What are most families ultimately looking for when they cruise? Time apart to enjoy some adult time while children are engaged in the youth program with their peers? Time spent as a family together-- away from hectic everyday responsibilities -- which fosters connecting and bonding? Yes, to all of the above!
My recent five-day Carnival Cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph from New York City to coastal Canada afforded my son Ethan, teen daughter Alex and her friend Vienna just that - time for pursuits alone or with peers, in addition to many opportunities to break away from the everyday and have fun together.
Family Activities Rule!
Camp Carnival entertains and oversees the most kids of any other cruise line. The greatest strength of this active program is its family activities. Since Carnival offers very long hours - from 9 a.m. until 3:00 a.m. -- in which children can stay in the youth program away from their parents, I was pleased to see that Carnival balances that out by having a number of family activities that children can only participate in if their parents are with them.
On embarkation night, there was a family welcome party in the disco followed by a similar party a few days later which was a tribute to Michael Jackson. It was great to see parents and kids dancing and doing some group dance games together.
Another family activity was the Camp Carnival talent show which is featured at the end of each Carnival cruise and highlights the singing, dancing and comical talents of the kids. While this and the family parties are free, there is another family activity, Build a Teddy Bear, which costs families extra and is offered once per cruise. Children can choose from various clothing options to dress their bear.
The ship itself offered many family activities. Like all Carnival ships, the Carnival Triumph had the line's trademark corkscrew water slide, which was a favorite with my eight-year-old son. (Note: Children must be 42 to slide.) Another spot my eight-year-old son and I frequented was Underground Tokyo games arcade. We also liked to play the nine-hole miniature golf course which was conveniently located right atop our cabin. The ship's aft pool was also great for families since the pool was the focal point of the area and it was flanked by the grill and 24-hour pizzeria.
Details of Youth Program
Camp Carnival splits children into three groups: 2 to 5 years old; 6 to 8 years; 9 to 11 years; and teens are divided into two age groups: 12 to 14 and 15 to 17 years. Those 9 years and older are permitted to sign themselves in and out of the youth program, as long as their parents sign a permission form at the beginning of the cruise. If a parent is not comfortable with this policy, then they can specify at program registration time that their child cannot leave the programming unless they are signed out by a parent. All 9 to 11 year olds must be signed out by a parent after 10 p.m. to cut down on tweens roaming around the ship alone at night.
Camp Carnival hours on sea days are: 9 a.m. to noon (on port days the youth program opens earlier to accommodate parents going on shore excursions without children); 2 p.m. to 4 p.m.; and 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Each night, youth counselors take kids to the buffet dinner at 5:45 p.m. Camp Carnival then re-opens from 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. After 10 p.m., there is an hourly fee of $6 per child ($4 for the second child in a family) until the program closes at 3:00 a.m.
Carnival is the only cruise line that tots in diapers can attend the youth programming since youth counselors change dirty diapers and accept little ones as young as two years old. Parents need to supply diapers and wipes each day to the youth counselors. Those with children ages two to five years receive a beeper at the start of the cruise in case they need to be contacted. Little ones under two years are welcome at Camp Carnival on mornings when the ship is in port as well as during the group babysitting time frame from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. For $6 per hour, during this time the counselors pull out strollers, mats and other baby necessities to accommodate infants and toddlers.
Some of the newer Carnival ships have dedicated youth rooms for each age group. However, the Carnival Triumph had one main youth room that was home to the littlest ones, aged two to five years. The other groups use public rooms such as the teen club or disco for their activities when these rooms are not otherwise in use. There was a splash pool one deck above the youth room for parents to take their children to and watch independently. Unfortunately, the design of the youth room makes check-in and check-out extremely slow. Leave yourself plenty of time to check-in if you have to be at a spa appointment at a certain time, for example. Newer Carnival ships generally have two doors for check in, not one like the Triumph, thus making it a faster process than ours was.
Carnival offers a number of family oriented rentals on each ship. These include strollers, Game Boys, and Game Boy games.
Fun Ship Freddy R
There was a number of headliner activities in the youth programming that drew tons of kids to the program at specific times. On the last sea day of the cruise, there was a bit of a Fun Ship Freddy R frenzy in the 6 to 8 year old programming. The activities centered around the line's large blue and red mascot and included: face painting in the line's trademark red and blue colors; coloring paper hats that looked like the Carnival trademark funnels; watching a video in which Fun Ship Freddy R was the host; and being read a book about Fun Ship Freddy R. The morning of Freddy-themed activities culminated with a parade by the 6 to 8 year olds throughout the ship as they searched as a group for clues as to where to find Freddy.
One area in which Carnival can improve is in a more efficient way to move large bunches of kids in the youth program from one activity to another. For example, I found it took an extremely long time to line up the children for the parade and while the youth counselors were doing that, some of the children lost their attention.
After the Freddy parade, the kids returned to the youth room where Freddy appeared for the kids to excitedly ask questions. Afterwards, children's Freddy t-shirts and books were for sale for Freddy to sign. My son Ethan was pretty excited that Freddy autographed his shirt and made sure I washed the t-shirt properly when we got home so that the signature would not wash off!
Another area that created a lot of excitement among the children was the late night pajama parties. For the six to eight year olds, one night during each Carnival cruise there is a Mini late night pajama party from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. The fee is $18 and includes snacks, crafts and activities. My son is a very early riser so I don't usually let him stay up until midnight, but I allowed him to experience the first two hours of the pajama party. He was thrilled to be staying up so late and he had a great time, but was glad to get to sleep when I picked him up at midnight instead of 1 a.m. There is a similar party for the 9 to 11 year olds once per cruise too. This one is from 10 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. and includes PlayStation2, karaoke, and midnight arcade games; the cost is $26 for the first child.
There are plenty of creative activities throughout the cruise such as the funny game sausage whereby kids had to say the word sausage without laughing in reply to every question they got asked; a Knight's Night, themed around knights in shining armor; and mummy, in which kids had to entwine each other with toilet paper as if they were embalming a mummy. The Knight's Night was part of the line's Edu-cruises SM programming, where kids learn by having fun. Other edu-taining programming umbrellas include Watercolors SM, arts and crafts activities; H2Ocean SM, science oriented projects; and SeaNotes SM activities which revolve around music.
One of Ethan's favorite times to go to the youth program was when they could play PlayStation2 or wii, being the techno-kid that he is! We made sure we balanced this by plenty of land exploration while in the Canadian ports of Halifax and Saint John.
I found the youth counselors to be very gentle and caring with the little ones in the 2 to 5 year old group. The counselors in the 6 to 8 year old group were somewhat distant and didn't connect with the kids as I recall past Carnival youth counselors. This might in part have been due to a language barrier - none of them spoke English as their native language. The youth counselors in the 9 to 11 age group seemed to strike a better balance at connecting with the kids, enjoying the kids' sense of humor, and yet getting respect from the tweens.
Part of the lack of connection might also be due to the huge numbers of kids in the youth programming during the summer, which is when we cruised. The drawback of cruising with the line that carries the most kids is that it's hard for the youth counselors to connect with such a large crowd. The benefit of cruising with the line that carries the most kids is that any time you go on a Carnival cruise -- even during the school year-- you will find plenty of other children around for your youngster to play with.
My son Ethan is a very easy going child so he had no problem with the larger groups which meant more boys to bond with at any given time. Between the youth activities, the family activities organized by the youth staff, and the family-friendly public facilities such as the arcade and slide, Ethan had plenty of time alone with his peers to play as well as quality time with me to relax and have fun together for a change! And that's why we parents really want to cruise with our kids anyway, right?