Club Med Sandpiper Bay is part of a large group of French-owned resorts - over 70 properties around the world! Though Club Med may not be a household name in the U.S., it is well known in Europe. And as a result, a lot of Europeans visit the property. During our stay, we heard other people speaking in French, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew, and more. At evening shows, the chef de village (i.e. Village Chief, sort of like your 'cruise director') would make announcements in both English and French. As American English-speakers, we never felt out of place or had problems communicating with people. The children's clubs were very accommodating to children who spoke other languages too; I noticed at least one family of children who only spoke French, and the counselors spoke to them in French and made sure they were included.
The rooms are spacious, and clean. But they are not "fancy". On the outside, the buildings do appear quite dated. But on the inside, they have been reasonably updated. There are seven buildings in all, each with 3 stories (and elevators to reach upper floors). Club Rooms are the standard rooms, and most have balconies. Deluxe Rooms are the same size, with slightly different furnishings. You'll also get evening turndown service (with chocolates on the pillows!), a stocked mini-fridge (with water and sodas), robes and slippers for in-room use, and a nicer view. Catering to families, there are plenty of connecting rooms available, as well as Family Deluxe Rooms that have a separate bedroom area for the kids.
Tip: If the cost difference is minimal, definitely choose the Deluxe Room! The kids loved getting the chocolates on their pillow at night, and everyone appreciated the cold bottled water in the evenings, or to bring along to the beach.
If the overall look of the hotel underwhelms you, just remember that the highlight here is not "the look". The rooms are clean, and the food is fresh and tasty... but what's really outstanding here are the programs for kids and families, and especially the Sports Academies. In the next post, I'll highlight what really makes Club Med a great resort for families and people who like to be active.
If you're headed to Seattle for some sightseeing, whether it's your entire vacation or a pre- or post-cruise trip, I highly recommend the Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown.
I recently had the opportunity to check out this Hyatt Place, and it was every bit as great as I expected!
Th Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown is quite similar to other Hyatt Place properties - spacious rooms, a hot breakfast buffet, free wi-fi, and a super-friendly staff. A big standout here, though, is the location. You literally step out the front door of the hotel, and you can see the Space Needle. For a first-time visitor, it's pretty exciting!
It's less than a 5 minute walk to the Space Needle, EMP Museum, and more! And for places a little further away, the Hyatt Place runs a free on-demand shuttle service. They will take you to the Pike Place Market, or anywhere else you'd like within a 1-mile radius, and when you're ready, give them a call and they'll pick you up!
The lobby was friendly and inviting, with several tables, chairs, and couches for hanging out, or if you're waiting to meet someone. There's a small nook with computers available so you can do your airline check-in, if needed, or for a quick check of your email. If you have your own computer or tablet, there's free wi-fi available. And of course, there's a kitchen area, where a nice hot breakfast buffet is served each morning. For other meals, there is a small counter with a few items for grab-and-go, as well as a small menu (we tried the nachos - they hit the spot!) offering a variety of foods and drinks throughout the day.
One thing I really appreciate about Hyatt Place is their larger rooms. If you have a bigger family, like I do, you know it's tough to find a single hotel room that will accommodate 5 or 6 people. But the Hyatt Place always works out great for us, with a room with 2 beds and a sleeper sofa. And if you are a smaller family, or not traveling with kids at all, you'll still appreciate the extra space in the rooms!
The hotel also had a few other amenities, such as a small gym, an indoor pool, and conference facilities.
If you're going to be in the Seattle area, I highly recommend the Hyatt Place Seattle/Downtown - it's a new, clean, and modern hotel with some great amenities at a fantastic value. Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel for the best prices for your travel dates!
If you're going to Alaska, no trip is complete without a train ride. Whether it's a glass-domed train trip all the way to Fairbanks, or a shorter version from Anchorage to Whittier, a train is a great way to sit back and enjoy all of Alaska's beautiful scenery.
