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November 10, 2004 -- By the time my twin boys hit two last week, I had schlepped the little buggers on six cruises. Not by choice exactly, cruising is my job. But still, I couldn't help but learn some valuable lessons along the way. Namely, what does it take to make a cruise with toddlers reasonably enjoyable. And that's no small feat: let's be honest, two isn't always terribly adorable.

The major cruise lines offer various combinations of care and services for children under three, from full inclusion in supervised kids programming and group babysitting to private in-cabin babysitting only. You should choose a cruise ship depending on your needs: If you want to spend as much time with your little angel as humanly possible, you won't need babysitting, just some good places to play together. If you're banking on a break whenever possible, you need a ship with drop-off babysitting or at least an in-cabin babysitting service.

No matter which profile best describes you, the good news is cruise lines are paying more and more attention to the youngest cruisers, just as they have catered to teens in the past few years, offering elaborate teen nightclubs, private Internet centers and huge video arcades. For under-3s, it's now standard practice to offer cribs for cabins (if requested in advance) as well as children's menus and high chairs in restaurants. Many cabins have mini-fridges and some bathtubs, and all have 24-hour rooms for ordering cartons of milk, sandwiches and snacks.

The latest to beef up their offerings for the smallest family members is Royal Caribbean, with the introduction of their toddler program in partnership with Fisher-Price. In addition to their elaborate roster of supervised programs for ages 3 to 17, now babies and toddlers between 6 months and 3 years are invited to daily 45-minute play sessions with their parents. Offered on all but embarkation day, the interactive play dates incorporate a variety of Fisher-Price toys, from walkers to the Little People characters, along with age-appropriate movement, storytelling and music. The classes will be held in a lounge (on the stage or dance floor) and led by a member of the ship's youth staff. Sessions will be held for two groups: Aqua Babies, geared to parents with kids 6 to 18 months and Aqua Tots, geared to the 18-month to 3-year-old set. Parents who participate receive a special newsletter on board that highlights the theme and objectives of each session, and offers play tips to implement back at home.

The attention being paid to the world's tiniest cruisers comes as no surprise, considering that the ranks of the under three set have been growing. In fact, Terri Connolly, Royal Caribbean's Adventure Ocean Specialist, Fleet Cruise Activity & Programming, says a safe, secure and fun place to take toddlers is among the top requests families have been making in recent years.

"Since 2000, we have seen more than a 50 percent increase in the number of children under three cruising with their parents aboard our ships," said Dan Hanrahan, senior vice president, Marketing and Sales, for Royal Caribbean International.

There's no question, their little ship has come. Can we say, "All Aboard Barney!"?

Here's a lowdown what the lines are offering. Unless otherwise noted, supervised activities are complimentary.

Royal Caribbean

  • Stats: Supervised activities for five age groups between 3 to 17, times vary, but activities for kids 3 to 11 are offered nearly non-stop from 9am to 10pm on sea days; in port, activities commence 30 minutes prior to the first shore excursion and go nearly non-stop until 10pm. Play areas are not open to children under 3 who are still in diapers. Group babysitting is offered for ages 3-12, at $5 an hour per child between 10pm-1 am. Private babysitting is offered for ages 6 months to 12, at $8 an hour for up to two kids, between about 8pm to 2am.
  • High Points: Royal Caribbean's Radiance- and Voyager-class ships are so big, there's always a new place to explore with your curious toddler, including all the fun rides in the sprawling video arcades; on a recent Voyager of the Seas cruise, mine loved climbing on the motorcycle and driving games without them even being turned on!. Furniture in the kid-friendly Radiance- and Voyager-class cabins has rounded corners and many have large pullout sofas that are perfect for one or two toddlers who are too big for cribs. The well-designed buffet restaurants on these ships feature many separate food islands, so lines are short and it's easy to make quick trips to and fro the food troughs.
  • What's New: Daily 45-minute playgroups for parents and infants/toddlers ages 6 months to 3 years (see above), in conjunction with Fisher-Price.

Carnival

  • Stats: Supervised activities for four age groups from 2 to 14 operate between 9am and 10pm on sea days; 2pm to 10pm on port days. Play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent. Group babysitting only is offered for ages 4 months-11, at $6 an hour for the first child and $4 for each additional child, between 10pm-3 am nightly.
  • High Point: Carnival offers group babysitting between 8am and noon (sometimes as late as 6pm, depending on when the ship arrives in port) on port days for the under 2 set at rate above.
  • What's New: Parents can now also drop their under 2s off at the playroom during lunch time hours, 12-2pm, at the rate above. In addition to a limited number of strollers, the line also rents bouncy seats and travel swings.

