main question -- tender port -- someone explain this to me, please! How do we get from the big ship to the little boat?? And back on the big ship again??? I'm picturing ladders dangling down the side of the ship, please tell me that I"m wrong!
No, you're not wrong at all. After the ship anchors, the crew will lower "tender platforms" into the water, extend platforms from a couple large hatches in the hull on the ship's service deck, and set up ladders going from the platform at each hatch down to its tender platforms. The tenders then pull up to a tender platform in the same manner as to a dock, so you can just step aboard.
But I should explain, for the benefit of all landlubbers reading this thread, that there's no such thing as a stairway aboard a ship. Rather, anything that has a series of steps leading one level to another is a "ladder" in maritime language. The ladders linking the tender platform to the platform at the hatch typically have about six or eight steps that are like a normal fligtht of stairs, with handrails on both sides.
how hard is it to get on/off the tender boat with kids, one a toddler who'll be in a baby sling?? (the other 2 are ages 8 & 5)
No problem at all, and there will be plenty of crew to assist.
how severly is this going to limit our time on Cozumel -- I read elsewhere that some were cut to 4 hrs on the island because of tender schedules; is this pretty accurate??
The only complication might be that you have to wait your turn for a tender with available space to take you ashore. The best strategy, if you want to explore on your own, is to book a short shore excursion in the morning because shore excursions always get priority on the tenders. You may also have to wait in a queue for a tender back to the ship, but she ship's tenders will shuttle back and forth until everybody who is in line at the time of the last tender is back aboard the ship.