Supervised Activities at Sea
By Lizz Dinnigan
Can both a rambunctious infant and energetic pre-schooler stay entertained at sea? It’s possible, with a little help from Camp Carnival.
Two years ago my husband and I took our son Jack, now 4, on a cruise. It was a huge success, mainly because we traveled with family and Jack enjoyed the onboard children’s program.
Now, with our second son Casey, 15 months, in the picture, we decided to give it another go. (The two Dinnigan tots are shown at right -- looking out their cabin window to a port of call*)
This time we sailed on Carnival Cruise Line’s 2,124-passenger Carnival Miracle to the Caribbean.
I had never sailed on Carnival, so I will admit my preconception was of a neon showpiece filled with loud, hard-core party animals.
Wow, was I wrong. We found the ship to be extremely family friendly. The broad mix of guests ranged from young families like ours to couples, singles and seniors.
The core of children’s entertainment on the ship is Camp Carnival. The main activity venue is a large, V-shaped playroom on Deck 5 forward.
A wall splits the room into Pinocchio’s Club for 2- to 5-year old kids (starboard side of the ship) and Fun Club (port side) for the 6- to 8- and 9- to 11-year-old groups, who alternate room occupation.
“There is no ratio of staff to children, it’s an activities-based camp,” says Jodi Powell, youth director. “There’s no one-on-one care. We can’t turn people away, but we can call in extra staff if it gets busy."
For example, on this May cruise, Powell said 40 young children (2- to 5-year old children) were sailing. However, "we generally don’t have more than 20 kids in here at a time," she noted. "Summer is when there are more children onboard.”
Four-year-old Jack was bouncing with anticipation as we sauntered down the corridor, guided by excellent signage, to Pinocchio’s Club. When we arrived, I was informed: “Mommy, you can go now.”
Jack is very sociable and independent, and assimilates quickly in new situations. My baby Casey is still very young, and is more comfortable in new environments when Jack is nearby.
Lively, Youthful Atmosphere
Pinnochio's Club is a bright, colorful place for young children to play with others their age. Jack Dinnigan (far right) is shown with new friends on a recent Carnival Miracle cruise.*
The slanted, attic-style space of Pinnochio's Club was cheerful with cartoon character murals. Natural light filtered through three large, skyward portholes.
Stained-glass fish lights decorated the ceiling. A pole in the room center was wrapped in a soft bumper.
The room was lined with shelves packed with trucks, toys, stuffed animals, a bowling set and playhouses. There was also a large-screen TV, pretend kitchen, tool workbench and writing desk.
In the center were four round tables with colorful chairs, where children can assemble a puzzle, read one of the many books or do an art project.
Juice and water are available at all times, and the space is outfitted with a kid-sized bathroom.
The cruise schedule for Jack’s group (ages 2 to 5) included bubble dancing, puppet-making and spin, scratch and sand art.
Jack’s favorite activity was Goop, part of the H20cean science-based program in which the kids played with a gelatinous goo. Yes, Jack talked about Goop all day, every day.
Other specialty, age-appropriate programs were:
- SeaNotes (Name That Tune);
- Edu-Cruise (information on ports and local wildlife);
- Water Colors (art projects); and
- ExerSeas (parachutes or dodgeball).
At times, Jack (shown at right*) was so involved with toys and play-acting that he didn’t want to switch to an activity.
“I didn’t listen to the teacher because I wanted to keep playing and playing with the other kids,” he told me: “I needed to be a pirate to find treasure.”
The staff was kind and allowed Jack to do what made him happy without forcing activities on him. I liked that approach.
For children to participate in Camp Carnival, parents must first register their child. The cabin, birthdate, name and parents’ names submitted are verified against the ship’s manifest.
Once registered, the child receives a personalized name tag worn when in their care.
In addition, all kids under 11 must wear an ID wristband stating their muster station in the event of an emergency. (At left, Jack -- his green wrist band clearly visible -- is shown with his younger brother, Casey, on the windswept top deck.*)
As for allergies and dietary restrictions, Powell says parents are given a detailed checklist and can’t bring food to the facility.
Kids with allergies have name tags in red, not black, and their specific needs are written on the back of their tags. Epipens, diabetic testing equipment and inhalers are permitted, but parents must administer all treatments.
There is a strict procedure for dropping off and picking up children. The same parent or legal guardian must sign the child in and out using their Sign and Sail card.
