Sailing + Disney = kid fun

WHILE there are parents who look forward to the compulsory pilgrimage to Disney World or Disneyland, there are others for whom it holds the appeal of a medieval torture chamber. My husband and I fell into the latter category, and the prospect of spending ``spring break'' in Disney World with our seven-year-old son and hordes of impatient, exhausted, overstimulated children accompanied by their proportionately disintegrating parents suggested a series of trials -- by lines, crowds, confusion, heat, and fatigue. Let it be known that as first-timers we were pleasantly surprised, not because these conditions did not exist, but because the sheer fun and superb organization of the park superseded its potential for creating misery.

There's another reason we had such a good time. We were feeling unusually relaxed and good natured because we had just returned from a four-day cruise to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and an outlying island that is part of one of the more attractive packages in the cruise industry today.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Premier Cruise Lines, a newcomer to the business and a subsidiary of the Greyhound Corporation, inaugurated an excellent family vacation: a seven-night package that offers the option of three or four nights in Disney World and three or four nights on board one of two luxury liners. Its ships are the comparatively small, cozy Star/Ship Royale (the former Frederico C owned by Costa Cruise Lines), on which we sailed, and the larger Star/Ship Oceanic, which Premier purchased from Home Lines and launched on the same itinerary last April. A special feature of the Oceanic is an 11-night Christmas and New Year's Caribbean cruise, with the option of three additional days in Disney World.

Beginning with prices as low as $425 per person for an inside cabin on a lower deck during the supervalue season ($540 off-season and $580 in-season), the seven-night package includes accommodations in a ``deluxe'' Orlando hotel 15 to 20 minutes from the park, a three-day pass to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, a rental car for seven days with unlimited mileage, and a tour of the Kennedy Space Center, which is about 15 minutes away from Port Canaveral, where the ships dock. Rates are lower if you bring your own car.

While Disney World and a cruise may sound at first like an incongruous combination, they complement each other like ice cream and hot fudge sauce, to borrow my son's imagery. Depending on whether you choose to take the cruise before or after the trip to Disney World, the cruise lets you either get yourself physically and mentally in shape for the coming marathon or recover from it.

Other advantages of this package are the proximity of Port Canaveral to Orlando (only about an hour away) and its area attractions, which include not only Disney World but Sea World and Cypress Gardens, and the casual atmosphere of the ships, which means you don't have to bring two separate wardrobes. For those who have never cruised before, it's a good way to test cruising at a reasonable rate and for a short period.

Premier reports that about 80 percent of its passengers are first-timers, and a larger-than-average proportion are children for whom the thrill of going on a cruise rivals that of going to Disney World. My son, for example, was at a loss to decide which he ``loved'' the most.

A major reason for his enthusiasm, aside from the sheer euphoria of being on board an ocean liner, was the children's program. Both the Royale and the Oceanic offer a year-round, supervised program of activities for children under 12 and another for teen-agers. What this means for the youngster is entertainment; for their parents it means peace, a premium at any price. My son liked best the cartoons, the tour of the bridge, the whirlpool games, making his own sundae, and finding a friend. The two teen-age boys at our table extolled their program, which featured scavenger hunts and soft-drink parties, as ``a great way to meet girls.''

From the parents' point of view, the children's program seemed at times disorganized, perhaps because of the unusually high number of children (240) on board that Easter week, and in the evening, baby sitters were almost impossible to come by. Another drawback is that the ships do not have a staffed children's center that is open all day and part of the evening, a convenience on certain other ships. The adults, who comprise not only parents traveling with children but the elderly and honeymooners, have their own roster of activities, and the entertainment, taken from the cruise circuit of fading but not yet extinguished stars, has definite older appeal.

The food, however, we rated as the best we could recall ever having on a cruise ship. The cuisine on both Oceanic and the Royale is international, with a rotating menu of French, Italian, and Caribbean dishes. We were particularly impressed by the freshness of the ingredients, the delicate piquancy of the sauces and seasonings, and the perfectly cooked meat, fish, and vegetables -- rarely underdone or overdone.

While the children tended to cast a cold eye on the fancy dishes, and my son reserved his only praise for the breakfast cereal, pancakes, and sherbet, the menu does encourage at least gustatory awareness, if not a broadened palate. The midnight buffets that range from a ``Tropical Paradise'' of island fruits and specialties to ``da Vinci's Delight,'' a bravura display of pizza and pasta, were as delightful in presentation as consumption, with vegetables carved into flowers, ice blocks chiseled into sculptures, and such unlikely items as crayfish constructed into towers.

We also noted favorably the cleanliness of the elegantly refurbished ship and the efficiency and courtesy of the international crew and oficers, who cheerfully maintained order even during crowded conditions, such as the luncheon buffet on deck or around the pool. We did feel, however, that the cruise staff was a bit overzealous in pushing the shore excursions (four in Nassau, of which only the evening of native entertainment was really worthwhile) and the ``splashdown'' snorkeling program on the out island.

While Nassau is one of the most overrated and overexploited destinations in the Caribbean from the point of view of the cruise-ship tourist, with little more than beaches and the straw market to recommend it, the private island, Salt Cay, which is off the coast of Nassau (East Providence Island) and the site of the television series ``Gilligan's Island,'' is a true treat. We spent an idyllic day swimming in the sheltered lagoon, lolling in hammocks, exploring the island along the nature trail, partaking in the barbecue, and watching the trimmer passengers do the limbo. Paddle boats and tubes in the lagoon were favorites with the children.

Back on land we stopped at the Kennedy Space Center on the way to the hotel, an experience that brought the space program vividly to life. We found our hotel, the Floridian, with difficulty because of the inadequate rental car map, and it was rather a let-down compared with the luxury of the ship. An example of the built-fast-but-not-to-last school of hotel architecture, this ``modern'' hotel already looked a little worn, and there were occasional long waits for maid service, bellhops, and the elevator. Compensations were doughnuts and beverages by the pool in the morning and coin-operated washers and dryers.

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