My 6-year-old's eyes widened in near disbelief at the news. His favorite talking yellow Porifera, SpongeBob SquarePants, had plans to emerge from his pineapple under the sea and host the first-ever Nickelodeon cruise for kids. What's more, the voyage would take place aboard the biggest ship in the world, Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas ... and Tyler was going to go. Then came the icing on his sponge cake: Little sister Tess would be staying home with Dad and it would just be the two of us. He was about as excited as I've ever seen him, sharing every detail of the cruise with unbridled enthusiasm to friends and neighbors, and as the day grew nearer, eagerly crossing off the days on a hand-made calendar he charted out just for the occasion.
And me? As an active and involved mom with two young kids, I'm as tolerant of goofy antics and in-your-face commercialism as the next parent, but could I really handle an entire week of Dora sing-alongs, endless character shows and fluorescent slime? Images of a thousand misbehaving little urchins threatened to cloud my excitement: tots packing water guns and ducking into corners, armies of bored and brooding pre-teens rolling their eyes at me over the dinner table night after night. A thousand of them? Maybe more? All on one ship?
Relax, I love kids. And I'm also a closet "Backyardigans" fan. Surely, I could handle it. But would I enjoy it?
Preparing For the Slime-Fest
Ty's first order of business, after bouncing off the walls for an hour or so after learning of the trip, was obvious: Google everything related to the ship, the agenda and our ports of call -- Cozumel, Grand Cayman, Labadee (Royal Caribbean's private island) and Jamaica. Together we uncovered a bevy of handy information. We viewed and printed the deck plans for the Freedom of the Seas, and dug up every picture of the ship we could get our hands on, so that we knew it like the back of our hands before we ever treaded onboard. Why waste time getting lost for the first two days? We found the ingredients for the coveted slime, and made an ill-fated and messy attempt at reproducing it. We even researched our ports of call. Did you know that the Cayman Islands were named after a marine crocodile (otherwise known as a turtle) which was found there, and that they were accidentally discovered after Columbus' final voyage to the new world veered off track? Or that Ocho Rios is really a misnomer, as it is home only to the famous Dunn's River chorreos, or rapids -- not "eight rivers," from which the name is mistakenly derived? Heck, I didn't. It was a fun and educational experience for us both.
Aside from arriving at the Atlantic City airport at the ungodly hour of 4:30 a.m. on departure day, our travel to Miami proved miraculously painless. Flights and transfers cooperated with us; and even though I hate the darn thing, we packed the Nintendo DS for times when we were forced to wait. Upon arrival at Port of Miami, things went just as well. Despite the massive volume of passengers (Freedom of the Seas holds 3,634 passengers and the cruise was sold out), and mind-boggling number of children, strollers and all the fixin's in tow, the embarkation process went surprisingly smoothly. We arrived to the terminal around 10:30 a.m. and while we were told embarkation would begin at 1 p.m., they managed to get us moving well before that. We stepped onto the ship around noon. Everyone was in good spirits, despite a few stray showers, as a genuinely excited Nickelodeon staff had entertained the kids in the terminal with games and chit-chat, getting everyone psyched for the trip. Just before boarding, we noticed some last-minute scrambling to get things finished, as the giant Nickelodeon slime decal was being adhered to the side of the ship while we looked on. If stepping aboard the Freedom makes a grown-up feel tiny, imagine what it feels like to a 6-year-old.
"Did this use to be an aircraft carrier?" Tyler asked, in all sincerity.
No, but it cost about as much to build.
Talking 'Bout Freedom
Few would argue that Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships are some of the most family-friendly vessels afloat. And so, Nickelodeon made a wise choice coming aboard here. After boarding and grabbing a quick snack from the Cafe Promenade, a quaint coffeehouse with snacks, pastries, and sandwiches, we gave ourselves a quick "highlights tour." We first shot up to Deck 11, as Ty was visibly bursting to see the pool area and famous H2O Zone he had heard so much about. With a colorful array of soakers, sprayers and geysers, along with a lazy river and kids' pool, this area was a big hit with his age group. In fact, my son would have spent all day there if I let him. However, had I brought my youngest child, I might have been a tad disappointed. Children who are not potty-trained are not allowed anywhere in the H2O zone, not even with swimmy diapers, save for a tiny square wading pool to the side. And throughout most of the cruise they were monitoring this pretty closely. This upset some of the parents who were not aware of this fact beforehand, as the zero-depth entry spray area is otherwise ideal for these youngest cruisers.
