REVIEW: Wheelchair Accessible Cruising on the MSC Seaside

I’ve been on almost twenty cruises now as a wheelchair user, and have sailed on virtually all the major US-based cruise lines. However, I had never cruised on MSC – an Italian cruise line – and I decided to take advantage of special pricing for solo cruisers for an Eastern Caribbean itinerary out of Miami. I chose the Seaside, their newest ship that launched in December 2017, thinking the wheelchair accessibility might be good since it’s such a new ship. My overall experience on the MSC Seaside has been mixed, not just because of accessibility (which overall is good), but some other mostly cultural differences that have negatively impacted my cruise experience as a wheelchair user. Read on to check out my assessment of the MSC Seaside.

About the MSC Seaside

The first of MSC’s next-generation Seaside class vessels, the Seaside is the largest cruise ship ever to be constructed by its builder, Fincantieri of Italy. Seaside entered into service in December 2017. It is operating year-round to the Caribbean, from a renovated and expanded dedicated berth and terminal at PortMiami, Florida, USA.

Seaside has a passenger capacity of 5,429, plus a crew capacity of 1,413. The ship does not have a floor #17, likely due to superstition, though the ship does have a floor #13. A section of the ship at the front, and occupying the top two floors, is called the Yacht Club. It is a private-access, all-inclusive “VIP” area that features the Topsail Lounge, the Yacht Club Restaurant, the Yacht Club Sundeck, Pool, and Bar. Yacht Club guests tend to pay extra for a faster boarding process, butler service, included beverages, faster disembarkation and more.

Boarding and Disembarking

Checking in and boarding at Port of Miami was a pretty straightforward process. I didn’t have time to check in online prior to departure day, but the luggage handlers will put tags on your bags curbside if needed. MSC has separate lines and check-in counters for wheelchair users and people with special assistance needs, so this made the process pretty quick for me. You will get your cruise card, which also serves as the room key, at check-in, as well as some documents with information about embarkation day and Internet access.

You won’t be able to register your credit card for on-board purchases at check-in. Once on board, you have to find a kiosk for this purpose. You just scan your cruise card to identify yourself, then insert the card you want to use. It’s an annoying additional step to take, but it’s fast and easy.

The gangway to the ship at Port Miami and the boarding ramp were not too steep. We had four ports of call, and while of course the tides will vary at each port, I did not need any assistance getting off the ship at the ports or getting back on because of the ramp angle.

In both St. Thomas and Sint Maarten, the ship’s security personnal forgot to unlock Deck 4 on the elevators, which meant I had no way to get to the disembarkation deck. Both times, I lost half an hour finding a crew member on Deck 5 to escort me through the crew area to the crew elevator to get to the gangway.

Accessible Staterooms

During my cruise on the Seaside, I stayed in a wheelchair accessible interior stateroom #12163 on Deck 12. As far as accessibility, the room has its pros and cons. In the pros category, it’s extremely spacious, both in the bedroom area and the bathroom. The bed is low at roughly 22 inches, which made transfers a breeze for me. There’s also enough room under the bed for a hoist.

However, because of the king-size bed, there’s not enough space for a wheelchair user, and barely a person, to squeeze between the left side of the bed and the wall. Unfortunately, that’s the side of the bed where the emergency button is located. My cabin steward offered to rearrange the bed if I wanted, but I declined since the right side of the bed is the only one I can get into anyway. I had to forgo access to the emergency call button as a result, but otherwise, I could have requested that the bed be split into two twins and pushed up against the opposite walls.

I don’t have a single complaint about the bathroom. The bench was wide, and after I asked my cabin steward to lower the handheld shower head, everything was within reach. Although it was a bit awkward to squeeze, I was able to reach the shower gel and shampoo dispensers. At the sink, there is a built-in soap dispenser. However, there are no complimentary toiletries provided, like lotion or shower caps.

My cabin also has a desk with a small chair, a TV, a closet with lowered hangers and rods, a mini safe, and several drawers. Probably my biggest complaint about the stateroom is that it does not have a pushbutton door opener. I was informed that none of the accessible staterooms have them, either. I spoke to the Captain about this, and he explained this was not a priority for the shipbuilder in Italy. He said he believes this will be addressed when the ship undergoes dry dock upgrades in 2021.

