Disney Cruise Line: A Cast Member in Training Part V

By Kim Button, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the August 14, 2007 Issue #412 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

When most people dream about getting a job on a cruise ship and sailing the world, they imagine working onboard a ship while still being able to enjoy the freedoms and little luxuries of being a guest. They think, "Wouldn't it be nice to work as a waiter onboard, and get to explore Cozumel or Nassau during the day before heading to work for the rest of the night?" Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way.

The most important difference between cruise line guests and crew members is the sheer frustration in just trying to disembark the ship. It's important to point out that this has nothing to do with the Disney Cruise Line itself. It's just the nature of the industry and a myriad of Customs rules. The DCL ships are absolutely beautiful, and I have to admit that the first time that I stepped onto the Wonder as a guest, I stood in awe in the lobby, trying to take it all in and wishing my time onboard could be longer so that I could enjoy every nook and cranny. However, when you rarely leave the ship for six months straight, your feelings start to change ever so slightly.

As a guest, you anxiously await the general disembarking announcement of each port day so that you can start walking down the gangway and begin exploring the port of call. Just because the ship is in a port of call, though, doesn't mean that the crew members will be disembarking, too.

When we were in ports during the sailing, such as Nassau, the crew were allowed to get off the ship along with everyone else. However, you actually needed the time to do it. Crew members' schedules are highly erratic and rarely are you given an eight-hour time span in which to work, like most jobs on dry land. You might be scheduled for work for an hour, with an hour break, and then work again for a couple of hours with 30 minutes off.

My team's daily schedules came in a tiny, pocket-sized Excel document. Each 24-hour day was sectioned off in 30-minute segments. I just about went blind trying to decipher which blocks of the column were shaded in for work and which were break times, because every single day we had a different schedule. The entire Cruise Staff team religiously walked around with an Excel document folded up in their back pocket because we never knew for certain where we were supposed to be at any given time in any day.

The thought of working for an hour or two and then having a break for a while sounds good in theory, until you try to execute it on a ship. You know how it can take up to 15-20 minutes to walk from your stateroom just to get some lunch? It's the same problem for crew members. So a 30-minute or hour break is quickly eaten up with travel time just to get back to your room or the crew mess.

With a schedule like that, it's nearly impossible to find the time to clear Customs getting off the ship, go somewhere, and then wait in line to get back onboard and report to duty on time in the appropriate costume. Other than leading shore excursions, I rarely ever got off the ship in the Bahamas because it was physically impossible. And you rarely, if ever, get a day off… for six months straight.

Though some crew members, such as the dining staff, had a more structured work schedule and were allowed half days off every now and then or large blocks of personal time, the Cruise Staff never had that luxury. With only six to eight people on staff at any time, we all worked 'round the clock. Typical days would start at 8 a.m. and not end until well after midnight, especially if you were hosting a deck party or acting as DJ for a club. We actually had staff meetings at 2 a.m., the only time when one of us wasn't working, so even if your work day ended at 10 p.m., you couldn't really get much sleep because you had to be in a meeting at 2 a.m.

We also had staff meetings while we were docked in Port Canaveral, the only time that we really had the opportunity to run errands, get a haircut or go to Wal-Mart. Though some other crew members had the luxury of being able to go into town all day while in our home port, the Cruise Staff always had to be back on the ship well before lunchtime, because we were all expected to be a part of the receiving line for newly embarking guests, as well as manning the Excursion Desk.

Though the Cruise Staff's schedules made it extremely difficult to find time to get off the ship in Port Canaveral, the Customs officials made it a crazy guessing game for all of the crew members. Any time we were in Port Canaveral, crew members could not just walk off the ship like the guests. We had to wait for "windows." These "windows" were pockets of time that Customs would allow crew members to disembark. The "windows" were never at the same time, might only occur every one to two hours, and there was never a specified amount of time that the "window" was open.

So, early every Thursday and Sunday (well before 7 a.m.), all of the crew members would start gathering anxiously in the elevator waiting area near the Infirmary, just outside of the crew disembarking point. Crew members were sitting on the floor, lying on the steps or standing up in a crowd of bodies who were desperately trying to get off the ship. No one knew when Customs would start scanning the first crew member ID and allowing you to get off the ship. When the process did start happening, there would be a rush of people pushing their way forward and trying to get through the security line, because sometimes Customs allowed the disembarking phase to last for 30-45 minutes, while sometimes they mysteriously closed it off after 15 minutes, possibly not to reopen for another three hours.

The "windows" situation was a source of high stress and exasperation for every crew member on board. You were never guaranteed the ability to get off of the ship to go buy some toothpaste or get a new pair of sneakers. It wasn't just for crew members working onboard the ship, though. Even DCL shore-side staff who came to the ship while it was in port to take care of some business would often become trapped onboard because of the "windows." The "windows" were finally discontinued in 2007, much to the enjoyment of every DCL crew member. Next time you sail, ask a crew member who has been around for more than a year about the crew "windows." You're sure to get some good horror stories.

Though there were many challenges in trying to disembark the Disney Wonder as a crew member, there were many reasons to stay onboard. Stay tuned for future articles and find out why pool parties were a crew member's source of sanity and how Disney Cruise Line guests make it all worthwhile.



Read Kim's first article in the series at: http://allears.net/cruise/issue389.htm
Part II is at: http://allears.net/cruise/issue393.htm
Part III is at: http://allears.net/cruise/issue398.htm
Part IV is at: http://allears.net/cruise/issue404.htm


Kimberly Button is the author of The Disney Queue Line Survival Guidebook.

Purchase Kim's book via: http://astore.amazon.com/debsunoffiwaltdi


Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.