Hi Avril, I have been to china ( not on a cruise ) and also had to get a chinese visa.As you can see my location is in the UK and so how I got my visa may not be the same as in the USA.
First of all I went on line and got the visa forms downloaded from the chinese embassy.From what I can remember this was in english and straightforward to fill in......then I made sure that I had the number of photos asked for.Like you did not want to trust the post and do not like the idea of my valuable passport going missing....so I knew the embassy was in London but I do not live in London but I also knew that where there is an embassy there are companies that will arrange to get your visa done for you ....by sending a courier to the embassy to wait until processed or collect when complete. Hope this is clesr enough for you.
I found a company in london that actually specialised in chinese passports....(I also saw a couple that looked a bit dodgy so ask questions if you have any doubts)....but because I still was wary about using the ordinary post....decided to catch a train to London and hand them my passport....which I did and they offered a choice of returning my passport by post, special delivery ( this is a trackable postal delivery which you pay a bit more for)or courier (like ups)costing alot more. I opted for special delivery and had my passport and visa stamped inside returned very quickly. I was pleased that I used a well established travel specialist that I thought did the job better than using my travel agent.
Look Avril....it may cost a lot more but look on it this way....how often do you get the chance to visit China ? What worked for me may not suit you and I don't know how far you live away from the embassies but I'm sure that someone else on here will have the solution to your problem......Good Luck & enjoy China.