The best cruise lines have already thought through these questions. They've provided the proper accommodations to give these passengers a little extra peace of mind and a relaxing vacation. From a crewmember dedicated to your personal care in the event of an emergency to an ADA-compliant wilderness lodge used on Alaska cruisetours, the extra steps taken by some lines make disabled cruise vacationing as stress-free as possible -- and isn't that what a vacation is all about?
While all cruise ships (even foreign-flagged ones) sailing in U.S. waters should be ADA compliant, there are no ADA standards that specifically address cruise ships; the lack of clarity means that some cruise lines do more than others. To help you research the best line for your needs, we're highlighting the cruise lines and ships that excel in physical accessibility, but which also accommodate a variety of special needs with vision and hearing aids and a general attention to detail.
With a combination of advanced planning and the special features available on the following ships, a physical disability should not prevent you from cruising. In fact, a cruise might just be one of the best vacations you'll ever experience.
Royal Caribbean's Quantum, Freedom, Oasis, Radiance and Vision Class
Why: Royal's fleet includes the largest cruise vessels ever built (Oasis Class), giving passengers the benefit of some of the roomiest spaces at sea -- perfect for wheelchair mobility, if you can navigate the crowds. Royal is highly rated again and again on websites, such as Special Needs at Sea, that cater to special needs cruisers.
Special Features: Each Freedom-class ship offers 32 accessible cabins -- 16 insides and two suites. One pool and one whirlpool each have a lift, so you can enjoy an at-sea swim. Passengers with hearing and visual impairments can take advantage of sign-language interpreters (on cruises sailing to or from the U.S. and Canada only), portable room kits, assisted-listening devices and closed-captioned televisions, as well as Braille and large-print menus and Braille signs and elevator buttons. You can even utilize the services of an interpreter, as long as you request one no less than 60 days prior to sailing.
Radiance- and Vision-class ships only offer 15 to 19 accessible staterooms each, but they're well-liked, shining with positive reviews from disabled passengers. Accessible cabin doors that open automatically, either with a key from the outside or a push-button from the inside; plentiful, accessible public restrooms; spacious cabins and public areas (including the casino); lifts for the pools and hot tubs; and some of the best customer service (regarding crew-passenger interaction) seal the deal.
Slated for November of 2014, Royal Caribbean's newest ship, Quantum of the Seas, promises the same innovative cruising experience, with 34 accessible staterooms that feature wider doors, roll-in showers, grab bars and turning spaces. A lift is installed at the main pool and whirlpool, lower playing tables are in the casino, and forward- and rear-of-the-theater wheelchair seating is available in The Royal Theater with an elevator to forward seating. Assistive listening systems are offered at The Royal Theater for those with hearing impairments, and Braille and tactile signage is used throughout the ship.
Caveats: The long passenger decks on Royal Caribbean's biggest ships might pose an obstacle for passengers using canes or walkers. For those who have difficulty covering long distances, scooter or wheelchair rental is probably the best choice to get from point A to point B.
Celebrity's Solstice Class and Millennium Class
Why: With an emphasis on accessible shore excursions, Celebrity Cruises offers special amenities to disabled passengers who want to see the sights, take a dip in the pool and bring the whole family. (Accessible cabins that can sleep up to four people are available.) With many of the line's ships undergoing refurbishments in the past few years, accessibility has been improved, and the line has become more ADA compliant.
Special Features: Full-time wheelchair users are able to tender in port, which is an added freedom not afforded on all cruise ships. All Solstice-class ships have this ability and utilize it as sea conditions allow. Quality service is provided for wheelchair users onboard with assistance in initial boarding and gangway help at all ports. Celebrity also offers better and more affordable accessible shore excursions (according to some Cruise Critic members), especially with the use of full-size coaches with wheelchair lift access. Cabins all have push-button access, as do all the public toilets on the ship, and most doors to outside decks are either automatic or have push-button controls. Cabin bathrooms have high-quality fitments, and the Celebrity website does a good job of detailing which features are available, including whether the bathrooms have right- or left-handed grab handles (vital info for anyone with one-sided paralysis).
Solstice Class is the line's most accessible group of vessels with 30 accessible cabins each -- among them are four Sky Suites with butler service, four Concierge Class staterooms and four Aqua Class balcony cabins for spa-lovers. In addition, the line's Millennium-class vessels each offer 26 wheelchair accessible cabins -- including 11 balconies and six suites -- plus ramp access, wide bathroom doors and bathtubs with grab bars. Like to be really pampered? Three of the balcony cabins are Concierge Class, and all six suites come with butler service so you can have a taste of the high life during your cruise. A 2012 refurbishment outfitted Celebrity Millennium with changes like a lower passenger relations desk, ramps in shops and improved wheelchair-accessible cabins.
