Cruising the Panama Canal
Popular shortcut provides exciting cruise opportunity
Friday, September 10, 2004
by Sue Holland, staff writer
Photo by Sue Holland.
As part of the celebration of Disneyland's 50th birthday in 2005, Disney
Cruise Line (DCL) is relocating its Disney Magic cruise ship to
California for a series of summer cruises from the West Coast. And in
order to get the ship from Port Canaveral to Los Angeles/San Pedro and
back, Disney is offering one-way cruises through the Panama Canal on May
14, 2005 and August 20, 2005. These special cruises are each 14 days long,
with seven of those days at sea. The itinerary for the May 14 cruise is
as followssimply reverse the itinerary for the August 20 sailing.
- Day 1 Sail away
- Day 2 Castaway Cay
- Day 3 At sea
- Day 4 At sea
- Day 5 Curacao
- Day 6 At sea
- Day 7 Panama Canal
- Day 8 At sea
- Day 9 Mazatlan (Mexico)
- Day 10 At sea
- Day 11 Acapulco (Mexico)
- Day 12 At sea
- Day 13 Cabo San Lucas (Mexico)
- Day 14 Cruise ends
[Note: This itinerary was updated on 9/14/04 to reflect a recent itinerary change. The Mazatlan stop replaced Puerto Quetzal.]
With the exception of Castaway Cay, all of these ports are new to DCL
and the rapid pace at which cabins were booked for both cruises evidenced
excitement over the new itineraries. Most cruise lines include Panama
Canal transits and have done so for years, and many cruise passengers
rank this destination very close to Alaska as being the cruise of their
Generally when planning to cruise to either Panama Canal or Alaska, there
is an advantage to booking passage on a ship that will provide passengers
space on the bow of the ship for optimum viewing. Disney does not have
an observation deck on the bow of their ships, unless they open the area
normally reserved for cast members. Disney also lacks an inside observation
area at the bow, such as Holland America Line's Crow's Nest and similar
venues found on other cruise lines. Deck 10 on the Magic is so high above
the canal that the best viewing will most likely be along deck 4, or from
your private verandah.
Before the Panama Canal was built, the trip from Florida to California
was 7,000 miles longer due to having to sail around the continent of South
America. The Canal was the idea of King Charles V of Spain, with the French
Canal Company beginning construction in 1848. From the start yellow fever,
cholera, inadequate machinery and insufficient funding troubled this project.
In 1889, after the expenditure of $250 million and the loss of thousands
of lives, the project was abandoned with only 19 miles completed. After
Panama's independence from Colombia in 1903, Panama and the United States
signed a treaty authorizing the construction of the Panama Canal.
The United States guaranteed Panama's independence, and for $10 million
Panama granted the United States power and authority within the canal
zone. In addition, the United States agreed to pay an annuity that started
at $250,000 per year and eventually increased to $1.93 million per year
by 1955. By 1914, after the loss of more than 6,000 lives, the Panama
Canal was completed at a cost of $387 million. On December 31, 1999, the
government of Panama was granted full authority of the Panama Canal.
Entering the Panama Canal. Photo by Sue Holland.
I made my first visit to the Panama Canal in March 2004, doing a partial
transit through the first set of locks to spend the day anchored in Gatun
Lake before making the return trip to the Caribbean. A complete transit
takes a full day, passing through all three sets of locks. There are two
lanes, and generally both are used for passage in the same direction,
allowing two ships to pass at the same time. Cruise ships, cargo ships,
and even smaller pleasure craft use the Panama Canal.
The transit area of the Panama Canal is 110 feet wide, and most cruise
lines build their ships within those dimensions in order to have the ability
to add this destination to their itineraries. Amazingly, the amount of
free space they allow is very smallI believe the ship I chose was
106 feet wide, leaving two feet of clearance on either side. Ships may
bump the canal wall at times, but passage is extremely smooth. As a ship
approaches the entrance to the Panama Canal, a rowboat brings tie lines
to the ship, where the crew secures them. At the other end of these lines
are a number of train-type vehicles that travel on railway tracks on either
side of the ship. By controlling the tautness of these lines, the ship
is able to pass through the canal while staying securely in the center
of the lane.
Trains attach to ships for guidance through the Canal. Photo by Sue Holland.
Coming from Florida, the first set of locks is named Gatun, because Gatun
Lake is the body of water immediately to the west. Ships making a partial
transit from Florida generally come this far before returning at the end
of day, which in effect provides two-thirds of the time those passengers
crossing to California experience. We found it was very interesting passing
through Gatun Locks in the morning, but by afternoon it was almost a "been
there, done that" experience. It is slow moving, and very repetitive going
from lock to lock. For that reason, there were far fewer passengers out
watching the return voyage.
