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!
photo courtesy Sarasota CVB
Fun Facts about Sarasota:
In 2011, Dr. Beach rated Siesta Key the #1 beach in the world.
John Ringling made Sarasota famous by making it the winter home of the Ringling Bros Barnum & Bailey Circus in 1927.
The first golf course in the United States was built in Sarasota in the late 1800's by Scottish settlers.
Sarasota was just rated 2012's #1 Family Spring Break destination! It also ranked as the top city to retire to in the USA.
Sarasota has one of the highest concentrations of Zagat-rated restaurants in Florida. And during the first two weeks of June every year, Savor Sarasota lets you enjoy a 3-course dinner at many of the top restaurants for just $25!
One of the first "Segway Tours" in the USA started in Sarasota in 2003. Next time you're in town, check out Florida Ever-Glides Tours!
One of Florida's largest state parks is just outside Sarasota: Myakka River State Park. Explore the Canopy Walkway 25 feet in the air, take an airboat ride, bike, hike, canoe, or kayak (or all of the above!)
Starting summer 2012, JetBlue will offer nonstop flights from New York (JFK and LGA) and Boston to Sarasota!
If you want to fully explore the arts scene in Sarasota, then be sure to plan a long visit! Between the art in public places, self-guided arts tours, museums, and performance venues, you might even be hard-pressed to squeeze in some beach time! Here, Sunshine Travel presents a sampling of the arts scene to give you an idea of what Sarasota has to offer.
photo courtesy Sarasota CVB
Sarasota was once home to the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus. John Ringling and his wife, Mable, built a 36,000 square foot mansion on the Sarasota Bay, which they named Ca d'Zan. The Ringlings were also avid art collectors, and eventually built a museum to house their massive personal collection. You can experience both of these, as well as the Museum of the Circus and surrounding gardens when you visit the Ringling Museum of Art.
The Ringling Museum hosts many events throughout the year, including Ringling in Bloom (February 23-26, 2012, showcasing "flowers, fashion, and fine art"), Art After 5 (every Thursday, 5-8pm, with after-hours discounted admission ), the ViewPoint Lecture Series , and even Art of Food.
To immerse yourself further in Sarasota's ongoing art experience, visit Towles Court, an artist colony near downtown that landed a spot in Coastal Living’s “Top 10 Artists Colonies”. On the 3rd Friday of each month, all galleries are open to the public from 6pm-10pm during “Art Walk”. With refreshments and live music, you can meander through the various studios and galleries, or take in a class or demonstration. During the day, you can also take a Cultural & Arts Segway Tour through the area.
Fans of midcentury modern architecture are sure to be familiar with Paul Rudolph. Rudolph, a well-known midcentury architect, lived in Sarasota, where he built several buildings and homes. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation (SAF) is a nonprofit that promotes and preserves Sarasota’s architectural legacy, including that of Paul Rudolph; check the SAF's upcoming events to see if there are any home tours or interesting lectures that you may be able to attend during your visit.
For those who love the performing arts, check the box office schedule at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center, where you can get tickets for a variety of top-name entertainers and celebrated musicians, as well Broadway productions (and the occasional "Family Fun" production). If it’s opera you’re looking for, the Sarasota Opera House (built in 1926) has undergone a full restoration, and the Opera is currently in its 53rd season, featuring Verdi, American Classics, and lesser known operas in the Masterworks Revival Series.
If you happen to be visiting in mid-April, don’t miss the internationally acclaimed 14th Annual Sarasota Film Festival, April 13-22, 2012. The film line-up will be announced on March 20; tickets will go on sale on March 22. Like most other arts programs in Sarasota, there is an outreach program aimed at kids. For example, there are special free screenings for kid-friendly movies, classes teaching the basics of screenwriting and film analysis, and even the chance for kids under 18 to submit their own short film!
No matter what your favorite art medium is, you're sure to find something you'll enjoy in Sarasota. Be sure to look at Sarasota's upcoming art events before your visit, so you don't miss out on something special. Have a favorite that I missed? Let me know, and I'll be sure to add it!
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!
A few fun facts about Key West:
Did you know that the concrete buoy in Key West that marks the southernmost point in the Continental US is actually NOT the southernmost point? The true official point is on a private island off the coast. Nevertheless, it still makes a fun photo-stop!
Did you know that Key West is closer to Cuba than the nearest Wal-Mart?
photo courtesy Flagler Centennial Committee
Did you know that January 22nd, 2012 marks 100 years since Henry Flagler's railroad first reached Key West? Click to learn more about the railroad and the historic importance of linking the keys to the mainland.