We also checked out the much-anticipated Deck 13, where we stopped to stand in awe of the enormous 43-foot rock wall, and took in a quick round of mini-golf, which we found to be surprisingly uncrowded then -- and for most of the cruise. Then, the big Kahuna: We went to check out the FlowRider, which is a 40-ft long wave-simulator that allows you to test your skills at boogie boarding or surfing. Picture 30,000 gallons of water flying at your body while you try to remain upright, either on your belly, or even less likely, on your feet. It was a shame, but Ty missed out on that experience, as he didn't reach the 52-inch requirement for the boogie board or the 58-inch requirement for surfing. Still, several times during the trip we sat on the bleachers adjacent to this ingenious contraption, and watched the hilarious antics of many of our fellow passengers -- from young kids to grandparents -- as they attempted to ride the wave. We also paused to check out the arcade, where my son was delighted to see they had all of his favorite games from the boardwalk near our New Jersey home. His mother, however, was less-delighted to see that they cost about 10 times the price. Well, nearly. The ones he was interested in were close to $2 a pop, and when I realized that we'd have to walk through this arcade repeatedly to get to the Adventure Ocean Explorer's room, I put the kibosh on that right away. Another must-see was the ice rink in Studio B. Tyler was all fired up when he saw this awesome frozen playground, complete with mini-zambonis, which he quickly dubbed "the little cleaning robots."
Our stateroom was ready well before 1 p.m. and I was pleasantly surprised by how cheery and tasteful the balcony cabin was. It being a newish ship, the decor was very tasteful with pale tans, creams, peaches and teals, and felt larger than I had expected. Our queen bed, which we were very happy to see was not configured into two twins, was very comfortable, with deluxe bedding and large green throw pillows. While the pillows initially felt like a nice touch, they did become a tad cumbersome by the end of the trip, taking up coveted space on the couch when the bed was unmade. The couch and glass table in the sitting area were an indulgence, and provided the perfect spot to go through the day's purchases, as was the large balcony with its metal loungers and end table. There was more than ample storage in the pale oak-colored built-ins.
Let the Wild Rumpus Start
The sailaway party as we left Miami provided our first official introduction to the Nickelodeon entertainers, and it was a rip-roaring time, if unbelievably crowded. What appeared to be every family onboard gathered on Deck 11 for a show featuring songs, antics, games and the first sliming of the cruise. It was a big hit, and a harbinger of more great amusement to come.
Nickelodeon Entertainment Highlights
I thought the folks at Nickelodeon did a terrific job with the entertainment, particularly given that it was their first-ever venture. Beloved Nick host Ruben emceed most of their events and, when not working the crowd onstage, could be seen mingling with the kids and posing for pictures. We spent one tender ride from Labadee, our final port of call, sitting next to him, and he's just as he appears on TV: charming and gregarious, and wonderful with children. The Slime Time Live shows were, as you might expect, the highlight of the cruise for many of the kids, including my own. We caught the show on day two of the cruise, before we had a chance to overhear any hints about what to expect.
Like most everyone onboard, especially those parents who grew up watching “You Can't Do That on Television” every afternoon like I did, I pretty much knew the deal. Families compete in a game show, in which they answer questions and compete in contests that require hapless participants to do ridiculous and hilarious things like don chicken costumes, jump through plastic hoops and sit in chairs that gyrate. Volunteers are brought in from the live audience to join in the antics; ultimately, somehow, some family wins. The loser family gets doused with fluorescent green slime, while seated in a plastic pool and everyone howls in approval. Any way you look at it, even if you've seen it before, it's just plain funny, whether you're 6 or 60. Still, many of the families onboard had visited the Nick Suites in Orlando, and were hoping they'd mix the show up a bit more for the cruise.
A huge hit with the 'tween crowd was a meet and greet with two of the stars from the Nickelodeon series "iCarly," Jeannette McCurdy and Nathan Kress. These kids are big stars, and the demand to see them was so great that not everyone got a chance to do so on the first go. To the credit of both actors and staff, they put together an impromptu second event later in the week to accommodate those who were unable to get into the first one. Another big night for this age group was the premiere of Nathan Kress' new movie, "Gym Teacher." He is a truly delightful and sweet kid, and many slightly older kids really seemed to enjoy the movie, but I think my son was a little young.
