It’s been a pretty long time since my last update, I have been working for Disney Cruise Line on one of their cruise ships the Disney Wonder as a trumpet and keyboard player in their house band Super Fi. I arrived back from Los Angeles yesterday.
There’s so much to cram into one tiny blog but needless to say it was a great experience. The thrill of travelling to the other side of the world, although I’d been to the USA before I’d never been anywhere near the west coast, was something I was extremely excited about.
After an 11 hour flight from Heathrow and then having navigated my way through the painful process of US immigration during which time I was put in the naughty boys room for further investigation and finally proving that I was in fact genuinely and legally there to work, the thing that struck me most when we arrived was how it reminded me so much of many a Hollywood blockbuster.
Of course Hollywood is a shortish taxi ride (we visited it later in the contract, what a great place!) away from LAX so I shouldn’t have been surprised but, having only ever experienced LA through the big screen it was wonderful to feel like we’d finally arrived. It was like we were in a movie all of a sudden and the immediate realisation that this place really exists. I’ve seen numerous films that unbeknownst to me had LA as a backdrop and to finally see it all put into context was a real eye opener.
After more travelling and an inaccurate timetable for the next day you’d think that we’d be off to the ship to start our contract. As you’ve probably guessed this wasn’t what happened. Despite all that we had done before arriving in LA, medicals, visas, music chart writing and rehearsing (there was a lot of that) in reality our preparation was only just beginning.
Over the next three days we spent time in the classroom studying Personal Survival Techniques with our outspoken and brash instructor Ron, then time in the swimming pool having donned an immersion suit (not for the faint hearted) putting into practice all that we had learnt in the classroom.
After a gruelling two days I was presented with my Personal Survival Techniques certificate showing that I had passed the tests. Ron then told me I’d be able to work on a fishing boat anywhere in the world now but having endured one day in the swimming pool I’d already decided that perhaps a harder life at sea wasn’t for me.
So armed with my survival certificate I was ready to board the Disney Wonder, or so I thought. The next day was actually going to take us to Disney World, the place where the magic began. This wasn’t a pleasure trip however, we were to be inductees at the quaintly named Disney University. Everyone who joins Disney has to go through this same process.
The whole idea was to make us aware of the Disney ethos and show us the community and team spirit that flows right through the organisation. There are core values that Disney abide by and they want all people involved to be singing off the same hymn sheet.
We learnt about the history of the company and then spent time touring the park with our guides whilst they explained what goes on behind the scenes to make all the “magic” happen.
After our final classroom session we even had a visit from our new friend Mickey Mouse and we were free from the shackles of our classroom and ready to join the ship the next day.
Actually it was pretty fascinating stuff but the real excitement of the day happened later that evening when we were given free entry to the park as guests. No name badge wearing like earlier in the day, we were going to enjoy ourselves.
So after an evening enjoying California Screamin’ and The Tower of Terror to name but two rides we returned to our hotel, Paradise Pier, for the last time.
I haven’t said it but Disney put us up in one of their own hotels as guests, wonderful. The hotel in short, was amazing, characters visiting you during breakfast to name just one highlight.
So with our training completed after what seemed like an eternity we were finally ready to join the Disney Wonder cruise ship. Another early day was upon us but we were finally going to go to work, or so we thought… As we passed over the bridge in San Pedro we caught our first glimpse of the ship. It was MASSIVE. It was suddenly all so real.
We’d made it after all this time, fantastic, I couldn’t wait to get on board. As with everything so far boarding took ages as well but once we were on board I thought “great, now take me to my room and let me get some sleep”. No such luck, we were guided to the HR room on board where we were presented with our timetable for the week. Hours spent in a classroom, tests and much more besides.
We had another full week of classes coming our way. Oh no. It was all pretty straight forward stuff, a lot of safety awareness and induction type seminars. We even had a visit from the captain to welcome us on board. The thing that makes the biggest impact once you’re on the ship is how friendly and welcoming the people who work on board are.
From the caterers right through to performers, officers and everything in between you are made to feel special and an important part of the Disney family. Nothing is too much trouble. I got hopelessly lost on several occasions in that first week. The ship was a complete maze but there was always a helpful crew member somewhere who could not only tell me where to go but who would take me to where I needed to be even if it was over the other side of the ship.
During all our training both on land and on board we were there with all the new people joining the ship that week. Laundry staff, waiters, hairdressers, youth activity counsellors. They were all there and we bonded so much as a group in those first few days it meant once on board we already had a group of good friends. That made the transition to sea life much easier and meant we could integrate much more easily within the ship community.
So after all that and probably a whole host of things I can’t fit in here we were ready to work. We were actually gigging from our first night on board so after all the training and classes during the day we had to go and do what we’d been hired for, entertaining guests. Our venue Wavebands, designed like the interior of a radio is visually striking and we would be playing there 6 nights a week. This was our stage.
