On August 4, 2019, history was made when Autism on the Seas departed from the port of Barcelona, Spain on its first staffed cruise to Europe with special needs families. The 8-day adventure featured ports of call in Marseille, France, La Sperzia, Rome, and Naples, Italy, and Mallorca, Spain.
This past week, we reached out to Nina Durkin, one of the guests who cruised with us to Europe. Nina was traveling with her husband, daughter, Amanda (12), and son, J.T. (15), who is on the autism spectrum. This is their story.
LISTEN to our podcast interview with Nina Durkin
AotS: You have been cruising with AotS for a while now, right? What made you decide to take the family abroad?
Nina Durkin: Yes. This was our fifth cruise. We started cruising with Autism on the Seas back in 2016. My husband and I went across the pond to Italy almost 17 years ago and saw this as an opportunity to bring both of our kids to a place where we've been before. My daughter, who is neurotypical, is a huge history buff.
AotS: Yes, tell us about that. I understand, contrary to what people might assume, that you actually had Amanda in mind when you booked this cruise with us.
Nina Durkin: Yes. Again, she's a huge history buff and loves the Roman Empire, loves ancient ruins and this was an opportunity for us to take her to Europe and know that we have help with our son so she could actually enjoy the trip.
AotS: This was also your first time opting for one-on-one staffing, right?
Nina Durkin: Correct. We did opt for a one-on-one. The nature of this cruise was not the typical Autism on the Seas cruise where you have a couple of sea days. This was very port intensive. It docked every single day except for one, on a seven night cruise.
So it wasn't the most relaxing cruise, but personally, I don't view a Mediterranean cruise as one where you relax. You want to go and get a taste of what each port can bring. So you can maybe go back someday.
AotS: So how did JT react to all of this?
Nina Durkin: Surprisingly wonderful. So our biggest concern was some of these long day excursions. The ports are not necessarily the closest to the cities. For example, Florence was just under a two-hour drive from the port. If you want to see everything, it's anywhere from a nine to 11 hour day.
The kids, the adults, everyone's out of their comfort zone. Even though people speak English, it can be broken. The laws are different in every country and it can be a little stressful. J.T. was a champ. He took it in stride. He seemed to enjoy himself. We walked a lot, which was a huge concern of mine. I think we actually clocked about eight miles in Rome just walking around. It was hot and he surprised everyone. At the end of the cruise, on our sea day, there's always a little party and then awards are given out and J.T. got the excursion award because he did amazing on all of these long excursions.
I do think his favorite was making pizza in Sorrento and we did a catamaran excursion in Mallorca, Spain, which had some snorkeling and swimming in the Mediterranean sea. Those were probably his favorites.
AotS: When you take him to places that he has not been before, does he normally get nervous or shut down or anything like that?
Nina Durkin: He tends to get very anxious, especially in crowded places with unfamiliar things around him. The fact that he had familiar people with him did help a lot, but he has been known to have some unexpected behaviors in public that can be concerning. When you're in a foreign country you worry about a lot of things. People looking and staring if he decides to scream out of nowhere. And that's a big reason why we chose to have a one-on-one for this trip. The long excursions. If anyone needed a break, including our one-on-one, at least we could shuffle among the three adults. That helped them out too.
AotS: How did the staff do with JT?
Nina Durkin: Oh, Renee is amazing. We actually met Renee on her first Autism on the Seas cruise back in 2016 and we did not have a one-on-one. She and JT just hit it off. There was some magical connection. So when we knew we wanted to do Europe, we did ask for a one-on-one and then said, Hey, is it possible we can get Renee? So they already knew each other. They already knew their little idiosyncrasies. The only difference is now JT is taller than Renee. She is so fantastic with him and she's wonderful with my daughter. So yeah, when he was getting tired of Renee, my husband or myself would step in and Renee would spend time with my daughter.
AotS: What about you and your husband? Did you do anything together alone? Did you take advantage of the respite?
