Family Cruising

As cruising continues to be the choice of more and more families, cruise companies find new ways to attract them

By: Ana Figueroa

Nancy Vinson remembers the days when “family cruising” meant the occasional grandparents bringing grandkids along on an otherwise staid ocean sojourn.

“There was hardly anything to choose from by way of shore excursions or onboard activities. And if you wanted an upscale line, there was Royal Viking and not much else,” recalled Vinson, an agent with over 20 years experience who is now president of Vacation Discounters, Inc. in San Ramon, Calif.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ president and CEO, Bob Dickinson, has similar memories.

“When I started out in this business, the average age of the cruisers was ... well, practically deceased, so we weren’t counting on much repeat business,” he said. “Now, we have kids coming onboard at age 2, 4 or 6, and it’s a whole different ballgame. Once you get them on a cruise, you’ve practically got an annuity if you’re the travel agent.”

Indeed. These days, agents are no longer asking themselves if a cruise is the right vacation product for their family groups; but which line provides the closest match to their clients’ interests.

Fortunately, cruise lines are doing a better job at defining themselves.

“The national ad campaigns are great, because the public is better informed. All you have to do is watch television to see that Royal Caribbean is going after active families. And Carnival is making a push to be a little more upscale,” said Vinson.

Carnival Cruise Lines is certainly spiffed up these days, with its Today’s Carnival enhancements.

“The message we’d like to get out to agents is that if they haven’t been on Carnival lately, they haven’t been on Carnival,” said Dickinson.

The 110,000-ton, 2,974-passenger Carnival Liberty debuted in July 2005 with the line’s first-ever Mediterranean cruises. Amenities such as bow-to-stern Wi-Fi; specialty coffee bars and an upscale seafood area; custom-comfort beds and duvets; and a giant LED screen poolside are making agents take a new look at the Fun Ship concept.

Kids are likely to be most impressed by the Carnival Liberty’s 4,200-square-foot children’s play area, home to its Camp Carnival programs. The ship’s Club02, a teen hangout aimed at 15- to 17-year-olds is one of the sleekest teen spaces at sea, featuring a dance floor, large-screen plasma TVs, video game units, listening stations and lots of Coca-Cola. The Club02 lounge is being rolled out fleetwide.

“Kids, like adults, have changing needs and interests. They want more choices, just like their parents do,” said Dickinson. “It’s a constant challenge for us to keep coming up with interesting options for them, but it’s one of the things that makes the job so much fun.”

Adam Goldstein, president of Royal Caribbean International, is equally enthusiastic about the changes his line has made to meet the challenges of the family market.

“Travel agents in general know that our evolution in the past 10 to 15 years has been strongly focused in the area of family travel, including multi-generational family travel,” said Goldstein.

Focusing on a younger, more active cruiser has been a Royal Caribbean hallmark in recent years, and it has paid off.

“The average age of our passengers is 42, and we carry an enormous number of people under the age of 18. At least a third of all passengers are traveling in connection with some sort of family group,” Goldstein said.

Becoming the “active family” cruise line didn’t happen overnight, however.

“We put an enormous effort into the design of the Voyager-class ships,” said Goldstein.

Voyager is what put the line on the map, so to speak, when it comes to grabbing the family-cruising market with their iconic rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, in-line skating, miniature golf and Johnny Rockets diners.

Royal Caribbean will outdo itself this June when it introduces Freedom of the Seas. She’ll be the world’s largest cruise ship, at 160,000 tons, with a passenger capacity of 3,634. Those are stats even King Kong wouldn’t sneer at. Based on TravelAge West’s sneak preview of the ship last summer, she’s got a whole lot to keep families happy.

In addition to super-sized versions of the Voyager-class features, Freedom of the Seas has a top-deck waterpark that includes the Flowrider, the world’s first-ever surfing attraction at sea.

Splashy new attractions are a great way to reel in the family cruising market, but Goldstein points out that Royal Caribbean has tweaked its onboard programming, as well.

“Our Adventure Ocean Youth Program is absolutely comparable with anything out there right now. It has evolved, due to the needs of our guests,” said Goldstein. “They said they wanted more segmented age groups, and that’s what we did. We came up with the Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots programs, in which parents and kids can interact together.”

Rethinking the Stateroom
On Freedom of the Seas, families that play together can also stay together. Six stateroom categories can accommodate four or more persons. And the huge Presidential Suite, with four bedrooms and four bathrooms, accommodates up to 14.

“Fifteen years ago, I don’t think we had a single family-oriented stateroom in the fleet,” said Goldstein.