Another somewhat unexpectedly (from my perspective) great performance was by Tom Kenny, the voice behind SpongeBob. My son, tuckered from a long day three in Cozumel, wasn't eager to attend, but the show also promised a sneak peak of a never-before-seen episode of the show, which proved enough to get his weary body into a seat. He was positively glued to the screen during the short premiere. And when Tom Kenny came on afterwards to entertain the kids with his band (who knew he had a band?) it was much more fun than we both expected. He can't really sing of course, but he's SpongeBob, so who cares? At first my son didn't even believe this guy was the real voice, distracted by his appearance as, well, a person. So we played a game where we covered our eyes and listened, without looking at him. "It really IS HIM!" he finally declared. For about an hour after the show kids could be heard all over the ship humming his most catchy tune, "It's the Best Day Ever," which I found oddly touching.
Throughout the cruise, Nickelodeon hosted Nick Live on the pool deck with games, contests and challenges, as well as Bikini Bashes (named after Bikini Bottom, SpongeBob's hometown, and not because you are required to wear one, thankfully) and slimings. There were also, as suspected, Dora sing-alongs, as well as character breakfasts, Nickelodeon family improv and karaoke nights, series premieres, and one massive scavenger hunt, all of which we thoroughly enjoyed.
With the exception of a few late-night events like the Love & Marriage game show and a comedy performance, the entertainment on Freedom of the Seas was not just kid-friendly, but also genuinely amusing for them. Our personal favorite was day five's Now You See It, which featured the magic of Drew Thomas and his lovely assistant in a dizzying array of dexterous feats. Kids were enthralled with everything from the old standby act of cutting the assistant in two, to the downright breathtaking: a grand finale of snow falling in the theater. Extraordinary. The Freedom-Ice show was also very enjoyable, a high-energy performance with a cast of extremely talented skaters, bright costumes and props that the kids loved. I'll be honest, I'm not really one for this kind of thing normally, but in this environment it was perfect. Guests can also use the ice rink during off hours to skate, which I was dying to do but never did find the time for. Skates are gratis.
Also memorable was day two's comedian Steve Shaffer, who entertained with some tame jokes, and performed with the crazy-talented visual comedian Kirk Marsh. Mr. Marsh was a huge hit with the kids, taking to the stage via the audience while climbing over seats, he performed a series of hilarious and silly stunts, embarrassing the heck out of one unexpecting dad who was called on stage to the utter delight of his kids.
Hurry Up and Wait, Kids
While we're on the topic of entertainment, a word about the lines: Let's face it, when you have Freedom's haul of passengers, some lines are a given, no question. Throw in the extra Nickelodeon events planned for this cruise, and they are pretty much unavoidable. At several times throughout the cruise, but particularly on the second day, lines snaked the length of the promenade, as patient parents (and less-patient tykes) waited for tickets to the character breakfast, Slime Time Live and Freedom-Ice shows, all of which had multiple showings. We opted to wait for the Slime Time and Freedom-Ice tickets, but take our chances with the character breakfast, figuring since it was in the dining room we might get away with sneaking in at the last minute. A decision which, given the 25-minute wait, seemed worth the risk, and paid off.
Dining: Anything Goes, Almost
Providing top-notch grub for 3,600 passengers at every meal is a triumph on any cruise, but throw in the finicky eating habits of kids of every possible age, and the inevitable disruption of little ones' bed and nap times (if there are such things on a cruise), and you're talking about the potential for major disaster. Thankfully, disaster was not even close to the case, but there certainly were a few hiccups. According to three different waiters we talked to during our trip, the dining experience on the Nickelodeon cruise was very different than you would expect on a "normal" Freedom of the Seas voyage. It was decidedly unstructured, super-casual, and borderline chaotic at times, particularly at the character breakfasts. But really, no one seemed to mind very much. Families were given either early seating (6:30 p.m.) or late seating (8:30 p.m.) but there were no table assignments. Most people I spoke to appreciated the lack of designated tables, while a few missed what can often be your best excuse to get to know other families aboard. For us, the lack of formality worked fine, and because we were only two, we often got placed with another group instead of dining alone.
We were given second seating dining, which meant an early show and a late dinner each night. But we didn't always abide by it, since 8:30 p.m. is pretty late for my son to eat dinner, and 9 p.m. is even later for him to be sitting down to a show. We opted not to bother to request a change in seating, and just kind of wing it. On some nights, no matter how exciting or kid-friendly the show, after a day of exhausting activities, a late show would have ended in a snooze fest for my son every time. I think earlier dining room seatings (in addition to the present ones), and earlier show options (likewise) would be great for this type of cruise.
On some nights, it just made more sense for us to grab a sandwich at 6:30, head to the show, and stop in at the Cafe Promenade afterward to grab a snack and dessert, though I might have preferred to eat in the dining room instead. In any case, we were never questioned about our dining habits. I get the feeling that folks were put on standby, in an effort to see how things would go in terms of meals for this first cruise. Maybe next time around it will be slightly more structured.
