While I have seen the Panama Canal before from land when I was in the Air Force, I have never cruised the canal by ship. I’m always searching for great deals and opportunities for cruising, and I stumbled upon a short notice opportunity to go on a 10-night Panama Canal cruise through Princess Cruise Lines on the Island Princess out of Fort Lauderdale. My overall experience was fantastic, but there were a few accessibility drawbacks here and there. Here is my full review of the cruise, as well as accessibility notes for the Island Princess.
Boarding and Disembarking
I’ve taken two Princess cruises out of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale in as many months, and both times the boarding process seemed a bit chaotic. There is some construction going on around the terminals, so it always seems like there are just a ton of people looking lost with their suitcases. The lines can get along during check-in, but fortunately the terminal employees are extremely kind and very helpful. Both times they plucked me out of the end of the line and took me through specially designated wheelchair lanes to help me avoid the crush of people and check in more quickly. I would highly recommend arriving as early as possible during your boarding window, and asking for help from terminal employees. I would also recommend dropping off your luggage, with tags attached, at the designated drop off point. Make sure you have a few dollars with you for a tip.
The bridge/gangway to board the ship was long, but smooth, and I had no trouble getting on board. You can’t enter your stateroom right away, so pretty much what everyone does is go have lunch. I had two options — the formal dining room or the buffet. I’m not a buffet person, so I had a very lovely and quiet lunch in the Bordeaux dining room.
At the end of the cruise, getting off the ship was super easy. I selected a later time to disembark because I don’t like waking up so early, and I had time to get a quick formal breakfast in the Provence dining room. When my disembarkation time arrived, I just rolled right off of the ship. However, what made things more complicated for me was the fact that we departed from Terminal 2 and I parked in the adjacent garage for Terminal 2, but the Island Princess arrived at Terminal 21. There were wheelchair accessible shuttles taking passengers to the parking garage, but I had to wait more than half an hour for an accessible shuttle to arrive. Overall, it took approximately one hour from my designated disembarkation time to arrive at my car.
I booked this cruise on very short notice, and I was amazed that there were any accessible staterooms left, especially considering that this is one of the smaller and older ships in the Princess fleet. I stayed in an ocean view accessible stateroom with an obstructed view. This means that I had a window, but my view of the outside was obstructed by a lifeboat immediately outside of my window. Personally, this doesn’t bother me as I appreciate more than anything just having some natural light coming into my stateroom.
The Island Princess went through a brief renovation in March 2018, so I was expecting a little bit more out of my stateroom as far as decor and general appearance. While the room was adequate, it was definitely rundown in some aspects. In addition to the desk chair, I had a standalone chair and a small round table. The standalone chair’s upholstery was worn down in several places where you could see the foam padding through the holes in the upholstery. The bathroom was clean, but there were several darker mildewed spots on the floor tile in the shower. My shower curtain had become detached in a couple of spaces, and while my cabin steward fixed that, it still wasn’t sliding very easily. While there are grab bars on either side of the toilet, the toilet is placed too closely to the wall, which makes for an awkward transfer. The bed is on the high side, and I would estimate the height to be approximately 30 inches. I was able to get in and out by myself, but it was borderline. It was definitely more difficult on evenings when the boat was moving. There is an emergency pull cord in the bathroom next to the toilet. However, there is no emergency call button next to the bed.
On a positive note, there is more than enough space underneath the bed to slide in a hoist, nd also to store my large suitcase. They also renovated the closets so that the railing can be pulled down in order to hang clothing. I also had more than enough space to roll around my bed and inside the bathroom, and there was an outlet conveniently next to the bed so I could charge my Whill Ci overnight.
Given that the Island Princess is a relatively small cruise ship, dining options might seem limited. For formal dining, there are two dining rooms, the Provence and the Bordeaux. You have the option of an early seating, late seating, or anytime dining. If you choose the latter, I would strongly recommend arriving at the dining room no later than 6 PM in order to be seated relatively quickly. Anytime after that, you could wait up to 45 minutes to be seated.
