Almost seven years ago, Robert and I went on a remarkable vacation that’s been on my mind a lot recently…
I had just graduated from undergrad, and Rob and I were celebrating our third anniversary as boyfriend and girlfriend. Up until this point, I had only been on a handful of other trips that had taken me far away from home.
This trip was among the first that Robert and I took alone, and it was the trip that made me feel that, despite our incomes, traveling and vacationing together was possible.
Neither one of us were making a lot of money – Rob had a part-time job at Blockbuster (R.I.P) and I had just finished my work-study job, which had ended my last week of school. But, this trip was important for us.. we wanted to celebrate, so we planned a trip that felt manageable, and we saved, and slowly paid this trip off piece by piece.
I firmly believe that cruise vacations provide a great opportunity to travel under tight budget constraints. They allow you to pay for your trip in installments and so much of the food and entertainment on-board is included in the cruise costs. As a poor college student, this made creating and sticking to a budget super easy.
I tried looking up what prices would be for this cruise now, but I can’t seem to find it on the Royal Caribbean website, however, a lot of their 4-night Bahamian cruises, and their 5-night cruises out of Florida, range from $268-$589 per person. I can’t find my old confirmation emails, but I feel like for both of us the cruise cost under $700.
Cruising also felt manageable to me in other ways. Because I was so inexperienced with traveling, I felt as though cruising took the pressure off. I didn’t need to worry about how I was going to get from one place to another; I had the opportunity to just relax on deck all day next to the pool if any of the ports felt too overwhelming; I could enjoy a drink (or two) at the bar, and not worry about getting back to my room safely; etc.
We flew into Miami and stayed at an inexpensive, albeit lovely, hotel near the Port of Miami. I always prefer flying in the morning, so you can enjoy a full day of wherever it is you’re traveling to. We hadn’t rented a car, and were warned that taxi traffic to South Beach could be a nightmare, so we stuck to exploring the local area around the hotel on foot.
We discovered Bayside Marketplace, a very South-Florida-vibey outdoor mall area. It was such a beautiful, warm evening and we spent it walking around, sipping on fruit smoothies, listening to the live music, and soaking up the sunset harbor views.
The next day we boarded a 5-night Royal Caribbean cruise, which brought us to Nassau, Key West, and CocoCay (the Royal Caribbean private island).
We fully embraced our inner-tourists in Nassau, and boarded a bus to visit Atlantis, Paradise Island . We piled into a 1994 white Dodge Caravan, with spotty air conditioning, alongside our fellow cruisers, and drove past brightly colored buildings plastered with “CLOSED” signs (clear indications of a struggling economy), Bahamian locals on their morning commutes, and vendors rushing to port with their carts to sell conch fritters & chowder to disembarking day-trippers.
In true rookie fashion, we had misread the daily itinerary that housekeeping had laid out on our freshly made bed each morning. We thought we had to be back on board at noon… instead of midnight. So we left Atlantis around lunch and headed back to the very empty Majesty of the Seas, accepted our defeat, took a nap and spent the rest of the afternoon bellied up to the pool bar. After dinner in the dining room, we headed back out with the intention to explore the shops in port, but decided that a stroll along the pier to watch the last glimmer of sunlight dip over the horizon suited us better than the overcrowded Del Sol shop.
The second day was a relaxing stop at Royal Caribbean‘s private island, CocoCay. We spent the morning swimming in the warm Bahamian water, dodging cruise photographers and well fed seagulls, who were way braver than I’m comfortable with. We gorged ourselves on the buffet (as is the way of cruising – isn’t it?) and grabbed heavy-handed rum cocktails to sip while sunbathing on plastic beach loungers. Within the first two hours of arriving on CocoCay, and despite my excessive use of SPF 50, I had gotten sun poisoning. Blistered and nauseous, we boarded the ferry back to Majesty. Lesson learned.
