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Take your kids on a cruise? They'll love it--and so will you


Cruise lines have discovered that plenty of parents like to travel with their children. Here's what they offer to lure the whole family onto the open seas.


Take your kids on a cruise? They'll love it—and so will you

Cruise lines have discovered that plenty of parents like to travel with their children. Here's what they offer to lure the whole family onto the open seas.

By Jennifer Merin

"I want to drive the boat," wails Johnny Kenny, a demanding 8-year-old visiting the bridge of a 2,400-passenger ship plying the Caribbean. With a nod at Johnny's titanically embarrassed parents, the captain says, "Ah, here's a budding navigator. Okay, son, let's teach you to steer."

Boosting Johnny to the helmsman's chair, the captain shows the mollified lad—and several dozen other kids and their parents—how to handle the ship. Johnny grabs the wheel, but nobody panics—the ship's on autopilot, and sailors are stationed near crucial equipment to keep visitors' hands off.

The captain's indulgent manner is indicative of the cruise industry's current kid-friendly attitude, one that has spawned a new generation of shipboard child-indulgent programs. Gone are the days when parents cruised with a nanny in tow to assure themselves some privacy. Now, cruising parents—who may schedule family time to allay separation anxieties—count on ships' youth programs to supervise kids with age-appropriate "edu-tainment" that's much more than glorified babysitting.

Typically, youth programs separate kids by age group: 3-5, 6-8, 9-12, and 13-17. While activities are age-specific, each group has horizon-broadening adventures and educational experiences with arts, crafts and the performing arts, computers and video games, cooking, foreign language, culture, history and natural sciences (oceanography, astronomy, geology, biology, ecology, etc.), plus basketball, volleyball, swimming, shuffleboard, Ping-Pong, sailing, golf and other sports, plus themed parties, talent shows, and kids-only shore excursions.

Kids enjoy special playrooms, pools and lounges, but especially like it when supervised treasure hunts and other activities let them explore adult-only areas—bridge, casino, spa—from which they would otherwise be barred.

Cruise lines' three- or four-day voyages appeal to parents who can't escape work or interrupt kids' schooling, and to first-time cruisers wishing to test the waters before booking seven-day or longer journeys. While cruising, your cabin is home base. You visit several destinations without having to repack. Granted, sharing smallish cabins with children can be trying, but you spend lots of time elsewhere on the ship or ashore.

Cruise lines offer discounts during school holidays, for early or last-minute booking, or repositioning cruises (ships moving from the Caribbean to Alaska, for example). Some allow third and fourth passengers—that is, the kids—to sail free or for discounted rates when two adult fares are paid. Shipboard meals and most activities are covered. Shore excursions cost extra. So do between-meal sodas—and they're budget busters unless you buy kids' soft drink "packages," available on most ships.

Some cruise lines emphasize kids' programs, others offer select edu-tainment opportunities. When choosing: Select destinations, cruise length, ship size and style (themed like Disney Cruise Lines, activity-oriented like Royal Caribbean International, or soft adventure-educational like Lindblad Expeditions). Then compare extent and frequency of children's programming, activities, facilities, staff-to-child ratio, staff training, hours of operation, cost per child, and extras.

Here are some top contenders:

• DISNEY CRUISE LINE ships, "Magic" and "Wonder," offer kids' programs year round on three- or four-night Bahamian cruises or seven-night eastern or western Caribbean cruises. All cruises call at Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island­which features hiking, biking, sailing, kayaking, snorkeling, and other land and water sports.

Both 2,400-passenger ships have meet-and-greets, photo ops, and breakfasts with Disney characters, plus entertaining family dining in theme restaurants. "Animator's Palate," for example, transforms from black and white to full-color decor during dinner.

The countless programs for kids run from 9 am to midnight, daily; parents and kids carry pagers to keep in touch. Depending on cruise and cabin, fares begin at $439 per person, double occupancy for three-day cruises. Kids aged 12 weeks to 3 years sail for $99; 4-12 from $229 per child. Call 888-325-2500 or visit www.disneycruise.com.

• ROYAL CARIBBEAN offers its Adventure Ocean program fleet-wide, including aboard "Voyager of the Seas" and its acclaimed 3,844-passenger "Explorer of the Seas," both featuring rock climbing, ice skating, and other sports, plus kids' decks with shuffleboard, pedal vehicles, computer lab, video arcade, splash pool, and water slide.

On three- to 14-day sailings (the Caribbean, Alaska, and worldwide), Adventure Ocean's co-ed staff (all with college degrees in education or related fields supervises kids 3 to 17 years old for Adventure Science (hands-on experiments about inertia, forensics, etc.), talent shows, culture-specific art classes (Japanese fish printing, Mexican trinket-making, etc.), carnival night, and movies.