I just got back from an Alaska cruise that sailed from Whittier. The closest airport is Anchorage, which is over 2 hours away. If you're sailing from Whittier, and flying into Anchorage like I did, you have a few options: rent a car, take a bus, or take the Alaska Railroad. We opted for the Alaska Railroad's Glacier Discovery Train, and I'm so glad that we did. The ride is extremely scenic, the seats are comfortable, and it's easy to get up and walk around, get a snack, and some fresh air too. Renting a car might seem like a more flexible option, but it's hard to look around at the scenery while you're driving, and you might run into a slight issue at the tunnel (more on that later).
Our train ride was scheduled to leave Anchorage at 9:45am, and arrive to Whittier at 12 noon. We were supposed to arrive an hour early for check-in, but since our hotel's shuttle left every hour on the hour, we ended up arriving closer to 8:15 vs. 8:45; that worked to our advantage as there were absolutely no crowds! It was easy to drop off your suitcases - just put your cruise luggage tags on there, and they took care of getting them to the ship for you in Whittier. Then go inside and pick up your tickets... and that's all there is to it! While you're waiting, you can browse in the gift shop, go outside to take some pictures, or purchase a cup of coffee or small snack.
Boarding is quick and easy. The seats are pretty plush, and there's plenty of room under the seat or above you on the overhead shelf to store any bags you've carried on. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy the view now!
There are Alaska Railroad train route booklets available for purchase onboard for $5 (cash only, prices as of July 2013), as well as a free magazine that was still relatively informative about what we were passing along the way.
Note: the last portion of the ride to Whittier involves 2 tunnels, so it does get dark for a few minutes. The benefit to railroad is that they have priority through the last tunnel, which is shared with trains and cars, and only allows one-way traffic. If you decide to drive, you'll need to know the schedule, or you may be stuck waiting up to an hour until it's safe to drive through!
Great Views of Turnagain Arm
Keep a lookout for Beluga whales in the water!
More Scenery along the way
There's more wildlife to watch for in the mountains, especially Dall Sheep. You can also see some remnants from the big earthquake from the 1960s.
When you arrive in Whittier, it's a short walk across the street to the cruise ship terminal for checking in. Since your luggage was tagged for the ship back at the depot in Anchorage, it will automatically meet you at your stateroom in the afternoon!
The Alaska Railroad Glacier Discovery Train was a really easy and scenic way to get to the cruise port - I highly recommend this for cruisers flying in or out of Anchorage! We also met several locals who were doing a daytrip to Surprise Glacier, so note that the Alaska Railroad has many options, not just cruise transfers.
A thumbs-up from the kids
A few notes on kid-friendliness: This was a great trip with children! Here's a few reasons why:
A friend of mine has lived in Homestead for years. When I told him I was highlighting Homestead as my Florida Destination of the Month, he said, "WHY?!" Well, at first glance, Homestead isn't really a top tourist destination, like South Beach or Orlando. But there are actually plenty of interesting things to do!
Photo courtesy National Park Service
Homestead is about 40 minutes south of downtown Miami. There are only 3 National Parks in the state of Florida, and 2 of them are easily accessed from Homestead: Everglades National Park and Biscayne National Park. (The 3rd one is Dry Tortugas National Park, about 70 miles west of Key West.) Frommer's also lists Everglades and Biscayne National Parks on their list of 100 Places to Take Your Kids!
Everglades National Park is the number one spot for ecotourism in Florida. The Ernest Coe Visitor Center in Homestead is just one of 4 entrances to the National Park, and it’s open every day of the year. Several good walking, hiking, and biking trails are nearby, including:
There are also many options for bird-watching, boating, and ranger-led activities. Note that most of the Ranger Programs take place between December and March, when the weather is the driest, coolest, and most pleasant (read: mosquito-free). If you're looking for wildlife, you'll be likely to see alligators, many varieties of snakes and lizards, white-tailed deer, and more. For a complete listing, see the national park's website here.
If you're traveling with kids to Everglades National Park, be sure to check out the For Kids section of the park's website, where children can complete tasks to become a Junior Ranger and earn a badge! Note that many of the trails listed above are wheelchair accessible; this also means that if you're traveling with kids, those trails are stroller accessible!
