An Inaugural Voyage on the American Family Cruises Ship Proved a Bumpy Ride for Parents, But the Kids Had a Blast

NEWSDAY

The moment we boarded the American Adventure cruise ship, a grizzled Italian seaman, pushing by, stopped short at the sight of our 15-month-old baby girl.

"Che bella!" he exclaimed. "Ciao, bambina, ciao!"

Of course. This was the new American Family Cruises line, where even the guys working in the boiler room behave like Italian grandmothers when they see babies.

For us, it was a match made in the Caribbean: a family cruise ship that was on just its second voyage last December, and the Dwyers, who had been on one prior cruise--so it was the Staten Island Ferry, whattaya, a snob or something?--but never had considered taking another.

We are--sigh--past the moony-couples-phase of life. We have--shriek--young kids. Leisure is someone else's job. We travel only to places where tables have no sharp corners and where we are supervised by other kids and parents. A cruise? On a boat? In the water? No, not really.

At least, I didn't think so until someone started counting noses and realized that people who have kids want to go somewhere. American Family Cruises rolled up a giant demographic wave and announced that it would take everyone away to sea and sun for seven days. The kids could do computers or roller-blade or make videos, they could eat themselves sick on pizza and ice cream, and the parents could Take It Easy.

"A vacation is no vacation if it neglects the needs of a very important part of the family--parents. . . . You need time to be you," coos the brochure. "To relax and recharge. At AFC, we provide just the right balance of time for kids, time for families together and all-important time for parents."

I grew faint upon reading this. For months, we kept the cruise literature next to the bed and eagerly thumbed it when the hands of the parental clock were pointing to High Anxiety.

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In truth, our trip must be graded on two curves--one for the kids, another for the parents. The trip was a miracle of inefficiency and joyful charm, of sailors and waiters tickling babies and of things that did not work. We could not wait to get off the ship at the end of the trip. The parties on board were dazzling fun, full of laughs and dancing. Not a single clock gave anything like the right time. Our older girl had a wonderful "dolphin encounter." But she could not get a pair of in-line skates because this cruise line--dedicated to kids--had none smaller than size four.

We were, after all, on only the second sailing of the 1,500-passenger American Adventure since it was refitted for family cruising. Formerly the Costariviera, which sailed in the Caribbean, the vessel is more than 30 years old. As a family cruise operation, the American Adventure travels from the Port of Miami through the eastern Caribbean, calling at Nassau in the Bahamas, a lovely deserted island off the Dominican Republic and Key West in Florida.

The cruise line, the first dedicated entirely to family cruising, was inaugurated Dec. 18, when four kids broke a giant bottle of Coke on the hull of the American Adventure. By the third day of our trip a week later, the ship had run dry on Coca-Cola--and Sprite, and just about everything except ginger ale--and somehow was not able to replenish its supply in the ports. A minor matter, but quite an accomplishment on a cruise that caters to kids and charged $1.50 for a can of pop.

I think it was right around the time the soda ran out that my wife Cathy said: "I have never seen so many broken machines in my life." The soda, popcorn and candy machines didn't work. Neither did the elevator at our end of the ship. The coin laundries were out of order.

By the way, none of this bothered the kids. Seven hundred of them on the boat. Most of them, right up to age 17, seemed to have a spectacular time. The cruise is calibrated to please the Youth of America: the quiet and the rambunctious, the kids who are happy dragging a computer mouse and the ones who are thrilled to sing in the karaoke lounge, the children who want to tie-dye T-shirts and those who think bliss is shooting hoops.

In the dining room, we were assigned to a table with the Bell family of Florida. Our older daughter Maura, 7, table mate Taraya Bell and Taraya's pal Harriet Fletcher were near peers and became instant pals. They barely made a move without each other.

