How many WOW moments can you guarantee the kids on vacation?
I mean the thanks-mom-and-dad-can't-believe-we're-here moments. I usually figure I'm lucky if we have one or two, along with the inevitable missteps and meltdowns along the way.
Now, Royal Caribbean says, that's all going to change -- at least if you opt for their new 4,000-plus-passenger ship Quantum of the Seas, which has just begun to sail to the Caribbean with great fanfare from Cape Liberty in New Jersey. They even have a Twitter account, hashtag Royal WOW, where cruisers are invited to share their onboard WOW moments. And with cruises starting at under $1,200 this winter, you won't have to bust your budget.
So what would Wow your gang? Maybe the chance to ram each other in bumper cars or roller skate the night away. Maybe it's treating the junior foodies to a meal where they can order anything they like. Maybe it's going to circus school and learning how to fly on a trapeze or have a skydiving experience. OK, it's a simulated skydiving experience with RipCord by iFLY in a controlled, simulated environment, but even preschoolers can do it, and it's a definite wow.
As for the bumper cars and roller-skating, that's in SeaPlex, the largest indoor active space at sea that has a full-size basketball court that will also be used for team sports like soccer, volleyball and badminton. Let's not forget the floating DJ booth. There's even a food truck here -- the Sea Plex Dog House and SeaPod Activity Rooms with Xbox, table tennis, air hockey and more, all overlooking the ocean.
Did I mention these activities don't require an upcharge? There's also a new expansive indoor family pool area, which means families can start their vacation as soon as they board, no matter what the weather-- a definite plus for those cruising from New Jersey this winter. "We've never had that for families," said Alison Frazier, the director of entertainment and guest activities for the entire cruise line. She believes the entire SeaPlex area will naturally encourage those WOW moments -- there is also the climbing wall and FlowRider surf simulator.
There are DreamWorks characters (get ready for a photo op with Shrek), the chance to rise 300 feet above sea level and over the side of the ship in a glass capsule called North Star, entertainment that includes a Broadway-quality production of "Mama Mia" that had the audience on their feet clapping and dancing and "Starwater" a special effects show.
Those whose kids are on the autism spectrum can check out special toys and be confident that the youth staff -- which is prepared to handle as many as 1,800 kids -- will be as inclusive as possible to children with special needs, said Erin Coon, who manages the 20-member Adventure Ocean staff.
Those with babies (as young as six months) and toddlers will be glad they can get a break -- and create their own WOW moments, perhaps at the Bionic Bar, the first robotic bar in the world -- thanks to the Royal Babies and Tots Nursery, though there is a charge for the service. You can bring your babies to play group at no charge in the well-equipped space. And, of course, for kids 3 to 17 there are organized morning-till-night supervised programs.
Tell the teens that kids their age in focus groups contributed their ideas to create the Living Room teen lounge space. They'll also be happy to know that Quantum is a SMART ship with unprecedented levels of technology to keep everyone connected (there are going to be special "selfie parties" for teens). 'We are offering something no one else is close to and we are charging less for it," boasted Richard Fain, chairman and CEO of Royal Caribbean Cruises.
Thanks to new technology, everything from check-in (Royal Caribbean promises if you generate the boarding documents online, you can go from sidewalk to ship in 10 minutes) to booking shore excursions will be easier, without long lines. New apps enable you to book activities, shows and dinners, keep in touch with one another via text and see what's going on around the ship. There will be fewer lost keys with the RFID WOWband wristbands (reminded me of Walt Disney World) that serve as room key and charge card, if you want the kids to have that privilege.
Everyone will like the extra storage and larger cabins; I thought the new family-connected staterooms that are big enough for a multigenerational group without crowding were a great addition as are the Virtual Balcony staterooms -- 375 of them -- that offer real-time views of the ocean and destinations in an inside cabin. They really are fun.
Of course, it seems like the cruise industry is upping the ante every time a new ship is unveiled -- 16 this year and another 20 coming between 2015 and 2018. That includes Quantum's sister ship Anthem, which will launch the spring of next year in Southampton, England, and move to Cape Liberty for the winter while Quantum will reposition in China next summer for the growing Asian market. (Check out the Taking the Kids Family Cruise Section to see what the other curse lines offer.)
The one disappointment for me was the quality of the food, but to be fair I was only onboard for two days and the restaurants were all brand new. Certainly there is plenty to choose from with the new "Dynamic Dining" that gives you a choice of 18 restaurants, including five complimentary restaurants each with its own cuisine, theme and kids' menu, though of course the kids may choose what they like at no extra charge. No more racing to get to the big dining room on time. Here you can choose a Pan-Asian menu one night or dress up for The Grande for a fancy dinner another. (A tip; most cruisers are now making dinner reservations in advance of their trip, said Brian Abel, Royal Caribbean's VP of food and beverages.) There's still the huge Windjammer buffet, pizza, free room service and a new effort encouraging families to try the signature restaurants that can cost $25 and more per person with just an $8 charge for kids 12 and under, whether they want sushi, steak or Italian at Chef Jamie Oliver's Jamie's Italian.
The real WOW for me: A place that's designed for parents, kids and grandparents to have fun together at the same time. Way to go, Royal Caribbean.
(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow "taking the kids" on www.twitter.com, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. Check out the newest books in Eileen's Kid's City Guide series -- to San Diego, San Francisco, Denver and Colorado Ski Country.)
Eileen Ogintz is the creator of the syndicated column and website Taking the Kids. She is also the author of the ten-book Kid’s Guide series to major American cities and the Great Smoky Mountains. The third-edition of the Kid’s Guide to NYC has just been released.