Caveats: Cruisers comment that the fold-down shower seats could be a bit longer, and that some of the accessible cabins are poorly located. "The four accessible Sky Suites are directly below the galley for the buffet, and it's noisy 24/7," said Cruise Critic member kitty9. "I didn't get one night's sleep because of the constant noise that sounded like a freight train."
Disney Cruise Line's Dream Class and Magic Class
Why: Disney Cruise Line has continued to prove its commitment to special needs cruising, improving upon its first two ships with the amenities of the Dream Class. Tops in the family market, but especially good for families with disabled children, the line adheres to the philosophy that any child should be able to participate in youth programming, regardless of ability, and youth counselors have experience working with children with special needs, including autism and behavioral challenges.
Special Features: The Dream-class ships have eight added accessible cabins over Magic, bringing the total to 24 accessible cabins with automatic doors on both Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. Of those, 16 sleep up to four people each, and eight cabins sleep up to five each -- fantastic for families. Magic-class ships Disney Magic and Disney Wonder offer 16 staterooms with wheelchair access, wide bathroom doors, bathtubs with grab bars and roll-in showers. These rooms come in inside, balcony and suite categories. Ten of the Magic-class rooms sleep four or five people each, and the remaining six cabins sleep three each.
Onboard theaters offer wheelchair seating and assisted-listening devices. Even Braille bingo cards are available. Disney's popular private island, Castaway Cay, is easily accessed by visitors with mobility impairments. Ships dock right at the island, rather than tendering, making debarkation a breeze; paved pathways line the main promenade; and, as an added bonus, Disney offers special wheelchairs, designed to make navigating sandy beaches a lot easier. Even an accessible cabana has been built on the adults-only portion of the beach.
Caveats: There are no pool lifts on any of the ships, which could be a real downer, especially for children who cannot be lifted into the pool. Boarding tenders and opening certain doors in the main areas of the ship may require additional help, though crewmembers are typically nearby and available to assist. Cruise Critic member mdvlprof also noted that not all accessible rooms are located near elevators, which could lead to some "interesting" navigation of busy halls.
Holland America's Vista Class
Why: Holland America Line typically attracts a mature crowd, so the line is highly attuned to passengers with mobility or other accessibility needs. HAL has received special praise from cruisers with hearing impairments for the line's fleetwide availability of listening and other devices. Vista-class ships are perfectly mid-sized -- easy to get around but large enough to offer multiple dining venues, lounges and activities.
Special Features: With 28 accessible cabins on each ship, you can take your pick of staterooms in every category -- four insides, five outsides, 13 balcony cabins and six deluxe balcony cabins. You can also request additional in-room equipment, such as elevated toilet seats, hand-held showerheads and TTY/TDD equipment. Holland America's nifty, wheelchair-accessible tender transfer system is unique and makes boarding tender boats much easier for passengers with limited mobility. Another cool innovation is Window-Eyes computer software (in the Explorations Cafe) that will read text on the Internet to cruisers who have vision loss. The line has also partnered with Special Needs at Sea to provide wheelchairs and other special equipment to travelers.
Caveats: While Holland America remains a mainstay on the disabled cruising scene, the line has not made any significant changes or improvements to this end in a number of years. Despite its tender system, Holland America does not allow scooters or wheelchairs weighing more than 100 pounds to be transferred from the ship to a tender and from the tender to shore. Not all doors are automated, including heavy cabin balcony doors with no push buttons. Exits to promenade decks (where lifeboats are located) have lips that are difficult to maneuver in a wheelchair.
Princess Cruises' Grand Class
Why: Princess Cruises has placed a longstanding priority on improving accessibility onboard, initiating its first Access program in 1992 and becoming the first cruise line to employ a manager of access compliance 10 years later. Today, the Princess fleet offers more than 350 wheelchair-accessible cabins and a cornucopia of aids for special needs. Forget your run-of-the-mill service dog -- Princess will even allow a "helping hands" monkey.
Special Features: Special gangway mechanisms on most ships simplify embarkation and disembarkation for wheelchair passengers in many ports. Onshore facilities and levels of access vary, yet Princess has made efforts to expand accessible offerings by working with local service providers. In St. Thomas, the line was instrumental in developing tours featuring the island's only accessible trolley. In Princess Cays, the line's own private beach in the Bahamas, ramps are featured for easier access. Guidelines in Princess' shore excursion listings indicate the level of access for each tour.
