I have a little confession to make. I am a travel agent who has had never been on a cruise. With all of our moving and living in Europe for so many years, it just wasn’t a logical choice for us…until recently. So when I had the opportunity to go on a cruise AND learn more about Autism on the Seas, I knew the time was right- especially since it fell during my husband’s Fall Break and I could take him along!! Win-Win-Win situation!!
Our cruise was a 3 night cruise to the Bahamas on Royal Caribbean’s newly renovated Mariner on the Seas. Marketing itself as the “boredom busting getaway for the whole crew” with the tagline “Weekend Like You Mean It,” on the Royal Caribbean website, the Mariner is full of activities, cuisine options, and entertainment to cram a whole lot of fun into a quick getaway. RCL is not exaggerating. The energy and activity on this ship was never-ending and they did deliver on their promises.
As much as I loved the food, the activity, the relaxation and the time away with my husband, the highlight of the weekend for me was experiencing and being part of the Autism on the Seas family on board. Autism on the Seas (AotS) is an international organization that began working with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines in 2007 (and has since expanded to other cruise lines) to help adults and families with children with disabilities accommodate regular cruise services and enjoy a family vacation. Autism on the Seas offers select staffed cruises throughout the year. The AotS staff on board are volunteers who have degrees relating to special education, child development, or behavior therapy. An added bonus of their services, is that they extend to family and friends of these families so grandparents, extended family and friends travelling with a special needs family can also take part in their services.
Autism on the Seas Staff on duty can always be identified by their orange t-shirts. This team of ladies were amazing! I was so touched by the love they had for these children and their families, as well as how adept they were at making sure everyone’s needs were met and any difficulties overcome. We met them at the entrance to the ship and were escorted in to avoid lines and crowds. (The same service was provided on our final day as well with early disembarkation and staff assistance to avoid the crowds and chaos of mass disembarkation.)
We were given a schedule and after finding our room and settling in a bit, we reported to our own conference room where we had introductions, each staff member met with the families to learn more about their children and how they could best be served, and we had our own private muster drill away from the crowds.
And then we headed to the HeliPad for our send off and away we went. (Orange lanyards were provided to each of us in the group.)
We had our own special seating area in the dining room. The wait staff was super attentive and special orders were awaiting the children to expedite getting them fed. The staff attended to antsy children so parents could enjoy their meals as well.
As I mentioned above, the Mariner on the Seas is full of activities! The AotS staff arranged private sessions at the various venues so the children, the families, and the extended friends and families could participate in all the offerings of the cruise ship but without the added burden of waiting in line or navigating a crowd.
I was super impressed with the Royal Caribbean staff as well. They took the time to offer extra lessons and doses of patience to be sure everyone had a great time, including one who gave up her personal time to come and offer one little friend a second chance at the rock climbing wall when she was too tired and overwhelmed to participate during our regularly scheduled time.
The AotS staff was also on hand for some assistance during our beach excursion. Parents had added assurance and assistance with extra hands and eyes so everyone could enjoy the water – or stay on the beach as they wished.
Reserved seating at the evening entertainment meant no one had to show up early and wait long to ensure seats for the performances. Seating was also situated so that a quick getaway could be made if necessary.
And respite care was provided daily as well. The AotS staff lovingly played with the children while parents and family members enjoyed time focusing on each other and being refreshed.
On our final evening, the staff presented each child with a reward and we each got a special memento to take home. I have my ladies in orange on my fridge and they make me smile every day.
This post is written with much gratitude and appreciation to the ladies in orange who took us in, answered my MANY questions, and let us be part of their family after our own little friend’s family had to cancel, and to the families in our group who graciously welcomed us in and allowed me to post photos of them.