Photo courtesy National Park Service
For another unique experience, head about 20 minutes east from Homestead to the Biscayne National Park. The Dante Fascell Visitor's Center is a good way to get acquainted with this park with a small museum that displays the four ecosystems found in the park. For kids, there's a touch table and the option to get started on a Junior Ranger badge. On the second Sunday of each month from January through May, the park hosts Family Fun Fest with hands-on activities for kids.
Photo courtesy National Park Service
But remember that 95% of the park is underwater, so the best way to really explore is by getting out on the water! Between boating, snorkeling, diving, canoeing, kayaking, and fishing, there's no shortage of water-based activities available. If you don't have your own boat, an outside concessioner runs snorkel trips, boat rides to the Boca Chita Lighthouse, and shuttles to Elliott Key for overnight camping adventures; just be sure to reserve ahead of time to guarantee availability.
And a reminder, no matter which park you choose, don't forget the sunblock and mosquito repellant!
Siesta Key, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
While Sarasota may be known for being a quiet town, there's plenty to do with the kids!
First of all, the beaches are a big draw.… Siesta Key was rated the #1 Beach in the World last year by Dr. Beach. With soft white sand, and calm waters, it’s a practically perfect beach for the kids (and adults!). Other beaches right in the Sarasota vicinity are also nice, such as Lido Beach and Longboat Key, and you'll find several family-friendly beachfront resorts there as well.
Manasota Beach, courtesy of Sarasota CVB
Venturing south from Siesta Key, be sure to take your kids to Venice Beach, known as the Shark Tooth Capital of the World! (There's even an annual Shark's Tooth Festival every April celebrating this!) But don’t worry: there aren’t thousands of sharks lurking off shore waiting to take a bite out of you - what you'll find in the sand are primarily prehistoric fossils that wash up over time. Whether you stop at Venice Beach, Casparan Beach, or Manasota Beach, you’re bound to come home with some unique finds!
If you can tear the kids away from the beach, they'll be happy at G.WIZ, short for “Gulf Coast Wonder & Imagination Zone”. With 33,000 square feet of interactive exhibits, there’s sure to be something your child will enjoy. There are plenty of permanent and special exhibits for kids to explore, including a race track and a game called MindBall ("Compete against a friend to see who can move matter with their mind!"). For the younger set, there's even a "tot zone". Opening in 2012 is a Medical Simulation exhibit as well as a robotics lab. And for inventors of all ages, an all-access pass to a real fabrication laboratory (“fab lab”) is available so you can build your own invention from scratch! Click here to find out what you can actually make in a Fab Lab!
Mote Aquarium, courtesy Sarasota CVB
The Mote Marine Laboratory is one of the country’s leading facilities for marine research. Through their aquarium, and a variety of outreach programs, such as camps, school programs, lecture series, and more, Mote hopes to educate visitors on the importance of marine conservation and research. At the Mote Aquarium, you’ll find touch tanks, interactive exhibits, and the opportunity to see a variety of marine wildlife up close, including sharks, dolphins, manatees, and sea turtles. Through Mote’s Center for Shark Research, you can view several species of sharks, and see how researchers have learned to train sharks at a Narrated Training Session. At the Seahorse Conservation Laboratory, Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Hospital, and Dolphin and Whale Hospital, the focus is on conservation and keeping animals healthy; you can even adopt an animal of your choosing. If you visit before mid-April 2012, you’ll also get to see a special temporary exhibit, Penguin Island!
Nearby Mote, each Sunday at 2pm (except in summer), there’s a free water ski show right in the Sarasota Bay called Ski-A-Rees. Professional water skiiers put on a stunt-filled performance that everyone is sure to enjoy. And did I mention it’s free?! Also on Sundays (and also free), about an hour before sunset, head over to public beach at Siesta Key for the Drum Circle...there are drummers (of course), belly dancers, and plenty of curious onlookers for this unique event.
Myakka River SP, courtesy Sarasota CVB
Just east of Sarasota you’ll find the Myakka River State Park. It's one of Florida’s largest state parks, and is easily explored by hiking, biking, canoeing, or kayaking. A main attraction is the Myakka Canopy Walkway, the first public treetop trail in North America. Suspended 25 feet in the air, you'll literally walk through the trees to a 74-foot tall tower with even more spectacular views. Be sure to get out on the water and explore the Myakka River by canoe or kayak. If that's too strenuous, opt for an airboat tour on the Gator Gal, one of the world’s largest airboats!