Exchanges of kids in and out of the club were handled one at a time. The gate is always closed. From our perspective as parents, the whole facility seemed very safe.
Parents of those under 5 are issued a free cell phone and charger for the duration of the cruise. “The cells are in case the staff needs to get in touch with you if your child is sick, upset, hurt or seasick,” says Powell.
What About the Older Kids?
The Fun Club -- for 6 to 8 and 9 to 11 year old kids -- features 11 Playstation 2 consoles and has a large-screen Wii. Activities include high-energy competitions, building a volcano, spelling races, mummy wraps, water wars and ice-cream eating contests.
Circle C for kids 12 to 14 features discos, cookie decorating, scavenger hunts, night swimming, capture the flag and card games.
Club O2 for teens 15 to 17 has its own video-monitored nightclub. “There is some scheduled stuff like Teen Mixers but really we do what they want,” says Powell. “They basically hang out.”
Wizards Arcade, open 24-7, has 18 large-screen, interactive video games and a knock hockey table.
Carnival does not offer private in-cabin babysitting. The line does offer group babysitting on sea days for kids under 2 from noon to 2 p.m. in Pinocchio’s Club.
Parents also have the option of staying with their child in the playroom at no fee during this time.
On port days, group babysitting hours are extended so parents may take a shore excursion and get a bit of a respite from the kids.
We put Casey (shown at left during the Carnival Miracle cruise*) in the daytime babysitting several times for no more than an hour and a half.
He clearly enjoyed himself!
At night, this service resumes from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. for kids up to 8. The playroom is transformed into a quiet slumber party with pillows, blankets and cribs while movies run.
Reasonable rates for the group babysitting service are $6 per hour for the first child and $4 for siblings. They charge in 15-minute increments.
The only glitch we encountered -- the cruise was otherwise magnificent – was they wouldn’t take both kids (one under two, one four) at the same time unless it was late at night (10 p.m. and beyond).
Our energetic kids are typically exhausted and in bed by 7:30 p.m. So we just didn't feel it was appropriate to keep them awake (and cranky) or wake them up (disoriented as to their locale) and bring them to the kids' center at 10 p.m. So, Joe and I took turns having some fun in the casino at night, while one of us always stayed in the cabin and watched the kids.
Cabin Selection for Families
I couldn't get over what impeccable condition Carnival Miracle was in. It was very well-kept.
We stayed in a very roomy standard balcony cabin. Our eight suitcases and carry-ons were stored on the pull-down upper berth. Below that was a couch.
The cabin was clean and neat when we arrived, but it didn't take long -- with all our stuff and kids in tow -- to take on that "lived in" look (see photo at left*)
At night we converted the couch into a twin bed by removing the bolsters and adding a sheet, pillow and blanket; Jack slept comfortably and peacefully there.
A rollaway crib was already in the cabin when we arrived. We could move it to the foot of our queen bed to allow for more space during the day.
Splishing and Splashing
Families enjoy two identical main pools surrounded by a two-inch-deep freeform shallow surface area with fountains. Each pool boasts an elevated whirlpool for 12.
Because the pool depth was less than five feet, we could easily stand and hold the kids in the water. For instance, Joe is shown with Jack on his back at right.*
At home, Jack is taking swimming lessons, so practicing in the shipboard pool was a lot of fun for him. He loved playing in the shallow part of the pool as well as the fountains.
One hint? The pool deck is often empty when everyone is off touring in a port of call. We spent one such wonderful afternoon with the kids at the pool. The weather was gorgeous and the water warm.
Parents will also discover a round baby pool on the top deck.
That baby pool is adjacent to the popular Twister Waterslide (shown at left*), which ends in a run-off, not a pool.
Kids must be 42 inches tall to use the waterslide.
Not surprisingly, the slide was a popular activity with most of the children onboard; (Jack is shown above right zipping down the slide.* )
Chicken Nuggets and Grapes
The ship's bountiful buffet provided endless kid-friendly food choices. Jack loved the colorful plastic cups Carnival uses for lemonade and apple juice.
Luckily, we had the 6 p.m. early seating as dinner was a challenge with the baby. We needed to bring along an arsenal of books and small toys to keep him occupied.
Hats off to the entire dining room team! Our waiter, Sang, was incredibly tolerant and accommodating, even when Casey threw food and screamed at him. All the nearby waiters also knew our kids’ names.
Another nice touch? The table was always pre-set with pineapple rings and grapes for the kids, so they had something to munch on (and keep them occupied) prior to their dinner.
