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Ultimate Family Cruise Guide

Ultimate Family Cruise Guide

Crushing Your Cruise Fear

I keep my own neurosis close to heart (no exposure therapy for me, thanks), but cruising the Big Blue isn’t one of them. Sailing on a beautiful ship is such bliss for me that I envy the oldsters who spend their last decades sailing the world with their very own cabin and staff who remember to bring martinis every evening.

That said, terror of cruising is a thing.

I know world travelers who would never go near a cruise ship. Many are afraid of being in a large body of water far from land (thalassophobia). Others are terrified of drowning (aquaphobia). Still others are like my sister who’s afraid of cruising with small kids, ever-terrified a tragedy might strike when they’re onboard (mamabearaphobia). It’s a thing, too.

But in 2020, if the historic Titanic tragedy (or its award-winning movie) is still live-streaming in your head, it’s time to shake it off. I’m going to answer the question: Could one of our modern ships sink, taking travelers with her? Not a chance. And here are the reasons why!

 1. The U.S. Military is Everywhere.

My husband’s brother flies helicopters for the Coast Guard, and from his time in the service, I’ve learned how the U.S. military is practically everywhere on our planet. Your biggest takeaway: If you’re cruising anywhere near the United States – like the Caribbean, Bahamas or Alaska – the Coast Guard and Navy would move their assets (ships, helicopters, and planes) to the accident site and begin an amazingly well-coordinated rescue.

And what if a ship catering to Americans is in foreign waters? The situation would determine our military’s next move. For example, the U.S. military would not want to interfere if a well-coordinated rescue operation is underway, but our military would assist any large vessel in distress if there wasn’t any other assistance available. In other words, they wouldn’t want to step on another country’s toes. The U.S. military is also known to medevac sick passengers out of remote cruise ship locations.

In a nutshell, the U.S. has the most powerful and efficient military in the world. So rest easy that members of the armed services will come to the rescue immediately to avert a tragedy like the 1912 Titanic. 

2. You’ll Make an Informed Decision.

Don’t get me wrong! As much as I love cruising, I don’t travel under the delusion that the whole world is unicorns and rainbows. The ocean is, after all, no less wild than the Amazon rainforest. Meaning, I have caveats galore when it comes to which ships I’ll put my family on. I only cruise on ships that cater to the U.S. market – like your Disneys, Royal Caribbeans, Carnivals, Norwegians, and so forth. I don’t voyage on ships that are owned by other countries. 

I won’t journey around Africa because of the continent’s pirate presence. And P.S. – they’re not cute pirates like Johnny Depp and Captain Barbosa. They’re scary with rocket-propelled grenades.

For this article, I researched modern-day big ship accidents, and here’s what I discovered:

• This past March, The Viking Sky owned by Viking Cruise Line (and yes, they cater to Americans) lost power near Norway. The Viking Sky experienced engine failure amid wind and rough waters. The passengers described a frightening scene of glass and furniture breaking. Helicopters airlifted 479 people off the ship. The New York Times reported that a passenger, Susan Dollberg, said this about the rescue: “The crew, the Norwegian people, and the rescue operation have been stellar.” There were injuries, but
no fatalities.

• A Swiss cruise ship lost control and collided into a dock and a ferry in Venice in 2019. Five people were injured.

• In separate incidents, Carnival’s Triumph (2013) and Splendor (2011) both lost use of an engine, stranding passengers for days. Nobody died in either, but I’m betting the passengers were mad as h-e-double-hockey sticks.

• In 2012, the Costa Concordia (a ship that catered to the Italian market) listed onto its side. The captain was sentenced to sixteen years in prison for manslaughter (having caused the shipwreck and abandoning the passengers). Thirty-two people died and sixty-four were injured.

• In 2005, pirates attacked a German-owned luxury cruise ship with rocket-propelled grenades. The ship was one hundred miles off the coast of Somalia (a region known for pirates). Nobody was hurt, but a crewmember sustained injuries from shrapnel.

You see my point. When a ship that caters to the U.S. has a problem, it’s something of a hangnail and quickly remedied. Modern day Titanic-tragedies – like the Costa Concordia – sadly, happen on foreign cruise lines in other countries. 

Your takeaway: If you’re planning a cruise, do a thorough Google search on the cruise line – and Google the ship itself – to determine what kinds of problems the line has had and how the problems are managed.