For closer animal encounters, visit Sarasota Jungle Gardens, one of the longest-operating attractions in Florida (it opened in 1940!). Kids will enjoy shows featuring birds of prey, exotic birds, and reptiles. You can even hand-feed a flamingo - definitely a one-of-a-kind experience! A new playground and 10 acres of tropical gardens are an added bonus.
Ringling Museum, courtesy Sarasota CVB
And last, but certainly not least, consider a visit to the Ringling Museum. John Ringling, of Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, made Sarasota the winter home for his circus in the 1920s. Today, you can visit the entire estate, which consists of the Ringling’s 36,000 square foot mansion, a museum housing their personal art collection, a circus museum, and more. Even though a museum complex isn't a "typical" kid-attraction, families (and strollers) are welcome; the Ringling Museum even has some fabulous suggestions on enjoying your visit with children. On the second Saturday of each month from 12pm to 2pm, there is a special family-friendly event called Center Ring Saturdays at the Circus Museum: a circus performer takes visitors “behind the scenes” and shares their insights on what it’s like to be part of the circus.
So when you visit Sarasota with your family, you'll have the opportunity to do more than just enjoy the best beach in the world. Your kids can also search for fossils, create their own invention, see sharks up close, watch a water-skiing stunt show, experience a drum circle at sunset, take a walk in the treetops, go kayaking or canoeing, feed a flamingo, and learn what it's like to be a circus performer... Contact Sunshine Travel to find the best Sarasota lodging (at the best price) for your family's needs!
Key West has a reputation for being a haven for drinking, a little bit of craziness, and lot of gay pride. (How many other cities do you know with a clothing-optional bar? Or more bars per capita than any other US city?) So maybe that’s not what you have in mind when selecting your next family vacation spot!… However, you might be surprised to find that there are a lot of family-friendly things to do with kids in Key West! Whether you’re just visiting for the day via cruise ship, or staying a few nights, you’ll find plenty of activities to keep the young ones happy, while you kick back and relax in Margaritaville yourself! Here are some great ideas:
There are many museums and tourist attractions available that kids will enjoy. You can start out with an overview from Trolley Tours or aboard the Conch Tour Train (kids 12 and under ride free!). If you think your kids will get bored with the narration, no matter how interesting and informative it might be, why not rent an electric car and tour on your own? Several places offer these rentals, such as Adventure Rentals (who also happen to rent scooters and Harley Davidsons!)
If your kids like pirates, shipwrecks, and treasures, check out Mel Fisher’s Maritime Museum and the Key West Shipwreck Historeum. Older kids with an appreciation for literature and history may enjoy the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum or the Harry S. Truman Little White House.
If you have young kids, you may have found that most lighthouses don’t let you climb to the top unless you are a certain height or age - not so at the Key West Lighthouse Museum : while admission is free for kids under 6, everyone can climb the 88 steps to the observation deck of this lighthouse that dates from the mid-1800s!
Be sure to make a stop at the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center. You and your children will be able to explore over 6000 square feet of interactive exhibits. Through learning about native plants and animals, observing a Living Reef exhibit, and viewing the different South Florida ecosystems, the hope is to increase awareness and appreciation of conservation in South Florida. Best of all, admission is free! Also with free admission is the Turtle Kraals Museum. While there are no live turtles, there are several family-friendly and educational exhibits about sea turtles, and it's worth a stop if you're nearby and the kids like turtles.
If your children are interested in viewing some live animals, note that kids tend to enjoy the shark feedings and touch tanks at the Key West Aquarium.
And for a peaceful and wondrous stop, The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory was recently awarded the People’s Choice Award from TripAdvisor for the #1 Attraction in Key West! This is not a place to quickly breeze through - be sure to really slow down and take it all in. Don't forget to bring your camera!
