July 12 – 16, 2018
This is a review of my cruise to Havana, Cuba on the above dates. I have mobility issues which require the use of a cane or walker. I also travel with my legally blind husband and his guide dog. The purpose of this review is to inform other travelers who may be wheelchair bound or have other accessibility issues of what to expect from this cruise and the accessibility features of this particular ship.
The Empress of the Seas is one of the oldest and is the smallest in the Royal Caribbean fleet. She carries a total of 1,602 passengers when at full capacity. She was originally launched in 1990 and “after a hiatus from Royal Caribbean while the ship sailed with Pullmantur, Empress was relaunched in May 2016 following a $50 million revitalization.” (Cruise Critic 2018)
Below are three links giving information about the Empress herself and her accessibility features. Following them are my personal observations and experience.
There are four accessible staterooms on Deck 4 – 2 Inside and 2 Oceanview. They are supposed to be about 159 sq. ft. each. I was unable to verify this personally as they were all occupied. I was able to see view briefly one of the inside rooms as it was being cleaned. There was not room for the occupant to remain inside the room as the attendant changed the sheets. He was in the doorway half into the hall in his wheelchair.
The passageways are just wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair but there is not enough room to walk next to the chair without turning sideways. This meant there was not room enough to allow my husband and guide dog to walk next to me with my walker. In fact, several times I had to partially collapse my walker in order to get past a linen cart. And room service dishes left in the hallway outside of cabins were a real trip hazard.
Our Oceanview stateroom (see pictures) was less than 140 sq. ft. which made getting the walker and a 74 lb. Lab into it quite a challenge. I asked about folding the walker and leaving it in the hall but was told that was strictly not allowed. They offered to store it for me but somehow that seemed to defeat the purpose of having it.
The two sets of elevators (one forward and one aft) are fully wheelchair accessible. The only deck not reachable by elevator is Deck 11 which is where the fitness center is located. There are public restrooms on all of the decks with public venues (i.e. main restaurant, theater, etc.) but not all of them are wheelchair accessible. To my knowledge the shipboard map does not indicate which are and which are not.
As with most ships, space between the tables in the dining areas is very sparse. There are only a very few which are wheelchair accessible. My walker had to be folded and left at the maître de stand. Then there was no place to put my cane once seated.
Getting on and off the ship was not simple either. The gangways were steep and difficult to navigate with the walker. I was offered the use of one of the ship’s wheelchairs, but I would have had to wait until someone was available to push it since my husband could not handle it and the dog too. When we got on board, there were extensive apologies and promises that we would have assistance in the future. This did not materialize.
Overall, I did not find the Empress of the Seas to be particularly disability friendly. This included wheelchairs, walkers and canes. The crew was pleasant but did not go out of their way to ease the problems I found. I also found the excursions desk to be totally ignorant of what was or was not available for someone with mobility challenges. That will be covered in detail in the next section. However, if I were qualified I would give the Empress a WJAR 2 rating.
A tourist visa (known as a Tourist Card) can be obtained through the ship and costs $75. It is good for only a single visit of up to 30 days or however long the ship will be in port. I feel I need to note that our cruise spent 1 ½ days in Havana. There are some cruises which also include 2 other ports in Cuba. The same Tourist Card would be honored at those ports without an additional charge. However Royal Caribbean does not tell you that in order to move around Havana legally, you need to be signed up for one of their day excursions. For current Cuba travel policy updates as of Oct 2018 please visit the following website. (https://www.viahero.com/travel-to-cuba/new-cuba-travel-policy-updates)
“Wheelchair users should note that accessibility is limited in Cuba. There is a lack of curb cuts, ramps, accessible vehicles and elevators. Doors may not be as wide and grab bars unavailable.” (https://www.royalcaribbeanblog.com/category/category/cuba)
There is also a dearth of public restrooms and none of them are remotely handicapped accessible. Even in the cruise terminal (see pictures) there were no disabled facilities. We had been warned that there were two flights of steep stairs from the terminal down to ground level which were totally inaccessible to wheelchair users. What we discovered for ourselves was that there were also two elevators of sorts. Four of us could barely fit in one and to say it was decrepit was a major understatement.
Havana is a beautiful city. I expected it to be similar to Tijuana, Mexico back in the early 80’s before it became gentrified. Instead it reminded me of the suburbs of Barcelona or Naples. I was extremely disappointed that most of the sights of the city itself was inaccessible to anyone with mobility issues. This was especially frustrating because none of the tours from the ship was wheelchair accessible and only two were offered for anyone with moderate mobility challenges (read using a cane or walker). We ultimately chose the Vintage Car tour. We took a bus from the cruise terminal (The aisles and seats were so small that I had to stow my walker under the bus and had no access to it for the four-hour duration of the tour. At that point I had to ask for it twice from the driver who had no English.) to where the vintage convertibles were parked. It was first-come first served as to which car we would ride in. The driver of the car spoke very little English, so we spent the next two plus hours driving around Havana with very little idea of exactly what we were seeing but there was everything from lush parks to beautiful homes and seaside hotels. I could easily have spent two more hours enjoying the sights.
Our last stop before rejoining the bus was the historic Hotel Nacional whose main claim to fame is all the famous people who have stayed there. But for me its fame lay in the fact that it was the first place I saw in Havana which was totally wheelchair accessible.
Ernest Hemingway lived in Havana for almost 25 years. His home of nearly 20 years, Vinca Figia, is now a living museum (See attached pictures). At the time we were there, it was closed due to being repaired from the ravages of Hurricane Irma. But I think it is necessary to mention it since it is the only site in Havana which is fully wheelchair accessible (once you actually find a way to get there).
Examples of Streets, Curbs and Cobblestones are included in the pictures.
In closing, I can honestly say that if I were totally wheelchair bound, despite its beauty Havana would not be on my list of places to go as of now. But I would definitely be watching it for improvements in disability friendliness and keep it on my bucket list for the future. But for now …
Hasta la vista, Havana