Cruising with kids

Published in the Toronto Star

On Thu Feb 15 2007

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When I push through the swing doors to Adventure Ocean – the children’s play area aboard Royal Caribbean’s Radiance of the Seas – my ears are prepared for the worst.

What a shock to find that once I got past the empty video game stations and their blaring theme music, the playroom – filled with children ages 3 to 5 – is all quiet, except for one little boy who is standing in front of a group and singing his ABCs.

It’s talent day – one of several themed days at the onboard kids club – and a good example of how these clubs are changing. No longer simply a holding place for kids, many cruise lines now aim to fill them with knowledge as well as snacks.

“I think a lot of people misunderstand and think the kids cruise clubs are like babysitting,” says Linda Garrison, a cruise expert for the popular advice website about.com.

Many kid clubs are now sophisticated programs that offer science experiments, cultural excursions, dress-up days and talent shows.

But experts agree parents can spare themselves a lot of aggravation by comparison shopping before signing up their kids.

“One size does not fit all when it comes to family vacations,” warns Suzanne Kelleher, co-founder of the family-friendly travel site wejustgotback.com.

“One cruise might be great for teenagers but not for toddlers,” she points out. “Most kids clubs aim for the 5 to 12 zone and, if your kids are outside that zone, sometimes you don’t get your money’s worth.”

Garrison agrees.

“Just because there is a picture of a family on their website doesn’t mean there’s anything at all there for your child,” she says. “It’s about learning how to ask the right questions.”

So how can you be sure your next cruise vacation doesn’t make you want to jump overboard? Ask these five questions before leaving home:

  • Is a cruise right for our family?Kelleher suggests families with children under the age of 3 think twice.Most kids clubs won’t take children under 3 who aren’t potty trained, and kids in diapers also aren’t allowed in onboard pools.Also, most staterooms are small and most ships are tough to navigate by stroller.”Parents need to ask themselves not just ‘Does this place look like fun,’ but ‘Are our kids in the right zone to get the most out of it?,'” Kelleher suggests.
  • Is this the right ship?”If you’re planning a cruise with children, and you go on the website and all the pictures are of couples or older people, that might not be a good cruise line to take them on,” says Garrison with a laugh.Make sure the ship you choose has the amenities your family needs.Do they have a kids club or babysitting, and will either service be available at the time of year you are traveling?In most cases, bigger is better when you’re looking for convenience, says Garrison.”Because they have more kids more often, the bigger cruise lines are more likely to have a better program, with more activities planned.”
  • Is the club safe?You probably wouldn’t want your 12-year-old hanging out with 17-year-olds at home, so why allow it on a cruise ship?Kelleher says clubs that break children into smaller, age-based groups are better options than those that simply lump all ages together.”It’s not just that you’re worried about safety, it’s a matter of your child feeling comfortable,” she says, adding staffing is another big concern. “You want to make sure there is the right ratio of counsellors to kids and that the counsellors are trained.”
  • Will your kids be interested in the club?If your kids don’t like going to daycare at home, chances are they won’t be thrilled with a kids club at sea.”If your kids aren’t the kind of kids who like to go into kids clubs, they won’t like this either,” points out Kelleher.”Sometimes, younger children are a little reticent to be away from the parents,” adds Garrison. “Older kids might feel like it’s not their thing.”Raise the idea of attending a club with your children before booking the cruise, and take their answers to heart.
  • Will I get the kind of vacation I want?Cruise ships offer plenty of adult nightlife, but if your ship doesn’t have the right childcare options, you might end up missing most of it.Can you get an in-room sitter or are you limited to group sitting? Will you be able to enjoy the formal night dinner or will you spend the meal fighting with your 10-year-old who would rather be eating from a kid’s menu?”A lot of the kids programs do have meals for the kids, because they know that the kids would rather eat hotdogs than have to sit down and put a napkin in their lap,” says Garrison.Knowing your options ahead of time will make it easier for everyone.”You just have to ask yourself, is that going to be great for me?” adds Kelleher. “You really have to be very careful that you’re not setting yourself up for round the clock stress.”
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