Key West is actually NOT known for great beaches. However, if you need some beach-time on your vacation, there are a few choices. Smathers Beach is the largest public beach in Key West, and has been recently revitalized. It’s relatively family friendly, with white sand, and calm waters (and right across the street from the Sheraton Suites, see below). Fort Zachary Taylor State Park is another great option. You can tour the fort, and then have lunch (in the café, or bring your own picnic). Beach equipment and watersport rentals are available. Snorkeling is good, but be sure to bring watershoes as the shoreline can be rocky. And if you must stay at a beach-front resort, check out Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; it's one of the few Key West resorts with their own private beach (see below).
If your kids are older, there are plenty of opportunities to get out on the water. Try Stand Up Paddleboarding, or the Ultimate Adventure from Fury Water Adventures, for a day filled with snorkeling, catamaran rides, jet skiing, parasailing, kayaking, and a water playground. Sebago Key West offers a similar Power Adventure, including banana boat rides and paddle boards. There are also multiple outfitters for fishing and sailing trips.
Back on land, make sure you have your picture taken at the Southernmost Point. And last, but not least, don’t miss the nightly Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square. Try to arrive about 2 hours before sunset to watch the street performers (think sword-swallowers and juggling unicyclists), passing boats, and to get a good seat on the edge of the pier!
Family-friendly hotel accommodations in Key West include:
Hyatt Key West Resort & Marina - families can reserve a second room for their kids at 50% off (based on availability) at this hotel that is centrally located to most of Key West's attractions.
Casa Marina, A Waldorf Astoria Resort - while not right near Duval Street, this resort has an 1,100 stretch of private beach, which is a rarity for resorts in Key West, and families like the quieter atmosphere.
Sunset Key Guest Cottages - part of Westin, on a 27 acre private island reachable by boat launch from the Westin Key West, if you really want to have that get-away-from-it-all feeling with the family.
Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel to find a resort that suits you best...and to get a great deal as well!
Years ago, there was just one nightly entertainment option on a cruise ship: you would either eat dinner and see your show in the main theater afterwards, or see the show first and eat dinner later. These days, there is so much more flexibility in dining…and now on most of the newer mega-ships, there is now flexibility in your entertainment as well.
On my recent Allure of the Seas cruise, numerous shows were offered in multiple venues at all different times: the theater, the ice rink studio, the Royal Promenade, and most uniquely, the Aqua Theater. The variety was also diverse, from Broadway-style productions, to acrobatic feats, to Dreamworks-influenced (and kid-friendly) shows, adult-only comedy acts, and more.
The only “drawback” is that you have to do some advance planning and make reservations for some shows ahead of time (but no additional costs are involved!). For example, on our cruise, the Broadway musical Chicago was offered on 3 different nights, and we had to choose a night that worked around our dining, other shows we wanted to see, and the hours that our children were in Adventure Ocean or the Nursery. And since we only booked our cruise a few weeks prior to the actual sailing, most of the shows showed up as full when we accessed our pre-cruise planner online.
But we shouldn’t have worried! We found that we were easily able to get reservations to all the shows we wanted, at the times we wanted, once we were onboard. And it turns out, having the shows pre-reserved worked out just fine, and prevented overly large crowds. Can you imagine if all 6000 people onboard showed up to watch Chicago on the same night?! (Note: you can still just show up to a show time if you'd like. Reservations are released 15 minutes prior to showtime, and stand-by folks are admitted on a space-available basis.)
So without further ado, I’d like to highlight some of the shows we saw during our sailing. Unfortunately, there were a few we just never made it to, because we were busy having fun in other parts of the ship!
OceanAria – we opted to see this show on the first night of the cruise. It’s held outdoors in the AquaTheater. We brought all 4 kids to the show with us, even though the showtime was 9pm. (We find that the first night is usually best for staying up late, thanks to the adrenaline burst of being in a new and fun environment!) Seating in the front few rows is considered the "splash zone", but we were lucky enough to be a few rows behind that. Towels are provided, just in case!
The AquaTheater is an amphitheater found at the end of the Boardwalk neighborhood, at the aft of the ship. It features the deepest pool at sea (almost 18 feet!); not only is it the deepest, but the floor of the pool can be raised and lowered, allowing for amazing stunts by high divers, followed almost immediately by acrobats showing their stuff in ankle-deep water. (During the day, the AquaTheater pool may be open for swimming, or covered by a stage for other shows.)
