Jill Whelan spent a chunk of her childhood sailing the high seas with the cast and crew of the hit 1970-80s television series "The Love Boat." As Vicki, the precocious daughter of Capt. Stubing (Gavin MacLeod), Whelan grew up on the water. And loved it.
Now she sees to it that her two sons have the same opportunity. "The kids have a great time, and I have a great time too," she said. "Whether you're a hands-on parent or a hands-off parent, a cruise ship vacation is the way to go."
As spring break and summer vacation season near, Whelan offered this advice to parents or grandparents who might be considering a cruise: "Tell people to do it. They won't be sorry."
Whelan has more than one reason to suggest cruising. "The Love Boat" was filmed aboard many Princess Cruises ships; last month, she landed a job with the cruise line as celebration ambassador, which means she will be suggesting that people cruise to celebrate all sorts of occasions.
"Birthdays and anniversaries, of course," she said. "And some other things we don't always think of as celebrations: a divorce, becoming cancer-free, getting a promotion."
And celebrating spring and summer with your kids.
When I checked, I found lots of other parents singing the same song. One of my favorite stories comes from R. Fox of Orange County, who set sail with 19 family members, including nine grandchildren, on a Disney cruise.
"It was outstanding," said Fox, the family patriarch. "Lots of fun times and great memories." The ship offered activities to suit each of the kids, who ranged in age from 32 months to 13. "Everyone had a great time."
Especially his 5-year-old granddaughter.
"She cried on the first day when her mom and dad took her to her activities," he said. "A few hours later, they went to pick her up, and she cried much harder because she didn't want to leave."
What should parents or grandparents look for in a family cruise?
Travel agents will ask a series of questions to help families plan, said Daren Autry of Montrose Travel.
"We want to find out what people have liked and disliked in previous vacations and the ages of the kids and the things the family likes to do," Autry said. "That helps us match them with the best ship."
Other things to consider: your budget, the cost of getting to the ship's embarkation point and the cost per day versus other types of vacations.
Also consider the season in which the voyage will take place (in other words, beware hurricane season), said Geraldine Ree, a senior vice president with Expedia CruiseShip Centers.
"You want to look at the cruise value: what is included in the base fare and what is not, including restaurants, entertainment, specialty coffees, soda, cocktails and shore excursions," Ree said.
She also advised potential cruisers to pay attention to itineraries. Are you interested in more port visits or more days at sea? Are the ports' attractions right off the ship or will you need to arrange transportation to see the sights?
Also consider lines' special enticements:
Crystal Cruises offers a kids-sail-free program on some all-inclusive itineraries, including voyages exploring Europe, Asia, New England and Canada.
Celebrity Cruises has staterooms that can accommodate families of four or five, has plenty of kid-friendly activities and offers facilities and trained staffers who can assist families whose child may have special needs.
Disney Cruise Lines has a popular Star Wars Day (March 9 and 23 and April 6 and 20) on its ship Fantasy, which sails out of Port Canaveral, Fla.
Finally, be honest. Maybe a cruise isn't the right choice for you at this point in your life. One cruiser I talked with noted that a trip at sea might not be the best choice if your children are too young.
Seal Beach resident Robin Alexander took her son and daughter-in-law, plus 2- and 3 1/2-year-old grandchildren on a Disney cruise at Thanksgiving.
"There were tons of things to do," she said, "and the adults will have good memories. But the kids were really too young to remember it. They had fun, but they might as well have been playing at a neighborhood park."
But for older offspring? Read on.
Booze, bikinis, Bahamas
The video shows a rollicking crowd of spring breakers making merry on the fantail of a cruise ship. "Be a part of history," a headline urges as a rocking beat plays in the background: "2,400 of your closest friends and you."
The ad, on the website StudentCity.com, promotes a March 11-14 voyage from Miami to the Bahamas that it calls the "first fully chartered, all-inclusive spring break cruise." The voyage, called "Inception at Sea," is open only to those who are older than 21. Clips show lots of drinking, rowdiness and string bikinis.
StudentCity representative Luke Shelley said the idea evolved because of the conflict between spring breakers and regular cruisers. (I have to admit, I wouldn't want to wander aboard a dedicated college-crowd/young adult spring break cruise with my family in tow.)
The upcoming cruise is aboard the Norwegian Sky, which StudentCity, in conjunction with Whet Travel, chartered. The ship offers an open bar, lots of activities on board and several restaurants from which to choose.
The trip advertises 72 hours of nonstop music from 30 DJs.
"Imagine sailing around the Bahamas to a private island with your favorite DJs, artists, performers and an entire cruise ship filled with only spring breakers," the website's promotional material says.
Other companies advertise young-adult spring break cruises, said Shelley, but they're not fully chartered, which means "students may clash with nonstudents onboard. That can't happen on this cruise."
Cabins for the voyage start at $679 a person. To learn more: call (888) 777-4642, www.studentcity.com. Because the ship has been chartered, the cruise cannot be booked through Norwegian Cruise Lines.
Spring break at sea
Is there a spring break cruise in your family's future? It's not too late to plan one, but you should start right away.
If you're a newbie to cruising, you might want to begin with a Carnival three- or four-day voyage from Long Beach. The three-day cruises visit Ensenada, Mexico, and the four-day voyages visit Catalina Island and Ensenada.
Prices start at $249 a person, double occupancy, for an inside cabin and $309 for an ocean view; several sailings are available in the next three months. To learn more: Contact a travel agent or Carnival Cruises, (877) 895-2196, www.carnival.com.
If you want a longer cruise, take a look at the budget buys listed below, curated with help from experts at Expedia CruiseShip Centers (www.cruiseshipcenters.com) and Montrose Travel (www.montrosetravel.com). Three of our deals depart from the West Coast, saving you time and transportation costs.
Each of the cruises listed offers bonuses, such as cabin upgrades, beverage packages and onboard coupon books. To learn more, contact a travel agent or the cruise line.
The Norwegian Jewel departs March 13 from Los Angeles on a seven-night round-trip cruise. Ports include Cabo San Lucas, Mazatlán and Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.
Price: Inside from $499, balcony from $799. Info: www.ncl.com.
The Ruby Princess departs March 14 from Los Angeles on a 10-night round-trip cruise. Ports include San Diego and the Mexican ports of Cabo San Lucas, La Paz, Loreto and Puerto Vallarta.
Price: Inside from $599; balcony from $849. Info: www.princess.com
The Grand Princess departs March 19 from San Francisco on a seven-night round-trip Pacific coast cruise. Ports include Santa Barbara, San Diego and Ensenada.
Price: Inside from $519, balcony from $619. Info: www.princess.com
Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas departs March 27 from Port Canaveral, Fla., on a seven-night round-trip cruise. Ports include Labadee, Haiti; Falmouth, Jamaica; George Town, Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands; and Cozumel, Mexico.
Price: Inside from $728, balcony from $999. Info: www.royalcaribbean.com
Celebrity's Constellation departs March 14 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a five-night round-trip cruise. Ports include Cozumel and Key West, Fla.
Price: Ocean view from $599, balcony from $829. Info: www.celebritycruises.com
Holland America's Nieuw Amsterdam departs March 13 from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a seven-night round-trip cruise. Ports include Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos Islands; San Juan, Puerto Rico; St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands; and Half Moon Cay, Bahamas.
Prices: Inside from $549, balcony from $830. Info: www.hollandamerica.com.