The Royal Treatment:
Family Cruising on Princess (Part 1)
(Caribbean Princess, which will sail from San Juan during winter 2010-11, offers a robust children's program that allows parents to relax and enjoy their cruise.*)
... For the Kids, But Not All About the Kids
By Lizz Dinnigan, Senior Contributing Editor-Family Travel & Cruises
Once kids enter the picture, the days of traveling freely and effortlessly as a couple are – for the most part – a thing of the past.
But on a Princess Cruises vacation, adults may relax while their children are entertained and supervised in the safe and vibrant childrens’ Fun Zone facility. And as the mother of two young children, I understand how valuable free time can be.
I recently sailed on Princess’ largest vessel, the 3,080-passenger, 113,000-ton Caribbean Princess, with my husband and two sons: Jack, 6, and Casey, 3.
Our nine-day eastern Caribbean itinerary included port calls at San Juan, St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Turk.
(The Dinnigan family enjoys beach time in St. Thomas*)
Starting in October 2010, this well-maintained ship, which debuted in 2004, will sail from San Juan, Puerto Rico, on alternating seven- and 14-day southern Caribbean itineraries. Those will operate through May 2011.
Other Princess ships with similar children's programs also sail from other southern U.S. ports during the winter season.
For example, Grand Princess, Ruby Princess and Crown Princess are among the line's vessels sailing from Port Everglades during winter 2010-2011. All have robust kids' programs and facilities.
This was our fourth consecutive year cruising with the children, but the first in which the boys were both old enough to fully participate in the onboard supervised kids’ program.
So the vacation dynamic did indeed change -- for the better.
Broad Appeal with a Premium Feel
Princess Cruises fields a cruise product with both mass-market appeal and premium overtones.
A cut above in sophistication, the Caribbean Princess exudes a 'less-is-more" design approach.
The ship is not adorned with tons of loud artwork, mushroom-fountain waterparks or a carnival atmosphere. It doesn't drip with over-the-top glitz.
Instead, the mood is more serene. Public venues are elegant and refined - yet fun.
(The lovely atrium of the Caribbean Princess is attractive, yet doesn't overwhelm with glitz as is the case on many cruise ships*)
Interior color schemes reflect calming colors, shiny gold accents and rich, light woods.
Intimate, Despite Capacity
The number of activities offered throughout the ship helped spread out the guests. As a result, Caribbean Princess delivered an intimate atmosphere -- despite its high passenger count.
The crew were exceptionally tolerant of our active kids bouncing around in the public areas. Our family was even permitted to sit in the front row during evening show performances!
On our cruise, the guest mix was skewed to the mature side. That was likely because of two factors -- the longer length of our voyage at nine days and our specific sailing date, which was just before school let out for the summer.
So, there were only 36 children ages 3 to 7 onboard our cruise.
In addition, there were 17 kids of 8 to 12, and 17 teens of 13-17.
(Kids on Caribbean Princess loved the colorful and fun books in the Princess Pelicans area.*)
“The number of kids really increases and the demographic shifts to families in the late spring and summer high season, and over the Easter and Christmas holidays,” says Dan Styne, cruise director.
Movies, Junior Chefs and Yoga
Although the ship is definitely NOT all about the kids, the Caribbean Princess caters perfectly to the younger set.
Beyond its impressive, three-tiered Fun Zone program for junior cruisers, which I’ll get to in a minute, the ship’s special features and events really stand out.
The Calypso Pool area is outfitted with a Times Square-style, 300-square-foot LED movie screen (shown at left*).
Here, Princess shows blockbuster, first-run films poolside on a continual basis throughout the day and night.
The screen has sufficient lighting power so that movies may be viewed clearly -- as well as heard easily -- not only at night, but also in broad daylight.
Guests will find the so-called "Movies Under the Stars" line-up of flicks listed in the daily Princess Patter newsletter.
Kids curled up on cushioned lounge chairs to watch such family films as "Up" and "The Princess and the Frog."
(Jack Buckwald and Jack Dinnigan clown around on Princess' top-deck lounge chairs prior to a movie showing.*)
An added bonus for movie goers is the fresh popcorn available from an old-fashioned popcorn cart.
At night, families snuggle under the provided blankets to watch movies. “As we go into high volume [during the summer], we dedicate [some] 'Movies Under the Stars' time for families,” says Styne.
“We also add a Children’s Fair, with activity tables set up in the piazza, and magicians, clowns and characters," he notes.
Adds Hilda Maglaya, youth activities manager: “There are booths offering cookie decorating, balloon animals and button making.”
Also in high season, says Styne, the Jr. CHEF@Sea program is available. Pre-teens can participate in a hands-on food preparation workshop led by the onboard chefs in the main galley.
Wearing aprons and mini toques, they learn to roll sushi, decorate cakes and make fruit pizza.
In another industry first, Princess offers free yoga sessions for all age groups. The sessions involve poses, music, chants and singing.
What to Expect for Kids and Teens?
The cruise line works hard to ensure the vacation experience is special for children. That shows with the Caribbean Princess’ children’s facilities.