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About a third of the entertainment deck is devoted to well-designed recreation space for kids and is parceled out by age group. The preteens had a room full of Macintosh computers. Maura and pals hung out there and in a clubhouse called "Sea Haunt" for the 8-to-12 set that is stocked with videos, game tables and a giant aquarium. (Since our trip, the ship has grouped the 8- to 10-year-olds and 11- to 13-year-olds separately.) The teens are on another deck, where they can indulge in such inscrutable teen things as hair and make-over classes and MTV, as well as produce news broadcasts for the ship's TV stations.

From breakfast until after midnight, the kids' programs are abundant, decently organized and engaging. Children age 2 to 4 and 5 to 7 are heavily supervised in an enclosed play area--Fuzzy Wuzzy and Rockasaurus--with camp-style activities. The kids made pizza, took trips to the captain's bridge, painted their faces and ran a Wizard of Oz show.

Parents are not allowed into these areas, but can watch their kids on TV monitors. The young ones are given an ID bracelet, for the duration, and they must be signed in or out of the clubhouses--although there seemed to be little attention paid to the identity of the adult doing the writing.

Children older than 8 also have structured activities, but the supervision is light. These kids basically have the run of the ship. They can go for a snack or stick with the program, which included organized scavenger hunts, T-shirt tie-dying and musical productions. Retired baseball players Tug McGraw and Manny Sanguillen were on board for a batting cage clinic, a big hit with the older kids.

Bill Toter, an engineer from Park Ridge, Ill., and his wife brought their six kids. "The 18-hour pizza and ice cream is a great idea," Toter said. "My 12-year-old son is in heaven with the baseball players. We let them all go, and they had a great time."

"They had a ball," said New Yorker Pedro Perez of his son, 10, and daughter, 15. "My daughter--I lost her to the ship. She met so many friends. She did what she couldn't do in the city--be on her own. The best part of the cruise was the kids. All the kids were friendly. They say hello to you; they're funny. They feel free, devoid of any danger. And the carnival--that was beautiful."

It sure was. One night the ship ran a Mardi Gras with a ring toss and dunk the clown games, a friendly magician twisting balloon animals and lots of music, including a jamming steel band. Another day, on a shore excursion to Nassau, Maura had her "dolphin encounter"--a dip in a dolphin pool and a chance to pet them.

At dinner--casual dress--the waiters and busboys, all male, star in theme nights. On "Gags and Giggles" night, the maitre d' opened the dining-room doors dressed as Groucho Marx, and out blared the theme song to the old TV cartoon, "Top Cat." Antonio, the Spaniard who was our waiter, jitter-bugged with Maura all the way across the room to the table.

The restaurant service was very good. The busboy at our table, Sinisa Kucar, a sweet soul from Croatia, cleaned our baby's bottles with boiling water at every meal and refilled them with juice or milk.

You did not have to commit "diet-cide" on this ship. Fish and pasta were on the menu every night, along with a beef or meat entree. (A utilitarian gym featured step climbers, a few stationary bikes and a treadmill.) The kids had their own menus of the chicken-nuggets ilk. A cafeteria-style buffet in another room was open for informal meals, but the food was tired-looking and the surroundings unpleasant. (The company recently announced an overhaul of the buffet menu.) Shore excursions in Nassau and the Dominican Republic featured massive barbecues with chicken, beef, pork chops and salads.

As for accommodations, our cabin was small--two sets of bunk beds, a stall shower just about big enough for an adult--but well-tended by a friendly stewardess who, every night when she turned down the covers, left a gift on the pillow.

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Now, what about that curve for grown-ups?

"If the kids were not here, we'd have gotten off at Nassau," said Chip Strassberg of Boynton, Fla., the patriarch of a family of a dozen or so sons, daughters and grandchildren who suffered a string of plumbing problems in successive cabins. "They do seem to be making an effort to accommodate us, though."

"It seemed that they needed another month or two to fix up the ship, but they ran out of time," said Lou Kratter of Huntington Station, N.Y., who was in the Strassberg entourage.

"We knew it was an inaugural sailing," said Bill Toter, the father of six. "Serving people is the toughest job in the world--they get angry about something, and then they get on a roll."

