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May 12, 2004 -- Who knew that Cunard (800/7 CUNARD; www.cunard.com), as steeped as it is in so much serious history and tradition, would be so much darn fun for kids? It turns out that the new 2,620-passenger Queen Mary 2, which just made her grand debut in NYC a few weeks ago, is a great ship for families with children. With the eagle eye of a mother who has already taken her now 18-month-old twin boys on four cruises, I recently checked out the Queen's kids quarters.

These eyes liked what they saw.

The spacious playroom, called The Zone, welcomes ages one through 17. Only Disney, the self-professed uber-family cruise line, offers a supervised play area for younger children (they named theirs the Flounder's Reef Nursery, and its for ages 3 months to 3 years). Otherwise, toddlers are out of luck, at least until age two. Carnival and NCL require kids to be at least two to join their supervised activities program, while Princess, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity set the minimum age at three (the later two do offer private in-cabin sitting for children as young as six months for an hourly fee; Carnival offers group sitting evenings for kids as young as 4 months). I know from experience what it could mean to have a place for them to play (without me!) for a few hours here and there. It's the difference, between, well, a vacation and a change of venue.

Anyway, back to the QM2. Of course babies and teenagers don't all share one space, but instead the one-to-six set occupies half of a roomy area that includes lots of toys, arts and crafts, play gym and ball bin. There's also a separate room, aka nursery, with 10 crib/toddler bed combos for napping tots. It gets better; just outside the ocean-view space is a small wading pool and another play gym at the aft of Deck 6 -- officially this outside area is the "family deck," though anyone who doesn't mind splashing and squealing is free to sunbathe here as well. Back inside, the other half of the playroom is reserved for older kids, technically the 7 to 17 crowd, though Jannine James, a Junior Activities Coordinator, told us that activities for teens are usually held elsewhere (because they wouldn't be caught dead hanging around a 9 year old), and include ship tours, going to production shows, movies in the theater and pizza parties. The play space is geared more to 7 to 12 year olds, stocked as it is with beanbag chairs, board games, TVs and 11 Xboxes for video game playing.

The QM2's entire program is staffed by 2 to 3 British nannies, who are called such because they have a completed a two-year program in the discipline back in England, plus 2 to 3 junior activities counselors, many who have backgrounds as school teachers (like James).

The best part? The Zone is open from 9am to 10pm (minus a two-hour lunch break and an hour or two in the afternoon), so you can dine with the adults (ahhh...) and know your offspring are being well cared for -- and having much more fun than they would dining with you anyway. You can take your kids to eat earlier in the King's Court buffet restaurant, or there's a special children's tea (of course) daily from 5pm to 6pm in the Chef's Galley. After 10pm, if you're still in need of more adult time, private babysitting by a crew member in the cabin can usually be arranged with prior notice, at $10 an hour till midnight, and $15 an hour after that.

Don't get me wrong, though the QM2 offers great kids facilities, you won't see hundreds and hundreds of little people running around the classy liner, but if your family is hankering for a transatlantic crossing or a Caribbean cruise (the ship's two main itineraries), then this is a great choice. Of the many cabin choices, the roomy junior suites with pullout couches, huge bathrooms with tubs, mini-fridge and walk-in closets, are especially family friendly.