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Sue Holland

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 follows—simply 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 lifetime.

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 small—I 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 tours.

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 found here.

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 Tikal—a 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 worth seeing.

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.

Get the latest info about the resort at “Park Update: Walt Disney World.”


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