Riding the Catalina Express with Autism
Back in 1988, the Beach Boys wrote “Kokomo,” a song about an island off the Florida Keys. Brian Wilson, the lead singer, credits his influence to an older band and their song about an island off the opposite coast. Written by The Four Preps, “26 Miles (Santa Catalina)” reached the 2nd spot on the Billboard R&B in 1958 and was all about a romantic island off the west coast of the USA. The island mentioned, Santa Catalina is one of California’s Channel Islands and relies heavily on tourism. With its scuba diving, snorkeling, glass bottom boat tours, flying fish and other fantastic sights and activities, it is an exciting place to visit. Because of its location off the coast of LA, the most economical way to get there is by ferry.
Why We Chose the Catalina Express
We could have gone by helicopter or by plane, but the Catalina Express was our choice of transportation. Founded in 1981, the company have fine-tuned the service of shuttling tourists, especially families, between the mainland and the island. The one-hour journey is literally smooth-sailing.
The booking process is rather simple. You can make a reservation for a trip online, or you can show up and see if they have seating availability to accommodate you. There are two types of ticket – the Regular Seat otherwise known as Economy, or an Upgraded Seat in the Commodores Lounge for $15 more. Unlike in Economy where the seats are less padded, the seats in the lounge are leather and more comfortable. Also, it is a bit less crowded, and you get a mini snack and a drink included in the price.
We were surprised to find the terminal was large, well-organized, well-staffed and readily accessible from the central locations in Long Beach.
As you come in, the terminal has a ticketing booth on the left-hand side and a sit-down restaurant on the right. There is also a fast-food deli-type counter where you can grab a snack. Additionally, there are places where you can book some of the Catalina activities or rent a golf cart since those are the only cars allowed to drive on the island. The terminal also has plenty of seating for passengers to sit around until their boat arrives.
As we discovered, the ferry had set hours for arrival and departure advertised accordingly. When we visited over Memorial weekend, we received our boarding times, so we knew exactly what time to be there. The boat arrived at Long Beach and departed punctually at the specified time, which in our case was 10 am.
At the gate, we saw three lines for people with Regular tickets. The right line was for those upgrading their tickets to the Commodore Lounge. The middle line was the special needs/physically challenged line where people with different disabilities could board first. The third line was for economy class passengers.
I must say that the staff was highly attentive and not only did they let us pre-board before everybody when they heard our son had autism, they also lead us to our seats.
The seating on the Catalina Express is surprisingly comfortable. Even with pre-booking, seating is on a first-come, first-serve seating arrangement with no assigned seating in your designated area. This principle applies to both Economy and the Commodore Lounge. Passengers can sit in rows of four to six – sometimes around mini tables where there is more leg space. For those traveling with suitcases there is a storage place for baggage, and if you only have a small bag or hand luggage, you can quickly put it under your chair.
Food and Drinks
For refreshments, travelers can get a free drink and a snack in the upgraded lounge. There is also the option to purchase snacks and drinks including alcohol and soft drinks in both seating areas. The staff comes around and serves you in the Lounge. In the Economy area, you can walk up to the bar and make the purchases yourself.
As far as entertainment goes, the Catalina Express doesn’t offer any TV, movies or even wi-fi, so you’re pretty much on your own when it comes to that. You can always look out the window and wave goodbye to the Queen Mary cruise liner, or watch for marine life like whales and dolphins on the way. If you’re traveling with kids, make sure you bring some coloring books, reading books, DVD players, and movies or other devices to keep your kids occupied if they are less interested in the ocean views.
There are two surprisingly clean bathrooms on the boat for the couple of hundred passengers on board. Especially if you’re traveling with kids, make sure that you don’t wait until the last minute to use the facilities since you will encounter a line.
Arrival on Catalina Island
The Catalina Express staff manages the process of getting on and off pretty well, so we had short a line with no delays or people pushing and shoving like we experienced on other boat trips abroad. Right off the ship in Avalon, there’s a small terminal with souvenir shops, additional restrooms, and places to eat for those who wish to have a sit-down meal or start their shopping early.
The price for going to Catalina from Long Beach is around $80 per adult which might be a bit steep for families who have two or more kids but visitors can find discounted rates on Groupon.com or LivingSocial.com. Best of all, if you decide to go on your birthday, you travel for free.
Overall taking the Catalina Express was a very pleasant experience that I recommend to everybody especially families.
Autism Travel Tips:
- Make sure you ask for pre-boarding. This way you can grab a small table area away from the other passengers with plenty of legroom.
- If your kid likes window seating, I recommend sitting at the very front of the boat. There you can see not only out of the side window but from the front as well.
- When traveling with younger kids, parents need to make sure to watch them at all times since this is a boat at sea. Also, some of the boats have a second story open space which might be dangerous to kids.
- Bring snacks aboard if your child is on a gluten-free diet or has any other dietary needs and restrictions.
- Parents should bring entertainment to occupy their kids even though the ride is only an hour long.
- There are some uneven walking areas to negotiate and steep stairs that lead to the lounge. Help your child get assistance if he or she has balance, stability or mobility issues.