Incidentally, the dining room itself is stunning. Freedom has a three-tiered dining room, which houses three separate restaurants: Leonardo's, Isaac's and Galileo's, on Decks 3, 4 and 5 respectively. While we enjoyed all three dining rooms, and even though I know the same menu is offered in all, Galileo's turned out to be my favorite on account of the scrumptious shrimp ravioli with leeks I had there. In fact, we enjoyed every meal in the dining room, even if the timing was not always ideal. Tyler's favorite was Leonardo's, not because of the food but because a bar waiter trekked 10 decks up to fetch him a shake from Johnny Rockets one day -- so nice! Dress in all of the dining rooms was very casual every night, with most moms opting for casual pants or skirts, or sundresses. There were no formal nights on this cruise. I saw a few stray dads in tuxedos on the first night (cursing their wives), after which I never saw one again.
Throughout the cruise, the buffets at the Windjammer Cafe and Jade were crowded, much more so than usual, with many families opting to grab a quick dinner there (or a pizza from Sorrento's, or a burger from Johnny Rockets) instead of hauling the whole gang to the dining room. But fewer parents than I had expected opted for a quiet dinner entirely without kids, judging from less-than-capacity crowds at the two adults-only specialty restaurants: Chops and Portofino. Invited by some new friends, I opted to try Chops one evening, despite being a vegetarian. Sounds like an odd choice, I realize, but I do eat fish and the seared diver scallops were magnificent -- and my companions thoroughly enjoyed their choice of steaks. It actually turned out to be the most restful night of the cruise, having full support from Tyler, who was happy being left to his own devices in the Adventure Ocean program with his friends.
A Word about the Adventure Ocean Program
Led by an absolutely delightful, funny, warm and diligent group of counselors, the Adventure Ocean Program is a terrific example of how to run a children's program on a ship. The kids are kept busy for hours with educational activities and games. They are brought to meals at the Windjammer, where they dine in a separate, supervised area which is roped off, and return to their respective rooms accordingly. The staff went to great lengths to ensure that each child was only not only entertained, but safe and comfortable. One afternoon when I picked up my son, who was in the 6 to 8 group and one of the youngest in his room, I learned he had been pestered quite a bit by an older boy. The counselor assured me that the boy's parents had been spoken to already, and that if he showed a continued inability to get along, he would be asked not to return. Each time I stopped by they were having a great time, once busy with a science experiment, another time playing ball and the last listening to a story.
I did notice, though, that although they brought in additional staff to the Adventure Ocean program for the Nick cruise, there was sometimes a bit of a wait at night. One evening, upon returning to the Explorer's room to pick up my son around 10 p.m., I stood in line for about 15 minutes with about 25 other parents, anxiously waiting to collect our kids. After that time there is a fee of $5 per hour for each child, so parents were racing to beat the clock. Despite the delay, they charged us nothing.
Beyond the Character Breakfasts and All-You-Can Eat Buffet
As any seasoned cruiser knows, there is far more to be gleaned from the experience than the endless stream of food and parade of entertainment. Indeed, countless memories are made on those days ashore, whether on an organized excursion or by meandering the streets at your own pace. And with kids in tow, the opportunities for adventure are endless. We managed to get off and explore each port on our Western Caribbean itinerary. It was during these few forays that I really had a chance to bond with my eldest child over a few virgin daiquiris, and more than a few laughs.
For whatever reason, my son is fascinated with Mexico. Perhaps it's the Dora and Diego connection, could be his penchant for chimichangas, or the opportunity to show off his kindergarten Spanish; but in any case, he was all about getting off the ship in Cozumel. We opted to hire a car with some new friends, an outgoing couple from Texas with two small boys around my son's age, and headed to Playa Paradiso, a beach just 10 minutes, and a $12 car fare, from the port. It's a small stretch, but for our purposes, and a 93-degree day, it proved perfect. For $10 we got lounge chairs and access to all the activities on the beach, including water trampolines, a floating rock wall, kayaks, snorkel equipment, and use of lifejackets. Exhausted, we finished up with two virgin pina coladas at the bar for another $10, which Tyler ordered himself ("dos of those blanco drinks por favor"). Bliss!
