Accessible Cruising: Barrier-Free Travel

An accessible Deluxe Ocean View stateroom
An accessible Deluxe Ocean View stateroom

Cruising is often billed as the most accessible vacation option, but some ships are just more accessible than others. Generally speaking, the newer and larger ships offer more accessible options. Additionally, some cruise lines take a more proactive approach to access issues.

Take Royal Caribbean International (RCI), for example. According to RCI Executive Vice President, Adam Goldstein, “Royal Caribbean wants to be the preferred cruise line for people with disabilities.”

In fact, RCI recently cemented their commitment to access by selecting a respected member of the disability community to reign as Godmother of their newest Voyager class vessel. On November 14, 2003, wheelchair athlete and disability advocate Jean Driscoll christened RCI’s most accessible ship, the Mariner of the Seas. Says Mr. Goldstein, “The selection of Jean Driscoll as Godmother of Mariner of the Seas, is the reflection of our multi-year commitment to access.”

As the fifth and final Voyager class ship, Mariner of the Seas is billed as the most accessible cruise ship in the world. And to be honest, after spending several days inspecting her from stem to stern, I’m hard pressed to dispute that claim. The designers not only included standard Voyager class access amenities, such as automatic doors, pool-lifts and excellent access to all public areas; but they also tweaked a few design features to improve the access.

Mariner of the Seas has 26 wheelchair-accessible staterooms which feature good pathway access, level thresholds, wide doorways and pull-down clothing rods. The Junior Suite (category JS) staterooms feature large walk-in closets, and (along with category E staterooms) ramped access to spacious balconies. Additionally, the Junior Suite staterooms and some inside (category M) staterooms can accommodate a third and fourth person.

The bathrooms in all of the accessible staterooms are identical. Access features include a roll-in shower with a hand-held showerhead, a fold-down shower seat, grab bars in the shower and around the toilet, a roll-under sink and a full 5-feet turning radius.

Admittedly, shipboard access is only half of the accessible cruise equation. Port access is also equally important. Currently the Mariner of the Seas sails alternate week-long Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from Port Canaveral, Florida.

Although not all Caribbean ports offer barrier-free access, there are more accessible options than there were five years ago. Says RCI President and CEO Jack Williams, “As we are hiring new shore operators we will evaluate their ability to provide an accessible experience when we sign them up to do business with us.”

Mariner’s Eastern Caribbean itinerary includes Nassau, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. It’s generally considered the more accessible route; even more so since RCI began offering an accessible St. Thomas shore excursion. This historic island tour is provided by Accessible Adventures and features transportation in a lift-equipped open-air trolley. Highlights of the tour include stops at Mountain Top, Magens Bay, St. Peters Mountain and Drake’s Seat.

If you’d like to do a little shopping instead, take advantage of the free lift-equipped shuttle to the shops at Havensight Mall. The shuttle stops right in front of the ship, and it’s a welcome sight after a long day of shopping.

Mariner’s Eastern Caribbean itinerary features stops at Labadee, Ocho Rios, Grand Cayman and Cozumel. It’s a more exotic itinerary and a good choice for a second or third Caribbean cruise. Access is still somewhat limited in this region, but it’s improving. For example, accessible shore tours are now available in Grand Cayman and Ocho Rios. Currently you have to book these tours directly with local tour operators, but hopefully they will be available through the cruise lines one day.

In Ocho Rios, Lincoln Campbell offers a variety of island tours in his three lift-equipped vans. The most accessible choice is the Ocho Rios Hi-Lite Tour, which includes stops at the Fern Gully, Shaw Park Botanical Gardens and Dunn’s River Falls. It also includes a ride through nearby communities and plenty of time for shopping.

Over on Grand Cayman, Elite Limousine Services provides accessible island tours in their ramp-equipped van. The tour includes the Turtle Farm, lunch at the Cracked Conch by the Sea, a stop at a local museum and shopping at Hell’s Gifts and Souvenirs.

No matter which itinerary you choose, you won’t be disappointed with Mariner of the Seas. Perhaps Godmother Jean Driscoll sums it up best. “The most exciting thing about Royal Caribbean is their emphasis on accessibility,” she says. “Their actions let me know they recognize that disability isn’t a life-long tragedy, and they understand that people who have disabilities have the same desires for life and entertainment as anybody else.”


Accessible Adventures

St. Thomas, USVI


Maxi Tours

Ocho Rios, Jamaica

Lincoln Campbell


Elite Limousine Services

George Town, Grand Cayman


Royal Caribbean

800-327-6700 – General Information

(800) 722-5472 ext. 34492 – Access Desk

Candy Harrington is the author of Barrier-Free Travel; A Nuts And Bolts Guide For Wheelers And Slow Walkers, and the editor of Emerging Horizons.