Families Onboard

New amenities cater to families on the high seas

By: By Marilyn Green

Family Travel

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I was admittedly eavesdropping on a Carnival ship when a father was telling his three teenagers, "I don’t care how great the program is; you can’t come in so late and wake us up." And, near an elevator on a Disney ship, I overheard a 10-year-old on a walkie-talkie insist that his grandmother join the scavenger hunt.

Families and multigenerational groups have become so important that cruise lines are constantly adding features for younger passengers, who not only represent current business, but an investment in the future.

Cruise lines are encouraging families to spend more time together with shore excursions aimed specifically at them. // (c) Holland America Line
Cruise lines are encouraging families to spend more time together with shore excursions aimed specifically at them. 

Carnival, which carries 600,000 children a year, fitted the new Splendor with nearly 200 interconnecting staterooms. More than 350 rooms accommodate up to three or four guests, and the 5,500-square-foot children’s play area is roughly 30 percent larger than on previous ships.

Accommodations increasingly include connecting rooms, suites and arrangements like NCL’s Garden Villas, which sleep six adults with two rollaway beds and three cribs.

The balance between age-grouped programs and activities for the whole family has also shifted lately. Where once parents might not have seen their children for most of the day, cruise lines are now creating a richer selection of experiences for the entire family.

Holland America Line’s boat-building contest is fun for the whole family, and sporting events and enrichment experiences for all ages are available on lines like Princess, which also introduced movies by the pool for families.

Most ships have teen centers and play areas inside and out for toddlers. However, individual ships have different facilities and it is important to check what is available during a particular season.

Youth staff is generally very well trained; for instance, each Celebrity ship has a staff of eight to 12 youth counselors trained in child psychology, child development, education and/or recreation, including one lifeguard.

In the race for the affections of younger cruisers, Royal Caribbean brought together a teen advisory board, adding features like scratch DJ classes, and its H2O Zone waterpark for younger cruisers has adults green with envy. Ice skating, rock climbing and even bungee jumping attract entire families.

Disney capitalizes on its tremendous experience and brand recognition with movies, deck parties and shows that feature its famous characters and magical effects from the stage to the dining rooms. Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay, receives rave reviews as a family experience as well.

Even luxury cruising has turned to families; Crystal Serenity, for instance, has 40 connecting staterooms and 75 with a third berth. Likewise, Cunard Line’s Queen Mary 2 and Queen Elizabeth 2 each have a nursery and children’s center with nannies, youth staff and a family pool area.

Children’s menus, plus 24-hour pizza and ice cream, are a cruise line staple. NCL has a buffet area for younger cruisers, regularly raided by adults who poach its hot dogs, burgers, rice pudding and cookies. Some NCL ships also have dedicated kids’ cafes.

Most ships combine education with entertainment for youngsters, typically offering crafts, computer skills and information about the sea and the culture of the areas being visited. Some of the learning is informal: If you put your child in a Costa Cruise Lines program you may need an interpreter when your child returns, proudly spouting Italian, Spanish or Japanese words learned from the international mix of kids on board.

Regent’s partnership with Jean-Louis Cousteau’s Ocean Futures Society in Alaska and Tahiti is designed to show families the earth’s natural wonders and help them build sustainability into their lives.

On other lines, kids go backstage to meet entertainers or into kitchens to see the inner workings of a cruise ship. Physical fitness programs, as well as spa experiences for teens, are popular and companies like Celebrity provide science, youth summer stock theater, junior Olympics and magic lessons.

On land, both kid- and family-oriented excursions are featured. For instance, in Alaska, Holland America offers kids-only shore excursions in Ketchikan, Juneau and Sitka, all accompanied by a youth coordinator or naturalist.

Disney shore excursions are broken down by age appeal and level of activity, and the line offers families private vehicles, private cabin cruisers and private villas for the day.

Cruise lines are helping families sail together with price breaks, too. An MSC Cruises’ policy allows children ages 17 and under to sail free on all itineraries when sharing a stateroom with two full-fare paying adults. For families who want to share a shore excursion, MSC offers a 30 percent discount for children under 14. Princess also offers discounted rates for children.