The performance consisted of aerial and acrobatic stunts, synchronized swimming, divers, and more, all set to a musical score. It even kept the attention of our 2 year old for the entire 45 minute show. The entire family rated this a “must-see” for the Allure!
Chicago – this is the same Broadway musical that you’ve probably heard of (or at least seen the movie with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Renee Zellweger). Somehow, I’d never seen this show or movie (even though I like Broadway musicals!). We really loved this performance – the singing and dancing were really top-notch, and we've been singing the songs ever since. If you like Broadway musicals, then this is a “must-see” as well!
Note: due to some of the content, it’s only recommended for guests over the age of 13. However, our 10 year old is a musical theater and singing fanatic, and she really wanted to see it as well. Most of the inappropriate content went over her head…but she REALLY enjoyed the show overall, stating it was one of her favorite parts of the whole cruise experience!
Comedy Live – this comedy show is offered 2-3 times per night for every night of the cruise. But you only need to reserve it once: it is the same comedians and same show every time. (Since the venue is very small and intimate, there needs to be several offerings in order to accommodate everyone!) Note that the show is only appropriate for adults, and no one under 18 is admitted. For us, it was the perfect excuse for a “date night” without the kids, and it provided some good laughter as well. Another thumbs-up!
Blue Planet – this fits into the category of cruise ship/variety/singing/acrobatic show…but taken up a few notches. The musical selections are varied, ranging from soothing instrumental backgrounds for a cirque-du-soleil-ish aerial performance to a high-energy trampoline and acrobatic number set to a Red Hot Chili Peppers song. It was definitely unique, and got a thumbs up from both our 3 year old and our 10 year old!
We had reservations for the “Ice Games!” ice show, as well as the Headliner Show (The Unexpected Boys: a musical tribute to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons), but we just couldn’t break away from other onboard fun to make it to see them! However, we were able to see the How to Train Your Dragon Family Ice Show (no reservations required), which the whole family enjoyed. I don't think it's necessary to have seen the Dreamworks film, "How to Train Your Dragon", because the set, costumes, and ice stunts are entertaining in themselves. However, our family happens to really enjoy that movie; in fact, we were able to see the film in 3D in the theater earlier in the cruise!
Other shows included: a variety of 3D movies, The Love & Marriage Game Show, Outdoor Movies in the AquaTheater, Move It! Move It! Dreamworks parade, and Let You Entertain Me! Aqua Show. In addition to all of these “shows”, there were also nightly music venues for Jazz, Latin music, Rock n Roll, Dance music, a piano bar, and of course, Karaoke. There were even family-friendly versions of these venues at earlier hours: Family Karaoke, Family Dance Party, you get the idea. Combine this with an 18,000 square foot casino and multiple bars and lounges, and there's plenty to keep you having fun all night!
There's certainly no shortage of entertainment available on the Allure of the Seas; your only trouble will be finding the time to do it all!
My family and I just returned from a quick weekend aboard Disney’s newest ship, the Disney Dream. If you’re traveling with children, or are a Disney fan of any age, then I know you’re going to love the Dream!
While the ship is 40% larger than the other ships in Disney’s fleet (Magic and Wonder), it’s still about half the size of the Allure of the Seas. That being said, I want to note that three days is still not enough time to really experience everything the ship has to offer!
While I could go on and on about all the great things on this ship, I’m going to highlight the features of the Disney Dream that really make it unique among cruise ships.
To begin with, you know your cruise is going to be different when the ship doesn't even have a "regular" horn blast at sail away...
What else is unique about the Disney Dream?
Aside from all of this, there is a Mickey waterslide for the kids, a mini-golf course, basketball and sports courts, two family pools, a giant LCD screen by the pool for watching movies, and a 3D movie theater with first-run films (we saw Cars 2 and The Help).
Service was first-rate, the entertainment was fun (and suitable for the whole family!), and the food was pretty good too! So, what did we like the best?
The Adults' Favorites:
The "Big Kids" Favorites (ages 7 and 10):
The "Little Kids" Favorites (ages 2 and 3):
Stay tuned for a series of posts that compare the Allure of the Seas to the Disney Dream when it comes to kids programs, private islands, dining, and more!