You can eat pretty much anytime at the Horizon Court buffet, although they do close at (I believe) 11 PM. You can also get things like hamburgers, hot dogs, and sandwiches at The Bar & Grill overlooking the pool on deck 15, and awesome pizza at the Princess Pizzeria next to the pool on deck 14. If you don’t mind spending extra money for higher end food, you can make reservations at one of two specialty dining restaurants: Sabatini’s or the Bayou Café & Steakhouse. On certain nights, you can also pay extra for the Crab Shack within the horizon court. If you have a sweet tooth, there is free ice cream available next to the solarium pool.
This was my third Princess cruise, and I was disappointed both with the quality of the food on the Island Princess compared to other ships, as well as the extremely slow pace of the service. The traditional food items on the menu in the formal dining rooms are the same from ship to ship, but I often received food that was at room temperature or only slightly warm, and the portions were a bit smaller. If I arrived at the dining room around 6 PM, I would be lucky to get out in time to make it to the 8 PM production show. However, the more typical fast food items by the pool, like the hot dogs and pizza, were excellent. I often found myself having meals there instead of in the formal dining room.
There are several different options for entertainment around the Island Princess. The primary venue is the Princess Theater, located at the front of the ship. This is the smallest cruise ship theater I have been in. There is only one way to enter and exit, at the top of the theater, and this is where the wheelchair and companion seating is located. There is no lift or elevator to access the bottom of the theater, so this is the only option for accessible seating. Every single show I attended was standing room only because of the small theater size, and although I usually had no trouble finding a space for my chair, I would strongly recommend arriving at the theater no later than 20 minutes prior to showtime to get a space.
For live music throughout the day and evening, you could go to the Wheelhouse Bar, which is a huge and warmly decorated lounge space. While the furniture is large and heavy, sometimes making it difficult to navigate, both the crew with fellow passengers are more than happy to help move things out of the way for you. There were also many activities and live performances taking place in the atrium on deck 5. The problem is that there are only stairs leading either up or down to the central atrium level. Most wheelchair users would not be able to take part in any activities in this area. However, there were plenty of good viewing spot overlooking the atrium floor from deck 6.
Throughout the day, you can usually hear live steel drum music playing by the pool. They also have movies playing on a huge LED screen over the pool throughout the day and evening, as well as some deck parties on select evenings. The Explorer Lounge is the second-largest entertainment venue after the Princess Theater, and this is where you will find activities like trivia, bingo, game shows, acoustic musicians, and the ship’s live band performing. There are ramps leading to all levels of the lounge, and wheelchair users can easily participate in all activities here. The chairs are quite heavy to move, you may need to ask for help in doing so so that you don’t block access for other passengers.
The Pool and Solarium
While I spent a good amount of time sunbathing on deck 15 above the pool, I did not use either the regular pool or the solarium pool since lifts are not available. Even if you can walk a few steps, there are several obstacles on the deck immediately surrounding the pool, including handrails, benches, and multiple thresholds and steps. Much of it is also slippery. I would not consider either pool a safe option for people with no mobility at all.
The Spa and Salon
During my cruise, I used the hair salon once and got two spa treatments, specifically foot and leg massages to alleviate edema. The hair salon is accessible, and I was able to stay in my chair for both the hair washing and hairstyling. The treatment tables in the spa area are not adjustable, so I was not able to transfer onto one of them for my leg massage. However, the staff was extremely flexible, and I was able to stay in my chair while she rested my feet on her lap during the treatment. If you are interested in a back massage or anything that would require you to use one of their tables, please keep in mind that you will need to transfer. Also, the tables are relatively high.
Ports of Call
My specific itinerary departed from Fort Lauderdale and stopped in Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands), Cartagena (Colombia), cruised through the northern portion of the Panama Canal to Gatun Lake and back, then stopped in Colón (Panama), Limón (Costa Rica), and Ocho Rios (Jamaica). You can read more about the accessibility in specific ports of call on this itinerary by clicking on the hyperlinks above.
You should take note that Grand Cayman is a tender-only port. This means that wheelchairs will not be able to disembark, as the Island Princess does not have a wheelchair accessible tendering system. In fact, we anchored on a completely different side of the island away from Georgetown because the winds were too strong, which would have made regular tendering impossible. This made life complicated for other passengers who had arranged shore excursions, and now had to take a 20 minute taxi ride to get to their meeting points.