This certainly was true. I was surprised at two things: First, the number of silly minor aggravations, most involving standing in line to register kids for programs or to go ashore. And second, the level of hair-trigger irritability among some passengers. Many complained loudly at the slightest provocation, and upon hearing genuine grievances of other passengers, adopted them as their own.

Shortly after we boarded, rumors flew that the first sailing had been a major disaster. Toilets had backed up and drowned nearly everyone. The survivors had been given a voucher for a free cruise. As our trip was the second sailing, many people put their noses in the air and smelled trouble, like terriers sniffing for rain and a voucher for another cruise. But we quickly found that most people were enjoying themselves and were happy with the trip. The weather and beaches were lovely. The kids were so happy and noisy I felt I could float away.

Some people, it turned out, did have serious complaints: After the trip, at least six passengers in four states were diagnosed with a particularly nasty form of diarrhea, called Shigellosis. After local health departments reported this, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent questionnaires to everyone in the U.S. who took the trip. The results of the investigation are not yet available. The ship did pass a federal inspection of its sanitary conditions on Jan. 8, and no additional confirmed cases of Shigellosis have been reported on the dozen or so cruises that have sailed since ours, according to Steve Blackwell, environmental health officer for the Vessel Sanitation Program.

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Assuming the diarrhea outbreak was a freak event, would I recommend this cruise?

Not to anyone with kids under 2. Since that includes us, let me dwell on this for a minute. Naturally, parents of babies expect to do most of the minding, but to make the vacation work, they need a few hours a day off. The ship brochure says that in-cabin baby-sitting for the little ones "may be available," and the cruise line president told me it is guaranteed. None was available on our ship--and there were 22 babies on board.

Pretty much the only space on board for the baby set was the Playpen, a big, carpeted room with a good supply of toys for toddlers. Our Catherine had a fine time there. But with no windows, it felt as if we were breathing mall air. And while the older kids are likely to have a great time, what was really needed was some outdoor space for the babies and the younger kids who were intimidated by the six-foot-deep pool and ended up spending most of their time in those outdoor Jacuzzi-whirlpool things. The cruise promised parents--but didn't deliver--a special evening alone together in the restaurant, gazing into each other's eyes while swirling wine glasses of fine Cabernet. "What about that picture of the chateaubriand they were promising the grown-ups?" asked John Zadrazil of Queens, N.Y. "Where is the nice dining room where you have a nice, quiet dinner without the kids?"

Yes, what about the chateaubriand ? "That picture in the brochure was a mistake," said Bruce Nierenberg, president of the cruise line. However, the cruise line does have an area in the main dining room where adults can dine without children, he said. Children can eat in a separate area, or if they are over 2, be fed first and dropped off at the recreation areas to play while parents eat.

All the cabins with plumbing problems now have been closed off or repaired, he said. He also said the Coca-Cola shortage has been fixed permanently. The laundry machines are working and are now free of charge.

Nierenberg swears the cruises have improved with each trip. "If you look in your mailbox, you'll see that we have sent a letter to everyone on board that trip, inviting them to come back as our guest," he said. "Things weren't perfect. We want people to know we're standing behind the product."

We'll give it another try.

GUIDEBOOK

Family Cruises

Cruise details: The American Adventure sails every Saturday year-round from the Port of Miami, departing at 5:30 p.m. and returning the following Saturday at about 9:30 a.m..

Fares for adults range from $995 per person, double occupancy for inside standard stateroom to $2,195 per person, double occupancy, for a luxury suite. Pricing for children ages 2-17 ranges from free in the off-season to $395 in the high season. Children under 2 are always free. For general information, call American Family Cruises (tel. 800-232-0567).

Getting there: Add-on airline reservations are available when a cruise reservation is made: $395 per person round-trip from Los Angeles to Miami, ground transfers included. Passengers from California will be flown in on Friday for Saturday sailing and given a complimentary hotel stay at either the Sheraton River House or Crown Sterling Suites in Miami.

For reservations: Call your local travel agent, or American Family Cruises for a list of travel agents nationwide who are affiliated with American Family Cruises.

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