Did you know: Ocean Key Resort and Little Palm Island are the only two Lower Keys hotels to appear on the 2012 Conde Nast Gold List, Travel + Leisure's Top 500 Hotels List, and AAA's 2012 Four Diamond Hotels list. Be sure to contact Sunshine Travel before making a reservation; even though these resorts are highly acclaimed, there are still other great luxury lodging options available in Key West that may be better suited to your travel style!
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.
photo courtesy of: Key West Lighthouse Museum
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!
photo courtesy of: The Key West Butterfly & Nature Conservatory
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!
photo courtesy of: Florida State Parks
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:
Sheraton Suites - directly across from Smathers Beach with a free shuttle to Duval Street.
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!
The Florida Keys have become a sophisticated culinary destination in recent years, influenced by the Caribbean and locally grown tropical foods. “Best foods” in Key West range from conch fritters at a walk-up stand to fine dining in a reservations-only restaurant, so it’s up to your own personal tastes to discover your favorites.
Instead of highlighting the well-known dining establishments, I’ve decided to tell you how to sample some of Key West’s signature items on your own. If you want to savor the flavor of the Keys and you’re unable to get there, just swing by your local bookstore or library and pick up Linda Gassenheimer’s The Flavors of the Florida Keys. It’s a great collection of recipes from locals as well as celebrated restaurants throughout the Keys. Cook up a few of these specialties, put on your flip-flops, get the Jimmy Buffet playing, and you’re halfway there!
For more serious foodies, there’s no better way to sample the culinary offerings of Key West than the Key West Food and Wine Festival, January 26-29, 2012. Highlights include 2-hour strolls through some of Key West’s unique neighborhoods to sample food and wine from various restaurants, seminars, wine tastings, and even coconut bowling. It all culminates in the 18th Annual Master Chef’s Classic, the premier culinary competition of the Lower Keys. Not only is there a panel of judges, but there is also a “People’s Choice Award” up for grabs...if you are lucky enough to attend this event, you’ll get to sample the chefs’ creations and put in your vote as well!
If you can’t make it to the Festival this year, consider Key West Food Tours for when you do visit. You’ll get insight into the local history of Key West, as well as a sampling of some of the best restaurants on a 2 -hour walking tour around town.
If it’s seafood you’re after, check out the 7th Annual Florida Keys Seafood Festival January 14, 2012, from 11am to 8pm at Bayview Park in Key West. Many types of fresh seafood will be on the menu, including Grilled Spiny Lobster, Stone Crab Claws, Key West Pink Shrimp, and Conch Fritters. There’s also live music, and even activities for the kids.
Other upcoming food and drink events this year include Taste of Key West (fundraiser for AIDS Help) in late April, June’s Key West Bacchanalia (proceeds benefit Breast Cancer research), and if you’re a beer aficionado, don’t miss the Key West Brewfest over the Labor Day weekend.
If fancy food and wine isn’t your thing, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with drinking and eating. Did you know that Key West has more bars per capita than any other city in the United States? Work your way through some of Key West's famous drinking establishments on the Key West Pub Crawl, or if you don’t like organized group tours (or want to visit more bars!), do it yourself with these tips from the Travel Channel.
If you are looking for a more family-friendly (or alcohol-free) tasting experience, why not go in search of the best Key Lime Pie? In 2006, the Florida House of Representatives and Senate actually passed legislation declaring that Key Lime Pie is the Official Pie of the State of Florida! There’s plenty of debate over who has the BEST Key Lime Pie in Key West. Featured on Food Network, Kermit’s Key West Key Lime Shoppe offers more than just Key Lime Pies - you can choose from salsas, spices, jellies, and even Key Lime Dog Treats! And the Key West Key Lime Pie Co. is home to The Original Key Lime Pie Bar: slices of their handmade key lime pie dipped in rich chocolate and served on a stick. Have fun sampling and decide for yourself!
What is Specialty Dining on a cruise ship? Instead of eating your dinner in the main dining room, you can opt to have a meal in a “special” restaurant, featuring fine steaks, sushi, Italian fare, or something unique. These days, most cruise ships have at least one specialty restaurant, in addition to the main dining room, buffet, and room service.