3. Lifeboats Are Standard Equipment.

In Titanic’s final scene, Rose is floating atop a ship’s door while poor Jack – submerged in lethally frigid waters holding onto the door – says, “You must do me this honor – promise me you will survive…that you will never give up.”

I love Jack’s last words for the beautiful reminder to us all to tackle life with great spirit and to stay the course, no matter the crippling loss and the grief. That said, here’s the thing: Floating doors are totally last century. The ginormous ships today that carry skyward of 6,000 passengers hold enough lifeboats for those 6,000-plus people and the crew. In fact, each lifeboat has seats for 370 passengers.

Here’s the full scoop: Two years after the Titanic tragedy stunned the world, an international treaty was formed and named SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea). The mission of SOLAS was to set the standards and upgrade those standards as needed for merchant ships to assure that every ship is equipped with lifeboats. Additionally, the lifeboats must have: powerful engines to squire everyone to safety, fiberglass construction that completely encloses passengers, communication equipment, first-aid supplies, and food. 


Gaining Cruise Control

Aside from icebergs and other terrifying real-world wild cards (see pirates), there are other reasons people are afraid of cruising – like being in the middle of what appears to be a vast ocean. The old days of fighting a crinkly map in the front seat of the car are but a vintage annoyance. The modern world has given us Google Maps where we can drill down and see precisely where we’ll be cruising from the comfort of our living rooms. 

Take the Caribbean. Sure, you might have the vibe that you’re in the middle of the ocean, but really? You’re a stone’s throw from land. Same if you’re cruising Alaska. The ship could hug the coastline, but why? Staying in sight of land would ruin the fun illusion that you’re a jillion miles from daily life. But you’re really not.

If you’re still a reluctant cruiser, you may not know that ships offer behind-the-scenes tours. Yes, they’re pricey, but the cost is worth your peace of mind. On most tours, you’ll meet the captain and crew on deck, the ship’s dancers and singers, and the gigantic kitchen – home to the dessert factory (my husband’s favorite). You’ll see where the crew eats and the miles of washing machines and dryers. Plus you get super cool swag at the end of the tour, like aprons and tote bags with the ship’s logo. I’m serious: Do the tour. Everyone loves it. And it’s a learning experience your kids will never forget.

Bottom line: The cruise industry has every reason to want to keep their passengers happy and safe. One terrible accident, and they’re goners. They want elated passengers who return to cruising again and again, spending big bucks as they sail. If you’re an anxious cruiser determined to overcome your nerves, clip this article, hang it in your cabin, and high-five yourself at the end of the voyage when you’ve successfully triumphed over your cruise fear. 

Disney Cruise Line

The happiest ships at sea deliver a spectacular, 5-star cruise to kids twelve and under, adults, and grandparents. Kids older than twelve might love a Disney cruise, too, depending on your child’s interests.

The first Disney ships – the Magic and Wonder – began welcoming families in 1998. The Dream and Fantasy arrived in 2011 and 2012, wreathed in the AquaDuck, a water-gushing acrylic tube that’s a blast for kids. New beauties will join the DCL fleet in 2021, 2022, and 2023.

A Disney cruise delivers the works: award-winning live shows every evening (Aladdin, Tangled: The Musical, Toy Story: The Musical, and so forth depending on the ship); an impressive pirate party with lavish fireworks and a midnight buffet; super-opulent spas for parents; splash pads for toddlers and little kids; meet-and-greets with celebrity Disney characters; and dining experiences that are off-the-hook incredible for kids and adults.

Disney’s unparalleled childcare caters to families with babies, ages six months to three years (for a fee), and offers outstanding kids’ clubs for tweens and teens. And let’s give a standing ovation to Disney for being the first cruise line to station a lifeguard at every pool on the ship.

Disney’s private island – called Castaway Cay – boasts Disney characters welcoming passengers to their 1,000-acre playground, gorgeous beaches, and a swim-to floating platform with corkscrew waterslides.

Royal Caribbean International

Years ago, Royal Caribbean International threw down the gauntlet declaring itself the supreme leader in delivering the world’s largest cruise ships. And they haven’t disappointed yet. As of summer 2019, Royal Caribbean operates twenty-six big ships – including the four largest cruise ships in the world – and has six more coming to a port near you in the next few years.

Royal Caribbean has two classes that are packed with cutting edge excitement for kids, tweens, and teens – the Oasis and the Quantum classes. 