Wheelchair users will also not be able to disembark in Gatun Lake for excursions in Panama. The way it works is that tenders bring passengers to shore from the lake, where they take their boat or bus or whatever means of transportation they will be using for their shore excursions. Towards the end of the day, the Island Princess then docks in Colón for three hours, where they can re-board, and any passengers can get out for a couple of hours to do some souvenir shopping. There is absolutely nothing to do or see in Colón, so unless you really want to get some souvenirs for yourself or others, you probably can just stay on the ship.
The true highlight of the cruise, and honestly the whole point of this itinerary, was going through the Gatun locks of the Panama Canal. We first entered around 6:15 AM, so I woke up very early and headed up to deck 15 for a good viewing spot on the port side of the ship. This way, I could see tankers coming in the opposite lane right next to us. It was also pretty amazing to be on one of the ship’s top decks while going underneath the brand-new Atlantic Bridge, which spans the canal. Princess had a Canal expert on board, and he was narrating the partial transit the whole time. This was truly an educational experience, and he explained every single thing that was going on around us during the slow movement of the ship. For return portion of the transit, I went to the very front of the Horizon Court and found a great viewing spot right in front of the huge windows. Once again, the canal exit was fully narrated, but this time I was in the air conditioning with a front row seat. It took roughly two hours, but I found it to be incredibly fascinating and very relaxing.
The public areas on the Island Princess were more or less accessible, but there were certainly several instances where that access was challenging. My biggest complaint is the very heavy wooden doors that you have to pass through to get to the outer decks on the ship. None of them have pushbutton door openers, and for some people with larger wheelchairs, someone will have to open both doors, as the width of a single door is not ADA compliant. The only automatic sliding glass doors on the whole ship go from the solarium to the spa and to the adjacent elevator bank. There is also about a 1-inch metal threshold at every wooden doorway. I believe most wheelchair and scooter users would be able to cross this threshold, but it’s awkward and you may need somebody to hold the door open for you. I had a lot of trouble opening the doors and going through them by myself.
The restrooms in public areas all have an accessible toilet, and there is even a separate accessible bathroom on deck 15. However, this one had a very heavy wooden door that was impossible for me to open my myself since it did not have a pushbutton opener.
I had no trouble at all accessing or exploring the different lounges, the casino, or the hallways. Occasionally there would be a cart being used by the cabin stewards in the stateroom hallway, but it’s they would quickly go outside and move the card so I could get around them. The elevators aren’t huge, but I had enough space to enter and turn around if given enough time to do so by fellow passengers. In the dining rooms, I always had enough space to reach my table, and the crew knew to remove a chair from the table for me. At eateries where the counter was very high, the crew would either go around the counter to bring me my food, or would assist me with things like adding toppings to my hot dog.
Finally, here is some general information about the Island Princess and this itinerary that may be relevant to you. The ship was launched in 2003, so it is approximately 16 years old. It was last refurbished in March 2018, and it has a maximum passenger capacity of 2,200 people. She is a sister ship to the Coral Princess, and those are the only two Panamax vessels in the Princess fleet.
The demographic for this Panama Canal cruise was decidedly older, and I would say that the average passenger was in their 70s and retired. There were only two children on the entire ship, and they were the son and daughter of one of the ship’s officers visiting with their mother. Because of this older demographic, the musical entertainment, trivia, and shows are geared towards this. If you are not a fan of music or know any trivia from the 40s, 50s, and 60s, you may not be able to relate to some of the entertainment. Anytime diners tend to head to the formal dining rooms as soon as they open at 5:30 PM, so please keep this in mind. Organized entertainment ends promptly at 11 PM, and if you want to eat late at night, room service is your only option.
There were many other wheelchair and electric scooter users on my cruise, but I was the only one traveling alone and easily the youngest. Likely as a result of this, I did have to field several awkward, nosy, and occasionally rude inquiries about my medical history and body. I was also on the receiving end of a considerable amount of unsolicited and potentially dangerous “assistance” from fellow passengers. I strongly believe this is because I am relatively young and was traveling alone, so if you go on this itinerary with a caregiver, assistant, friend, or spouse, you probably won’t run into this issue.
Are you ready to book an accessible cruising adventure to the Panama Canal on the Island Princess? Then contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can get started!