The father of an 11-year-old autistic boy is seeking an explanation from Norwegian Cruise Line after Kid's Club crew failed to notice the boy had disappeared from the club on the last evening of Norwegian Epic's Thanksgiving cruise.
The incident occurred November 23, 2012 after Richard Zelden and his wife dropped off their three children at the ship's Recess Kid's Club before going to dinner. When they returned to their cabin two hours later, they discovered their oldest son, an 11-year-old autistic boy, in a cabin two doors down where the cabin steward watched over him.
"We were taken aback as we knew he had been signed into the Kid's Club and did not have signing privileges to exit alone," Zelden told Cruise Critic.
The steward further explained he had been cleaning their cabin when the boy entered the room alone. Not sure what to do, he called his supervisor to report the child's arrival. He was told to take care of the boy until his parents returned.
Zelden went to the Kids' Club to find out what had happened.
"They were dumb-founded. They didn't even know he was missing," he said.
According to Zelden, the youth director was apologetic but offered no explanation as to how his son had escaped.
The line did subsequently investigate the incident, AnneMarie Mathews, a Norwegian spokeswoman, told Cruise Critic. "We have conducted an extensive review of the situation and took corrective action with the crew members who were involved. We have extended our sincerest apology to the family and offered them compensation." What type of corrective action and which crew members were not specified.
The same message was sent to Zelden in a letter from the line. "You can be assured that the appropriate corrective steps have been taken," the line wrote. "Please accept our sincere apologies for this upsetting experience."
According to Margalit Francus, founder and editor of AutisticGlobetrotting.com, a website dedicated to helping families with autistic children plan their travels, the incident is not entirely unsurprising.
"Sadly, some autistic kids do have a tendency to wander, which is a major safety concern to parents," she explained to Cruise Critic. High child/crew ratios, especially around the holidays when there can be a thousand kids onboard, only exacerbates the problem of keeping an eye on such children.
The line is capable of taking care of children with special needs, Mathews told Cruise Critic. "In most cases, our youth staff is able to adjust activities within the youth and teen programs for those children that require special care." The line does not provide one-on-one care, though.
Mathews did not comment on the "problem" of too many children, something at least one parent on the same sailing described on Cruise Critic's Family community forum.
"We were on the exact same sailing as you were. My DD8 (daughter, 8-years old) went to the kids club three times. It was extreme chaos," #1TravelMom wrote.
But she also wrote that Epic's Kid's Club was one of the most secure she's ever encountered. "Every time we picked up our daughter the line was 15-20 minutes (at least) to pick her up. They were extremely picky…Photo id, match bracelet, secret code word, then they were allowed to squeeze out a gate opened briefly for them -- painfully slow process…On 30+ cruises, the EPIC definitely has the most secure kids club."
While Zelden told Cruise Critic he would like to know how his son got out of the kid's facility and navigated his way from Deck 14 Forward to the cabin on Deck 11 Aft, he is primarily angry over the fear he and his wife felt because their child was not protected.
"This is the safety of a child that's involved," he said. "We are grateful that he didn't go up to Deck 15 to the pool area."
Two months later, Zelden still doesn't know how his son got out. He told Cruise Critic he wants a more thorough response. He also wasn't pleased with the $1,500 future cruise credit he was offered -- if he had signed a nondisclosure agreement.
--by Dori Saltzman, News Editor