And then there was the day-five shore excursion to Dunn's River Falls in Ocho Rios, which was enormously fun, despite being equally humiliating. We decided to go it alone for a little mother-son bonding. No problem, mon. I'd been to Jamaica before, and Dunn's is on the tame side for a waterfall, to be sure. What could possibly go wrong? We casually breezed by all the poor saps waiting in line for their guided tours, and headed straight for the action. My son noticed all the folks lining up to rent water shoes at the entrance, but I quickly urged him onward. Half the guides were barefoot, we'd be fine. And indeed, he was fine. But about halfway through our water-wading trek, a big current came and stole one of my flip-flops straight off my foot, sweeping it quickly down the falls and out of sight. Oh, the laughs, as I forged a valiant last-minute attempt to save them, flopping wildly in shin-deep water like some sorry salmon swimming upstream. I didn't get much pity, either, as I hopped my way back to the parking lot at the end of the day, burning asphalt scorching my one naked sole.
In Grand Cayman we fared better, enjoying a morning spent floating carelessly in the clearest water imaginable at Seven Mile Beach, ducking beneath gentle waves and building sand castles with a plastic cup. Sometime around noon, a man I recognized from our cruise screamed "sand shark!" and, true or not, we thought it time for a stroll up the beach. We stopped and chatted with some vendors just off the beach, and it was there we were told that the beach is only actually 5.5 miles long, an interesting little tidbit that Tyler took to sharing with strangers for the remainder of the day.
Our ventures ashore in Labadee were equally as entertaining, if a bit more orchestrated. There were Nickelodeon activities on the beach, as well as a blow-up replica of none other than SpongeBob's pineapple house, which the younger kids adored. We did some shopping for souvenirs at the market, bargaining them down to reasonable price for a wooden saber, which became the envy of many young boys aboard.
The Inevitable Comparison: Nick vs. Disney
How did the first-ever Nickelodeon cruise stack up to a Disney cruise? As you might expect, many families aboard had done Disney sailings, and the comparisons between the two could be heard everywhere, oftentimes during casual conversations in the elevator, other times in outright arguments at the dinner table. In terms of atmosphere, and camaraderie amongst passengers, there are also many similarities between the two. Expect your children to be welcomed and catered to on both Nick and Disney cruises. And during mid-afternoon meltdowns at the pool, expect fellow parents to nod apologetically at you, rather than scowl condescendingly. Stewards will often stop to tousle a child's head in the hallways, rather than smile through his teeth at the extra mess.
"Nothing could compare to Disney's entertainment" was a common theme among avid Disney fans, as was "We've done the Disney thing, and their ships just cannot compare to this" among Nick supporters. I can't really argue with either. It's true, while the entertainment on the Nickelodeon cruise was really good, in terms of effects, and overall wow factor, it was not on par with something you would experience with Disney. However, my son is at an age where he isn't quite as enamored with Mickey and Minnie as he once was, so for him a whole new set of familiar characters was a good thing.
As far as the ship goes, in my mind, no Disney ship can hold a candle to the Freedom. With no ship of its own, Nickelodeon made a wise move by teaming up with Royal Caribbean. As famously kid-friendly as it is, Freedom of the Seas also provides an impressive array of grown-up fun, with options on a level not comparable to a Disney ship. Dining was a little unorganized, as I mentioned, and the Freedom's dining room staff, while truly kind and accommodating, seemed a little shell-shocked with all the kids around. As well, Disney offers slightly earlier, and more dining options, which to me makes more sense.
Still, each and all of the many little Nick touches on this cruise were well-thought out, and welcomed by all, especially the kids. Every night a note and a small trinket were left at turndown for them: a toy fish, a Nickelodeon beach bag, a VIP movie pass lanyard. All provided ways to bring the experience home. The fact is, Nick, which has already announced it will host more cruises, and Disney are simply different options, and many families who love to cruise are welcoming new options from an industry that hasn't exactly catered to children in the past. Each brings something different to the table.
Arriving Home with Smiles Intact: Priceless
As it turned out, I never did get stuck dining with a brooding teenager, and in fact didn't see a single one. I never got sprayed with a water gun -- at least not uninvited -- and the Dora sing-alongs were not so terrible after all. But more importantly, my son and I really wound up having a fantastic and magical time on our cruise, and we bonded in a way that will stay with us for a long time. We were fortunate to meet some of the most kid-friendly staff around, both on the Royal Caribbean and Nickelodeon sides, and we thoroughly enjoyed the trip. But since a Nickelodeon cruise is all about the kids, it's only fitting that he should get the last words, which he uttered just a few minutes after we lugged our suitcases through the front door:
"So, dad, it's your turn to take me next year, right?"
--by Carrie Calzaretta, Cruise Critic contributor