Please note that Seaside staterooms use a European energy saving keycard system, which means you have to insert your cruise card into a slot next to the door in order to turn on the lights. I haven’t forgotten to remove my cruise card on the way out of my cabin (yet) because it’s at eye-level for me, but if and when you forget your cruise card in your room, it will be an additional hassle to get another one made at Guest Services.

Dining Options

For a ship with a passenger capacity of almost 5,500 people, I was shocked at how few dining options there are. The Seaside has two complimentary main dining rooms (MDR): the Ipanema and the Seashore. To eat dinner at either MDR, you must have a set dining time: 5:30PM or 7:30PM at Seashore, and 5:15PM, 7:15PM, or 9:15PM at Ipanema. If you don’t arrive within 15 minutes of your seating, they will close the doors and not allow you in. There is no “my time” or “anytime” style dining for dinner at the MDRs. However, you can eat breakfast any time between 8:00-9:30AM and lunch on sea days from 12:00-1:30PM in the Seashore MDR.

The Ipanema MDR
The Seashore MDR

There are also two complimentary buffets: the Biscayne on Deck 16 and the Marketplace on Deck 8. The Biscayne is only open for breakfast and lunch with limited hours, leaving the Marketplace as the busiest dining option. It’s usually a madhouse at all hours. With such an international set of passengers, mealtimes vary, so you can never count on a typical American lull around midday.

The Marketplace buffet

The buffets are also a nightmare for wheelchair users because you will be given no quarter and shown no courtesy by your fellow passengers. People will cut in front of you (and others), and no one respects anyone’s place in what passes for a line. Entry and exit signs are ignored. Fortunately, the crew are always ready to help carry your plate or reach food for you. Finding a seat can be impossible, so I recommend taking your plate to the Bistrot area just outside the buffet for a quiet meal with a better view.

There are five specialty (i.e. additional cost) restaurants (steakhouse, seafood, Asian), of which you’ll constantly be reminded by the crew selling the dining packages. I did not eat at any of them, so I can’t comment on the food, but the decor is beautiful. There is a chocolatier on board that sells chocolate truffles, treats, and drinks, which are pricey. There is also a venue that sells crepes and gelato at additional cost. However, there are no small caf├ęs or casual eateries where you can grab a quick complimentary sandwich or salad or snack outside of the buffet.

The speciality restaurant “hub” bar
Venchi 1878 Chocolate Bar

Bars are everywhere on the ship, but surprisingly have very limited hours. If you want anything to drink before noon, you either have to go to the pool or the huge main bar on Deck 5. On a ship this big, it’s amazing the lengths I have to go to just to get a Coca Cola at noon.

As for the quality of the food, I would say it’s about average/mediocre. I’ve read not-so-great reviews about MSC food before, and I’m never optimistic about meal quality on a ship feeding over 5,400 people within a few hours. My meals have been at a minimum warm, although never freshly hot. My MDR times have been around 90 minutes for dinner and 1 hour for lunch. Breakfast in the Marketplace is good, although I prefer the quiet and the leisure of breakfast in the Seashore when available.

Entertainment Venues

The primary entertainment venue on the Seaside is the main theater, which is surprisingly small for such a large ship (capacity of 945 people). Depending on the port schedule, there can be up to three shows per evening, and passengers have to make a reservation to attend one of the shows. You can also only attend one show per evening, and they scan cruise cards to check. The exception is wheelchair users, as there reserved spaces for us at both the top and bottom of the theater, and typically we don’t occupy a seat.

Bottom of the main theater
Top of the main theater

I can’t say enough about the quality of the shows. Each one was pretty much like Cirque du Soleil, with amazing acrobatic acts interspersed between outstanding singing and dancing. Every show was a “production” show, meaning Broadway or Vegas style. There were improv comedy shows, but later in the evening at 10:45PM. The costumes and stage set designs were very impressive, as was the quality of the singers and acrobats.

There are several lounges scattered around the ship, many of which have musicians and singers performing at various times throughout the day and evening. The largest is the Haven Lounge, where a small band plays every night before dance lessons and a game show. Trivia is held in the much smaller Piazza lounge on Deck 6 at least once a day. A DJ plays techno music from the atrium several times a day.