The Allure of the Seas, being the largest ship afloat, actually has 24 different dining options available! Most of those options are complimentary and included in your cruise fare. However, there are several options that charge an additional per-person fee to dine. Some places are casual: Johnny Rockets if you’re in the mood for a burger and fries ($4.95), or Rita’s Cantina if you’d like to sample some Mexican fare ($3 cover charge, plus a la carte menu pricing; or Rita's Fiesta, with dinner and 3 drinks of your choice for $20 on select nights).
If you’re a die-hard carnivore, you’re in luck. Samba Grill is a Brazilian steakhouse that’s open for dinner in the Solarium each night ($25). While there is a buffet with soups, salads, and appetizers, the focus here is on the meat - there are actually 13 different kinds of meat that are carved tableside, just for you. And the servers will keep coming around until you’ve had enough. Always a favorite, Chops Grille is an American steakhouse ($30), serving all of the traditional classics.
If you’re looking for something different, you can try Vintages, a wine bar with a sampling menu of tapas (a la carte pricing). You can use an iPad to select a wine, and then tapas selections are suggested for you. Or, choose your tapas first, and see the iPad’s wine pairing recommendations! Sushi, sashimi, and even Hot Rock (Ishiyaki) Plates are found at Izumi Asian Cuisine (cover charge is $5 for dinner, plus a la carte menu pricing).
For the foodies, 150 Central Park is a fine-dining experience featuring a seasonal 6-course tasting menu ($40). There are just 2 rotating menus per cruise, so you can view the options when you get onboard to see which one appeals to you more. Or, you can opt for the Chef’s Table, a unique experience limited to just 14 guests. There is a 5-course menu prepared and presented by the Chef de Cuisine, along with special wine pairings for each course ($95). Bonus take-home goodies include a cookbook signed by the chef and a special personalized menu.
During my cruise on the Allure, I was perfectly content with all of the dining options that were included in my cruise fare. However, after spending 6 nights in the dining room with 4 young children, we decided we were going to spend the last night having a quiet special dinner together, without the little ones. At that point, there weren’t many reservation choices left, and we settled on Giovanni’s Table ($20). Described as Italian, and "family-style", I’ll admit I didn’t necessarily have the highest hopes for a “fine dining” experience.
We started out with 3 appetizers to share: Carpaccio di Manzo (thinly sliced seared beef tenderloin, crispy lettuces, shaved fennel, julienned sundried tomatoes, crispy garlic chips, and herb-oil drizzle); Capesante al Forno (oven baked, almond-crusted scallops with red bell pepper pesto). To be honest, I’m not a fan of scallops, but these had to be THE BEST scallops I have ever eaten. If all scallops were like this, I would certainly eat them more often! The third was Melanzane alla Parmigiana (baked eggplant parmigiana Italian style), and even though it wasn't an adventurous choice, it was a really outstanding appetizer. For our pasta course, we shared the Crespelle di Ricotta e Spinaci - baked ricotta and spinach crepes with Pomodoro sauce. Another amazing dish, filled with plenty of cheesy goodness.
(As if we even had room for the main course at this point...) we selected the Grilled Lamb Chops and the Grilled Beef Tenderloin. Both were cooked to perfection. These were probably THE BEST lamb chops I have ever eaten. They were meaty and juicy, with not a bit of fat on them…and while they were thick, they were cooked perfectly!
We also sampled several desserts, including Tiramisu and Cannoli, although we were certainly not hungry anymore!
Dining at Giovanni's Table turned out to be one of the highlights of our week on the Allure, and I wouldn't hesitate to do it again. Royal Caribbean has since introduced a few Specialty Dining Packages on select ships to encourage guests to try specialty dining. For example, for $65 per guest, you can eat dinner at Giovanni's Table, Chops Steakhouse, and 150 Central Park. Purchased separately, it would be $90 per guest. I highly recommend doing this, as it's a great way to sample some fantastic dining experiences, and it is a great value too!
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!
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I recently sailed on the Allure of the Seas and Disney Dream within about a month of each other. These are two of the newest ships at sea, and both are heavily marketed towards families. Since I traveled with 4 kids, ranging in age from 2 to 10, I was able to really put all of the childrens programs to the test. Read on to see how the ships stack up! This post is all about childcare for babies under 3 on both ships.
About the Nursery: While a nursery for babies has been a part of Disney Cruise Line since their inception, Royal Caribbean recently launched the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery on the Oasis and Allure of the Seas (and seeing the popularity, added the Nursery to several other ships in the fleet). If you’re going to cruise to the Caribbean or Bahamas, these are the only ships available that offer guaranteed childcare throughout the day and night for babies and toddlers.
