Mark Sumonka balks at being called a hero, but he certainly is a hero in my book. In 1994 Mark sustained a head injury while serving our country as a flight medic with the U.S. Air Force. His injury left him with what he describes as “stroke-like” symptoms that affect both his speech and mobility. That hasn’t stopped him from enjoying Life, however. For the past fifteen years Mark has used a service dog as part of his vocational rehabilitation and now he enthusiastically trains dogs to work as service animals for others.
Mark has a particular affinity for the Disney Cruise Line and, thanks to their special rates for the military, has cruised with them an incredible 16 times since 2006! I had the pleasure of having him as a guest on the Special Mouse podcast this past September and we had a thoroughly enjoyable discussion about cruising as a wheelchair user accompanied by a service dog.
Mark has cruised on all four Disney ships; the Magic, the Wonder, the Dream and the Fantasy. Although he loves them all, the Magic and the Wonder, being smaller, gain points for being more intimate while the newer Dream and Fantasy have more accessibility features. Of these, a favorite feature is a wheelchair lift that permits him to enjoy the pools and hot tubs.
When it comes to cruising with his service animal, Mark notes that the Number One question he is repeatedly asked by strangers is how the dog “goes potty” while on board the ship! He admitted that he sometimes teases them by saying, “Oh, I just hold him over the rail and let him go!” (I discovered that Mark has a wicked sense of humor.) In reality, his dog uses a small plastic kiddie pool filled with sod that is kept on the veranda outside his stateroom. On one December cruise, however, he arrived at his stateroom and was dismayed to discover that while the pool was available, the sod had not been delivered to the ship in time! Although maintenance provided an alternative (“it looked like rabbit food pellets”). There was only one problem — Bingo would not go! Sod not being in season, the staff ran out to a local Home Depot and came back with the only thing they could think of — mesquite-BBQ wood chips! Although his dog found them to be a more acceptable product than the pellets, he soon took to eating them because they smelled so good! Fortunately, the staff was able to call ahead and arrange to have a small shipment of sod delivered to the ship when it docked at its first port of call in Mexico.
“The level of [Disney] service is unbelievable,” Mark raves. For example, during their first dining experience, Mark’s wife set about cutting his meat for him since TSA rules restricted him from bringing along his one-handed knife. Their head server observed this and immediately jumped into action. “No, no, no! You are on vacation,” he declared, and insisted upon personally cutting Mark’s food during every meal from then on out. “They will always go above the call of duty,” Mark says, “especially for those with a disability.”
If you wish to hear more about Mark’s experience with the Disney Cruise Line, you can listen to the entire hour-long interview on the Special Mouse site: Disney Cruising with Man’s Best Friend: a Service Dog!
~ Kathy Kelly