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An Inaugural Voyage on the American Family Cruises Ship Proved a Bumpy Ride for Parents, But the Kids Had a Blast

March 27, 1994|JIM DWYER | NEWSDAY

MIAMI, Fla. — The moment we boarded the American Adventure cruise ship, a grizzled Italian seaman, pushing by, stopped short at the sight of our 15-month-old baby girl.

"Che bella!" he exclaimed. "Ciao, bambina, ciao!"

Of course. This was the new American Family Cruises line, where even the guys working in the boiler room behave like Italian grandmothers when they see babies.

For us, it was a match made in the Caribbean: a family cruise ship that was on just its second voyage last December, and the Dwyers, who had been on one prior cruise--so it was the Staten Island Ferry, whattaya, a snob or something?--but never had considered taking another.

We are--sigh--past the moony-couples-phase of life. We have--shriek--young kids. Leisure is someone else's job. We travel only to places where tables have no sharp corners and where we are supervised by other kids and parents. A cruise? On a boat? In the water? No, not really.

At least, I didn't think so until someone started counting noses and realized that people who have kids want to go somewhere. American Family Cruises rolled up a giant demographic wave and announced that it would take everyone away to sea and sun for seven days. The kids could do computers or roller-blade or make videos, they could eat themselves sick on pizza and ice cream, and the parents could Take It Easy.

"A vacation is no vacation if it neglects the needs of a very important part of the family--parents. . . . You need time to be you," coos the brochure. "To relax and recharge. At AFC, we provide just the right balance of time for kids, time for families together and all-important time for parents."

I grew faint upon reading this. For months, we kept the cruise literature next to the bed and eagerly thumbed it when the hands of the parental clock were pointing to High Anxiety.

*

In truth, our trip must be graded on two curves--one for the kids, another for the parents. The trip was a miracle of inefficiency and joyful charm, of sailors and waiters tickling babies and of things that did not work. We could not wait to get off the ship at the end of the trip. The parties on board were dazzling fun, full of laughs and dancing. Not a single clock gave anything like the right time. Our older girl had a wonderful "dolphin encounter." But she could not get a pair of in-line skates because this cruise line--dedicated to kids--had none smaller than size four.

We were, after all, on only the second sailing of the 1,500-passenger American Adventure since it was refitted for family cruising. Formerly the Costariviera, which sailed in the Caribbean, the vessel is more than 30 years old. As a family cruise operation, the American Adventure travels from the Port of Miami through the eastern Caribbean, calling at Nassau in the Bahamas, a lovely deserted island off the Dominican Republic and Key West in Florida.

The cruise line, the first dedicated entirely to family cruising, was inaugurated Dec. 18, when four kids broke a giant bottle of Coke on the hull of the American Adventure. By the third day of our trip a week later, the ship had run dry on Coca-Cola--and Sprite, and just about everything except ginger ale--and somehow was not able to replenish its supply in the ports. A minor matter, but quite an accomplishment on a cruise that caters to kids and charged $1.50 for a can of pop.

I think it was right around the time the soda ran out that my wife Cathy said: "I have never seen so many broken machines in my life." The soda, popcorn and candy machines didn't work. Neither did the elevator at our end of the ship. The coin laundries were out of order.

By the way, none of this bothered the kids. Seven hundred of them on the boat. Most of them, right up to age 17, seemed to have a spectacular time. The cruise is calibrated to please the Youth of America: the quiet and the rambunctious, the kids who are happy dragging a computer mouse and the ones who are thrilled to sing in the karaoke lounge, the children who want to tie-dye T-shirts and those who think bliss is shooting hoops.

In the dining room, we were assigned to a table with the Bell family of Florida. Our older daughter Maura, 7, table mate Taraya Bell and Taraya's pal Harriet Fletcher were near peers and became instant pals. They barely made a move without each other.

*

About a third of the entertainment deck is devoted to well-designed recreation space for kids and is parceled out by age group. The preteens had a room full of Macintosh computers. Maura and pals hung out there and in a clubhouse called "Sea Haunt" for the 8-to-12 set that is stocked with videos, game tables and a giant aquarium. (Since our trip, the ship has grouped the 8- to 10-year-olds and 11- to 13-year-olds separately.) The teens are on another deck, where they can indulge in such inscrutable teen things as hair and make-over classes and MTV, as well as produce news broadcasts for the ship's TV stations.

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