In April 2019, I decided to book a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Mariner of the Seas for three nights to Nassau and the cruise line’s private island of CocoCay. I was excited for two reasons – my two awesome kids would be coming with me, and Royal Caribbean had just finished construction of a brand-new dock. That meant that I could actually get off the ship because tender boats would no longer be required to reach the island. However, I had been hearing some disturbing news about the lack of accessibility despite the construction being brand-new, to include lack of wheelchair access to the main pool, many eateries, the beaches, and even accessible bathrooms. Many of us in the accessible cruising community complained, and Royal Caribbean heard us. Within weeks, they started adding paved paths and making some improvements. However, MUCH still needs to be done.
CocoCay, officially known as Little Stirrup Cay, is Royal Caribbean Cruise’s exclusive private island in the Bahamas. It is located approximately 55 miles north of Nassau and is only 1 km wide from east to west. It has recently undergone extensive construction and renovation, to include a dock and waterslide thrill park. Royal Caribbean cruise ship guests stopping at CocoCay can enjoy activities like snorkeling, kayaking, and zip lining, in addition to relaxing along one of its many beaches, splash pads, or the huge Oasis Lagoon swimming pool. While many accessibility concerns have been addressed by Royal Caribbean in recent weeks, unfortunately the island is lacking in many wheelchair accessible features.
Once your ship docks at the pier, you can either walk/roll to Perfect Day or hop on one of the wheelchair accessible trams. The ramp to board the trams is quite steep, and although there are slots for tie-downs, the driver will not strap down your wheelchair. Our driver drove very aggressively to the point that my chair was sliding around and I had to tell him to stop so I could reposition myself. I also had to tell him to drive much more slowly. You can board one of the smaller trams right when you get off of the ship. There are two tram stops on the island – one near the Thrill Waterpark (paved) and one by the Oasis Lagoon (unpaved/sand).
If you are required to stay in your wheelchair or your scooter, there are only a few portions of CocoCay that are fully wheelchair accessible. There is a paved walkway that goes through most of the island, but to reach the beach, many of the eateries, the Straw Market, and some of the bars, you have to go through soft sand. The easiest activities to reach are Captain Jill’s Galleon and Splashaway Bay, both of which are splash pads for kids, and the huge Oasis Lagoon pool. The pool does have a lift and a very wide zero-entry ramp entrance at one end. however, there are no water/pool wheelchairs available. There is also paved access to the Thrill Waterpark. However, I didn’t want to pay the rather steep access fee. I have read that there is a lift into the wave pool.
There are several beach areas located around CocoCay. Unfortunately, none of them have beach mats. There are three areas where you can find free beach wheelchairs, but I only saw two – in between Captain Jack’s bar and Splashaway Bay, and along the outside of a bathroom building near Diver’s Den in the Chill Island area. The chairs next to Capt. Jack’s bar are only a few feet away from the paved walkway. However, there is no designated area for visitors to leave their personal wheelchairs while they’re using the beach wheelchair. Also, there are no paved areas at all on the Chill Island side of CocoCay, so it’s impossible to reach the beach wheelchairs to transfer from your personal wheelchair. The beach wheelchair would need to be brought to you at a considerable distance from the beach. The chairs are also not the kind designed to go into the water.
Eating comfortably will be a challenge for wheelchair users. The only eating facility with paved access is Skipper’s Grill. While the food and beverage areas are wide and the food is easy to reach, all of the picnic tables and seating areas are located in the sand. There are some picnic tables with umbrellas located on a wooden boardwalk facing one of the beaches, but to reach that boardwalk, you have to go through soft sand. There was only one picnic table in the sand close enough to the edge of the cement where my boys could sit on the benches and I could roll up to the end of the table, but that was it. There was nowhere else for my boys and I could sit together, unless we walked/rolled roughly five minutes to Captain Jack’s bar, where they have a few low tables with chairs. It would be ideal if Royal Caribbean could add some reserved seating exclusively for wheelchair users and their families on the paved areas under the pavilion.
There are accessible restrooms located around the island, but there are only a few that are accessible by paved walkway. The first is attached to Captain Jack’s bar. The accessible stall was wide with good grab bar placement, and there was easy access to the sinks. While there is a baby changing fold-down table, there is no place for a larger child or adult to be changed. The second set of accessible bathrooms I saw were attached to Skipper’s Grill. From my understanding, those pavers were only recently added.
After my boys and I finished our time on CocoCay, we took the accessible tram around the island just to see everything else that I wasn’t able to access, and just to get a general feel for what the rest of CocoCay looked like. It was very disheartening to see just how much of the island was inaccessible to wheelchair users because there were no paved areas at all. The entirety of the beach areas, Chill Island, and the entire west end is sand only. All of the Straw Market shops are surrounded by sand, so souvenir shopping is impossible. There are many beach beds and beach cabanas, including supposedly accessible cabanas, available to rent. However, you can only reach the accessible cabanas using the beach wheelchairs.
The deciding factors for each wheelchair user and his or her family on whether or not to choose a Royal Caribbean cruise itinerary that includes CocoCay will be personal. For me, it was worthwhile. I have MS, which makes me very sensitive to the heat, so I knew I would only be able to spend a limited amount of time on the island. My two sons understood this, and since they live very close to the beach in Florida, they didn’t feel like they were missing out by not accessing this part of CocoCay. We also recently visited the Great Wolf Lodge resort in Georgia, so they didn’t feel like they were missing out by not going to the Thrill Waterpark, either.They thoroughly enjoyed their time at the two splash pads, and actually spent most of the morning at the Oasis Lagoon. We arrived at Skipper’s Grill early because of an approaching thunderstorm, so we were able to find the one place where we could all sit, and beat the crowds to the food. Please keep all of this in mind when deciding what you and your family are interested in doing and/or able to do.
Are you ready to visit CocoCay on your next accessible Royal Caribbean cruise? Contact me at Spin the Globe/Travel so we can start planning!