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Advice for families taking a cruise vacation: An interview with Luisa Frey

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Published: November 4, 2009 at 10:48 AM

Guest Q&A: Disney's big news in the past week has been the announcement of its new cruise ship, the Disney Dream. I am not a cruise expert - heck, I don't like boats unless I am sailing them. But I know that many theme park fans either have taken family cruises, or might be considering one.

Luisa FreySo I asked a family cruise expert to answer some questions for us at Theme Park Insider. Luisa Frey has been writing about family cruising and family land travel for the past 15 years. She is the founder of www.teentraveltalk.com, a travel blog written by teens for their peers and parents. She also is the family cruise editor for www.cruisemates.com and moderates the site's family cruise message boards. And her family travel articles have appeared on Budgettravel.com, CNN.com, Fodors.com, Momlogic.com and USAToday.com and in FamilyFun magazine.

Many thanks to Luisa for taking the time to answer our questions!

Robert: What will families who've vacationed at theme parks before like most about going on a cruise? And what would be the biggest adjustment or difference from a typical theme park vacation?

Luisa: I highly recommend taking your cruise AFTER your theme park visit. Theme park vacations typically involve a lot of running around as you and your kids try to pack a lot in a short time. While there is plenty to do on cruise ships these days, cruises inherently are more laid back in atmosphere and give you welcomed time to relax before heading home. The relaxation part is what parents like most about going on a family cruise.

The biggest difference between a theme park vacation and cruise ship vacation is that on a cruise, parents and kids get time apart and time together. Conversely, at a theme park, parents have to always keep kids under close, watchful eyes. All ships leaving Port Canaveral have youth and teen programs and thus, parents get to pamper themselves a bit while their little ones are being entertained and supervised by well-trained youth counselors. Your child might love the kids' program so much that you may have to lay down the rules that they must spend a few hours a day with you –be it at the pool or sharing a leisurely dinner together!

Robert: In addition to the Disney Cruise Line, what are some other family-friendly options for theme park fans who might be interested in adding a cruise to their summer or holiday vacation in 2010?

Luisa: Just to clarify, Port Canaveral is less than a one-hour drive from the Orlando theme parks. Many cruise lines offer pre-and post-cruise packages to the theme parks which include bus transfers. See the websites of the below cruise lines for complete details.

This winter, Disney Cruise Line once again offers 3- and 4-night cruises aboard Disney Wonder from Port Canaveral. Additionally, the Disney Magic sails alternating 7-night Eastern and Western Caribbean itineraries from the port. Check directly with Disney Cruise Line for complete sailing schedules because their deployment changes in summer 2010.

Similarly, at present, both Royal Caribbean International and Carnival Cruise Lines feature 3-and 4-night cruises as well as 7-night cruises from Port Canaveral. In the 3- and 4-night cruise options, Royal Caribbean's Monarch of the Seas is an older, tighter ship as is Carnival's Sensation, so I recommend the Disney Wonder.

All the 7-night ships – Carnival Glory and Carnival Dream; Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas; and Disney Magic – are all excellent, roomy ships for families and offer a plethora of family-friendly facilities and programming. You can't go wrong on any of them.

My suggestion is to avoid booking a 3-night cruise because it's just too short to get into the relaxing rhythm of cruising. Running around theme parks is exciting yet tiring. Why participate in a similar scenario aboard ship when you can instead cruise four or seven nights in a more relaxing environment?

Robert: How should I pack for a cruise? Is there anything different that I need to bring - or leave home - versus going on an Orlando theme park trip?

Luisa: Yes, you will have to bring nicer clothes than on an Orlando theme park trip. Most cruise lines have a formal night, albeit formal nights are not as formal as they used to be. Men can get away with a suit (tuxes are not necessary) and boys with khakis and button down shirt. Ladies and girls do tend to still wear nice cocktail dresses. Ladies also need to bring a light sweater or jacket for evenings since the ships tend to be very air-conditioned and cool. Other evenings are less formal but most cruise lines do not allow shorts in their dining rooms for dinner. There are casual options though which usually include buffets and pizzerias for dinner.

Robert: Okay, here's the big fear: How can I keep my kids from getting seasick? And what can I do if I - I mean the kids - do get sick?

Luisa: After over 30 cruises with my 16 year old and about 10 with my eight-year-old, I've learned that the most important thing to pack are seabands. You can get them at any major drugstore chain or in the ships' shops. They are tight wristbands that have a pressure point on them that help relieve nausea. What's great is that there is no medication involved, which makes them perfect for kids.

That said, I do also carry children's Dramamine or bonine for if seas get really rough. That scenario is more the exception than the rule, but I prefer to be prepared. If they do get seasick, try to reassure them it'll stop as soon as you get to the next port and also purchase ginger cookies to help ease their tummies next time.

My teen daughter has only gotten seasick on smaller, more expedition-type ships and not the mega-liners that leave from Port Canaveral.

Robert: Are there particular activities that are best for kids and parents to do on the first day? Which ones are better saved for the end of the trip?

Luisa: After boarding your ship and checking out your cabin, if you want a spa treatment, have your spouse or adult traveling companion take your kids to the buffet for lunch and get in line at the spa to make your appointment. These appointments usually go fast so do it on embarkation day.

