Right now, had the summer holiday landscape been different, thousands of children would have been counting down the sleeps until their holiday at sea.
Dreams might’ve featured a zip ride over the water’s edge, a ride on the Ultimate Abyss (this 100ft-long water slide on Harmony of the Seas has a “buddy” slide and a transparent boarding platform for added thrills) or swapping Coco Pops for an unforgettable breakfast with Disney’s Elsa or Dr Seuss on a Celebrity Cruises ship.
Say what you like about cruising – and many have over the past four months – but children love it. Why wouldn't they? Modern, family-friendly ships are like mini adventure parks but without the queues and poor food.
In the current climate, certainly there are places where large ships clearly should not be. But is a family of four cruising from Southampton worse than four or more people boarding a plane and driving around in a car for a week or two?
With more ships than ever sailing from UK ports, 2020 was set to be a bumper year for summer cruising. P&O Cruises’ family-friendly ships often carry up to 800 children per week from Southampton in July and August, and in previous years all of the line’s ships have sailed full.
Once you’ve done your homework – and planning is key – a family cruise holiday can be blissfully simple (for adults) while also being packed with entertainment. “I’m bored,” said no child, ever, on a cruise ship.
For parents there are obvious benefits – paying up front for meals and unlimited activities and entertainment removes any budget concerns. A cruise offers all the benefits of an all-inclusive with the bonus of a new destination each day. The kids’ clubs, usually free, cater for all age groups, teenagers included (one line has a dedicated deck area and pool) and many lines offer babysitting services, too.
The range of things to do on board coupled with diverse excursions ashore means that larger ships cater particularly well to multi-generational – babies, toddlers, teens, adults and grandparents are all catered for – and family friendship groups. The sheer variety (and quality) of food is hard to beat. Not all restaurants will be included in the cruise price but you would struggle to find a family-friendly hotel with a teppanyaki grill, a diner, a steakhouse, a fine-dining Italian, an upscale Mexican, a romantic French bistro and an à la carte seafood restaurant – in addition to the a round-the-clock buffet, a main dining room, poolside dining, ice cream galore and several bars.
But what these ships all have is “fun” in their DNA. The sort of stuff that would have Billy Butlin doing cartwheels in his grave.
Norwegian Cruise Line dedicates an entire deck to an extraordinary, elevated ropes course with zip lines and a toe-curling plank which extends 160ft above the water (there are as many parents flinging themselves around the course in safety harnesses as there are children). Royal Caribbean Group introduced an on-deck surf simulator several years ago and it remains hugely popular with kids and adults alike. Having tried iFly, the skyjump simulator on Quantum of the Seas, I can vouch for the airborne thrills as you hover over a wind tunnel.
Master of immersive entertainment, Disney goes to town at sea. Take the Star Wars Day at Sea on Disney Fantasy. This involves a ship-wide Porg-themed adventure and the chance to meet some of the galaxy’s most formidable and heroic characters on board. Children can put their newly acquired Jedi skills into action in a face-off with Darth Vader, while parents keep watch for roaming Stormtroopers, Bounty Hunters and Jawas.
And for cruise naysayers who might pooh-pooh attractions at sea in favour of exploring destinations? This year’s batch of tours included a treasure hunt among windmills in Holland, with children playing the role of detective for the Dutch East India Company. And from Iona, P&O Cruises’ brand-new ship, a Viking Voyagers excursion in Stavanger includes a visit to Hafrsfjord, where three 33-ft-high bronze swords mark the battle that united Norway’s warring clans under one ruler.
Further afield, in Alaska, there is earning a zodiac boat driver’s license (Lindblad) or gold panning and exploring an underground mine (Princess Cruises). A handful of river cruises cater to families, too. Spooky Gothic castles, cycling excursions and a behind-the-scenes tour of a BMW factory were highlights of a cruise on the river ship SS Beatrice, sailing from Budapest to Prague.
For those that prefer educational-led activity to white-knuckle rides there is plenty to fire the imagination. In conjunction with the Frost Science Museum, Xbox, Anturus and Lonely Planet Celebrity Cruises offers its STEM-oriented Camp at Sea. Programmes including Power of Plankton and Mission Microplastics are built around team-building games and activities geared to all ages – parents included. Other lines have similar partnerships.
“Fantastic; brilliant; best holiday ever…” is how two girls, aged 9 and 13 described their cruise holiday to me last year. “Perhaps it was waking up in four different countries, our sightseeing trip to Pisa or learning about the history of Pompeii and the Colosseum,” said their mum. “Maybe it was the wave riding, zip lining, climbing wall or the endless ice cream that stuck in their heads. It was probably all of it.”
What family cruise ships do best is let kids be kids and offer almost round-the-clock entertainment – whether that’s through hands-on learning, land-based exploration or squaring up to Darth Vader.
This summer a lot of children are missing out a big slice of at-sea fun, but there’s always next year.
Let’s be honest: “An agriturismo holiday in Umbria, please!” said no child, ever.