I just returned from an amazing week onboard Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas. Now, there are a lot of people out there who feel that a week on ANY cruise is an amazing experience…and I won’t argue that. But this ship is so unique, so different. I don't think you can even compare it to other “cruises”.
Because once you have a huge Central Park, with live trees and foliage, pathways lined with boutiques and cafes; a real Boardwalk, complete with fun house mirrors, a hot dog stand, a carousel, and a clown doing face painting; sports activities like a 40+ foot high rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, 2 surfing simulators, mini-golf course, and a zip line… it hardly feels like you are on a cruise ship!
For my family, the cruise was a perfect match. If you don’t already know, we have 4 children, ages 2, 3, 7, and 10. Choosing a cruise requires a little extra attention – for example, we need one room that will accommodate all of us (a real rarity, but several choices on the Allure of the Seas!) or two connecting rooms. We also prefer a cruise with childcare options for our youngest child so we could see a show, have a quiet dinner, or explore the ship. And as far as the kids go, we needed something that would entertain the little ones as well as the older ones. The Allure of the Seas (or her sister, the Oasis) is perfect for this. In fact, I would whole-heartedly recommend this ship for any family traveling together, from babies up to grandparents. There is really something for everyone here.
There are many reviews all over the internet, so I will just focus here on our favorites, which happened to be geared towards the more "active". But trust me, even if you are not interested in these sorts of activities, there is still so much to see and experience on this ship; my experience is merely one perspective, but I can honestly say I wish I had another week onboard to try to do EVERYTHING! If you have any questions to ask about the Allure or Oasis of the Seas, please don’t hesitate to contact me!
Let me just start by saying we love water parks. When your kids range in age from 1 to 10, you have to make some adjustments in how you’re going to spend your day. While the older kids like the more thrilling rides, the little ones need a place to hang out while they wait. And there needs to be something enticing for the older ones to do while the little kids enjoy their play areas. It turns out Aquatica was pretty accommodating!
Our plan of attack is always the same:
· Get to the park when it opens.
· Do all the “big” rides first while the lines aren’t too bad.
· Spend the rest of the day at the lazy river, wave pool, and playground areas.
According to plan, we arrived just before the park opened. We were able to go through the turnstiles and start heading towards some chairs to make our base for the day. Unfortunately, we had a slight delay as our 3 year old managed to get separated from us in the crowd! That’s one way to get your adrenaline going for the day.
Anyone with a 3-year-old knows they can be stubborn, and when she refuses to hold hands, she usually does a good job keeping up and staying close, but I guess there were just too many people around. When we told an employee what happened, he answered, “Already!?!”
I read a few points online about how there really isn’t a good system in place if you got separated from your kids. We were lucky to find our little one right away, but it was an important reminder about how you need to stick to the buddy system, and what to do in case you get lost. Later in the day, we heard a vague announcement over the PA – something about if you were separated from your party, please proceed to an office that was behind one of the restaurants. We all just sat there thinking: if you were a kid that got separated, how would you know where this place is? So be sure to have a family plan in place BEFORE you go, whether it’s a central meeting point, memorizing cell phone numbers, or asking an employee for help (or all of the above!).
After that, our day was quite fun. The first slides we tried were Omaka Rocka and Whanau Way. While the big kids tried those, one adult stayed behind with the little ones at the wave pool right across the way. The little ones enjoyed playing in the lapping waves, and we picked out life-vests for them so they could bob around freely in the water. Omaka Rocka was first, and it was a big hit. You have to carry a tube up to the top (not so fun), and each person rides in their own single tube. The ride is fast and fun! Whanau Way allows one OR two people per tube. This was even better (despite having to carry the larger tube up all those steps!) – and all of us voted it the “best slide of the day".
Next, we moved over to Dolphin Plunge. This is kind of a signature slide for the park – pictured on most brochures advertising Aquatica. The ride promises that you slide through a clear tube, right through the area where Commersons Dolphins are swimming around. It turned out to be a bit of a disappointment though. You go through the tube so quickly and so briefly, that you don’t really have time to notice the dolphins. While waiting, the little kids were able to enjoy the Dolphin viewing area and the Loggerhead Lane Lazy River.
