Cruise Issue : Kids Aboard : Children's programs and Disney characters make a voyage on the good ship Majestic the ultimate in family cruises.

Ogintz' Taking the Kids column appears weekly in the The Times Travel section

The kids are everywhere on the ship, more than 300 on this four-day cruise, jumping in the postage stamp-sized swimming pool, lining up for ice cream cones, jamming the video arcade, eating chicken nuggets and French fries at every table in the packed dining room, winning $200 and $300 jackpots during the nightly bingo games, ringing the stage and giggling as the magician and comedian do their after-dinner acts.

I feel sorry for the honeymooners on board (though they insist they don't mind). Premier Cruise Lines isn't kidding when it touts its Disney-sanctioned cruises--which sail from Port Canaveral, Fla. to the Bahamas--as the ultimate family shipboard experience.

The families on board, like the kids, come in all shapes and sizes. There's the three generations of the Bixler-Foxworthy clan--22 strong--who gathered from Seattle, Los Angeles, Indiana and Florida for a reunion they had planned for a year; Julie Weith, a dance instructor from Los Angeles with her 4-year-old daughter, Chelsea; Brent Saunders, a prosecutor from a small town in Ohio, his teacher-wife, Shawn, 8-year-old son and 4-year-old daughter combining the cruise with a visit to Disney World (as many do with Premier-Disney packages), and Dave Bauer, a divorced father from Arlington, Tex., traveling with his two young sons. There are scores of grandparents, too, among the 1,000 passengers, some traveling solo with the grandkids.

I'm on board with my 6-year-old daughter, Regina. Like many here, it's our first cruise. We're all looking for the same thing: some R&R; in the sun, mixed with that all-too-elusive "quality time" with the kids.

Though there are a growing number of cruises that offer programs aimed at children, Reggie and I chose Premier because it has the largest and most comprehensive children's program of any cruise line--more than 130,000 families choose Premier each year--and the promised visits of Mickey Mouse and pals. (Like other families on board, based on the ads we'd seen we expected to see the Disney characters everywhere for the entire cruise, but to the children's chagrin this wasn't to be).

We also were intrigued by the itinerary: two days of sailing aboard the Majestic, with its dis tinctive bright red hull, and two days of sun and snorkeling on the Abaco Out Islands in the Bahamas.

We paid roughly $1,900 for the privilege, which included a shared cabin in the mid-price range and air fare. The price was relatively high because we booked at the last minute during high season in December. Families can get better deals by reserving early, and there are other discounts available (see Guidebook on page L15.

Because everything would be taken care of on board--no hotels to find, no meals to fix, no sitters to get--I figured this was going to be the one family vacation that would defy the odds and be stress-free.

It didn't turn out quite that way. The following is my diary of some of the highs--and lows--of our cruise.

Day One (Sunday) Our cabin is tiny but well-appointed. "This is cute" Reggie says as she settles her doll on her bunk in the blue and cream-colored cabin. She can't believe how tiny the bathroom is. "No tub!" she says. I'm glad there are just two of us, though the cabin could hold four if the two upper bunks were used. She loves the porthole and immediately sets out to make herself at home. The cabins don't really contain anything special for the kids, though they are made to feel welcome with their own "Kids Call" schedule slipped under the door each day; it details the morning-till-night progams.

Reggie is excited and nervous as we set out to explore the ship, stopping for a late lunch in the Satellite Cafe adjacent to the pool. She's clearly relieved to see so many other little girls her age.

We can't wait to get underway. But almost as soon as we set sail late in the afternoon, we hit rough seas. Dinner, a five-course affair, is subdued: Like everyone, it seems, Reggie and I are fighting seasickness. I try a motion-sickness medication called Bonine, but it doesn't help. After a shot of Phenergan from the ship's doctor, I feel a lot better. Dramamine pills help Reggie.

I'm impressed with Premier's attention to the children in the dining room. Dress is more casual (although shorts are not allowed) than on other ships. There's a full children's menu, from burgers to ice cream. Kids with gourmet palates may order from the adult menu as well. Eight-year-old Clarke Saunders devoured shrimp cocktail, lobster, swordfish, clam chowder and French pastries. The waiters, who seem mostly middle-aged and foreign-born, joke with the kids, and even cut their spaghetti.

The food is plentiful and good but somewhat bland (just like it is at Disney World, I think). Each night features cuisine from a different country, lasagna and veal piccata from the Italian evening, prime rib or roast turkey from the American, duckling with orange sauce and escargots from the French. The children may order anything they like though Reggie most often preferred the children's menu--including such offerings as fruit cup, chicken nuggets and chocolate milk.

