Royal Caribbean Entertains Kids!
The author's two-year-old son, Casey, eagerly participates in "Royal Tots" play group activities for parents and their toddlers onboard Royal Caribbean International.
Heaven Afloat for Parents Seeking
a Mini-Vacation within a Family Cruise
By Lizz Dinnigan
Cruising with my young children today is a far cry from the era when my husband Joe and I sailed leisurely together as a couple.(We're shown shown at left*)
In the past, we loved to relax with abundant free time to read a book by the pool or take a dip in the hot tub.
Fast forward five years and we're a family of four. Add young kids to any vacation equation and it's an active, nonstop travel experience.
My lifesaver on this year's family trip, though, was Royal Caribbean International (www.royalcaribbean.com), a cruise line with amenity-filled ships, friendly service and robust supervised children's programs.
The line's Adventure Ocean and Fisher Price kids' programs were superb. As a result, we had a bit of free time to ourselves - a luxury parents don't always have.
We departed in late May from Port Liberty in Bayonne, NJ, onboard Royal Caribbean International's 3,114-passenger Explorer of the Seas.
(The ship's exterior is shown above and its shopping-mall-like atrium is shown at right.*)
The itinerary included port calls in Bermuda, as well as the Caribbean islands of Philipsburg, St. Maarten; St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.; and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Although the Explorer of the Seas is positioned in Bayonne year-round, this is the type of family experience travelers departing on any Royal Caribbean Voyager-class ship can enjoy.
The line's Voyager-class ships also sail during the 2009-2010 season from Galveston, TX or from Miami or Fort Lauderdale, FL.
In addition, other Royal Caribbean ships (with similar children's programs) sail from Tampa, Norfolk, Port Canaveral and New Orleans.
The Reality of "Togethering"
Traveling on a cruise vacation with our energetic boys -- Jack (age 5) and Casey (age 2) had its unusual moments. Many were fun, some were a challenge.
It meant scarfing down my long-anticipated escargot in garlic butter on formal night while my toddler sneaked out of his seat to swipe sourdough rolls from the diners next to us.
It meant waking up every day of my vacation at 5:45 a.m. when the kids awakened; breaking up kiddie wrestling matches in the booths at the Windjammer buffet; and cleaning our balcony stateroom five times a day so the cabin steward wouldn't gasp from the mess.
It meant hundreds of glass elevator rides so my kids could push all the buttons and practice gymnastics on the handrail (see the photo at right*).
And it meant that stroll down the corridor to our cabin took 20 minutes instead of three, because Casey had to "fist bump" all the crew in the hallway.
So as our vacation progressed, the Royal Caribbean's children's program really saved our sanity!
On the eve of embarkation, we signed up Jack for the Adventure Ocean children's activity program. There is no need to sign up infants and toddlers for the Fisher Price program that Casey enjoyed; parents just show up with their child to participate.
Parents must fill out a consent form. Staff then check all children's names and ages against the ship’s manifest.
“Parents are asked to list any allergies or other dietary restrictions -- such as kosher -- on the consent form,” says Mauricio Hernandez, the ship's manager of Adventure Ocean.
“If there are any medications, parents have to say what they’re for and how often they’re administered," he notes. "EpiPens are welcome. So when kids sign in, we check immediately if they need special attention.”
Upon boarding, all children under 11 are issued an ID wristband (see blue band on Jack's hand at left.*) for the duration of the cruise indicating their muster station in case of an emergency.
If kids are in Adventure Ocean at the time of any emergency, a staff member will take them to their assigned lifeboat station.
Adventure Ocean is located on Deck 12 aft adjacent to an enormous arcade with dozens of the latest interactive video games and two air hockey tables. There was very easy access, with no confusing, hidden stairways.
The airy facility provides an effective energy outlet for kids of multiple ages. Three separate venues accommodate Aquanauts (3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8) and Voyagers (9 to 11).
A private hallway with a bathroom connects the areas, each of which offer age-appropriate games and activities. (At left, Jack dressed up as a pirate.*)
The rest of the Royal Caribbean vessel was also family friendly. School was still in session during our cruise, so there were only 30 kids ages 3 to 5 onboard, as well as 25 kids ages 6 to 8 and 43 pre-teens ages 9 to 11.
You will find more kids on voyages during specific periods. “We get [most] crowded with kids on holidays and during Spring Break,” notes Hernandez.
“For Aquanauts, we generally have 20 to 25 kids in the room at a time,” says Hernandez. “The ratio of kids per counselor is 10:1, but we always have someone on call if it gets busier. We have a staff of 14.”
