Think family vacation -- on steroids.
Think every kind of food the kids and you could want 24-7 (wine-pairing menus to burgers and fries, chicken noodle soup to gazpacho, healthy smoothies to ice cream sundaes), entertainment ("Hairspray" to synchronized divers performing in an outdoor AquaTheater and children's puppet shows) and activity (mini-golf and water playground, teen disco and giant arcade, carousel and junior spa). Did I mention the supervised activities for kids -- even infants -- morning till night? Through a partnership with Fisher-Price, the nursery and preschool area is stocked with the latest toys and there will be daily sessions for parents to come play too.
All this and ocean breezes too, as you cruise from Florida to the Caribbean and back on the world's largest cruise ship afloat -- Royal Caribbean's spanking new Oasis of the Seas (www.royalcaribbean.com) where you can bed down in a family cabin where the kids have their own bunk beds. The ship, standing upright, is taller than the Eiffel Tower and longer than three NFL football fields. I got a sneak peek recently on a two-night trip just before the ship began its weeklong Caribbean cruises.
Of course, you can't mind vacationing with more than 6,000 newfound shipboard guests and 2,165 crewmembers from 71 countries. And don't expect to see the kids much. They'll be too busy with their new BFFs (well over 1,000 on some sailings) and all the activities, everything from learning to be a DJ with guest DJs on board, doing science at sea (want to make a volcano?), arts projects with the latest supplies from Crayola, playing Wii, climbing the rock wall, testing their mettle in the FlowRider surf simulators or zipline (they'll be suspended nine decks!), splashing in the huge water playground complete with a diaper-friendly pool, watching an ice show or strolling through the park (yes, there is one on board complete with 56 trees and more than 12,000 living plants).
With the kids otherwise occupied, you'll have plenty of time -- and places -- to catch some rays or some winks -- in a spectacular adult-only solarium area with lounges with comfy cushions, whirlpools and even a bistro with the emphasis on health-conscious food (Grilled shrimp and sugar-free berry mousse for lunch maybe?) Hit the hot tub or casino, work out in the fitness center or take a yoga or dance class (there are 500 different activities a day to choose from). Go out for a gourmet dinner (there are nine specialty restaurants) or take in some jazz or a comedy show.
No worries about keeping track of the tweens and teens either as they roam the ship thanks to a sleek new Royal Connect device that looks like a sleek phone that you can rent for roughly $18 a week which allows the kids to call you from a house phone anywhere on the ship (or their own device). You can track the under-12 set thanks to a special chip in their Adventure Ocean bracelet from the kids' club and the teens by the location of the phone. You can also text back and forth.
The good news is you won't be shelling out money every time they want a slice of pizza) or a ride on the FloRider or zipline. But be prepared. "Extras" can add up quickly, including costs for the huge arcade, the ice cream parlor, cupcake shop, coffee stands, the candy store and specialty restaurants that can set you back anywhere from $5 for a burger and shake to $75 for wine-pairing dinner.
The other good news is how much attention -- and space -- the cruise industry is affording families. "We know if the kids are taken care of and are happy the parents will be happy," says Charles McDonald, who directs all guest activities for Royal Caribbean.
And that's big business. Well over 1.5 million children are now cruising every year, presumably with parents and grandparents in tow, and many families return again and again.
Royal Caribbean, which incidentally is betting cruisers will pay considerably more for Oasis, isn't the only line courting families. Carnival (www.carnival.com), which carries the most kids in the industry, upwards of 625,000 kids a year, has just unveiled its largest ship The Dream. This ship offers more than 19,000 square feet dedicated to kids and teens, including a WaterWorks aqua park touting the longest waterslide at sea and newly designed staterooms with two bathrooms and five berths.
Next summer, Norwegian Cruise Line's Epic (www.ncl.com) plans to wow families with 20 restaurants -- the most at sea -- and entertainment that will include The Blue Man Group. Epic will also offer its own aqua park with three slides (one for kids) and three separate kids' and teen activity areas. Most of the family cabins will be located within close proximity to the Kids Crew areas and have been designed to maximize living and bathroom space use. (No small thing when sharing a cabin.)
Meanwhile, Disney Cruise Line lovers -- and there are many -- can't wait for Disney's third ship, the Disney Dream (www.disneycruise.com) to set sail in 2011 with everything from an AquaDuck high-speed flume ride spanning four decks in height -- to the inside staterooms' virtual portholes though which Mickey Mouse and pals may pop by. Little cruisers can see what it feels like to be toy-sized in Andy's Room where "Toy Story" comes alive or play in the Monster Academy, even dressing the part. And the expanded Small World Nursery will care for kids as young as three months.
If you think Disney cruises are just for young children, think again. Teens can create and edit their own videos, spin their own dance tracks or simply chill on their own outdoor deck (no parents allowed) with a mocktail. Staterooms are designed with families in mind -- from the bath-and-a-half to extra luggage storage to fanciful Peter Pan murals visible above the pull-down berths.
There's one drawback to all of this, of course -- besides figuring out your way around. The kids will have so much fun onboard they won't want to get off the ship in port -- or even when you get home.
For more on Eileen's trip on the Oasis, read her trip diary at www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.