Because the adults at our table were enjoying more courses than their children--and because the kids ate so much quicker--they were done with their meals just as most of us were ready to dig into our main courses. Like many other parents in the dining room, I got up and took Reggie to Pluto's Playhouse. Here, in a cheerful room, the younger children are entertained by enthusiastic young counselors with stories, art projects and games while parents finish their dinners.

The children's activities last until 10 p.m. and late night baby-sitting is available for a small fee, but that first night we turn in early.

Day Two Our first big disappointment. Because of rough weather, it is announced that we will spend the day at sea instead of on the Abaco Islands. By Monday night, we're told we won't make it to the Abacos at all. Instead we will dock in Nassau on Tuesday. There is considerable grumbling on board, but the ship hums with activity all day and evening.

As the older kids are playing Nintendo or swimming in the pool, wandering the ship or taking part in the activities planned for their age groups (and the younger ones are being entertained in Pluto's Playhouse), the adults are relaxing on deck, hitting the casino (no kids allowed!), taking aerobics, shopping in the duty-free store or playing "What's My Line" with the crew, among other things.

About the children's activities: Reggie loved them--art projects and songs, games, stories, a last-day party with Mickey Mouse. The 10 youth counselors on board were young, enthusiastic and friendly. But despite their best efforts, the programs didn't get high marks from the parents of the diaper set (toddlers must be 2 to participate) or the older crowd.

Janie Pollack, for example, complained that her 2-year-old simply was overwhelmed by the much older children grouped with him. "The food is great. The service is great but this isn't a vacation," the Colorado woman said glumly. "We wish we'd left Sam with his grandparents."

Teens allowed that the activities were, well, kind of Mickey Mouse. "I spent most of the time in the video arcade," reported 14-year-old Joe Abraham, from Oxford, Iowa. His two older brothers added Premier should put more emphasis on "us older kids."

Of course you can eat all day too--starting with breakfast at 7 a.m., through lunch, make-your-own-sundaes time in the afternoon, tea time, dinner and the lavish midnight buffet (as hard as she tried, Reggie couldn't stay awake) followed by omelets at 2 a.m.

The high point of Reggie's day is winning $50 at bingo. By now, I realize I'm feeling more hassled than relaxed. There are lines for everything--from getting ice cream to asking the purser a question. I must fork over 75 cents every time I want a Coke (my fellow passengers and I are surprised to learn that the "all inclusive" price doesn't include soft drinks during the day).

Everything is so scheduled. What if we miss our scheduled seating for dinner? I'm afraid to find out. Some people, I discover, love the regimentation. "I'm a teacher and I live by schedules," explained one New Jersey woman. Not me. I wish I was laying on a quiet Caribbean beach.

I wonder if I'm just not a good cruiser, but others I talk to seem just as frustrated and out of sorts, though trying hard to have a good time. Perhaps it's the rough seas, or the change in itinerary. Perhaps it's just the crowds.

I don't feel the least bit uncomfortable traveling here as a single mom. Everywhere I turn are single parents on this trip. And I don't blame the staff either--just the weather (it's a lesson to me that weather can foul up a vacation on a ship as easily as anywhere else).

Day Three I get my chance to hit the beach, but it isn't quiet. We take a tender over to Salt Cay Island. There are hammocks and a white, sandy beach, clear Caribbean water and plenty of sun. There's a volleyball net and, I'm told, a small basketball court.

It would be lovely--if not for all of the people. We're sharing our uninhabited island with not only our 1,000 shipmates but, because of our last-minute itinerary change, passengers from another cruise ship.

We head to the beach where I sit on my towel in the sand--too few hammocks to go around. Reggie is disappointed she can't snorkel (you must be 9), but has fun playing in the water with another girl her age and goes on the treasure hunt organized by the youth counselors.

Reggie's picture is snapped with a "pirate," a crew member dressed in breeches and a bandanna on his head. The ship's photographers are everywhere. Later that night, passengers may inspect the pictures, purchasing--at $7 each--those they like. I buy a couple; other parents seem to buy many more.

The kids are disappointed that they've seen so few Disney characters up to this point. Parents are beginning to complain too, but the staff just says we'll see more of them "later."

The day is over too soon for Reggie. Despite the crowds, she is having a wonderful time swimming and playing in the sand. But soon after lunch--we must wait in line 45 minutes for burgers and hot dogs--it's time to go back to the ship anchored in Nassau.

As we make our way back on the 40-minute launch ride back to the ship, everyone's mood improves with the band playing, and the kids get up and dance.

Day Four We blow it, I think later. Instead of opting to spend the day at another beach, perhaps at nearby Paradise Island, we set out to explore the island of Nassau with another family. We see sharks, turtles, giant stingrays and all kinds of fish at Coral World, a huge marine park complete with an underwater observatory. This is a good place to visit if you're staying a week, not an afternoon.

