Photo of Fun for all the Family

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 4th May 2006.

I have, and the look of misery on their empty-eyed, slack-jawed faces remains lodged in my memory. Their parents chose the wrong cruise – at least as far as the kids were concerned – probably because they didn’t know that there was a more appropriate one. It’s a shame because if they’d chosen better, the kids would have had the time of their lives.

It’s amazing how well children are catered for on some cruise lines: they offer far more opportunities for fun for the kids, and time off for the parents, than any hotel. And yet the concept of cruising as a family is still an uncharted one for many people, who rack their brains to think of the right resort, but never consider that it might be a floating one. Entertainments range from learning circus skills to riding giant water flumes, all in an environment that’s safe (no, the children can’t fall overboard), novel, relaxed and friendly, with the added bonus that each morning – or thereabouts – your family will wake to a new place, even a new country, and a new experience. And forget lugging suitcases, worrying over timetables or wrestling with hire cars. The downside? If you choose badly, like the families I spied, you are trapped, so do your homework first.

The Big Ships

The mega-ships now afloat inevitably have the most substantial playgrounds and activity centres for children, though their sheer size and vast passenger numbers may not appeal to everyone. But their facilities are certainly impressive, offering age-segmented all-day children’s programmes and a range of late-night babysitting services.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, to be launched in April 2006, will be the largest cruise ship to date, with a massive 3,600 passengers on one-week stints out of Miami, and a mind-boggling array of attractions. As well as the ice skating rinks, roller-blading circuits, rock climbing walls and mini-golf courses that feature on their other Voyager-class ships, Freedom of the Seas will have an interactive water park called the H2O Zone, and cruising’s first surf park for surfing or body boarding against a continuous flow of water, angled at 45 degrees and moving at a speed of 30,000 gallons per minute. There’ll also be a dedicated sports pool and a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream parlour, as well as an armoury of themed restaurants and a whole high street of shops.

From Carnival Cruises, who offer extensive children’s clubs and vast water flumes spanning several decks, comes the idea of strollers available for hire, as well as beepers for parents to track their errant offspring. Children’s activities include backstage tours to meet the stars of the onboard shows. Disney Cruise Line’s kids’ club for 3-12 year-olds takes up nearly a whole deck, and parents are provided with a pager so they can be called if there’s a problem. Teens get their own area, and there’s a nursery for babies and toddlers. Dining is novel – same time, same waiter but you rotate around three different restaurants, one being The Animator’s Palate, which starts in black and white and becomes more and more colourful as your meal progresses, with wall sketches turning into fully fledged cartoons as you watch. For teenagers there’s a New York-style coffee house. On Princess Cruises there are photographic ‘morphing’ studios: have your picture taken with a cheetah, a tarantula or President Bush; and a scary simulator ride which takes you round a racetrack or beneath the ocean; and on their latest mega-ships, kids’ fairgrounds with an array of stalls.

It’s not all about activities and shows, of course, and food is a major part of any cruise as the weighing scales usually tell you at the end. Most of the big ships have dedicated kids’ restaurants such as burger bars and diners, while Norwegian Cruise Line provide a selection of speciality restaurants featuring world cuisines, as do Star Cruises, their Far East-based parent company, with a bias in favour of Japanese, Chinese and Indian cooking.

As well as NCL and Star Cruises, P&O Cruises, who report a record number of family bookings this year, also avoid an excess of American culture in their big ships. While two of their vessels, Artemis and Arcadia, are reserved for adults only, the rest of the fleet offer a combination of traditional cruising for adults along with plenty of activities for children. In terms of guests, the most cosmopolitan of the big ships are those in the Costa Cruises (with child prices nearly half what they were in last year’s brochure) and MSC fleets, both Italian-owned.

Budget Ships

The ships may be older and smaller, and facilities less elaborate, but Thompson Cruises and Island Cruises (‘relaxed, friendly, informal’) still offer plenty of diversions for children at affordable prices. For example, Island Cruises’ refitted second ship, Island Star, offers Mediterranean cruising in summer and Brazilian sailing in winter, with five restaurants, eight bars, health spa and library, children’s pool and kids’ club. Ocean Village is another good option for the young-at-heart and their offspring with babysitting cover and offbeat activities such as mountain biking and kayaking ashore and trapeze and juggling classes on board.

Mid-Price Ships

Holland America, Celebrity Cruises and Cunard Line all offer newer ships (Holland America has just launched its newest: the Noordam) more space and a higher crew-to-passenger ratio than the budget ships – and are all child-friendly too. Holland America has a programme of shore excursions especially designed to appeal to younger passengers; Celebrity has an option for babysitting children at ‘sleepovers’; and Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 has a full-scale planetarium on board.

Luxury Ships

It’s on the top-end cruise ships, however informal in style, that you tend to find stultified children. Though these cruise lines all accept children, except babies, they offer either no or very few activities or facilities for them. Seadream Yacht Club’s complementary watersports appeal to teenage children while Radisson Seven Seas Cruises and Crystal Cruises will both appoint crew members to keep children occupied for a few hours of the day. If you want sophistication and high levels of service on your cruise, and you want the kids along too, Crystal’s two large ships, Serenity and Symphony, are probably the best bet, with a well-equipped playroom and activities such as pizza-making, face-painting and discos that can be laid on if more than 15 children are on board. Hardly the same as a giant flume and a surf pool, but for those, you must cast aside pampered exclusivity, join the throng and enter the fray – and the fun.

Royal Caribbean International: 0800 0182020;

Carnival Cruise Lines: 020 7940 4466;

Disney Cruise Line: www; Kuoni: 01306 742222;

Princess Cruises: 0845 35555800; www.princess .com

Norwegian Cruise Line: 0845 6588010;

Star Cruises: 020 7591 8225;

P&O Cruises: 0845 3555333;

Costa Cruises: 01476 592280;

MSC: 020 7637 2525;

Thompson Cruises: 0870 5502555;

Island Cruises; 08707 500414;

Ocean Village: 0845 3585000;

Holland America Line: 020 7940 4477;

Celebrity Cruises: 0800 018 1515;

Cunard Line: 0845 071 0300;

Seadream Yacht Club: 020 8248 2355;

Radisson Seven Seas Cruises: 02380 682280;

Crystal Cruises: 020 7287 9040;