Both our kids loved selecting their dinner rolls from the basket. We appreciated that there were seven kid-friendly options on the dining room menu.
Children's Equipment and Resources
If you're traveling with small children, you'll find that highchairs are readily available in the dining room and buffet. In addition, use of a crib in the stateroom is free.
Single or double strollers can be rented for $25 per cruise. Travel swings, bouncy seats and Game Boys can also be rented.
If your child becomes ill onboard, no worries. Just head for the infirmary. At one point during our cruise, Casey was in such distress that I took him to see the ship's doctor.
We only waited about 15 minutes to see the doctor who was kind and gentle.
The doctor diagnosed a double ear infection and prescribed an antibiotic, which was available onboard from the ship's pharmacy.
Fortunately, soon Casey was back to normal.... and enjoying time aboard (well, as much as any 15-month-old can -- in between the usual toddler tantrums).
(At right, Joe holds Casey up to touch a cute hanging monkey towel animal created by our cabin steward.*) Other endearing towel animals were created nightly during the cruise -- and our kids loved them.
As for shore excursions with the kids, I highly recommend booking simple beach days.
We did and it was definitely the way to go.
(Shown at left, Casey enjoyed the beach and, shown below, the entire Dinnigan family frolicked in calm, warm waters.*)
During the St. Thomas port call, our beach shore excursion departed at 12:30 p.m. It was priced at $59 for adults, and $55 for children.
We rode in an open-air taxi bus to Coral World, an aquarium built into the landscape.
My husband Joe fed the stingrays, and we walked around an underwater observatory.
Then we headed to Magen’s Bay Beach, which was spectacular.
If there's a reason why people come to the Caribbean, this beach is it.
Jack snorkeled while Casey floated around in his tube (shown at left*). Joe and I just relaxed in the turquoise paradise.
On Tortola, British Virgin Islands, we met our guide pierside for our shore excursion to Long Bay Beach Resort.
I would have loved to do the Baths at Virgin Gorda but it was not appropriate for the kids.
The beach at the Long Bay Beach Resort was so picturesque, but the water was also very rocky. If you go, you'll need to wear shoes in the water.
Pelicans were everywhere diving for fish. What a sight for a New Yorker to behold!
We really had a wonderful morning here. This beach-focused shore trip, which offers the flexibility families with little ones need, was priced at $79 per person including lunch.
Tips for Families
Overall, we loved this Carnival cruise. (At right, Joe, Casey and Jack are ready to roll for a day of cruising fun.*
That said, it's probably best for couples traveling on their own (without other relatives or friends along to spell parents from time to time) to wait until a baby is 2 to cruise. That way, couples will get some time alone.
My son Jack clearly enjoyed the excellent Camp Carnival program and I'm sure Casey will when he's able to participate -- in just another six months or so! But on this trip, I spent a lot of time walking the ship and jogging track with Casey in the stroller.
Other tips? When traveling with children on a cruise, definitely pack toys, games and books for the cabin and dining room.
We also brought along a portable DVD player with movies and games, which proved helpful in entertaining the kids in our cabin.
I also traveled with a new backpack designed specifically for families. It proved invaluable for lugging the kids' stuff both to the top pool deck and the beach.
(At left, Jack grabs something from the backpack.*)
Editor's note: You'll soon be able to check out Lizz's review of that family backpack product on our Travel Tips and Gadgets page; it will be loaded by June 23.
Also you might -- as we did -- take along a bottle of juice and bottled water for the cabin. And don't leave home without disposable sippy cups.
And children don't stay kids long, so take time to cherish the special moments.
In our case, we immensely enjoyed formal night. It was fun to dress the boys up in tuxedos and have our family portraits taken. (see our family at right.*)
We would not otherwise have had this opportunity. We were beaming with pride as everyone onboard stopped us to compliment the kids.
All too soon our Carnival Miracle cruise was over. When it was time to disembark, Jack’s final words summed up the cruise: “Mommy, can the ship be our home?”
Don't I wish?! Now that truly would be a miracle.
Editor's Note: Through fall, Carnival Miracle is sailing on seasonal eight-day Caribbean cruises from New York. But starting Oct. 22 it will reposition to Port Everglades (Greater Fort Lauderdale) for Caribbean sailings.
*All photographs are owned, copyrighted and used with permission of Lizz Dinnigan. All rights reserved. Please do not link to nor copy these photos.