The Piazza lounge on Deck 6

The schedule of daily activities is sparse compared to US-based cruise lines. On port days, if you like to relax on the ship or can’t disembark due to tendering, you’ll be on your own for entertainment as no activities are scheduled while the ship is in port. No activities are scheduled for at least an hour on either side of meals.

The Pools

There are several pools on the Seaside: the main (and largest) pool on Deck 16, a small pool at the very back of the ship on Deck 7, and an adults-only pool with a retractable roof on Deck 18. The only accessible pool is the main pool, which has a small ramp to reach the pool deck, as well as a pool lift at one corner. There are also several whirlpools on board, but none have lifts.

At the back of Deck 18 next to the kids’ club, there’s a kids’ splash pool area, waterslides, rope bridges, and climbing areas. Unfortunately, there’s no flat entry to the splash area. However, there are plenty of spaces from which a parent in a wheelchair could enjoy watching their children play here.

The Spa and Salon

The Seaside has a hair salon and a small separate barber shop. I didn’t use the salon, but I looked inside and saw that they have the moveable sinks where you can often stay in your wheelchair and just lean back to get your hair washed. You should also be able to stay in your chair for styling.

I was given a brief tour of the spa, where they have accessible bathrooms, specific accessible treatment rooms, and some adjustable massage beds. Unfortunately, wheelchair users will not be able to use features like the thermal baths unless they can step over a threshold. They can, however, use the light treatment rooms and the saunas. There is also a height-adjustable bed in the medi-spa treatment room that can be used for any spa service. For privacy reasons, I couldn’t take photos inside the spa areas.

Ports of Call

This itinerary had four ports of call. Below are links (when available) to my wheelchair accessibility review of each:

I’ve been to all of these ports before, but I had never visited San Juan or Philipsburg as a wheelchair user. The schedule for the port stops was not ideal. We were scheduled to dock in San Juan at 5:00PM and depart at 1:00AM. This is pretty awful timing because most attractions in San Juan close between 5-6PM, and it was dark outside by 6:30PM (on September 30).

Enjoying my 30-minute visit to Castillo San Felipe del Morro before it closed

We had a full day in St. Thomas, but only six hours in Philipsburg starting at 7AM, when the water taxi doesn’t start operating until 8AM and the shops and bars don’t open until 10AM. The stop in Nassau is also only six hours, which doesn’t leave much time for getting the most out of your $139 per person day pass to Atlantis. Also keep in mind that port clearance can cut into your schedule (e.g. it took a full hour to clear the ship after we arrived in St. Thomas).

Technically, MSC offered wheelchair accessible shore excursions in San Juan and Sint Maarten, and I booked them both for a pretty reasonable price. However, they were both cancelled they day before we arrived in port because not enough passengers signed up for the tour to make it financially viable for the tour operator. This left me with no time to make other independent tour arrangements. This is typical for all cruise lines and not just MSC, as the fine print always says tours are subject to cancellation if they don’t meet minimum participation.

Public Spaces

Despite its size, getting around the Seaside was remarkably easy. Public spaces like lounges, the casino, hallways, etc. were generally spacious and easy to navigate. The main issues I ran into was with heavy furniture packed tightly together in the Haven Lounge on Deck 7 and the Piazza lounge on Deck 6. The pool decks are always crowded, but surprisingly, there was usually enough space between rows of loungers that I could roll from one end of Deck 16 to the other without much trouble.

There are tons of elevators everywhere. However, they can be slow. Fortunately, I only had to wait for another elevator with enough space for my chair maybe three or four times during the whole cruise. Just beware that many of your fellow passengers will not show you the courtesy of allowing you in first, even if you arrived at the elevator bank first. I had to shout at many people for almost knocking me out of my chair in their efforts to cut in front of me to enter an elevator.

My number one complaint about public spaces on the Seaside is that there isn’t a single pushbutton door opener anywhere on the ship, and there are only a handful of sliding or automatic doors. Fortunately, almost all doors weren’t too heavy and relatively easy to open, but for manual chair users, they would pose a big problem.

I very rarely use the public bathrooms on cruise ships, and prefer to go to my cabin instead. However, the one accessible bathroom I used on Deck 6 was great. It didn’t have a pushbutton door opener, but the space was very large with grab bars in the right places. It also had emergency call buttons, soap and paper towels within reach, and it was very clean.