Nina Durkin: We did take advantage of some of the respite. Again, this was a slightly different cruise. Visiting a new port every single day on these long nine and 10-hour excursions, you are completely exhausted by the end of the day. You're getting back to the ship at six o'clock at night, you're grabbing dinner. My kids were tired and we were tired. So we didn't necessarily take advantage of respite in the conference room, but we did take advantage of a little bit of respite in our room.
Renee would come to our room to do some of the respite. So my husband and I could, if anything, grab a cup of coffee at night by ourselves, which was nice, but we were all tired. On a regular Autism on the Seas cruise, you don't have nine-hour, 10-hour, excursions day after day. You have a beach excursion with the staff for half a day. Yeah. So that's what makes it so much different. It's not bad, it's just a different kind of cruise.
AotS: The expectation is many of the guests have not been to some or all of these countries before and they want to soak it all in.
Nina Durkin: Correct. And because it was Autism on the Seas first European cruise, I think there were some unknowns for them as well. They had to schedule the ship activities that they usually schedule like time for the zip line, time for ice skating, time for flow rider. My kids love that flow rider, so I made sure I booked a small group lesson for them in case we couldn't do flow rider with the group because they love it so much. It turned out we were able to do flow rider with the group and we did flow rider with a small group lesson, too.
The Royal Caribbean staff is amazing with our kids. if it weren't for them, this Autism on the Seas and the volunteer staff, wouldn't work. So it's really a huge group effort.
AotS: It is a good partnership. Did you make friends with any of the other families?
Nina Durkin: Well, one family we had cruised with before, which was wonderful. It's always nice to see families that you've seen before. We were all going in different directions on excursions, but there was one family we met very early on in the cruise. We were on a catamaran excursion to Mallorca and we noticed a family that had twin girls walk into the auditorium waiting to take the excursion. Immediately I knew they were in the group, because they were wearing the good old orange lanyards. We had Renee, our one on one with us, and I said, "Hey, let's at least take a look over there. The girls seem to be having a little bit of a hard time. Maybe we can all help out."
One of their daughters took a liking to my son, which is fine, but she tended to grab and tug at him, which bothered him at first until we explained that that's how she talks, that's how she says she likes you. And then I will tell you, I have a picture of them on the last day of the cruise holding hands. It was amazing. It was the sweetest thing and I have to be honest, that probably made our cruise. We love meeting other families. We all get it. It's also nice because even the people on the cruise, they see all these orange shirts, they see all these families with the lanyards. They ask us questions and for whatever reason on the cruise ship, it just seems to be a little bit more accepted than in everyday life.
AotS: What was your favorite port? And why?
Nina Durkin: That's a tough one. Okay. So I've been to Italy before and I am personally in love with Florence. I also really loved Barcelona. We had the opportunity to stay in Barcelona a little bit before the cruise and a little bit after. And I really enjoyed it.
AotS: What do you recommend for parents like yourself who have put off taking that amazing vacation because they have a child that has disabilities and they're just scared? What do you tell them?
Nina Durkin: So there's a couple of things. The first is, I would not consider our family a cruising family. Before we found Autism on the Seas, we preferred to fly somewhere, go on vacation and fly home and not be on a ship the whole time. Today, I will tell you right now, we will not travel without staffing from Autism on the Seas because it's the only way we feel we get any kind of vacation. Where we can relax. My husband and I can reconnect and we can take a break, a true break.
AotS: And reconnect with your daughter too.
Nina Durkin: Absolutely. Reconnect with our daughter and make her feel special at the same time. What I would tell a new family is take absolute advantage of the parent connect service that Autism on the Seas offers. On their website, you can ask to be connected with parents who have cruised before and ask your questions and get them answered. The parents will be honest. They'll tell you the good, the bad, the ugly and get all those fears out of the way. Nine times out of 10, I feel that's the only way to travel.
I'm very spoiled. In fact, we're so spoiled, we have another cruise booked next summer with a one-on-one and we are crossing our fingers for an Alaska cruise in 2021.