While at sea, kids' activities are free. At night (until 1 am), group babysitting costs $4 an hour. In-cabin babysitting costs $8 an hour for up to two kids in the same family, or $10 an hour for three kids in the same family.

Three-day cruise fares begin at $249 per person, double occupancy, plus $99 each for one or two children. Family suites are available on most ships. Shore excursions are discounted for kids. Call 800-327-6700 or visit www.royalcaribbean.com.

• HOLLAND AMERICA LINES offers Club HAL, available on ships cruising the Caribbean, Alaska's Inside Passage, and other destinations. The program caters to children 5 to 17, with age-specific staff-supervised activities. At least one Club HAL youth director is aboard each ship, and staff is added when there are lots of children on board. Ships carry 1,214 to 1,440 passengers; itineraries are three days to three weeks.

Club HAL schedules are delivered to participants' cabins nightly. Kids 5-8 go to story telling, fabric painting, indoor games, ship tours, arts and crafts, charades, drawing contests, bingo, card games and pizza parties. The 9-12 crowd gets golf lessons, theme parties, deck sports, scavenger hunts, and Ping-Pong. Teens enjoy disco, dance lessons, arcade games, sports tournaments, card games, trivia contests, bingo, movies, and videos. Youth Olympics are held for all groups, and all receive Club HAL T-shirts.

On days at sea, at least one Club HAL activity is scheduled morning, afternoon, and evening. No activities are scheduled while ships are in port, but HAL has kid-only shore excursions, most notably in Alaska. Staff babysitters charge $8 an hour for the first child, $6 an hour for each additional child from the same family.

On three-day cruises, adult fares begin at $450 per person, double occupancy, with kids under 2 sailing for $89. Three- to 17-year-olds sail for $388 each. Extra charges apply to some shipboard activities and most shore excursions. Call 800-426-0327 or visit www.hollandamerica.com.

• NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINES' "Kid's Crew" program offers a four-tier lineup of age-specific activities for 3- to 17-year-olds fleet-wide, on 1,462- to 2,240-passengers ships, with three- to 14-day cruises in all their cruising locales. Ships have kids-only areas. Hours of supervised programming vary daily, and according to cruise.

Extra-cost kids' shore excursions include dolphin encounters (Bahamas), Coral World (St. Thomas), Atlantis Submarines (Caribbean ports), plus Totem Heritage Crafts & Hatchery Tour, White Pass Train and Bicycle Tour, Skagway Street Car, Mount Roberts Tram and Guided Alpine Hike, Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve Float Trip, and Chilkoot Lake Eagle Cruise in Alaska.

Adult three-day cruise fares begin at $299 per person, double occupancy. Kids 2 or younger sail free; 3-17 sail for $154. Maximum four to a cabin. Call 800-327-7030 or visit www.ncl.com.

• CELEBRITY CRUISES invites kids 3 to 17 to stage their own theater production, performing or designing, building, and managing sets, lighting, costumes and make-up, or creating between-act commercials. Additionally, clown shows, magic lessons, masquerades, treasure hunts and other age-specific activities are staff-supervised. Celebrity's 1,350- to 1,950-passenger ships sail seven-night or longer cruises worldwide. Adult fares begin at $849 per person, double occupancy; third and fourth passenger fares from $499 per person, regardless of age. Call 800-437-3111 or visit www.celebritycruises.com.

• LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS welcomes kids on its one- to three-week soft adventure cruises aboard 64- to 110-passenger ships. Special family sailings to the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica feature special games and workshops teaching children about wildlife, geology, ecology, etc. Kids write, draw, map-make for the "ship's log," which is edited, copied, and sent to all passengers. Naturalists encourage kids and parents to bond in bird-watching and other pursuits that can become life-long hobbies. Adult fares for the Galapagos trip start at $2,980 per person, double occupancy; for Costa Rica they're from $2,490 per person, double occupancy. Fares for each child under 21 are 25 percent less. Call 800-397-3348 or visit www.expeditions.com .

• FIRST EUROPEAN CRUISES features distinctively European ambience aboard its ships (800 to 1,500 passengers). Itineraries include seven- to 12-night cruises in the Caribbean and Europe, with 80 percent European passengers. The euro is shipboard currency. Dolphin Club kids—4 to 12 years old, from a dozen or more countries—are supervised by English-speaking European counselors. Activities vary from ship to ship, but games, sports, arts, and storytelling reflect trip destinations—Greek and Flamenco dancing, English tea time, Turkish crafts. Teens have a separate lounge. For seven nights, adults pay from $1,020 per person, double occupancy, with up to two kids aged 2 to 17 for $480 each. Infant fare (under 2) is 10 percent of the child's rate. Call 888-983-8767 or visit www.first-european.com.

The author, a syndicated columnist for the Los Angeles Times and frequent contributor to USA Today, is based in New York.


Jennifer Merin. Take your kids on a cruise? They'll love it--and so will you. Medical Economics 2002;11:108.

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