One nice touch? All of the counselors are given nicknames (Hernandez is the Muffin Man) to make it easier for the kids and parents to remember.
Jack was very excited to eagerly chose which activities he wanted to join from the Aquanauts Daily Compass delivered to our cabin each evening.
The cheery Aquanauts playroom (shown above*) was outfitted with a built-in pirate ship with portholes and a slide ending in a balloon pit.
Aquanauts also enjoyed a Dora the Explorer play kitchen, music toy table and circular work table with bubble cushions for arts and crafts (see facility at right*).
And, a small library of books and large-screen TV also kept the little pirates occupied.
Jack is very outgoing so he couldn't wait to participate in the Aquanauts activities. But for those children who are a bit shyer or even apprehensive, the well-trained staff at Adventure Ocean works to ease their fears.
The goal is for all kids to relax and have a great time which, in turn, allows parents to enjoy their own activities or just relax.
Royal Caribbean hires children's program counselors who are college graduates with a degree in education or recreation. “If a child is sad, we try to convince them to participate,” says Hernandez.
(A portion of the Explorers area is shown at left.*)
“We can have a one-on-one session with them, doing separate activities to make them feel more comfortable with the staff and the room," says Hernandez. "They are going to miss their mom and dad, and it happens a lot with the 3- to 5-year-olds during the first few days.”
Keeping Little Ones Busy
Aquanauts enjoy "themed" morning and afternoon sessions. So, activity programs might focus on Dinosaurs, Superheroes, Fairytales, Animals, Country Western, Trains, Sesame Street, Color and Clowns.
And, “there is free play [time] in between set activities,” says Hernandez.
Jack’s favorite afternoon was the Superheroes. He colored a cape, played with Rescue Heroes action figures, enjoyed having his face painted (see photo at right*), and participated in tests of strength and an obstacle course.
Of course, he and other kids loved parading around the ship in full superhero regalia.
The Dino Adventure also impressed Jack. The session included playtime with Imaginex Dinos and Little People ‘Lil Dinos, making dinosaur paw prints and exploring fossils.
My animated son described what he did that afternoon. Acting it out, Jack said, “Some dinosaurs moved like this and roared. There were fierce ones and nice ones and baby ones.”
If your kids are participating in Adventure Ocean, definitely pick them up on time. If you're late, Royal Caribbean will charge a $1 per minute late fee per child starting at minute 16.
Children's Pool Area
Adventure Ocean Beach, at the rear of the ship on Deck 12, is a fantastic pool area created for the younger set. It’s open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
This kiddie pool area is comprised of:
- A one-foot-deep baby pool with a simple metal water slide (see photo at right*);
- A four-foot-deep circular plunge pool rimmed with a shallower 1.5-foot-deep perimeter;
- A sprinkler; and
- A large water slide.
After a swim, kids may relax or enjoy a snack on pint-size lounge chairs, tables and chairs.
Jack and my husband, Joe, loved the water slide, a twister that ends in a skid, not a pool (see photo at left*). It was open on sea days from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. and port days from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Riders must be 46 inches tall to slide alone. But parents may slide down together with their children if they don’t reach the height requirement.
"The water slide was so fun,” Jack said. “I went down 1,000 times with daddy. He picked his feet up, and we went down at a really fast speed (see photo below*). But I also liked the kids’ pool with the little slide because I could do it myself."
As with most cruise ships, there is no lifeguard on duty either at the main pool or the kiddie area. So just watch your kids carefully.
Also, "Swimmie" diapers are not permitted.
The safety of kids is a priority. Thus, on the Adventure Ocean sign-in sheet, parents write their name and cabin number; they also list the names of those adults who are authorized to pick up their child.
Gates to the Aquanauts facility are closed at all times. They're also blocked with a sign-in desk. Parents dropping off/picking up their children must show their SeaPass ID card.
Parents of three-year-olds are automatically given a beeper (for the staff to communicate with parents if need be). Parents with children of other ages may request one.
During activity periods, the children and their counselors parade around the vessel at points. Hernandez assured me, though, that during any room transitions they hold a roll call every 20 minutes if the group is comprised of 10 or more children.
Explorers and Voyagers
We peeked into the very large venues for the older children to see what Royal Caribbean offers.
These areas accommodate indoor sports and other physical activities. Kids may climb a miniature rock wall (shown at right*) at night and on port day afternoons.
The 6-to-8-year-old set enjoy human bingo, giant Pictionary, speed ball, science experiments, mummy wraps, crime scene fingerprints, rooster tag, basketball shots, scavenger hunt, dodgeball and charades.
