By Mika Hartman
In September, my family went on an amazing vacation. A very needed vacation away from our house remodel, therapy and doctors appointments. When we booked this particular vacation, I knew it would be fun; however, I didn’t know the profound impact we had in store. We took our first Buddy Cruise.
Buddy Cruise partners with Royal Caribbean to provide a vacation experience like no other. Whether you have a loved one with a special need or you don’t, this cruise is so full of heart. Buddy Cruise has been sailing to different locations for 15 years. Many cruisers are regulars and have made this cruise a family reunion. The ones (like us) who just took the first one have already booked for 2023.
Let me share our week with you and I bet you’ll be ready to join us:
CJ, Henley, Hudson and I drove to Florida where we met my in-laws (Larry and Patty Hartman). The port was in Miami and the storms dissipated in time for our journey. Royal Caribbean made our boarding easy and we walked onto the Explorer of the Seas. Our first introduction was at the opening ceremony with all the Buddy Cruisers. There, we learned about all the fun and learning opportunities that were in store for all. We got our Walk & Roll t-shirts for the walk on the ship, we got special Buddy Cruise lanyards with our photos, and we were handed a bag full of goodies. And new this year was Buddy Bucks, too, and I will share more on these fun bucks later. Over 400 people were onboard for the Buddy Cruise. All journeys are welcome. The family who started this (Pam and Jorge Arnoldson) has a child with Down syndrome, but welcome everyone who needs this time of togetherness.
Our first full day was at sea. This day was filled with meeting more incredible families. The start of the day was early. At 7am we had morning coffee with Beth. She talked about the importance of early intervention. Her talk was more energizing than the caffeine I consumed. Then, I totally geek’d out with meeting both Zach Gottsagen (“Peanut Butter Falcon”) and David DeSantis (“Where Hope Grows" and Hallmarks “Color My World With Love”) and we attended “Follow Your Heart” with Actor Zach Gottsagen. He talked about dreams and how to achieve your goals. Very well put guidelines for becoming the best version of yourself and how to get there, despite any different ability. Following, we attended a yearbook signing where we got and gave autographs of all the amazing Buddy Cruisers. Buddy Cruise made these adorable books with all the cruisers photos and stories about each person. Remarkable. This one book provided icebreakers, conversations, recognition and so much more. As we made our way around, we connected and had big smiles that hurt. While Hudson isn’t at the signing a book stage, many were and the pride on their faces was beautiful. And for the families that had to help with this, the inclusion and seeing the joy was everything. Later, we got all dressed up for Formal Night and enjoyed a delicious dinner and conversations about our day. Many cruisers approached our table and made us feel special. Huddy even made a new BFF, Mirenna. She was a gift we didn’t know we needed. Her brother was born with Down syndrome and her understanding was peaceful.
Our second day of our Buddy Cruise started with morning coffee. Today’s coffee was a talk with Zach Gottsagen’s mom, Shelley. This coffee talk had me rolling… oh, the stories! So much fun, I even stayed behind to keep talking. What people say and do and how we can respond; it a reminder that we aren’t alone and laughter is the best medicine for anything and everything. Each morning also had Zumbuddies with Megan Bell. I had to feed Huddy at this time, but Megan is a Zumba instructor who is married and happens to have an extra chromosome… she’s adorable and inspiring. After Huddy’s breakfast, we headed to the walking track on the ship to attend the “Walk and Roll”. Buddy Cruise does something incredible for this, they actually give shirts to other cruisers (not with Buddy) to come join in. Our shirts were blue and the other participants wore white shirts. The blend was perfect. So many others on vacation came up to walk and support us. That’s how awareness becomes acceptance! Typing this memory brings me happy tears. Think about it, it your vacation and a Buddy invites you to show your support… what would you do? This memory will forever be in all our hearts for all who participated. And my hope is that they go home and continue this support. I pray for this. Hudson was so excited, he skipped his nap and wrestled his daddy for hours afterwards. Henley and I shot some hoops and then went to the Palace Theater for the pre-showing of a new documentary being made for Buddy Cruise. My friend, Denise, came up to me and said, “get ready to ball your eyes out, get tissues”. “Now you tell me”, I said. So queue the waterworks… this documentary perfectly sums up this tie that binds. It’s honest and heartfelt interviews are so touching. Our journeys are not completely mirrored, but it’s all familiar and understood. I cant wait to share this documentary with you all. I even was interviewed by Steve Gatlin for a chance to take you on our journey with Hudson, too. And to finish our wonderful day, we dined and then danced the night away at the 70’s dance party. From groovy outfits, fake mustaches, and super cool dance moves, the night was spectacular.
Day three was on land. We toured Bonaire; flamingos, pink lakes and pyramids of salt were a few of our sights. Pina Coladas with local music under rows and rows of umbrellas floating in the sky and shopping galore. One stop was for bracelets that support single moms called Vadavas Bonaire. I, of course, got a yellow and a blue one. Then more families sharing their journeys and fun was onboard to end our day.
Day four took us to Curacao. Here is where Huddy and CJ took a trolley with Larry and Patty to tour the island. Henley and I went off to swim with dolphins. A fun day was had by all. We ended this day with my interview for the documentary and good food.