Kids and teens hang out in modern, age-appropriate venues in the Fun Zone on Deck 16 aft. All rooms are video monitored as a safety precaution.
(The Princess Pelicans facility is bright and colorful.*)
The groups are split into Princess Pelicans (ages 3 to 7), Shockwaves (ages 8 to 12) and Remix (teens 13 to 17).
In high season, the Shockwaves group is further divided into Shockwaves Junior (7 to 9) and Shockwaves (10 to 12).
Because group sizes vary sizably by voyage, at times the Shockwaves Junior room is also used for Princess Pelicans activities.
(Shockwaves is a colorful kids club for those ages 7 to 12.*)
“We have a maximum capacity of 40 children in the rooms, but we never turn kids away,” says Maglaya. “We have enough [alternative space] for them to stay.”
Staff members are added as the number of children increases. “An extra Pelicans staff member is added for every 25 additional kids onboard,” says Styne.
The ratio is typically one counselor per 10 children ages 3 to 12.
(At right, a Princess Pelicans counselor adds paint to Jack Buckwald's face -- helping create a swashbuckling pirate.*)
For teens, the ratio is one counselor per 20 kids.
"We bring on seasonal youth staff if we go into high volume, Maglaya says. "In low volume we have eight permanent youth staff.”
For all age groups, hours of operation on sea days are 9 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. (1 a.m. for the teen center).
Babysitting service during port days is available for free from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and again from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Parents must tell the staff ahead of time if their children will be staying in the Fun Zone when the adults go ashore.
An Invaluable Perk
My favorite aspect of the children’s program? It's the free babysitting from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m.
I've learned from past cruises that many cruise lines end their free group sitting service at 5 p.m.
Others may offer a late-night, fee-based sitting service after 10 p.m. only, which we found (on those previous cruises) a bit too late for our family.
But, thankfully, this wasn't the case on Caribbean Princess. The line's free babysitting during the prime evening activity hours made our cruise truly stand out.
During evenings without the kids, Joe and I mingled with peers, enjoyed drinks, played in the casino, dined in an alternative restaurant and enjoyed the onboard nightlife.
(Caribbean Princess is illuminated at night.*)
Simply put, having time to ourselves at night was a phenomenal bonus.
Some evenings we met up with friends Dave and Jennifer Buckwald, whose two children, Jack and Morgan, were also participating in the kids' program.
(The Buckwalds enjoy an evening out on Caribbean Princess.*)
Having our kids enjoying themselves while properly supervised was a blessing on formal nights, or if the four adults wanted to watch a movie or a comedy show.
I also appreciated the quiet time Joe and I had -- allowing us to enjoy long, relaxing dinners alone
(Joe and Lizz Dinnigan at dinner one night -- without the kids*)
What a pleasure to dine without the kids constantly interrupting or the two of us having to clean up toddler spills and messes!
On previous cruises, we always worked to keep the little ones busy at dinner so we could quickly wolf down our own dinner and get out of the restaurant before they became restless ... or bothered other guests.
I cringe in recalling one particularly embarrassing moment on a past cruise when I glanced away from my toddler for just a few seconds and then realized he'd stolen dinner rolls from the neighboring table!
Not this time, though.... Many evenings we dined at leisure without a care.
The only time Princess charges a babysitting fee -- $5 per hour, per child (ages 3 to 12) -- is only for late-night group sitting from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
In addition, a late pick-up fee of $5 per child is charged for each half hour after closing.
Advance notice for the late night group babysitting is required. You must bring your child to the children's facilities.
“There’s no private babysitting in cabins,” says Maglaya.
(Kids have plenty of safe, fun places to play in Fun Zone.*)
Counselors will put on a movie if the children are tired and want to rest or even sleep.
If they feel like playing games, we can do that as well,” Maglaya adds. “We give them pillows and blankets to make them more comfortable."
Registration and Safety
On embarkation day, the youth centers hold an open house from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Instead of attending a mass registration meeting in a theater, parents come straight to the facility at their convenience.
I think it’s an important introduction, especially for apprehensive kids. It allows them to get a sense of the venue and feel excited for what’s in store on their vacation, instead of being dropped off blind the following morning.
A full, cruise-long schedule of kids' activities is issued at sign-up. That allows for better advance vacation planning, instead of having to wait for a schedule delivered to the cabin daily.
The sign-up process for the supervised children's program is simple. Adults fill out a card with the names of parents and guardians authorized to pick up their children. Allergies, dietary restrictions and physical restrictions must be listed.
The staffers also ask parents whether they're comfortable with counselors applying sunblock or first-aid ointments to the kids while in their care.
What can't they do? “The staff is not permitted to administer any medication, change diapers or bottle feed,” says Maglaya.
(Small children play ball and ride plastic trykes in the outdoor Princess Pelicans' facility.*)
“We ask parents to come here and do [those activities]," she notes. "An EpiPen is the only thing we can do if it’s a matter of life and death."
It's good to know that all youth counselors have CPR and first-aid certificates, which they receive after training by experts in the ship's medical center.