In addition to scheduled daytime activities, the 9- to 11-year olds have special evening games from 7 to 10 p.m.
So your youngsters may expect such activities as a battle of the sexes, sports night on the court, pajama movie night, rock-n-roll night with dancing in the Chamber disco and Survivor games.
Fisher Price for Infants and Toddlers
Royal Caribbean also focuses on little ones under 3 who are not yet old enough to participate in Adventure Ocean.
Fisher Price's early childhood experts and Royal Caribbean have created themed, parent-accompanied sessions for both infants six to 18 months old (Royal Babies) and toddlers 18 to 36 months (Royal Tots).
I took Casey to the Royal Tots sessions several times (see photo above*). He definitely enjoyed engaging with other children his age.
The program also allowed me to meet other moms in the same boat, so to speak.
Kids and parents gather on a square foam floormat laid out in a portion of the window-walled Cloud 9 card room on Deck 14.
The door was always closed to keep the kids from straying.
One counselor led the activities including story reading and free play time. See photo above*). Toys for the play time corresponded to the daily theme, such as:
- “Musical Inspiration” with instruments and musical toys;
- “Cooking Up Fun” with food-related items;
- “Fun on the Farm” with a barn and animals; and
- “Pirate’s Paradise” with a pirate ship, eye patches and bandana coloring.
On sea days, daily Royal Babies sessions were held from 9 to 9:45 a.m., and Royal Tots from 10 to 10:45 a.m.
The afternoon session for the combined ages began with open play from 3 to 3:45 p.m., immediately followed by Crayola Beginnings from 3:45 to 4:30 p.m.
The little ones explored their artistic side during the new Crayola Beginnings workshops, when they experimented with Tadoodles crayons, all-in-one paints and stampers.
The only downside to the Fisher Price program was that the room (the card room, essentially) was multi-use. Most times there were other passengers playing cards in the venue, making the small room more crowded.
With just 11 kids and their parents, the mat area was packed.
More Family-Friendly Fun
Many activities onboard Royal Caribbean's ships provide a way for kids and their parents to share the fun.
For example, our kids enjoyed the fruit carving demonstration. And Jack enjoyed playing bingo with his dad (see photo at right*).
Each morning, parents with babies in strollers could meet at 8 a.m. for a Stroll & Roll along the jogging track on Deck 12.
A Royal Bedtime Story for Royal Babies and Royal Tots gets under way in the library each night from 7 p.m. to 7:45 p.m.
In addition, the library has a selection of children’s books that could be taken back to the cabin and returned before the end of the cruise.
Our kids picked out their own books. It was much easier (and lighter) than bringing our own books from home.
In addition, parents should ask the counselor running the Fisher Price program about borrowing Fisher Price toys through a toy-lending program.
For example, we checked out two electronic toys that we kept in our cabin for the duration of the cruise. These helped keep the boys occupied.
For the older set, there’s a host of Mattell board games stocked in the Seven of Hearts card room, adjacent to Cloud 9.
Similar to the familiar "Build-a Bear" program in local communities, Royal Caribbean also offers Pets at Sea. Kids create their own personalized plush toy with their parents.
The cost is $19.95 for the basic animal, or $29.95 for an animal with an outfit.
Infants sailing with Royal Caribbean must be at least six months old on Caribbean itineraries.
Take note that there are no changing tables in the public restrooms, which means trekking back to your cabin for a diaper change.
Parents can pre-order Gerber baby food and Huggies diapers (sizes 2 to 4), wipes and creams through the Gift & Gear section on www.royalcaribbean.com.
Prices can be higher, though, than what's you'd typically pay at home. For example, a small package of 24 size-4 diapers costs a hefty $21.95.
So parents need to decide whether dragging along the supplies (considering the baggage fees in today's airline industry) is worth it or whether it's more appropriate to just buy what you need onboard or ashore at ports of call.
In-cabin babysitting is available for kids 1 and older. “There are 26 babysitters onboard, says Hernandez. “Most are moms and work on their break. We check their background and experience, such as what to do if there’s an asthma attack."
Guests can get a sitter any time, and they can take the kids around the ship or keep them in the cabin, according to Hernandez.
Passengers have to reserve a sitter 24 hours in advance. Availability is not guaranteed. You may request that the sitter bring toys to the cabin.
We hired a sitter twice. The first time was at night once both kids were asleep. A woman came from 9:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. She quietly watched TV while Joe and I headed to the pool deck for a Dancing Under the Stars party.
The next time we tried the service, Jack was at Adventure Ocean and she came while Casey napped from 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. So Joe and I ran to the bar for umbrella drinks and basked in the hot tub.