Later, a talkative cabbie we have hired for about $45 drives us around the island. We see Fort Charlotte, the slums of Nassau and the newest casino. Reggie would rather be swimming, but we have no time. The ship sails at 3 p.m. With kids along, I decide, it's best to skip the shore excursions. As we rush back to the ship, we stop and buy two starfish shells for $5 from a boy who pulls his boat alongside the pier. Reggie is thrilled, but I feel cheated and wish we had another day to make sand castles.

But all is not lost. Mickey Mouse, Chip and Dale and Pluto are suddenly all over the ship. Reggie parties with them. She gets their autograph. She hugs them. They stop by our table at dinner. Where have they been for the past three days, I wonder?

At dinner, I hand out the suggested tips to everyone from the cabin steward to our bus boy--$70 just for the two of us. They deserve every penny. The service has been terrific. I especially liked the way the staff treated Reggie and the other kids. They genuinely seemed to enjoy having the children on board, from our room steward who always made sure Reggie's doll was just so on her bed, to our waiter, who never minded a child's special request, to the bus boy, who always had a smile, to the young American counselors, who couldn't have been more enthusiastic.

Last Day (Thursday) Up early for breakfast. As we wait to clear customs at Port Canaveral, I hear people around me talking about where they'll go on their next cruise.

I realize despite all of the glitches--and the seasickness--I'm game to try again with the kids. Cruising is a great way to take the kids on vacation and get some time for yourself, too. It's not perfect; no vacation with kids is. Maybe next time, I think, we should try a longer cruise to give ourselves more of a chance to get into the rhythm of the ship. Reggie, meanwhile, would be perfectly happy to repeat this cruise.

One last bingo game. Reggie is disappointed we don't win a free cruise, the grand prize taken home by a little girl her age. "When can we come again?" she asks as we head for the airport.

GUIDEBOOK

Taking the Kids on a Cruise

There's probably never been a better time to take the kids on a cruise. Some major cruise lines--Premier, Carnival, Norwegian and Dolphin among them--not only are offering children's programs but are expanding or working to improve them.

Premier, the Disney-sanctioned cruise line we used, operates two other ships besides the Majestic: the Atlantic and the Oceanic. Recently Premier announced plans to change its itinerary to include a stop at Port Lucaya, a new area on the southern coast of the Caribbean's Grand Bahama Island that is not as difficult to reach as the Abaco Out Islands (where we were supposed to stop) when seas are rough. Some four-day cruisers will also now have the options of leaving from Port Everglades, as well as Port Canaveral, and may stop at Key West, too.

The Dolphin line has Hanna-Barbera characters, such as Fred Flintstone and Yogi Bear, on board. Norwegian is the official cruiseline of Universal Studios, with its cast of characters, including Woody Woodpecker. Carnival, usually known for its appeal to young adults, offers a Camp Carnival activities program designed for junior cruisers ages 4 and up.

The new American Family Cruises, a joint venture with Costa Cruise Lines, is going even further. With its first sailings scheduled for Christmas, American Family Cruises' ships will be totally dedicated to the family market--from flexible dining plans that will allow parents to have a night alone (while children eat in supervised kids-only areas), to shore excursions designed with kids' interests in mind (they can even take part in a rodeos or baseball games), to an array of morning-till-night children's activities planned for four separate age groups, from toddlers to teens.

What it costs: Cruiselines offer significant discounts for booking early, as well as all variations of family packages, including some for single parents, grandparents and extended families traveling together. Even with our last minute decision to sail with Premier in December, we saved more than $200 by booking through The Cruise Line, Inc., a major Miami-based cruise booker and discounter; call (800) 777-0707.

This spring, Premier cruises range in price from $1,700 for a family of four for a three-night cruise to $3,680 for a four-night cruise (price includes air fare). A single parent and one child could sail from $1,199 for three nights to $2,043 for four nights.

A combined cruise and Disney World package ranges from $2,836 to $4,876 for a family of four and includes air fare, rental car, hotel and admission to Disney World. (The same package for the single parent and one child costs $1,900-$2,700.) A brochure is available by calling (800) 473-3262, but bookings must be made through travel agents (choose one who specializes in cruises).

For more information: To find a cruise agent near your home, send a self-addressed stamped envelope to the National Association of Cruise Only Agencies (113 W. Sunrise Highway, Suite R, Freeport, N.Y. 11520) and request a list of association-sanctioned agencies in your area. Make sure your agent checks that the children's programs are operating on the dates you plan to sail, and that your children are old enough to participate (some ship programs are limited to youngsters aged 4 or 5 and older).

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