Alaska cruisetour passengers will be pleased to find that the custom-built Alaska wilderness lodges meet ADA guidelines, with accessible rooms and public spaces. Princess' Midnight Sun Express railcars offer access to the lower levels of the car, including dining areas and outside observation platforms.
Accessible cabins have widened doorways; wheel-in showers, hand-held showerheads, lowered sinks and bath distress alarms; lowered closet railings and handrails; and removed or revamped thresholds. Access-friendly restaurants, theaters, spas, lounges and open deck space make it easier to navigate public areas of the ship. Wheelchair seating is available in show lounges and other public spaces. Passengers with sight and hearing disabilities will find Braille elevator call buttons, audible elevator arrival sounds and infrared listening assistance systems in the theaters. Portable room kits featuring a visual and tactile alert system for door knocking, telephone ringing, alarm clock and smoke detector are available upon request. Televisions onboard provide closed captioning, and ship libraries feature a selection of books on tape. Princess ships also feature JAWS Screen Reading software with headsets in each Internet Cafe.
Caveats: Some past passengers report they weren't allowed to take scooters or heavier wheelchairs on tenders, essentially confining them to the ship at tender ports. Princess does not have a fixed policy about wheelchairs and tenders but, instead, makes decisions on a case-by-case basis, dependent on the passenger, the equipment involved, the weather and sea conditions.
Regent Seven Seas Cruises' Mariner, Voyager and Navigator
Why: If you're looking to step up in cruising to all-inclusive with luxury suites, book a cruise on Regent Seven Seas. The line offers personalized service and a high crew-to-passenger ratio, ensuring that staff will take good care of you onboard. The line has announced a fourth ship, Seven Seas Explorer, which many expect to surpass Regent's current high standards of accommodation.
Special Features: Seven Seas Mariner offers six accessible standard suites with verandahs (two each in categories D, E and F) in prime locations around the atrium area, so you'll never be far from anywhere you want to go. Seven Seas Voyager and Seven Seas Navigator only have four accessible suites, but two are luxurious Penthouse suites. (Although only slightly roomier than standard suites, these accommodations come with butler service.) Accessible suites have wider doors, ramps between the living areas and bathrooms, and large shower stalls with seats and grab bars. The cruise line also appoints one staff member to each guest with a disability to make sure he or she is taken care of in case of an emergency.
Caveats: These 700-passenger ships only offer a handful of accessible suites, so book early -- especially if you want the prized Penthouse suites. There are no walk-in closets in accessible suites on Seven Seas Mariner and no bath tubs in any suite on any ship to offer a satisfying soak.
Norwegian's Jewel Class, Dawn Class, Breakaway Class and Norwegian Epic
Why: A 2013 partnership with Special Needs Group (SNG) brought our attention to Norwegian Cruise Line's accessibility resources. The line has renewed its effort in this area and has created an online information portal meant to equip disabled cruisers with the information they need prior to travel.
Special Features: The line asks advanced notice of your special requirements; however, it promises that staff will be available throughout the cruise to see to your needs, including an Access Officer who will be the primary go-to person for disabled passengers. Some balcony and suite cabins have a power sliding door, as do many public areas, including the promenade and upper decks. Bathrooms are spacious, offering sizeable shower chairs. Signage is clear throughout the ship, with most vessels offering Braille indicators in the elevators, as well as stateroom numbers in Braille text. Elevators indicate accessible floors and entrances to areas where alternate access is required. Kits are available on select ships for passengers with hearing or vision loss. Norwegian Sky, Norwegian Sun and Pride of America have staterooms that are hard wired for passengers who are deaf or hard of hearing, which includes a visual-tactile alert system.
Up to 27 staterooms per ship are wheelchair accessible, with grab bars throughout the bathrooms, lower sinks and toilets, shower seats and extra-wide doors for easy access. Raised beds and adjustable hanging rods in closets can be found in the bedrooms. Five ships have alarm pull rods in bathrooms and alarm buttons beside the beds.
Caveats: Tender ports have their limitations for cruisers in wheelchairs. Anyone who cannot walk and who exceeds 250 pounds (including the wheelchair) will not be able to tender. Cruise Critic member CdnCruisin'wheeler noted that the "toilet was a little low for me and the bed on the high side which is somewhat incongruous."
--by Brittany Chrusciel, Editorial Assistant