Disney

  • Stats: Supervised activities for five groups between ages 3 to 17; with nearly non-stop programming offered daily until midnight or 1am for the 3 to 12 set at no extra charge. All play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent.
  • High Point: Flounder's Reef nursery caters to children 3 months to 3 years exclusively, though there is a fee: $6 an hour per child from 6pm-12 am daily, plus three to six hours during the day. The space includes a variety of interactive and climbing toys, as well as eight cribs and a one-way viewing porthole, so mom and dad can peak in on the kids without being spotted. Book your requested times as soon as you board. Plus, up on deck in Mickey's Kids' Pool area, both ships have a special shallow splash pool with circulating water for diaper-wearing babies and toddlers (ships generally do not allow the diaper set to enter any kind of pool). In the gear department, not only can cribs be requested in cabins, but also Diaper Genies and a limited number of strollers (free of charge).
  • What's New: The Oceaneer Club -- geared to ages 3 to 7, but also open to younger children if accompanied by parents -- was recently refurbished on the Wonder and now sports new toddler-friendly climbing toys, including a turtle, whale and a shark. Other fun stuff in the Club includes a giant climb-on pirate ship.

Princess Cruises

  • Stats: Supervised activities for three age groups from 3 to 17 nearly non-stop from 8 or 9am through 10pm on port and sea days. All play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent; group babysitting only is offered for ages 3-12, at $5 an hour, 10pm-1 am
  • High Points: Huge outdoor play spaces on the new Caribbean Princess, as well as the Grand, Golden, Star, Coral and Island Princess, are an ideal place to take toddlers. On the Caribbean Princess, the large space is just outside the Fun Zone play center at the aft of Deck 16. The fully secured, safe haven sits under the shade of the deck above and includes one wall of ocean-view glass and one of covered by floor-to-ceiling netting that lets in cool sea breezes. Outfitted with a fleet of three-wheelers and a mini basketball set up, on a recent Caribbean Princess cruise, my boys spent hours in the area. It's absolute tops for tots, and makes up for the line not offering any kind of babysitting service until age three.

Norwegian Cruise Line

  • Stats: Supervised activities for four age groups between 2 to 17 operate nearly non-stop from 9am to 10pm on sea days, and 7pm to 10pm on port days; all play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent. Group babysitting only is offered for ages 2-12, at $5 an hour per child (and $3 for each additional child) between 10pm-1am nightly and 9am-5pm pm on port days.
  • High Points: The Dawn and Star have awesome playrooms, each with a large ball bin and climbing maze combo for bigger kids and a smaller ball bin for toddlers.

Holland America Line

  • Stats: Supervised activities for ages 3 to 17 offered throughout the day; all play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent. Group babysitting is offered for the 3 to 12 set between 10pm and midnight on the Ryndam (and fleetwide by 2006), at $5 an hour per child; in-cabin babysitting is offered fleetwide if a crewmember is available, at $8 an hour per child and $5 for each additional child.
  • High Points: Most of this line's ships are smaller than the ships of Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess, and NCL; the more intimate size is conducive to making friends (and helpers!) and there is less ground to cover when pushing strollers and carrying young children (and gear) up and down stairs and corridors.
  • What's New: Age minimum for participation in supervised activities just dropped from age 5 to age 3. Plus, following in the footsteps of the newly refurbished Ryndam, activities and facilities for kids and teens across the entire HAL fleet will be enhanced by 2006, including the addition of bright playrooms with big-screen TVs and art tables.

Celebrity

  • Stats: Supervised activities for five age groups between ages 3 to 17; play areas not open to younger children. Group babysitting is offered for ages 3-12, at $6 an hour from 10pm-1 am (and on port days from noon till 2pm); private babysitting is offered for ages 6 months to 12, at $8 an hour from about 8pm to 2am.
  • High Points: The Zenith and Horizon, like many of Holland America's ships, are smaller and more intimate than most of the Carnival, Royal Caribbean, Princess and NCL fleets. Thus, same story: easier to make friends with fellow passengers and crew, and there are fewer and shorter decks one has to navigate with strollers and gear.

Cunard

  • Stats: Supervised activities for ages 1 to 17 operate nearly non-stop between 9am and 10pm on the QM2; all play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent. Private in-cabin babysitting by an available crew member can usually be arranged between 10pm and midnight with prior notice, at $10 an hour per child.
  • High Points: Playroom is equipped with a play gym and ball bin, plus there's a separate room that serves as a nursery, outfitted with 10 crib/toddler bed combos for napping tots. Just outside on deck is a small wading pool and another play gym.

Crystal

  • Stats: Supervised activities for ages 3 to 17 during summers and holidays; all play areas are open to babies/toddlers if accompanied by parent. Private babysitting only is offered by an available crewmember for ages 6 months-12, at $7.50 an hour.
  • High Points: The three Crystal sisters are the best equipped ultra-luxe ships you can find for families.

(For more tips, see Heidi Sarna's "Baby Onboard: Tips for Smooth Sailing" in the site's archives.)

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