Oasis class has the four largest cruise ships in the world – hosting 6,000-plus guests – including the Symphony, Harmony, Allure, and Oasis of the Seas (all of the Royal Caribbean ships have “of the Seas” at the end of their names). The Oasis ships sport a 5-deck- high atrium with a Central Park and Boardwalk dividing the middle of each ship. The neighborhoods are packed with tropical gardens, shops, restaurants, and a popular carousel. The entertainment is awesome with each ship featuring a different show: Cats (Oasis), Grease (Harmony), Hairspray (Symphony), and Mamma Mia (Allure).

The kids will be challenged to squeeze in all of the activities on an Oasis class ship. All Oasis ships have surf simulators, drench buckets, water cannons, an ice-skating rink, bumper cars, and ziplines. Every ship has a zillion swimming pools and hot tubs.

Royal Caribbean’s Quantum class ships are only second in size to the Oasis ships – hosting an intimate 4,000 passengers. The Quantum ships include Quantum, Anthem, Ovation, and Spectrum of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean colored outside the lines when they created a one-of-a-kind cruise experience with the North Star observation tower – a glass-walled capsule that lifts passengers 300 feet above sea level and gives a 360-degree, glass floor-to-ceiling view. You’ll find the North Star on all Quantum ships.

The Quantum class fun includes a surf simulator, a rock-climbing wall, a skydiving simulator, swimming pools, a solarium, a spa and fitness center, a theatre, and a casino – all spread over sixteen decks. Some ships have bumper cars, an H20 Zone water park with the first wave pool at sea, trapeze school, and an indoor pool with a retractable roof.

The Quantum class’s indoor cabins feature a virtual porthole that is a floor-to-ceiling 80-inch, high-def TV screen showing live views from the outside of the ship. A majority of the Royal Caribbean ships in the Caribbean dock at Royal Caribbean’s private port, Labadee on the northern coast of Haiti, featuring five beaches, the world’s longest over-water zipline, and a floating waterpark.

Most cruise lines have one private island located in the Caribbean, but Royal has two. The newest island to join the party is Perfect Day at CocoCay (located in the Bahamas, between Freeport and Nassau) with three stunning beaches and turquoise water, the immense Thrill Water Park (with the tallest water slide in North America), tethered helium balloon rides, ziplines, and every water sport under the sun. CocoCay also has a splash park for the little guys and a pirate ship replica with more water features.

Labadee (Haiti, Eastern Caribbean) boasts five beaches, the impressive Dragon’s Breath zipline (the largest zipline over water; for the true thrill seekers). Be sure to take one of the many trams around the island. (Good to know: the rocky scenery is perfect for photos, but bring water shoes for all.)

Carnival Cruise Line

Carnival Cruise Line has long carved out its cruise world niche by pairing exciting ships with incredible affordability. Over the last two decades, they’ve entered the family market, offering shows, kids’ programming, and a ton of activities. The Carnival line currently has twenty-seven ships in her fleet.

Kids of all ages will love these two Carnival ships: 

Carnival’s Sunrise just started sailing out of Port Norfolk and docks at Half Moone Cruise Terminal (officially Half Moone Cruise and Celebration Center, and also known as Decker Half Moone Center). The Sunrise features a water park atop the ship with a dunk bucket and water slides. You’ll also find a ropes course, a basketball court, and kid’s club activities galore. Plus, there’s an entire area devoted to adults with its own pool, whirlpool, bar, and fancy daybeds. The food rocks with a steakhouse restaurant, burgers, pizza, and Mexican-inspired menu. Plus, you’ll always find the endless free soft serve ice cream. The main dining room features singing and dancing wait staff and absolutely outstanding meals (lose five pounds before sailing, just saying). The Sunrise also has comedy shows that are G- and R-rated. 

Carnival’s Vista will amaze those who love terrifying heights. Soaring 150 feet above the ship’s highest deck is the SkyRide, the cruise world’s first pedal-powered, aerial attraction. Guests pedal side-by-side recumbent-like bikes on an 800-foot track for a light workout while taking in an incredible view. The Vista also has both the new 455-foot Kaleid-o-Slide in her water park and the first-ever IMAX theatre at sea. Suites in the families-only section sleep up to five. Plus, when parents are ready to chill at the posh adults-only retreat, they can leave the kids under age twelve at Camp Ocean. The Vista homeports in Miami, Florida.

Age appropriate kids’ clubs are super-popular for the littles, tweens, and teens. Little guys will love Carnival’s Seuss at Sea program that showcases a character parade, story time, and a character breakfast featuring the Cat in the Hat. 

