All Teens On Deck

Newest ship activities designed to bring in waves of young folks and their families

June 17, 2007|By Sheila Young | Sheila Young,Special to the Sun

Fun-filled family vacation with teenagers" -- it's a seemingly ridiculous phrase. But that was just what we had in mind when we booked a cruise to the Caribbean last winter. And of all things, our teenage son suggested it. We were shocked at first -- it's hard enough to get a teenager to talk to you, let alone willingly go on a family vacation. And Owen, 17 and an athlete, isn't a good fit with the sleep-and-shuffleboard lifestyle we had thought was typical on cruises. Instead, we discovered, cruises have changed quite a bit in the past few years and now have many activities that appeal to teens.

Several of Owen's friends had taken family cruises and returned with tales of meeting teenagers from all over the world. He wanted that experience, too, and in these flat-world times my husband, Rick, and I thought it would be a good idea. But we did have a few concerns about how everyone would mesh within such strict confines.

One of the difficulties in traveling with teenagers is their crazy hours. We're ready for bed when Owen's ready to go out, and we're up with the birds when he's still down for the count. The other difficulty, of course, is that teens want to pretend their embarrassing parents don't exist.

FOR THE RECORD - A photo caption in the Travel section Sunday misidentified an area of the Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas. The photograph showed the ship's atrium, not the solarium.

On board our ship, all of those issues just disappeared. Safely at sea, it didn't matter that we slept while he stayed out late. And there were so many different things for each of us to do in port and on board that we weren't noticeable enough to be embarrassing to him.

"Teens want to get out there and experiment with the world," says Jaci Fink, who runs the kids program for Royal Caribbean International. On a cruise ship, "parents are comfortable with their teens getting out there and trying different things but also doing things together. They can participate in some of the adult activities like going to shows, but they have their own space, too."

Or as my son summarized his friends' experience: "Once they're on board the ship, they never see their parents again until it's time to go home."

Rick and I weren't exactly up for that kind of agenda, but we did think it was a good chance for everyone to have their own kind of fun in a well-contained area. I mean, the kids can't exactly wander away. And fully aware of teenage skills at rule-bending, the cruise lines have ways of identifying their ages so as to prevent underage drinking and gambling.

Cruise lines have taken notice of the increase in teen passengers, and many are building and retro-fitting ships to appeal to older kids. Royal Caribbean even conducted a national survey of teen travel and recently created a Teen Advisory Board.

Many ships already have teen-only discos and lounges, basketball courts and rock-climbing walls -- and who can honestly think the surf pool on the newest Royal Caribbean ship will be overrun by octogenarians? Some cruise lines have set up PlayStation 2 and Wii video game areas with large-screen monitors. Disney and Carnival offer teen-only excursions. Depending on which cruise line you choose, your teenagers will have a chance to produce a movie, play a teen version of TV reality shows, be a disc jockey or get a makeover.

Not all ships in each line have the same teen facilities, however, so it's best to check. And this is a perfect time to say: Buck the trend and use a travel agent. I did extensive research online before we booked our cruise and talked to friends who had cruised with their teenagers. It helped me narrow down which cruises looked like the best match for us. Still, our travel agent, Suzanne Gaertner, had far more expertise.

Travel agents who deal with the cruise lines know the ins and outs of cruising and of the ships themselves. And there are lots of ins and outs. Gaertner matched us with a cruise that fit our expectations and our budget, saved us from getting stuck on a noisy deck and successfully negotiated a last-minute glitch in our favor because of her long-standing relationship with the cruise line.

As a result, our experience on Royal Caribbean's Jewel of the Seas, sailing from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Caribbean, was superb from beginning to end.

Check-in was efficient and friendly: "Your stateroom is ready and lunch is being served," the agent said. "Welcome aboard." The ship's glass elevators scooped us up over the harbor and onto our deck. We found our cabin, a spacious stateroom with a large balcony.

Some lines offer family-friendly staterooms, and here is another area where a good travel agent can help you choose. Some of these options are as simple as staterooms with connecting doors, giving teenagers a sense of independence (and their parents some privacy), while still maintaining parental supervision. Others are luxury suites.

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