Family Vacations Hit the High Seas

Seeking hassle-free breaks, more families go cruising.

You know something is different about this cruise when the farewell toot of the ship's horn belts out "When You Wish Upon a Star."

Of course, boarding an ocean liner through a pair of giant mouse ears and following staff directions like "Pull out your key to the Magic Kingdom!" at first blush seem a bit surreal.

A throaty version of Jiminy Cricket's trademark solo on the way out of Port Canaveral, Fla., leaves no doubt: You're on a floating theme park - one Disney is launching this week in hopes of capturing a chunk of a hot vacation market: the family cruise.

No longer just the domain of those with Titanic-size wallets, cruises are becoming an increasingly popular option for harried baby boomers. Hitchhiking across Europe on $5 a day may once have held its charms. But with offspring from toddlers to teens in tow, this crowd is trading in its walking shoes for a break from tightly packaged lives.

According to the Travel Industry Association of America in Washington, 16 percent of families who intend to take a holiday this year are eyeing a cruise, up from 11 percent in 1994.

"Work schedules are on a collision course with family time," says Stephanie Coontz, professor of family history at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and author of "The Way We Really Are." "Parents get exhausted." It's easier to plug everyone into a predictable vacation than plan all the logistics themselves, she adds.

To try to lure them in, cruise lines are getting creative, hiring camp-style counselors and installing everything from elaborate play spaces to skating rinks alongside spas and nightclubs.

"Cruise companies are making a push to get families," says Eric Mintz, an industry analyst at Raymond James Financial, an investment brokerage in Miami. Disney's estimated $350-million entry into the market, with its mouse-embossed red smokestacks and Goofy pools will only accelerate the trend, Mr. Mintz notes, by attracting first-time cruisers.

How successful these moves will prove is an open question. In Disney's case, a four-month delay in the ship launch and prices as much as 30 percent above the competition have prompted skepticism about its strategy.

The three- and four-day Disney Magic cruises have not sold out, though Disney pleads a slow time in the cruising year. Whether singles and empty-nesters will want to hop on board a ship whose entertainment and decor is distinctly Mickey Mouse - and is typically packaged with a few days at Disney World - is another unknown.

But a strong economy and a desire by families to spend leisure time together has cruise lines upbeat.

A record 5 million vacationers took cruises in 1997. And since only 8 percent of North Americans have taken a cruise, the industry sees plenty of room to expand - a good thing, since 30 new and ever-larger ships are expected to be introduced in North America by 2003.

Lure of convenience

For families, especially a growing cadre of single parents, a key attraction of cruises can be summed up in one word: convenience. They offer, room, board, entertainment, even babysitting - all in one steel-hulled container. "People like packages," says Alan Wilson, manager of Springfield, Ill.-based Travel Inc., which specializes in cruises. Those packages can also be quite reasonable, with food, lodging, and entertainment running as little as $100 a day per person, though they can range much higher. (For example, Disney's lower-end trips can run each person about $180 a day.)

Another plus, Mr. Wilson says, is that cruising is no longer just formal dining and sunbathing, but "what you want it to be."

Ostensibly, for families, that's togetherness - time to bond by pulling back from homework, long commutes, and the eternal question: "What's for dinner?"

On traditional vacations, such quantity time can also be fraught with peril. Many families are thinking twice before heading to the beach (where their trip could be rained out) or driving 15 hours to visit relatives.

Cruises are pouncing on those concerns and marketing their special blend of closeness - with some fairy dust tossed in to let parents fly the coop occasionally.

On the 875-room Disney Magic, for example, counselors meet with families to target children's interests. Give them your kids and they'll toss you a beeper.

They'll take the little ones on archaeological digs when the boat docks at Disney's private island in the Bahamas, or acquaint teens with a coffeehouse that "plays music I actually listen to," as one teen notes. An arcade beckons from near the children's pools, and computers ring the Oceaneer's Lab, where kids of all ages can participate in group activities as late as 1 a.m.

Cruise managers are also appealing to another family concern: security. "Disney is very conscious of safety," says Susan Antonacci, who brought her 10- and 12-year-olds from Toronto for a cruise.

She likes the fact that counselors beep parents if there's a problem, use a password system to sign children in and out, and walk children to parents' waiting hands. "They've thought of everything," she says, adding happily that she got an hour to read in the sun while her son went on a treasure hunt.

Fleeing real life?

Not everyone, of course, favors the shift toward programmed vacations. "It's a retreat from public space and into the gated community," says Professor Coontz. Instead of exploring a new city together - when adults and children figure things out together and rub elbows with a wide variety of people - families now move "from the living room to a perfect Disney room," she says.

In addition, the fact that everyone can split in different directions may not yield the warm memories that families anticipate.

Children can float from arcades to play areas to meals with peers and see very little of Mom or Dad, while parents can go ashore without their offspring.

"You have to set rules, such as, 'We all will have dinner together,' " says Wilson.

Many families do just that. Chris Dudas, a teenage cruise veteran from Dayton, Ohio, designates the day as time for Mom.

But come sunset, it's a different story. "At night, I'm out on my own," he says with a smile.

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