Similarly make any reservations for alternative restaurants on the day you board. (Alternative restaurants are more exclusive and charge approximately $15 to $25 per person for dinner.) After that, explore the ship's public areas, including the deck and pool areas, outdoor sports areas (basketball courts, mini-golf, rock walls, etc.) and eating options.

Make sure you and your kids attend the youth counselors' "welcome to the youth program" session usually held the first evening. You can sign your children up for the free youth programming that night.

If you have a teen, it is imperative that they check out the teen activities and programming the first night and following first full day. Teens tend to make friends on those days and then they'll often hang out together for the rest of the cruise. When my daughter was first old enough to attend the teen programs aboard ship, she "missed the boat" by not checking out the teen program the first day. By the time she got there, all the teens had formed their groups and she felt left out. You can get more advice directly from teens about traveling with teens at teentraveltalk.com.

As for the last full day – which is often, but not always, a sea day – I like to walk around the ship in the morning with my kids and camera. We take photographs of them at their favorite spots around ship.

Robert: How do I keep from losing track of my kids on a cruise?

Luisa: Walkie-talkies are the best way to keep track of your kids. Get a good pair from an electronics store and bring them on the cruise. While certain parts of ships do not transmit walkie talkie signals, most do and it saves parents a lot of running around and "angst" from wondering where their child is. Most youth programs allow kids 10 years and older to sign themselves out of the youth program, with parental permission. Thus, walkie-talkies are helpful for you to track where your child is at any given time they are not with you.

Robert: How do I keep from getting ripped off or nickel-and-dimed, either when booking a cruise or on the cruise itself?

Luisa: Do your homework ahead of time! I find the area that families overspend most on a cruise is the shore excursions. The cruise lines all offer shore excursions which are over-priced, especially if you are paying for four people in your family to take that excursion. Once you multiply what you would spend per family member times the number of ports, you'll see how it really can add up.

Instead, research online or in a guidebook as to activities your family can do independently in the ports you're calling at. It's much cheaper to pay for one taxi to take your family to a nearby beach for the day than pay for a cruise line excursion, per person, to the beach. I often ask my waiter or crew their recommendations for local beaches or attractions. The shore excursions personnel are knowledgeable but prefer to sell you one of the line's tours. I've written a number of articles regarding what families can do independently in ports all over North America for www.cruisemates.com's family cruise section, which can prove helpful.

In addition, you may want to give your kids a budget for the ship's arcade so that they do not accrue a huge bill. Similarly, you might want to give yourself a budget beforehand in regards to how much you can spend on alcoholic beverages and gambling, if you partake in either of these activities.

Robert: What new ships or itineraries are coming that families should be looking for in 2010 and beyond?

Luisa: On November 18, 2009 Carnival Cruise Lines is adding its newest ship Carnival Dream to the roster of ships homeporting in Port Canaveral. The itinerary includes seven-day sailings alternating between the Eastern and Western Caribbean. Camp Carnival carries more kids at sea than any other cruise line so parents can be assured that there will be plenty of kids on board for theirs to play with.

Norwegian Cruise Line is homeporting in Port Canaveral for the first time in October, 2010. The 1,936-passenger Norwegian Sun will offer seven-day Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises annually from October through April.

Disney Dream is the big news hitting the Port Canaveral market in January 2011. This is Disney's newest addition since it launched its fleet a decade ago and the ship will have lots of bells and whistles for families. A prominent one includes Aqua Ducks, which is a water roller coaster that transports passengers in inflatable tubes up hill and down. What's most unique is that the structure is made of translucent material so that passengers can see where they are going, which includes through the funnel and OVER the side of the ship, providing ocean views right below them!

Any other Theme Park Insider cruise veterans want to share their advice? Let's hear you in the comments....

Readers' Opinions

From Anthony Murphy on November 4, 2009 at 11:19 AM
My thoughts are based upon the Disney Cruise.

I really do not see a difference about doing the parks before or after the cruise. Personally, I like to do the parks after the cruise because with Disney, the cruise acts a bit like an opening of Disney magic. The Disney Cruise is great, but its still not as magical as the parks.

I would also be careful about what you decide on doing on your own. I learned this the hard way on the European Disney Cruise in which we did NOTHING in Sardina since we made port on a Sunday. We should have done an excursion. I would highly recommend doing excursions from the ship due to Disney Cast Member going on it, you know its legit, and you will be safely brought back to the ship.

Other than that, I agree fully with your special guest!

From James Rao on November 4, 2009 at 11:31 AM
Thanks for the article! It is both timely and informative. I have never been on a cruise, but maybe one day when my ship comes in...it will be a cruise ship! =)
From Adam Nodjomian on November 4, 2009 at 2:50 PM
Our family's only problem is seasickness. 2/4 of my family has had previous problems with it. Besides medication and seabands, what else has worked for people?

Also, I have talked to people who have both felt and not felt the ocean currents and a rocking ship while on a cruise. People I know have experienced rocking even on large ships, can this happen or will a large ship defray the uneasy feeling?

From Anthony Murphy on November 4, 2009 at 4:09 PM
While I am not prone to motion sickness, I have found on the Disney Magic that the lower you go on the ship, the rockier it is. Thus, most cabins are above that line. I went on a stage tour of their stage (which is literally on the tip of the boat and went up on stage to find it extremely rocky.

What else? How about Ginger Gum?

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