Also in this area was Tassie’s Twisters – one of those tube rides where you go around a vortex until you fall through the bottom. We always describe this type of slide as getting flushed down the toilet! The overall reaction to this one: the line was too long, and the ride was too short!
The next area of slides consisted of 3 tall slides, with a kids play area next to it. Taumata Racer is like Bilzzard Beach’s Toboggan Racers…a ride where you lay on your stomach on a mat, and 8 lanes of riders race each other to the bottom. Except on the Taumata Racers, you go through a turn in an enclosed tube, the downhill part is a bit more thrilling, and a water-filled bumpy ending which the adults didn’t exactly appreciate. The kids loved this ride, but the adults weren’t exactly enamored. I personally prefer the Toboggan Racers at Blizzard Beach! One note: the bigger you are, the faster and further you go! This was a little frustrating to my 7 year old son, who managed to come in last each time because he was the smallest racer!
Hoo Roo Run is a downhill tube ride – but it requires only 2-3 people per tube…no single riders, and no foursomes either, so be aware before you get on line! You sit in a triangle configuration in the tube, and then hold on tight! Unfortunately, I ended up being the part of the triangle that experienced the entire ride backwards without seeing what was coming up next! I think my kids enjoyed hearing me scream! But we all had a lot of fun. If the lines weren’t so long, we would have done it again.
Walhalla Wave is the 3rd ride in this section, dubbed a “family tube ride”, but we didn’t get to try it (again, long lines). I got the impression it was a kinder, gentler version of the Hoo Roo Run.
Walkabout Waters is the play area positioned at the base of those three slides. During our visit, we gave it a shot, but it was really not ideal for kids under 3. There is a lot of water spraying down, and it’s very loud (in addition to the screams and cries from all the kids playing there). So if you have little ones, it’s hard to call for them if they get separated from you. The play structure is full of water canons and other spray features, and if you’re not paying attention, you can really get slammed with water. This is not particularly appreciated when you look over to see that some kid just sprayed you in the face on purpose and is now laughing about it. There was a no-holds-barred attitude from the kids there, and some of the kids were pretty tough. And although there are some smaller slides to do on the play structure, there were height limits, and the little ones were too short. Fun as it looked, this area was probably one of our least favorite overall!
Our younger ones really enjoyed Kata’s Kookaburra Cove, and the older kids didn’t mind helping out and supervising the little ones there. There is a nice zero-entry pool, with some water spray features, and of course, some small-but-fun slides. Our 20 month old and 3 year old enjoyed all of this. There is one tube slide that an adult (or sibling over 48”) can do with a little one, and that was pretty entertaining to watch. The weight of the parents caused the tube to go pretty fast – you should have seen the looks on the faces of some of those little kids coming out of the slide! Wheeeee!
One of the last things we did was Roa’s Rapids. It’s a lazy river, but very different from any lazy river we’ve ever done. First of all, there are no tubes allowed. Second of all, it’s FAST! As soon as you walk into the river, you’re pretty much whisked off your feet! Even if you’re a good swimmer, I recommend getting a vest (they’re available for free everywhere). We all eventually put a vest on, and it made it even more fun getting whisked along. This was also another big family favorite for the day, and really something unique at Aquatica. We went around the river too many times to even count!
A few other notes: we didn’t spend too much time exploring food options at the park – we were there to swim and play, not eat! We just ordered some typical theme-park fast food at one of the little places, and ate at a covered picnic area. It was tasty enough, and typically priced. They do allow you to bring in coolers though.
Also available for rent are cabanas. For us, this would have been a total waste of money. We didn’t spend too much time sitting anywhere – we were constantly on the go, exploring the park and having fun. We didn’t have any problems leaving our things on a lounger under an umbrella.
An early-entry program like Disney has would have really been appreciated. Having to do the child-swap on the big rides can be pretty time-consuming – we would have liked to have that extra hour to do the bigger slides before the park filled up!
And last, but not least, try to bring a waterproof camera to capture all the fun! Unfortunately, we didn't order ours in time, and it arrived in our mailbox the day we returned!