In almost 16 years of traveling with kids, my family has seen an amazing number of places. We’ve traveled by plane, train and automobile, along with the occasional funicular, bike and Segway. But in all of our travels we’d never been on a family cruise, so when given the chance to sail on the maiden voyage of the Carnival Sunshine it was exciting and a bit intimidating all at once.
Carnival Sunshine first sailed the seas as Carnival Destiny. When she debuted in 1996, she was the largest cruise ship in the world. After a $155 million renovation, she’s cruised into New Orleans, offering passengers three Caribbean itineraries and a slew of amenities for families with kids of all ages.
Carnival carries four and a-half million cruisers a year, including more kids than anyone; an impressive 700-thousand young sailors. Making them (and their parents) happy was clearly a priority during Sunshine’s transformation. All of Sunshine’s guest spaces were gutted and re-created from scratch in an amazingly brief 75 days.
The upper back deck of the entire ship is dedicated to the young and young at heart. The SkyCourse is a mid-air obstacle course that hovers above SportSquare. The deck is home to the basketball SkyCourt, ping pong and pool tables, along with a giant Twister board. There’s also SkyGreens Mini Golf, shuffle board, a giant chess board and the outdoor SkyTrack for anyone that still has the energy to run or walk. It’s essentially a super-sized floating playground for all ages; parents included.
As amazing as the SportSquare area is, it lives in the splashing shadow of WaterWorks. The largest waterpark aboard all of Carnival’s ships, it features SplashZone, a gentle play area for the younger set, along with three twisty, turny slides. The yellow Twister slide is fairly mellow, whereas the blue and green Speedway Splash slides deliver a wilder ride, allowing willing riders to race to the bottom.
The best part, even though our boat was near capacity, there were never long lines to contend with.
You may find you have to schedule family time on the slides around the kids’ social calendar. Three kids’ clubs operate on the Sunshine. Camp Carnival covers, 2- 11, Circle C is for the 12 -14 set and Club O2 covers the older teen crowd. Expect your kids to give you the royal brush off during your time at sea, especially if you have teenagers.
Waiting up for my 15 year-old to come back to our cabin, often after midnight, was just one of my new cruise experiences.
All of the guests quarters got a re-do in the Sunshine renovation, but keep in mind, she’s still a ship and space is precious. Cabins can sleep four, but families will literally be on top of one another. Two twins on the ground, push together for parents. My teens took up residence on the twin that dropped out of the ceiling and the twin pullout from the sofa. It’s tight quarters, and I will admit to being downright scared when we all tried to enter the cabin together for the first time with our luggage.
That said, once you’re unpacked and settled, a family of four (and with my 5’7” plus teens, we’re talking about a big family of four) can function remarkably well. With seemingly constant activities going on aboard the ship at all hours of the day and night, aside from sleeping, we spent very little time in the cabin.
For families with kids that don’t eat on schedule, the good news is neither do cruise ships. Something’s always cooking, so whenever hunger strikes, food is easily in reach. Fresh-baked pizza and soft-serve ice cream and yogurt is available 24/7. Guy’s Burger Joint, as in celebrity chef Guy Fieri, starts serving up burgers and fries before you’ve had time to finish breakfast and the Blue Iguana Cantina wraps breakfast, lunch and dinner in your choice of whole wheat or jalapeno tortillas.
The Lido Marketplace serves up an almost continuous buffet, while upscale restaurants like Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse and JiJi Asian Kitchen offer more upscale dining experiences with an additional fee.
A family of four could eat three square meals a day, every day of their cruise and not taste their way through all of the possibilities.
Time in port is short, so making good use of your time is a must and if you want to get out of the often touristy port area, you have to hit the ground running. The eternal travel rule, you can’t see and do everything applies, so keep that in perspective and what you do get to do as a family can easily lead to holiday card starring photographs.
During one short day in Grand Cayman, my family swam with stingrays (some as big as an average teenager) and a dolphin named Stinky who has a habit of swimming by and scoring a free lunch with his good looks. We dried off, headed to the Cayman Turtle Farm where we got to wade in a breeding pond, hold turtles and take a dip in the 1.3 million galloon salt water lagoon, home to turtles set to be released into the wild in the coming months. We also stumbled upon a place the size of a closet that makes great Jamaican style patties. Whew! All that, and then back on the boat, showered and dressed for a nice dinner by 8:15pm.
The following day in Cozumel was much more relaxed. A 45-minute scenic boat ride along the coast ended when we docked at Passion Island or Isla Pasion. Our day at the beach included an assortment of water trampolines that made the blue, warm water even more irresistible. All-inclusive, food and most drinks were included which meant I could actually relax. When the kids were hungry, they grabbed a plate from the buffet. A supervised, fenced kids’ club/play area let parents of younger kids enjoy some free time as well.
Understanding people and the different cultures they call home is one of the biggest reasons I love to travel with my kids. Whether it’s to China or Paris, it’s an education that can’t be replicated in a book.
I didn’t plan on our Carnival Sunshine cruise having much educational value, and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Thanks to the Kids’ Clubs, my California girls suddenly found themselves the minority in a sea of teenagers from the southeast. They came home with thoughts, ideas and new friendships that I suspect will continue to grow, thanks to the ease of staying connected via social media.
With 15 years of experience traveling with kids, I’ve become what I would call comfortably set in my ways. I’ve learned what works for my family and for the most part, I stick with it. But cruising has its own set of traveling rules and tips. For example, bringing something to decorate your cabin door will make it easier for parents and kids to find, and having a lanyard to hang your door key/identification/ship charge card from, makes it harder to lose. Carabiners come in handy to hang everything from wet swimsuits to backpacks and multiple electrical outlet adapters will help keep all those electronics charged when there’s limited places to plugin.
Learning the cruising ropes aboard the Carnival Sunshine made me a new traveling mom all over again, reminding me that traveling with kids, no matter what their age, isn’t easy, but is always worth it.
Dana and her family was offered a complimentary sailing aboard the Carnival Sunshine, but as always her thoughts and opinions are her own. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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