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WEEKEND ESCAPE

A sea change for Baja-bound families

Parents concerned about an Ensenada cruise's wild reputation find 'modesty and moderation' firmly in tow.

May 18, 2003|John Corrigan | Times Staff Writer

Aboard the Ecstasy — The cruisers on the Lido Deck were getting frisky. After soaking in an afternoon of sunshine and tropical drink, two young women launched into a love dance, drawing cheers from the guys by the hot tub.

The show was PG-13, about to turn R-rated, when a security guard stepped in and politely ended the exhibition.

Strike another victory for Carnival Cruise Lines' policy of "modesty and moderation." The company's three-day weekend cruises to Ensenada, Mexico, are known for drawing a party crowd, but Carnival is trying hard to make the excursions friendly for families and others who want more cruise and less booze. As my wife, Alison, and I found out this month on a voyage with our 10-year-old daughter, Katie, the effort has largely paid off.

The three of us had a good time together aboard the Ecstasy, and Alison and I also had time for ourselves, thanks to the Camp Carnival kids' program. While we spent most of the trip as a family, Katie enjoyed playing games and making friends at the on-board camp. And for adults? There are more activities than time -- shows, a disco and gambling for night life, and poolside sun, a well-equipped gym and a deck-top jogging track with sky-high views of the Pacific during the day.

Alison and I had cruised Carnival before, but there were a few twists this time. One is a new ship terminal, opened last month next to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Arriving Friday afternoon, we pulled into the parking garage that replaced an open asphalt lot. At an unloading area, porters tagged our bags and took them to the ship.

It's a short walk to the new passenger terminal -- the distinctive white dome that showcased the Spruce Goose until it moved to an Oregon museum. Moving through the check-in line, we sized up our fellow passengers. It's a diverse mix -- couples young and old, groups of friends, extended families and boisterous bachelor and bachelorette parties. The brides-to-be wore white veils, and at least one of the future husbands (or perhaps it was the best man) carted a plastic blow-up doll.

I had taken this same cruise for my brother-in-law's bachelor party four years ago, and with Katie along on this trip, I was apprehensive. Our shipmates in '99 had included a boatload of fraternity brothers and three strippers from Oakland on a bit of a busman's holiday. We had caught part of their act at dinner on board and the rest in Ensenada.

But on this family trip, it became clear that Carnival was serious about modesty and moderation. That blow-up doll, for instance, was stowed away after a security man confronted its owner.

After boarding we made our way to our Main Deck stateroom, the nautical equivalent of flying coach. Katie was disappointed to find that our interior room didn't have a window, but we explained that portholes cost more.

We had booked the trip a week before. The Carnival phone representative first quoted a price of $963 for the three of us, and when I hesitated, she said we would qualify for a lower price of $873 because we were repeat customers. I called a travel agent, who couldn't beat that deal. I phoned Carnival back, and the price had dropped to $865.64, including taxes. Not bad for three nights' lodging and food, even if they weren't at sea, though tips and other extras can add up surprisingly quickly.

Our stateroom had two twin beds, plus two upper bunks that folded down from the wall. The twins had not been put together as one king-size bed, as the booking agent had promised, but a steward quickly fixed matters. The cabin was small, but it had a built-in desk and a TV, and we didn't spend much time there anyway.

A dinner of prime rib and Cornish game hen put us in a good mood for the night. We attended the orientation for Camp Carnival, which offers free, supervised activities for children 2 to 15. Some activities are in the common areas, but the Ecstasy also has two areas reserved for youngsters: a playroom with toys, computers and PlayStation 2 game terminals, and the Spirals disco, which serves as an activity center by day and a teen-only dance club by night.

Katie was happy to find that she would be with other kids 9 to 11, as the camp is divided into four age groups. About 50 to 60 parents and children were at the orientation, which was followed by a welcome-aboard party, ice cream sundaes and a ship tour. Alison and Katie turned in for the night, while I grabbed a Guinness and checked out the band at the ship's Chinatown club.

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