The final morning of the cruise, we arrived in Key West (covered in Zinc). The ship docked later in the day, so we began our sojourn with a ‘cheeseburger in paradise’, at Cheeseburger Key West on the famous Duval street, which has unfortunately gone out of business. The location was perfect to sit and people watch. Again, we let our inner Tourist spirits soar, and spent the day trolleying around Old Town, sampling Key Lime Pies, exploring the aquarium, and taking obligatory pictures of us posing with wax figures outside of the Key West Art & Historical Society Custom House Museum. We strolled past Sloppy Joe’s and Ernest Hemingway’s house and said “hi” to his six toed cats. We window shopped for tin roofed houses and picture perfect porches adorned with gingerbread detailing, covered in shade of the Spanish Moss.
After the cruise, we flew (we know better now…) from Miami to Orlando, to visit our friend Emily, who had recently moved down there to work for Disney. The year before, we had only visited Epcot when we visited Disney with Rob’s family. This year (2011), Emily, Rob and I had planned to hit the remaining three parks over the two and a half days we would be in Orlando with her.
Emily picked us up at the airport and we made our way over to Universal’s City Walk for Tex-Mex, beers, and karaoke (not my favorite pastime, but Emily and her roommate were clearly regulars at this particular bar).
Our first Disney day was split between a morning at Animal Kingdom and an afternoon at Hollywood Studios. It’s worth mentioning here that Rob and I are ‘full day at a theme park’ type of people. We want to get the most of our time and our money, so to us spending a morning in one park is considered a quick stint. So, I recall our time in Animal Kingdom as brief, even though we got to experience a lot of what the park had to offer, especially since we weren’t much into roller-coaster experiences at the time.
Still, we strolled through the Maharajah Jungle Trek and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, rode Kilimanjaro Safaris, escaped Kamikaze-bird-poop disaster in the Oasis Exhibits, became transformed into bugs in the It’s Tough to be a Bug! show inside the Tree of Life, just kept swimming alongside Dory and friends in the Finding Nemo, the Musical show, and helped an Iguanadon time travel to the present on DINOSAUR.
Our afternoon and evening were spent in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Robert’s favorite park. But so much had changed since his last visit, so we let Em be our tour guide. Before moving to Orlando to work for Disney full-time, Em had participated in the Disney College Program, where she had worked on The Great Movie Ride (another R.I.P) – obviously, this was a must-do-to-do. Em was so excited to show us around her ol’ stompin’ grounds.
We spent a lot of time in the Walt Disney Presents galleries and I sobbed my way through Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream (and have every time I’ve seen it since… yes, I’m one of those Disney people who’ve proudly drank a healthy serving of the proverbial Kool-Aid). We had dinner reservations at 50’s Prime Time Café, where for the first time in my life someone asked me if I wanted my glass of white wine, “For here, or to go?”. (And that, my friends, is the true magic of Disney… portable beverages.)
We didn’t ride a lot of rides after dinner, but spent a good amount of time walking around the park, perusing shops and searching for Mickey shaped ice cream sandwiches.
The last morning we were up bright and early for a full day at the Magic Kingdom. Strangely, I remember very few details about the day itself. I couldn’t tell you the rides we rode, or the foods we ate. I just remember feeling lucky to be there. To this day, Magic Kingdom is not my favorite of the Disney theme parks (Epcot will always hold that crown), but it is unarguably the most iconic, so I think this was the first time that I really felt the, “holy s**t, I’m at Disney World,” feeling.
It is never lost on me how lucky Robert and I are that we have had so many opportunities to visit Disney World. For many families, Disney is a once in a lifetime trip. For my family, it has become an annual pilgrimage, and I am always grateful that we have been fortunate enough to do so, so far.
We ended that trip, sitting cross legged on the ground at the end of Main Street, USA, watching Wishes fireworks explode in the sky above Cinderella’s castle projections, appropriately named, The Magic, The Memories, and You!
The perfect ending to a trip, designed to celebrate the promise of our future.