General (and Random) Observations

If you’re an American and have only cruised on US-based cruise lines (e.g. Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, etc.) with mostly North American passengers, cruising on the Seaside (or probably any other MSC ship) will be a very different experience. There are more Europeans on the ship than North Americans, despite the fact the Seaside sails from Miami. European tastes, languages, customs, and etiquette are the norm everywhere. Unfortunately, as a wheelchair user, this means you will be ignored, disregarded, bumped into without apology, leaned over, cut in front of, and largely viewed as an inconvenience by a sizable number of fellow passengers.

Honestly, this aspect of my cruising experience was bad enough to make me not want to cruise with MSC again, and to recommend against sailing on MSC for wheelchair and scooter users. The staff and crew were kind, courteous, and helpful, but I lost my patience with the pushing and shoving and cutting on day five. I can put up with a lot of ignorance from others, but not from thousands of people every single day on a cruise ship.

One of the shop areas that can get extremely crowded

The only truly quiet space on the ship is your cabin. I know most people don’t work on cruise ships like I do, but even if you just want a quiet corner to read a book without music or much conversation, you won’t find it. Even the “library” isn’t a closed room; it’s an open space bisected by a busy hallway leading directly to a small pool deck at one end and a large lounge at the other. There is noise from people or music everywhere at all times.

The “library” on Deck 7

You will see a lot of skin, and not just at the pool. Again, this is a European crowd where showing skin and thong bikinis are normal. There are tons of families and kids on this cruise, but they’re used to this. If you prefer to be around more modestly dressed passengers, MSC is not for you.

The Garage dance club

There is not a single ATM anywhere on the ship, including the casino. You can get a cash advance against your registered credit card at the Guest Services desk for a 5% fee, but I don’t know what the maximum amount is. If you plan to gamble in the casino, bring your own cash.

The casino on Deck 7

About an hour prior to sailing, every single cruise ship has to conduct a safety drill (under US Coast Guard regulations), and every single passenger has to attend. Normally, no one is allowed to use their phones or talk during the drill, and the crew takes it seriously. On this cruise, they had to conduct the drill in five languages, so it took much longer. If English was one of them, I didn’t hear it or understand it. Most passengers were on their phones and/or not paying attention, and none of the crew seemed to mind.

The atrium on Deck 6

The decor of the ship is super-modern and shiny, with tons of mirrors and surfaces that shine or sparkle everywhere. It’s extremely clean, with no smudges anywhere. Moving through the ship is like transitioning from one Miami Beach nightclub to another, and quiet (but upbeat) music is piped in everywhere. Everything is geometric, curved, chrome, and glass. The atrium staircases are covered in crystals, just to give you an idea. If you’re looking for traditional dark wood, brass, and studded leather, this isn’t the ship for you.

The champagne bar on Deck 7

I had a very unsettling experience during my cruise on day four. My cabin steward was super nice, and he somewhat awkwardly approached me to tell me something as I entered my cabin. He suggested that I go to guest services and have the mandatory $87 gratuity removed from my bill. This fee is supposed to be divided among the entire crew, from cabin stewards to waiters to bartenders. However, he said the crew doesn’t see any of it.

I found this interaction disturbing on many levels. If true (and it may be, based on responses from several fellow travel agents in Facebook groups), then MSC is treating their employees terribly. If not true, my cabin steward was angling for an under-the-table tax-free gratuity. Either way, he was risking his job by telling me this, and I did not like being placed in such an awkward position. It appears this has happened on other ships and cruise lines as well, but this is the first time it’s happened to me.

Normally this is the space where I suggest you contact me to book a cruise on the line or ship I’m reviewing. However, at this time, I cannot recommend booking a cruise with MSC for wheelchair users.

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Comments

  1. I’m sorry to hear that your cruise wasn’t great. I’ve only been on one cruise (from the UK with P&0) and found the discourtesy from other passengers – especially around using the lift, really put me off ever trying another cruise. Many passengers clearly felt “entitled” to use the lift – even if going up one deck, and I completely lost it when trying to disembark and lift after lift stopped crammed full of people – none of whom offered to get out and walk down one flight of stairs so that a wheelchair could take the only accessible option! And as you say, there are no “quiet spaces” – even out cabin wasn’t that quiet because of the sound of people walking past talking and the steward clattering and greeting guests.
    I know many wheelchair users rave about cruises, but I’d rather spend my money on another type of holiday.

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