! We all took turns holding him part of the way back to the ship, but overall, he’s in a great mood, being very cooperative and had the best transitions of the entire cruise portion of the trip.