The Current and Future State of Cruising with Special Needs
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CORRECTION: Originally, Vicky Garcia's quote was said to have come from Special Needs at Sea, but it was actually provided by Cruise Planners.
As cruise travel continues to rapidly grow, the need for the industry to cater to more markets expands with it. One market in particular that is well attended to is the special needs demographic, and specialists that TravelPulse reached out to agree that cruising is a fantastic choice for such clients.
Jessica Pentland, a Cruise Planners franchise owner, said, “I think disabled travelers will be pleasantly surprised by how easy cruising can be for them. All major ships are ADA compliant, although the older ships lack the most up-to-date amenities, like pool lifts or lowered casino tables.”
New ships on the other hand can offer more in the way of wheelchair-accessible staterooms as they continue to increase in size and capacity. Looking back though, Pentland added, “Princess [Cruises] is a real stand-out, having made improving accessibility a main concern back in the '90s. Each vessel is equipped with special wheelchair mechanisms on the gangway.
“They were also the first to offer accessible shore excursions. Hopefully, more providers will follow this lead, and disabled cruisers will have numerous shore excursions to choose from. Today there are entire tour operators and travel agencies dedicated to the disabled and special needs market. Everything from port transfers to group tours for slow walkers can be easily arranged.”
One organization that is dedicated to those with limited mobility is Special Needs at Sea, a preeminent supplier of cruise travel equipment rentals. "As a company we have made the commitment to train everyone at our Home Office Team about special needs for our travelers and have invested in each of them being Special Needs at Sea certified," said Vicky Garcia, COO and co-owner of Cruise Planners, an American Express Travel Representative. "We believe the focus on being actively more inclusive starts from the top and have already made efforts in our marketing to be more conscious and include people with disabilities traveling the world.
“We recognized that disabilities vary from person to person and we want each traveler to be able to experience everything on their bucket list, so we are doing our part to accommodate them. We educate our agents and Home Office Team to ask the right questions and collaborate with cruise lines and land vendors to make special arrangements for their clients to offer superior service for all travelers."
Perhaps the greatest challenges that remains to cruise mobility are ocean tendering and river embarkation. While most ports facilitate seagoing ships securely tied along a pier, some still can only accommodate ships at anchor, and getting to shore requires the use of small transfer boats that can move more freely against a boarding platform. Also, riverboats sometimes tie off in locations where gangways are steeply inclined to get to the banks. Both make wheelchair access difficult but not impossible as manual assistance from crew members can help lift the guests and equipment together.
“Another very difficult item is using the elevators,” said Debra Kerper of Cruise Planners. “Unfortunately, many passengers very capable of using the stairs don’t. A little tip we try is, go the opposite direction of everyone else. Get your place on the elevator and stay [there until] you get to your destination.”
Generally once onboard though, access is far easier. Kerper added, “On lines known for good accessibility, most activities can be enjoyed by all. Swimming and sitting by the pool should be enjoyable. However, many guests are intimidated by the large crowds blocking their access and making it difficult to get to pool lifts installed for the disabled traveler’s use. Crew members must be more proactive in assisting disabled clients to use these items. This means asking other guests to make room for passengers with mobility challenges. I try to educate my clients on being politely proactive.”
As for now and the future, Kerper said, “Cruising is currently the number one choice of vacation for guests with disabilities and I see this continuing. Our numbers are only limited by the number of accessible cabins on ships. We need more suites and family cabins to be accessible. Just like with the general population, these high end staterooms go first!” One opinion she added, “…disabled traveled are not impressed with fancy bedding as it impedes their use of the bed.”
In short, Jessica Pentland concluded, “There is absolutely no reason mobility issues or special needs should keep anyone from seeing the world!”
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