Our private babysitting experience was a positive one. The kids were happy and we enjoyed our few hours of couple's time without the kids in tow.
One minor snafu? All paperwork said the baby sitting charge was $10 per hour for up to two kids ($15 per hour for three kids), but we were charged $12 per hour. Perhaps the price has gone up and the paperwork just hasn't caught up with the change as yet.
For Aquanauts, Explorers and Voyagers, "Late Night Party Zone" group babysitting is available in the respective Adventure Ocean venues starting at 10 p.m.
This year, late-night program hours have been extended from 1 a.m. until 2 a.m. It is offered on both sea and port days.
“For $5 per child, per hour, the youth staff entertains the kids in each age group with movies and games or they can sleep,” says Hernandez. “It’s up to the kids. It depends on how tired or excited they are.”
We opted not to use the group babysitting service since our children are usually asleep by 8 p.m., and only Jack would have been accepted. We were all exhausted by day’s end anyway.
Swimming and Sports
There are so many shipboard amenities there is no possible way for kids of any age to become bored.
The main pool deck consists of two identical, side-by-side pools separated by a wooden bridge and four whirlpools (see photo at right*).
This area was expansive, surrounded by terraced, ampitheater-style levels for lounge chairs. With live music and poolside games, this was probably the most popular spot on the ship.
The five-foot-deep pools were bordered by a two-inch-deep shallow surface area for kids to splash around in. We packed beach toys that came in handy both onboard and at the beach during our shore excursions.
A quieter alternative for those 16 and up was the Solarium pool with two whirlpools and cushioned chairs.
One deck above was mini golf, a massive rock-climbing wall for kids 6 and older, basketball court, three ping pong tables, shuffleboard and a bumpered inline skating track with rentals.
Forty-five minute ice-skating sessions for those age 6 and older were offered on days two, five and nine on our cruise.
The younger set must be accompanied by a parent. (Joe and Jack are shown skating at right.*)
Our superior oceanview cabin with a balcony was very comfortable and exceptionally clean.
We chose not to request a free crib because the couch opened up into a queen-size bed (see photo at left*).
This was the first time Casey ever slept in a bed, and he was wedged safely against the wall next to his brother.
It would have been a tight squeeze with a crib anyway, as there was not enough room at the foot of the bed to store it during the day.
The in-cabin TV programming included dedicated children's channels such as Boomerang, Cartoon Network and Fisher Price.
Our nine suitcases were stored under the bed and in the spacious shelved closet. We kept the glass coffee table in the closet as an extra shelf.
At turn-down, the cabin steward created towel animals that the kids went berserk over. (See the hanging monkey in the photo at right.*)
The kids were so impressed, they asked: “Daddy! Can you make me a towel elephant."
And Joe responded: That's a very special talent I don't have.”
Cuts, Scrapes and Illness
As often does with young children, they get sick. And it happens even when you’re on vacation.
Jack came down with a fever and stomach virus midway through the cruise. He was incapacitated for 36 hours and we felt he needed to see the ship’s doctor.
The staff at the infirmary administered medication and almost instantly he was better. What a relief!
We ate many meals at the casual Windjammer Buffet, which offered a wide selection of child-friendly foods. (Casey is shown chowing down with his favorite foods at right.*)
The kids could choose from such standard daily fare as fruit salad, vegetable sushi with chopsticks (at dinner), salad bar, an assortment of pizzas, pasta or rice, hamburgers and hotdogs.
As for the main dining room, we were initially assigned a table with two humorless elderly couples. We quickly asked the maitre de to switch our table to a private one. We were easily accommodated.
But I recommend requesting an early seating and private table or shared table with another family upon booking.
We ate in the dining room six out of the nine nights but it proved to be too stressful with our 2-year-old, even with an early 6 p.m. seating. (See Casey impatiently getting into his fruit cocktail at left.*)
New this year, Royal Caribbean has introduced several new kid-friendly dining programs.
A new children's menu features Vitality healthful cooking options such as fruit cocktail, soup of the day, veggies and dip, chilled tuna salad and salad with lettuce, tomatoes, turkey, Swiss and black olives.
Other kid’s menu options on our cruise were fish nuggets with sweet-and-sour dipping sauce, chicken fingers, mozzarella sticks, pizza, minute steak with mashed potatoes and corn, spaghetti with tomato or meat sauce, macaroni and cheese, PB&J with bananas, hamburger/cheeseburger or hot dog, all served with fries.
Jack loved these choices. "I liked the dining room instead of the buffet because it had the same stuff on the menu -- I knew what I was going to get," he says.