Both cruise lines ask that you provide a change of clothes, diapers/wipes, and any other necessity your child requires (we packed a favorite stuffed animal). Royal Caribbean provides a cute reusable bag that they label with your child’s name, and you can take it home with you after the cruise.
Rates & Availability: For both cruises, I didn’t have any trouble securing the times I wanted. While I could pre-book some hours for the Dream online prior to the cruise, I could only make the Allure’s reservations in the Nursery once I was on the ship. Both nurseries only allow a certain number of hours (I believe it was 10 hours on the 3-night Disney cruise, 20 hours on the 7 night Royal Caribbean), but you can add more hours later in the cruise if available. And if you don’t think you want to use all the hours you reserved, both lines were very accommodating to cancellations, as long as you give them a little bit of notice.
Disney’s rate is currently $6 per hour, and Royal Caribbean’s is $8 per hour. Both require a 1 hour minimum.
Contact: On the Disney Dream, all staterooms are equipped with 2 “Wave Phones” that can be used to call or text any other wave phone or stateroom. While this is a great way to keep in touch with those you’re traveling with, I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of toting around a phone to text or make calls…I’m on vacation! That being said, we did keep it nearby when our son was in the nursery…just in case!
On the Allure of the Seas, you are given a “DECT phone” only if you register at the nursery. Whenever you drop your child off there, be sure to keep the phone nearby in case you are needed.
The Play Space: On the Allure of the Seas, the Nursery is located in the same area as the older children’s activity rooms. There is a glass wall and door with a full view of the room, so you can always peek in on your child (though they may see you!). The reception area is very small, only really big enough for one family to enter and check-in at a time (it also makes the drop-off process feel more personalized and a little bit calmer). The play area is large and wide-open, and the toys in the room are changed daily. Being a partner with Fisher Price and Crayola, there is no shortage of kid-appropriate toys in the room! There is also separate area with cribs for when the little ones get tired and want to sleep.
On the Disney Dream, the setup of the play space is a little bit different. There is a large reception area, where many families can be checking in at one time, and a small play area for kids and siblings while they wait. There is one doorway where the babies enter into a corridor filled with a variety of toys. Beyond that, the room opens up into an area off to the side that you cannot see from the reception area, as well as another room in the back with cribs.
Interaction: Every time my son was dropped off on the Allure of the Seas, there were 3 counselors and no more than 4 children or so at any given time (maybe it was a quiet week?), so I know he was given extra-special attention. Although he cried every time we dropped him off (he isn’t used to daycare or babysitters), the staff was caring and patient, and he always stopped crying within a few minutes. By the end of the week, the counselors really got to know him, figured out his language, and even did a special finger-painting with him. One night (with our permission), they brought the babies (in their strollers) to the parade in the Royal Promenade. I know he really enjoyed that little “field trip”! Every time we picked him up, the staff gave us a written report and explained to us what our son had done, how many times his diaper had been changed (and why), and on the night he ate dinner there, what he ate.
On the Dream, we were only onboard for 3 nights, and ended up using the nursery only once so we could have dinner at Palo (adults-only specialty restaurant). Again, he cried when we dropped him off, but he quieted quickly, as we checked on him just before we set off to dinner. When we arrived to pick him up, he was within view of the reception area, so we were able to watch him briefly before he noticed us. He and another boy were having fun making noise by banging puzzle pieces on the table. One counselor was sitting nearby with a little one on her lap. There were quite a few children in the room, but I couldn’t see any other counselors (they were around the corner, I’m sure!).
When I picked him up, I asked the counselor what he ate for dinner (he was there from 5:30pm to 8pm). No one seemed to remember, but after consulting a list, it turned out he didn’t eat anything (this was probably because that night’s dinner was corn-dogs - NOT a favorite for him!). I have no idea what he actually did in the time he was there, but he was happy and healthy, and we enjoyed our one quiet dinner. After our experience on the Allure of the Seas, I think I would have liked some feedback on what he did while he was there, especially a note that he hadn’t eaten any dinner.
The Winner: While I think both nurseries provided overall good care for my son, and I wouldn’t hesitate to use either one again in the future, I think Royal Caribbean’s Royal Babies & Tots Nursery wins. I think my son did receive more personal care and attention there, but that could be attributed to the fact that there were less babies on the cruise, and we were onboard for a week (more time for the counselors to get to know him). The nicest touch was the personalized feedback they provided at the end of each session letting you know what your child did while they were in the nursery.