In a medical emergency, Styne says a team of doctors will arrive in the Fun Zone in a matter of minutes.
If the emergency signal goes off and passengers are called to their muster stations, adds Styne, counselors wait 15 minutes for parents to collect their children.
Otherwise, the children are escorted to Muster Station F.
At each pick-up, adults are required to bring a photo ID in order to sign their kids out. Since there were fewer children on our sailing, the Fun Zone staffers photocopied our IDs for the roster book instead, making the process simpler.
“You must be at least 16 to pick kids up from the center,” says Maglaya. “Shockwaves [kid participants] are offered the privilege of signing themselves in and out.”
Princess Pelicans Activities
Our children both participated in Princess Pelicans. Counselors learned their names by the first day. Staff were friendly and energetic.
In fact, both of our kids begged us daily to drop them off at the facility.
They loved playing with other kids their own age and participating in the fun activities.
My kids dove right into the children's club activities. But some little ones may be a bit more shy -- particularly when they first enter the program.
“Coming to the program is like the first day of preschool or kindergarten at home,” acknowledges Styne. “It takes a few days to become accustomed and comfortable."
(Counselors in the Princess kids' program will comfort children and help them acclimate to their first day in Princess Pelicans.*)
"It’s as emotional for the child and parent as the first pre-school drop," Styne says, quipping that "the parent is usually worse than the child.”
Kids tend to adapt quickly though. "They’re told they’re on vacation, and that changes a child’s perspective," he notes.
At drop-off, the door to the kids' facility is kept open for the first hour. A counselor sits behind a check-in desk. It can get chaotic if a slew of people show up at once.
One could-be-improved suggestion? A gate might help better control the flow of traffic. After the initial rush, the door is locked, and you have to ring a bell to enter.
“In high volume we have two people at the entrance: one with the sign-in sheet, and the other at the door,” says Maglaya. “At 10 a.m. the door shuts. It opens only from the inside. There’s a key pad on the outside.”
(Kids wear name tags to facilitate interaction with both staff and other children in their program.*)
Parents are issued a beeper to facilitate communication with staff.
Pagers must be returned after each session. You'll pay $50 if you lose it.
When do the counselors use the pager? “We call if a child continuously [exhibits] misconduct, keeps crying or is sick,” says Maglaya.
Parents also may request Walkie Talkies from the Passenger Services Desk for $4 per day.
They can be used onboard and in port. Having them is great way to keep in touch should family members become separated.
Just for the Littlest Ones
(Princess Pelicans' craft projects -- such as creating paper swords and pirate hats -- delight and occupy the little ones.*)
Indoors, the expansive, colorful Princess Pelicans venue has a long, curved art-and-crafts table snaking through the room.
An adjoining, but enclosed, space with floor-to-ceiling windows is home to plastic trykes, a playhouse and small basketball hoop.
Princess Pelicans' kids play bingo; make pinwheels and gliders; and scramble over a jungle gym in the Shockwaves Junior room next door.
They also tackle T-shirt painting and spin art. For Pirate Night, the kids create a paper sword and hat and also have their faces painted.
("Captain Jack Dinnigan" at left looks quite menacing!*)
In addition, kids in this age group participate in pajama parties, animal charades, jumbo board games, Play-Doh and a ring toss. At times, they take a walk with counselors to get ice cream.
In the rear of the Princess Pelicans room is an open, circular alcove (shown at right*).
It features cushioned stadium seating for TV and movie viewing.
Nearby is a plush, padded play area with toys.
The Princess Pelicans room is also outfitted with two Lego tables, six Playstation 2 consoles (as shown at left*), a private bathroom, and shelves of books and games.
Kids may choose from a selection of books.
And, “if parents request a book for their children at night, they could take one back to their room,” says Maglaya.
After each session in Princess Pelicans is over, the kids are given a stuffed animal or small toy, a bonus my kids loved!
It's a clever psychological strategy -- one that parents surely appreciate -- as it keeps kids from wanting to leave early and asking staff to call their parents to come get them.
“If the kids stay, they get a prize as positive reinforcement,” says Maglaya.
I felt the Kids Zone rooms were both cheery (as with a craft bulletin board above*) and well-outfitted with both toys and enrichment options.
One could-be-improved item? Personally, I felt the music and TV were played much too loudly all the time.
Toddlers under 3 and children with special needs are welcome when the center is open.
But their parents must stay to provide one-on-one supervision if they want those very young kids to participate in the activities, according to Maglaya.
Children under 6 months cannot sail with Princess. Kids still in diapers and not potty trained may not enter the adult or splash pools.
This story continues in Part 2 ...
Check out Lizz' discussion about Caribbean Princess' facilities and activities for older kids and teen; public area options; dining with kids; and family accommodations. Visit Part 2 of this series.
Lizz Dinnigan is a freelance writer and senior contributing editor-family cruising for SouthernCruising.com™. She is the former associate editor - cruise for Travel Agent Magazine, a major national weekly trade publication.
*Photos are owned, copyrighted and used courtesy of either Lizz Dinnigan or Princess Cruises. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos. Thank you.