Gatun Locks building in Panama Canal. Photo by Sue Holland.
When passing through Gatun Locks, there are three separate gates. The
gates open to allow the ship to enter a section of the canal. Once a ship
is secured in place, the gates close and the water level either rises
or lowers to bring the ship to the same level as the water in the next
section. Once that occurs, the forward gates open to allow passage into
the next section, where the process repeats itself. As the ship is rising
or lowering, the workers on the train control the tautness of the attached
lines so the ship does not drift from side to side.
With the forward gates closed, the water level rises until the ship can
pass into the next section. Photo by Sue Holland.
Cruising through the Panama Canal affords the opportunity to visit several
other new ports that previously have not been available on DCL. Another
plus is the many days spent at sea, providing time to relax by the pool
or keep busy with a variety of onboard activities for all ages.
Looking to the aft, the ship has risen to the next level and will be moving
on. Photo by Sue Holland.
Acapulco, Mexico has long been famous for its daring cliff divers. Images
of the cliff divers can be seen during the boat ride in the Mexico pavilion
at Epcot. Excursions will likely include jet boat river rides, deep-sea
fishing, and a dolphin encounter, as well as trips to see the cliff divers
of La Quebrada.
Cabo San Lucas, Mexico is located at the tip of the Baja, where the Pacific
Ocean meets the Sea of Cortez. Sea lion colonies are nearby, with some
kayaking excursions available to view them. Other likely excursions include
snorkeling, scuba, sport fishing, cruising, horseback riding and land
Willemstad, Curacao. Photo by Sue Holland.
Curacao is a Dutch island 40 miles north of Venezuela. This area is below
the Atlantic hurricane belt, which means there is no danger of hurricanes
hitting this area. The islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao make up the
A-B-C islands. Curacao is the seat of government for all islands in the
Netherlands Antilles group (except Aruba), and cruise ships dock in the
port of Willemstad. Beaches and water sports are the specialties here,
with more than 30 sugary white sand beaches with enough variety to enable
a wide range of activities. A dolphin encounter excursion was very popular
with passengers on my cruise, and some of the best reef diving can be
Curacao's floating bridge, which will move aside to allow ships to pass
through the canal. Photo by Sue Holland.
The first view of Curacao is the attractive rows of pastel-colored townhouses,
which look as though they were transplanted from Holland. It is said that
the first governor of Curacao developed a terrible allergy to the color
white (it allegedly gave him migraines), so all the houses were painted
in colors. The dollhouse look of the architecture makes a cheerful contrast
to the stark cacti and shrubbery dotting the landscape. Perhaps the most
unique sight is the floating bridge. When tourist traffic is heavy, the
bridge connects the two sides across the canal, enabling visitors to walk
from the cruise ship dock to the shopping area in town. Once pedestrian
traffic slows, a bell rings to signal that the bridge is moving to one
side. The unknowing may end up standing on the bridge as it detaches from
one end and slowly swings into position parallel to the other side. While
the bridge is disconnected a free ferry service transports people from
side to side.
Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala is a lesser-known port, but it offers many
choices of activities. The busy capital of Guatemala City, Antigua, is
attractive with its bonbon-pink houses, language schools and near-perfect
weather. At Lake Atitlan modern Mayans still tell their stories on backstrap
looms. A popular excursion is the ancient Mayan ruins at Tikala
secretive jungle plaza flanked by seven great stone temples. Other likely
excursions include tours of a coffee plantation, sugar cane mill, as well
as fishing and land tours.
If you are booked on one of these Panama Canal transit cruises, you are
in for a treat! If not, give this destination consideration for future
vacation plans. The Panama Canal is a technological wonder, while being
almost unchanged from the day it opened 90 years ago, and is definitely
Thoughts, questions, or comments? Contact Sue here.
Sue has been hooked on Walt Disney World since
her first visit in 1972 with her parents and younger brother. She kept returning
more frequently until she moved to Florida in 1986.
After joining the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) in
1997, she now visits almost monthly. She also spends time at
the DVC's non-WDW locations, and is experienced with the Disney cruise ships.
She takes many of these trips on her own, but
she's also toured WDW with large groups of people, including families, the elderly,
and people with disabilities.
She works as the Administrative Services Division Head
for a large residential facility administered by the Florida Department of Children
and Families. She currently resides in Southwest Florida with her teenage son.
Sue is one of our most prolific trip report writers.
Read her trip report archive here.
You can contact Sue here.
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