Carnival has two private islands in the Bahamas: Half Moon Cay and Princess Cays. Both offer gorgeous beaches, an enormous lunch buffet, and water sports galore.

Norwegian Cruise Line

The third largest cruise line in the world – Norwegian Cruise Line – has seventeen ships in her fleet and welcomes families with her elaborate waterparks and activities galore. 

These three NCL ships are every child and teen’s dream:

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Breakaway set sail in 2013 and her sister ship, the Norwegian Getaway, in 2014, both offering the line’s most extensive offerings for tweens and teens. The ship’s aqua park and sports complex are immense with five twisty, multi-story water slides, and a double-decker Splash Academy for little kids. Kids will love the largest ropes course at sea, a miniature golf course, and The Plank (which extends eight feet over the side of the ship). The live entertainment and shows will impress your most devoted video game player. Even families with picky eaters are catered to with twenty-seven dining venues. Breakaway homeports in Port Canaveral, Florida, and the Norwegian Getaway’s latest homeport is in New Orleans.

On Norwegian Cruise Line’s Epic, tweens and teens will love the enormous water park that includes a tube slide that drops kids 200 feet into the largest bowl slide at sea. Activities include two more waterslides, two 3-lane bowling alleys, SplashGolf, and a sports complex. The fitness center is intense and comes with twenty-seven treadmills and dedicated studios for spinning classes and TRX suspension training.

NCL’s private island is called Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. Here you’ll find a beach with sparkling waters and a tide pool that’s perfect for snorkeling.

All three Norwegian ships boast an ice bar that’s kept at seventeen degrees. Grown-up guests don hooded parkas and gloves to keep warm while sipping vodka. The art deco bar, seating, and glasses are all made of ice. The Epic homeports in Port Canaveral, Florida.


Travel and Safety Warnings Happen

Whether you’re cruising and traveling or staying close to home, we’re all keeping a sharp eye on the coronavirus disease, Covid-19, that originated in Wuhan, China, and has spread to other countries.

As of this writing – mid-February – the Diamond Princess cruise ship at Daikoku Pier in Yokohama, Japan, reported that more than 220 people had tested positive on the quarantined ship (there were 3,700 people aboard including crew and passengers, although some had been transported off the ship).

If you and I can get one positive takeaway from this tragic situation, it is this: Our travel safety is always up to us. We need to shift travelers from the motto long trumpeted by the travel industry from “You deserve an escape!” to “We’re stronger travelers when we research our destinations.”

With that in mind, the U.S. State Department maintains a travel advisory system on other countries (Travel.State.gov). The advisories come in four warnings:

Level 1: Exercise normal precautions.

Level 2: Exercise increased caution.

Level 3: Reconsider travel.

Level 4: Do not travel.

I can hear you now: Isn’t it obvious which countries have which travel warnings attached to their name? Yes and no. Obviously, as of now, China sits at a Do Not Travel warning (the entire country landed on Level 4 on January 31, 2020), but I never would have guessed that England, France, and Germany are at a Level 2. While the State Department offers travel advisories regarding the safety, health, laws, and customs of other parts of the world, other countries do the same for the United States. Many of the warnings mention the ongoing threat of terrorism and mass shootings, while some refer to cultural differences, like laws around drinking alcohol in public or swimming nude at beaches here in the U.S.

And to be honest, there is a benefit to this frightening world health situation, at least as far as parenting is concerned. It’s an opportunity to coach your kids to wash their hands frequently. Tell them they need to sing Happy Birthday twice to get “all the invisible bugs off their hands.” (Trust me, kids get this invisible bug concept.) Teach the kids to keep their hands away from their faces because that’s how the bugs get in and illness is spread. Also, it’s too late this year for a flu shot, but there’s a new flu season every year, so make sure you talk to your kids about the importance of flu shots and vaccinations in general. Everything is a teaching moment – whether you’re traveling or not. Stay safe and healthy, my friends!


Photos: Kent Phillips/Disney Cruise Line; Michel Verdure, Roy Riley/Royal Caribbean International; Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line; Susan Seubert/Norwegian Cruise Line 

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Wendy irvine is a family travel writer who recently relocated to the East Coast and a regular contributor to Trip Advisor and Expedia online, as well as local and national magazines. She homeschools her twin boys and lives with one foot in RVA and the other in Atlanta. Visit JellyFishinJuly.com for more from Wendy on the reality of family travel.
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