All the hard work we had put in at the rehearsal studio in the UK was about to be unleashed on our first set of Disney vacationers. This was the most terrifying point of the whole gig. We realised that despite all of our combined experience and practice we’d never actually played a gig together as a band. The closest we had come to that was at our audition where we played probably half an hours worth of material, so, maybe ten songs at most.
We’d spent a month learning over 230 songs. It had been nothing short of a miracle that we’d made it but our biggest test was to come on that first night. As it turned out, despite our apprehension we did a great job. I guess Disney, the worlds biggest entertainment company, wouldn’t have hired us if they didn’t think we could do it which was reassuring in itself.
Over the course of our three month contract things only got better, our guest ratings soared and we got even better as a band. We became more involved in the entertainment before and after our sets, joining in with barn dances, disco nights and much more on the dance floor of Wavebands. We even started playing up on the top decks by the pool where we were often joined by Lilo and Stitch for a few numbers.
As life on board settled into more of a routine we were able to enjoy some time off, which in our job was extensive compared to the rest of the hard working crew on board. They were often at work 14 hours a day seven days a week whilst we were doing roughly two hours or so a night. With all that time off and in between mandatory crew drills and cabin inspections we pretty much had the day to ourselves.
Relaxing in the sun on deck 9 by the pool or visiting the crew gym (not something I did that often). Indulging in the culinary delights on offer at the crew mess, bone stew was a personal “favourite”, was not for the faint hearted but we were lucky enough to be able to visit the guest areas and have their wonderful menu instead. The crew bar was a particular highlight and almost every night there was a themed event going on just for crew.
This meant that usually the real party on board happened in the crew bar, we were well looked after. There was plenty to do on board although after a while it could get a little boring and it was easy to fall into bad routines with so little work to do during the days. The real highlights of the week were when we finally made it to port.
Our cruise itinerary was the same for the entire three months we were on board. 7 day cruises to Mexico visiting firstly Puerto Vallarta and then Cabo San Lucas before heading back to LA. My particular favourite was Cabo where we were able to find some real hidden gems to visit each week. A new bar or a great place to see as you can imagine we did it all in that three months. Twelve visits to Cabo and you’ve definitely seen it all.
We felt like we were blending in well with the locals. One of the waiters at Mango Deck, Big Johnson, (I know!) even started to recognise us after a while. The Mexicans are wonderful people and their service is exceptional. They can get overly keen sometimes and the presence of so many of the locals selling trinkets and souvenirs was something you just had to put up with.
It wasn’t really that much of an annoyance and we did get some great personalised bracelets to remember our time there. Puerto Vallarta was rather different to Cabo in a lot of ways. From my perspective Cabo was quite a close community whereas Puerto Vallarta has the feel of a place that’s more urban and bustling city like.
Home From Home
Whilst there is a beach the intimate feel of Cabo San Lucas was one I preferred. Having said that Puerto Vallarta had much more to offer besides a beach. The flea market was a great place to visit and we were lucky enough to go on a couple of crew excursions. Firstly we went zip lining in the forest canopy of Mexico which was a great experience.
Our instructors were friendly, professional and knowledgeable and really made the day, that was a big plus point of the whole trip, being able to get off the ship for a while and enjoy Mexico as a tourist was a good way to wind down and forget about our cramped cabins for a while. We also visited the water park in our last week and despite sustaining a minor neck injury going down a slide it was a great day.
I can only assume health and safety in Mexico is not the same as it is in the UK! The best bit for me was in the lazy river, sat in my rubber ring, pushing unwitting crew members into the various fountains that sprayed at you along the way.
One thing that is vastly different when you’re on a ship is the amount of contact you get with the outside world. Internet and phone connectivity whilst possible is expensive and slow so it was pretty difficult to remain in regular contact with those at home. Often port days would see a big rush of crew members leaving the ship armed with iPads and laptops ready to use the many free wifi hotspots available at bars and restaurants in every port.
It occurred to me after a few weeks of doing this that I was missing out on what these ports had to offer as instead of enjoying the blazing sun and trying to explore the area I was merely staring at a screen for a couple of hours. Still it was necessary sometimes to keep in contact with those back home as they all want to know how you are and what you’re doing just as much as you miss them.
In reality those back home probably miss you more than you do, there’s so much to take in and do whilst you’re away you can barely stop for breath sometimes.
The best moments of the whole contract were definitely when my family were on board. To show them the places that I’d been to and told them about whilst I was there and for them to see me where I lived and worked was very special and is a real highlight that gets you through some of the tougher elements of being away.
Also when mum gave me some Tetley’s tea bags I was delighted. It is hard to describe just how bad the tea on board was and a proper cuppa, a taste of home if you will, was a welcome addition to my time on the Wonder.
Friends came and went as contracts started and finished, it’s all part of what happens on board. Nothing is ever permanent and before I knew it it was time for us to leave our home of three months to travel back to the UK. I’ve never seen a group of people so upset as the day we left.
We had a small convoy of crew see us off in Wavebands as we exited our venue for the last time to hugs and tears. Our Disney adventure was over, but only temporarily, we’d been invited back again…