Oh, how times have changed. Across the industry, new staterooms designed for families are popping up. Princess Cruises’ newest ship, Crown Princess, will debut in June, offering Caribbean cruises from New York and San Juan. She’ll have a family suite category of interconnecting staterooms with balconies, as well as features (the giant Movies Under the Stars screen, for example) that have made her sister ships so popular with the family travel market.

Families celebrating a very special occasion might consider Norwegian Cruise Line’s newest ship, Norwegian Jewel. The Jewel’s Garden Villas (like those on her predecessors, Norwegian Dawn and Norwegian Star), feature a living room, dining room and three separate bedrooms, as well as a private garden with a hot tub, al fresco dining area and patio. Norwegian Jewel also features an entirely new stateroom category, the Courtyard Villas. The 10 villas are positioned around a private courtyard with a swimming pool, Jacuzzi, small gym and private sun deck. Each 572-square-foot Villa includes a bedroom with a king-sized bed for parents, and another for up to three children. In addition to the Garden Villas and Courtyard Villas, the Jewel’s family-friendly accommodations include suites and junior suites that interconnect to create modules of two to five bedrooms.

NCL America, the American-flagged division of Norwegian Cruise Line, has carved out a niche in the Hawaiian Islands since launching Pride of Aloha in 2004. The newly built Pride of America debuted in 2005, with a theme that salutes all things American. The ship also features another new stateroom category Family Suites that accommodate a family of eight, plus a range of interconnecting cabin categories. A third new ship, Pride of Hawaii, is set for delivery this spring. The largest U.S.-flagged passenger ship ever built, Pride of Hawaii will feature Garden Villas, Courtyard Villas and a large number of interconnecting family cabins.

With Hawaii as a backdrop (and overnights on several islands), NCL America can offer as diverse an array of shore excursions as found on any itinerary. Family members can learn to surf on world-famous beaches, cycle down the face of a volcano or golf at some of the most breathtaking and challenging courses in the world.

“Shore excursions are so much a part of family cruising today,” said Lee Mackey, manager of the Leisure and Corporate Department of Worldview Travel in Santa Ana, Calif.

While venues such as Hawaii, the Caribbean and Alaska remain popular, many families are now looking for something new and different.

“I have one family that was interested in an ‘enrichment experience,’ so I booked them on a Cruise West Costa Rica sailing. It was an eco-travel cruise, and they went on shore excursions through the jungles,” said Vacation Discounters’ Vinson.

Even lines not traditionally known as family-oriented are making huge headway into the market. Holland America is actually one of the first lines Mackey now recommends to families.

“There are lots of reasons that Holland America is a great choice right now. Cabins are larger than average, the Signature of Excellence amenities are great, and there’s a sense that the line is really paying attention to the family traveler,” Mackey said. “I just had a multi-generational group return from a Thanksgiving trip on Holland America. The kids were 5, 7 and 9, and they raved about it. There were activities and shore excursions geared to every age group.”

Holland America’s newest ship, the ms Noordam, will debut in New York in February. She’s the first new-build in the fleet to contain all the Signature of Excellence enhancements, such as the high-tech Culinary Arts centers and expanded Greenhouse Spa and Salon. The ClubHAL children and youth facilities have been enhanced, as well. There’s even an “after hours” program that takes care of kids until midnight, so mom and dad can enjoy a night out. One Signature of Excellence feature that’s already garnering rave reviews is the Oasis, an extremely popular teen-only sun deck; and the Loft, a teen lounge that resembles an artist’s loft.

Small-Ship Lines Too

Another trend Vinson has noticed is that family cruisers are not necessarily sticking to the mass-market lines.

“We have a family who took a Crystal cruise, and they loved the luxury. Crystal is a great choice if the kids are older, and it’s the type of family that would enjoy onboard lectures,” she said.

Radisson Seven Seas’ Club Mariner program, available on select sailings, keeps little sailors enthralled while their parents enjoy the perks of a luxury cruise.

“Their slogan is ‘luxury goes exploring,’ and that’s a perfect description of the line,” said Vinson. “I recommend it to families interested in soft adventure. Maybe it’s not great if you’ve got an 18-month-old, but there are lots of families who match up with it perfectly.”

Worldview Travel’s Mackey has had family groups take over a deck on Sea Dream Yacht Club sailings. And Windstar Cruises has seen an upswing in families, as well. New luxury amenities such as Apple iPod Nanos, Bose SoundDock speakers and Wi-Fi, seem practically tailored for today’s teens.

