American Family Cruises belly-flopped, but families can still vacation at sea

TAKING THE KIDS

September 25, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

There were nay-sayers from the first. A cruise line entirely devoted to families would never work, cruise industry insiders whispered when American Family Cruises debuted with much fanfare last year. Not enough families would cruise during the school year, they said.

Perhaps that's why industry observers weren't surprised when the announcement came that American Family Cruises would cease to exist less than a year after its launch. The last sailing was Sept. 3 from Miami.

What went wrong? The cruise line devoted to families failed at a time when more families than ever are cruising -- more than half a million each year, reports the Cruise Lines International Association. Their numbers are increasing every year. Carnival reports that it's carrying 86,000 children a year, while Premier, with its Looney Toons characters, boasts that families account for 60 percent of its business. Executives of Premier, which leased one of its three ships, say they are looking for a larger ship to replace it.

"The family business is the fastest growing segment in the cruise business. Every cruise line is promoting its family business," notes Art Rodney, president of Disney Cruises. Disney, for one, is pouring $350 million into developing a cruise operation -- complete with two new 75-ton ships -- that is scheduled to launch in 1998 and will tout family-sized staterooms and combined Disney World and cruise vacations. He expects his ships to appeal to seniors, honeymooners and other childless cruisers as well as families.

Industry observers say American Family Cruises went awry because it devoted all its resources to satisfying children. "Mom and Dad were left short," says Gary Sain, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Premier. "The key is service for the adults and the kids."

But Bruce Nierenberg, who developed American Family Cruises as well as Premier Cruises, disagrees. "When you take kids on a trip, the first eight things on everyone's list is whether the kids are having a good time. Our concept would have been very successful," he insists. "The failure had to do with people and personalities" in the Costa Cruise Lines-backed venture.

"The concept will be back," he vows. "This is too big a market not to be served."

Meanwhile, would-be family cruisers shouldn't despair. The market is as competitive as ever with plenty of other options, even deals, for those who envision themselves sailing the high seas to exotic locales, their children beside them on deck. The trick is to shop carefully beforehand, choosing the ship that best meets your family's needs.

For example, if there's a baby in the house, Princess would not be a good bet. Children under 2 aren't permitted to sail. Norwegian Cruise Lines, on the other hand, not only welcomes the infant crowd but also allows them to cruise free and guarantees that baby-sitting will be available (at $8 an hour). Premier, which touts its family programs, doesn't offer baby-sitting on board for infants, while Royal Caribbean advises parents to bring their own portable cribs.

If there's a toddler in the family, Royal Caribbean wouldn't be a good choice either, because the children's program doesn't accept children under age 5. Premier offers activities for 2-year-olds, as does Princess.

Sorting out all the differences is time-consuming and confusing. "Start with a travel agent who has cruised with children or grandchildren," suggests Diana Orban, a spokeswoman for the Cruise Lines International Association. Most cruises are booked through travel agents.

It's important to get as much information as possible about the children's programs before booking. What's the ratio of counselors to children? How large are the play rooms? Are there separate areas for different age groups? Are there children's menus? Ask to see them as well as schedules for the children's programs. What kind of activities are provided for teens?

"You want to be sure they're offering more than an expensive video arcade," explains Mr. Nierenberg, himself the father of four.

The programs may sound great, but will they be offered during your sailing? Some ships offer them only during peak periods.

Even if the programs are in full swing, don't expect to spend all day relaxing on deck. Frequently young children will balk at being with strangers. Some preschoolers won't go to organized activities at all.

Older children may not want to participate either. But they'll revel in the freedom the ship affords.

"The kids didn't want to get off the ship," reports Karen Simon, the mother of three grade-school-age boys who cruised to Mexico this summer.

Ms. Simon, who lives in Las Vegas, especially liked the worry-free aspects of cruising. "It was a totally safe environment," she explained. "They were on a first-name basis with all of the crew."

This fall, parents might find cruising a particularly economical vacation alternative, especially if they can travel during off-peak times. A family of four could cruise for $2,500 for a week (not including air fare), says Larry Fishkin, president of the Miami-based Cruise Line Inc., a major cruise discounter. (Call [800] 777-0707 for information.)

Take time to shop for the best deal. Sign on for a Premier cruise and get a Disneyland package -- valued at $1,100 -- free, or ask about some of the children-sail-free options being promoted on Premier, Carnival and others. The deluxe Crystal Cruises is offering activities and children-cruise-free deals on some holiday cruises. Just don't forget the seasickness medicine.

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