Day five was Aruba. Here was our parents day out. CJ and I rode UTV’s all over the island and dove off of cliffs and swam in the crystal clear blue water. We picked up the kids and took our time shopping on the island and hit several market shops by the ship. We got back onboard just in time to get on our “island time” apparel and danced the night away with our favorite new buddies. Our daughter, Henley, had this smile dancing with all the kids that was so pure and real. Joy in this journey is something we all gain. New friends, surprises of commonality and happiness could all be found on this dance floor. Our evening ended with streaming a show we watch and resting with sounds of actual ocean waves, not from a sound machine.
Day six returned to our Buddy Cruise schedule, as it was a returned day to sea. Morning coffee with Filmmaker Steve Gatlin was a great start to this day. We heard more about his documentary and the reason he does what he does. You see, Steve has a son with Down syndrome. His name is Adam and he is 11. Adam opened Steve’s eyes to the need to share this beautiful life he’s been blessed with. So Steve has a mission to share his life and others to encourage more people to join in on this journey with us… for the next cruise, yes, but also for each and every day. To show families like his and mine and how we are better people because our lives changed by loving someone with a disability. You don’t have to have someone related to you to experience the change. Actually, I would encourage you to find someone on our journey and make a difference because it feels good and it makes the world better for Hudson and his buddies. Don’t wait. Meetings about education and IEP’s with Pam and Beth provided great information to provide the tools we need when the conversations get hard. You should know that all of school, from Kindergarten to Graduation, the goal is the same: preparing our kids for life after school. It’s not just to get okay with this year, but to give your loved ones their best chance at life beyond school. Don’t allow services to stop to just get okay results, stay the course to give a best chance at mastering a skill. From handwriting to tying shoes to social skills, it’s all relevant and has to be provided as preparation to their futures. Obviously, don’t waste time on repeating the same learning pattern if it doesn’t work, but as for a new approach to the skills that are taking longer. All kids learn differently, but you don’t give up. We, then, had a meeting with Attorney Tom Gallo about wills, trusts and ABLE accounts. All of this information was needed and gave us a clearer understanding to our future and what’s best for Hudson. Many don’t understand all parents and caregivers have to learn on this journey. One mistake or box checked wrong can effect the future and benefits needed to provide what our loved ones need. The benefits of love and happiness way outweigh the challenges, but the challenges shouldn’t be so hard, should they? But a cruise like this is how we learn, how we grow and how we succeed. Now after a long week and a busy schedule, we took the night off after dinner. We binge-watched Cobra Kai with hot tea and a huge plate of cookies.
Our final day at sea was filled with more fun. Morning coffee with Attorney Tom Gallo about setting up proper accounts. We met about glasses, screenings and seeing with Optician Maria Dellapina. Maria designed proper glasses for our loved ones with Down syndrome called Specs 4 Us. Glasses designed for cute button noses, smaller ears and light to not hurt sweet faces. See what our beautiful children offer to the world and inspire. Its amazing the people we met and the journeys some have. We also got to spend all our Buddy Bucks. I mentioned these earlier. We collected these bucks all week and it was time to spend them. The shop opened and OMG, it was like Black Friday. We had our arms full of prizes shared. All I could think was, “how did they get all of this on the boat AND how are we getting off with all of this stuff”. So that was fun! Closing ceremony was full of energy; awards for presenters, door decorating contest winners and top teams were all recognized. What a vacation.
I’m not sharing all of this to brag about our trip, but to share with you our experience in hopes that you join us or tell someone else how to. Shows, games, karaoke, sports, swimming, rock wall climbing, surfing, shopping, and THE FOOD, all part of our fantastic week on the ship. Now, our trip wasn’t all smooth sailing. Hudson’s tube supplies didn’t all make it on the boat and we had a few days of panic. However, incredible mom’s we met helped provide what we needed. Any other trip, we wouldn’t have had the resources that we did on this ship. They say we are “in the same boat” and, yes, this is true; what I now know is that we are “unsinkable” when we are all together.
A vacation is about creating memories that last a lifetime and stories you can share that outlive even us. This cruise had it all; fun, learning, friendships, laughter, tears, strength, similarities, differences, heart and more. I even called it the “love boat” a few times as I saw sweet handholding and kisses being shared. Think about your favorite Christmas in your life; that is this week, it’s better than Christmas to our families. A week of togetherness with people who understand your life. They don’t have to mirror completely to understand. So much love to be shared by all of those who sail.
When I was with Henley on our swim with dolphins, a little girl and her mom were in our paired up group. Mom was in a wheelchair with a wrapped foot. I told her mom that I would watch over her daughter and keep her safe. The little girl was chatty and asked what I do for a living. I told her that I am blessed to stay at home and, then, told her about Hudson. I said that my son was born with a disability, that he has Down syndrome. She proudly smiled and said I know something about Down syndrome. She said that it’s just s different ability, not a disability. This little girl was 10. She wasn’t on our cruise, just a vacationer at the same place as me. I grabbed her hand and said that I was so proud of her for knowing this and to thank her mom for raising a kind little girl. Go, Mom! Even if we aren’t “all in the same boat’, kindness is power. Power demands change. Our families deserve changes that make our journeys less heavy.
Please check out Buddy Cruise. The next destination is to Coco Cay, St. Maarten and St. Thomas on the Wonder of the Seas with Royal Caribbean. It sails October 2023. All aboard, EXTRA buddies and EXTRA fun! Bon voyage.
To book: 1-877-239-2789