“While known as a romantic, couples-oriented cruise line, Windstar’s motor-sailing yachts do attract families, often traveling with teens and pre-teens,” said Diane Moore, Windstar’s vice president of marketing and sales. “There’s no need to dress up in cocktail dresses or ties for dinner, and open seating means they can eat when they like each night.”

As cruise lines across the board continue to enhance their family cruise appeal, perhaps its time to take a new look at the line that started it all, Disney.

“Disney Cruise Line continues to deliver a distinctly different cruise vacation while focusing on the reasons our guests choose to sail with us our world-class product and exceptional guest service,” said Disney Cruise Line president Tom McAlpin.

The ultimate in kid-centric cruising has been sprinkled with a little more of that famous pixie dust. Ocean Quest is a new kid’s area that features a replica of a ship’s bridge, complete with LED screen and “windows” that let kids look out over the bridge via live video feed from the actual bridge. A simulation game let little cruisers sit in a traditional captain’s chair and “steer” a cruise ship in and out of various ports. (Hey, can adults play, too?)

Disney Cruise Line introduced a new Broadway-style production, “Twice Charmed,” last year. And it is also offering the only fireworks display aboard a cruise ship. The excitement takes place as part of the Pirates IN the Caribbean dinner and deck party, that includes a duel between Captain Hook and Captain Mickey. Also new in the Goofy’s Pool area on the Disney Magic is a jumbo LED screen for movies.

Another change this year is that the line will offer special itineraries in addition to its three-, four- and seven-night Bahamian and Caribbean cruises. The Disney Magic will explore the Mexican Caribbean on seven-night sailings (one per month from May to December) that call at Costa Maya, Cozumel and Castaway Cay. The Disney Wonder will sail a new 10- and 11-night Southern Caribbean itinerary in September, with new port calls at Barbados and St. Kitts. And the Disney Magic will sail a special 10-night Caribbean Christmas cruise.

Adults sailing on Disney ships can now indulge themselves more than ever too. Disney Magic has emerged from a recent dry dock with three new spa villas at its Vista Spa & Salon.

So, will family cruising continue to evolve? Certainly.

“More than ever, people want to spend quality recreational time with their families, and the cruise lines have responded to this trend,” said Terry L. Dale, president and CEO of CLIA. “Cruise ships provide the very best opportunity for families to vacation together.”

Carnival’s Dickinson couldn’t agree more.

“We may have been slowed down by hurricanes in 2005. But consumer confidence is up, and the industry has made a strong rebound,” he said. “Instead of taking fam trips right now, travel agents should be in their offices selling. I’m sure 2006 will be a great year.”

We couldn’t agree more.

Best Bets for Families

Carnival’s Conquest Class
Carnival Liberty has shown that the Fun Ships can provide upscale perks for parents, while the kiddies can enjoy Camp Carnival, Club02 and the array of features that bring more kids to Carnival than any other cruise line.

Crystal Cruises
This upscale line is a multi-generational favorite with families that appreciate luxury, fine dining and onboard lectures. Grandparent-grandchild bookings in Alaska are especially popular.

Disney Cruise Line
Kudos for not resting solely on the draw of the Disney name. The line has kicked up onboard programming for kids and relaxation options for adults. (And, the first-run Disney and Miramax films in the movie theaters are a huge bonus.)

Holland America Line
My, what a difference the Signature of Excellence makes. Forget the once-stodgy image HAL is happenin’ when it comes to family fun. Teens love the new Oasis sun deck areas.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Dawn
Though she’s not the newest kid on the block at NCL, her whimsical decor, T-Rex kids’ pool area and the tiny buffet table and chairs in the dining room make everyone wish they were a kid again.

Princess Cruises
The Love Boats have become Family Boats, with the first (and quickly copied) poolside LED jumbo screens, consistently high-ranked kids programs and a new ship featuring an atrium “street cafe.”

Radisson Seven Seas
“Luxury Goes Exploring” adds up to adventure for younger cruisers. The line’s Club Mariner program, on selected sailings, offers behind-the-scenes diversions while parents enjoy the pampering.

Royal Caribbean’s Voyager and Ultra-Voyager Class
The pulsating beat on the line’s television ads encourages cruisers to “get out there,” and families are doing just that. Ice rinks, rock-climbing walls, Johnny Rockets and some of the largest dedicated kids’ spaces at sea are already kid-magnets. Freedom of the Seas’ new surfing attraction promises to become a must-do for family cruising.

Sea Dream Yacht Club
For extra-special occasions, family groups can take over an entire deck. It’s like having your own luxury yacht.

Windstar Cruises
The popular choice for honeymooners is just as likely to carry active families that love the ships’ watersports, casual elegance and upgraded amenities in the cabins.