Royal Caribbean also has rolled out two new flexible dining programs: My Time Dining and My Family Time Dining.
When guests enroll in My Time Dining, they can show up (or make a reservation) in the main dining room whenever they wish during dinner hours as opposed to being locked into the official early or late seating. There is no pre-assigned table. Guests must pre-pay gratuities.
Available only during the first seating, My Family Time Dining allows parents to enjoy dessert alone at their leisure. The staff serves kids their complete dinner within 45 minutes.
Adventure Ocean counselors then meet participating kids at the dining room entrance to escort them back to the facility until parents are finished eating. Registration is required.
In addition, Lunch and Play at Adventure Ocean ($7.95 per child) includes a meal and playtime in the facility from noon to 2 p.m. on sea days so parents can dine alone. Items are pre-selected by the parents for the lunchbox.
Highchairs are available in the main dining room and buffet restaurant.
Family Time Ashore
Simple beach days are the definitely the right choice for parents with young kids. We enjoyed two such afternoons on St. Thomas and St. Maarten.
The turquoise beaches we chose on both islands were calm, shallow and warm.
The kids romped happily in the water searching for fish with their goggles and building sand castles (see photo at right*).
Joe and I simply relaxed.
Although the itinerary featured four ports, we only booked one shore excursion: Magen’s Bay Beach on St. Thomas. The shore excursion cost was an affordable $26 for adults and $17 for Jack, with no fee for Casey.
National Geographic recently named Magen's Bay as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. I'd have to agree -- as it's a pristine experience with soft white sand, gentle waves and great views.
On St. Maarten, we created our own inexpensive beach experience.
A cab from the port to the Dutch capital city of Phillipsburg cost $3 per person. It was only a five-minute ride.
We then simply walked to the downtown beach (see photo above*)
We rented two lounge chairs and an umbrella for $15.
This easy-to-reach downtown option was a better beach choice for us than popular Orient Beach. Although more scenic, Orient Beach has rougher water. The motorcoach ride to get there is also longer.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico, we did our own short walking tour of the old city. The boys enjoyed eyeballing the old fort.
(Even younger kids may enjoy a trip 'round town as Casey did in his stroller in old San Juan; photo at right*).
But if you choose to explore ashore and want to leave the kids on the ship, Royal Caribbean will assure they're in good hands.
Supervised kids' programs are a godsend on port days, allowing parents the flexibility of going ashore for their own activities.
While we didn't use the service, we managed to find some couple's moments while the kids were building sand castles (see photo above.). It's a great option to have.
“If parents choose to leave their children onboard in Adventure Ocean while they do a shore excursion, we take them to breakfast and take care of them until re-boarding," said Hernandez. "On port days there’s no charge for meals.”
My Advice for Parents
Parents deliberating whether to book a cruise with their toddler or preschooler have valid concerns. But with a ship as child-friendly as our Royal Caribbean Voyager-class vessel, it's likely all your needs will be met.
But I still believe it's best to wait to travel with kids until both children are old enough for Adventure Ocean. Trust me, it makes all the difference in the parents' cruise experience.
Once you've decided to cruise as a family, come prepared. Request an early dining seating. Pack familiar and new toys.
If you're not flying to your cruise embarkation point (where weight is a concern for incurring airline fees) bring along cases of water bottles and juice boxes, diapers, wipes, snorkel/goggles and beach toys.
If you are flying to the embarkation port, bring some of the above - weight permitting. But also research online which ports are less pricey for purchases of these items and where the stores are.
Remember, touristy areas adjacent to cruise piers in foreign ports of call will charge higher prices than a local grocery store on an island.
Make your children a part of the cruise experience. Start weeks in advance explaining what they'll see and do onboard.
Introduce them to crew members (see photo at left*) on the vessel.
While cruising with kids is much different than traveling as a couple, it's nice to know that family dynamics change as your children grow.
Last year, for example, we sailed with a 15-month old child and it was more restrictive in terms of what we could do onboard and what services were available for a child that young. This year, with a two-year-old, the process was much easier.
Sail with a good attitude and dose of good humor. The bottom line is to be flexible.
And pick a line like Royal Caribbean with a great children's program. Kids will be happy and entertained with all the choices and options designed just for them.
Jack loved our Royal Caribbean cruise. I think my littlest one enjoyed it, too, because he keeps asking, “Go back on big, big boat, mama?”
An experienced cruise and destination writer and copy editor, Lizz Dinnigan contributes regularly to SouthernTravelNews.com and SouthernCruising.com.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of Lizz Dinnigan. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.