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    by KATE POCOCK
    Family Travel Ink
Cruising: Cruise Control for First-time Family Cruisers

The departure lounge at the Port Canaveral boat dock was a scene of lively chaos. Daffy and Tweety were hugging the kids as they arrived; families were posing on the mock boat deck that had been set up for photos. There were line-ups of parents in front of each alphabetical letter; porters pushing huge trolleys of suitcases tried not to mow down the kids running wild with excitement. Suddenly, a whole bus load of older passengers, some with grey hair and walking with difficulty, arrived at the terminal building. "Must be for another ship," I thought. These people couldn't be checking in for the Big Red Boat with the Looney Tunes characters, the Tweety Bird bedtime tuck-in, and free ice cream sundaes with as many sprinkles as you can lob on top between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. each day. Wrong.

The seniors were indeed lining up for Premier Cruise Lines' Oceanic and I was surprised to learn that it's not only families who sign up for a family cruise. But this was only the first cruising notion that was about to be shattered during our first family cruise last March break.

On board, we headed for lunch. Couples were strolling the pool deck, arm in arm, dressed in matching warm-up suits-blue and white with red stripes, or shiny purple with splashes of fluorescent green. I had assumed that on a family cruise, all you needed to bring was a pair of shorts, a bathing suit, a hat and running shoes. Wrong again. Obviously, there was a dress code of sorts on board. That would explain the mountains of luggage in the port warehouses and the myriad suitcases standing guard outside cabin doors. At dinnertime, slinky skirts and corduoroy vests appeared and even suspenders-and this was for the kids. For the captain's dinner, I tried to jazz up the one sundress I'd thrown in my suitcase. But forget buying a picture of my disshevelled family standing next to the white-jacketed ship's officer.

The next surprise was the food on board. Not the quality. The amount. I expected that eats would be plentiful but never imagined the extent of the round-the-clock dining nor the size of the plates. Stacked by the buffet were oval platters, large enough to serve a full-grown gorilla. Yes, the food chain was interrupted between the midnight buffet and the 6 a.m. pool deck breakfast, but you could basically eat from dawn to way past dusk. Since then, I've learned that on most cruise ships, the midnight extravaganzas serve as more than food feasts. The tables laden with goodies are photo opportunities. Passengers arrive early to take pictures of the intricate ice scupltures, the international monuments carved out of butter, and the hundreds of cucumber and tomato rosettes.

For first-time cruisers, this can all come as a bit of a shock. It pays to do a bit of advance research. Cruise Travel magazine and a new book for families, Cruise Vacations with Kids (Prima Publishing) by Candyce Stapen should help. But it would also be advisable to sit down with a travel agent who's a cruise professional, like the (Cathy-would you recommend an agency here?) to look at cabin layouts, read about the shore excursions, and really decide your family's priorities on a vacation (something we should have done, I might add).Would your kids be thrilled by the new three-storey high water slide on Carnival Line's Destiny for example (the newest largest ship afloat), or would they prefer beaching it in a special children's play area on Holland America's recently purchased island in the Bahamas? Are your kids happy to tag along with you while you're seeing the sites on shore, or do you want a ship that keeps the kids' programs open on port days (all the Carnival boats do) or offers your teens the opportunity to do organized expeditions on their own such as sea kayaking or horseback riding (as Holland America Line has just instituted on their Alaska cruises).

Do you want a roomy cabin that fits five people (Premier's Big Red Boat, the Oceanic, offers a well-designed room for families with a comfortable double bed, two singles and one upper berth) or would you rather choose a boat that boasts an 18-hole mini golf course (Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas and the new Splendour of the Seas)? Premier Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean Line, Holland America Line and Carnival Cruise Lines all offer supervised kids programs but check the age groups-your eight-year-old may be better in an eight-to-ten kids' club than one that groups her with the sixes-and the activities. On Holland America boats, all age groups get to do such messy activities as painting T-shirts; on Premier's Oceanic, your budding star can sign up for a part in their Three Piggy Opera.

With Disney Cruise Line's Magic poised to set sail next February (bookings at 1-800-511-1333 are already pouring in for their three- or four-day sailings with the remainder of the week spent at Walt Disney World), families will have more options than ever before for family-friendly cruising. Just put away any preconceived notions about cruise ships, pack your appetite and you'll be all right. Bon Voyage!

 

 

 

 

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