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.
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!
While passports and travel insurance are considered optional extras when booking a cruise, recent events have proven once again how important these items are when it comes to protecting your vacation plans.
A few weeks ago, when Hurricane Irene was edging ever closer to Puerto Rico, the port authority made a decision to close the whole port in San Juan. Carnival Victory and Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas were docked there, preparing to embark on weeklong voyages to the Southern Caribbean. Because of the port closure, the ships had to depart from San Juan several hours earlier than expected. Then, when people arrived at the port to board the ship, the terminals were closed and the ships had already left!
Carnival tried to compensate the 300 cruisers who missed the boat with a 2-night stay in San Juan and a flight to Barbados to catch up with the ship. However, if passengers did not have a passport, they could not take the flight to meet the ship (a passport is not required for a flight to San Juan, but is necessary to get to Barbados).
While passport regulations state that you can get away with taking a cruise without a passport (as long as you leave and depart from the same U.S. port, San Juan included), it’s easy to see how you can run into problems if you DON’T have the passport and you are stuck in the islands, unable to board a plane!
(September 17 is Annual Passport Day, so if you need a passport, or it’s time to renew, don’t delay! Find more information here: travel.state.gov/passportday)
Cruisers on Royal Caribbean were in for worse news. Of the 145 passengers left behind, only 15 had booked an air/sea package directly with Royal Caribbean, and they were the only ones given hotel accommodations and flights to Aruba to meet the ship. Everyone else was on their own to make alternate arrangements. If they had their own travel insurance, then all expenses incurred to reach the ship would have been covered. If not, then they were out of luck! (In a response to public outcry over leaving these cruisers high and dry, Royal Caribbean has offered future cruise credits to those who missed all or part of their cruise.)
When purchasing a cruise, it is frustrating to look at the additional cost of insurance. But clearly in this case, that small investment (probably under $200 for a couple) would have provided peace of mind for cruisers of both lines, and prevented a ruined trip for Royal Caribbean cruisers!
Norwegian Cruise Line has always done things a little bit differently than other cruise lines. They were the first cruise line to develop a private island in the Bahamas, the first cruise line to create a full-time kids program, and the first contemporary cruise line to implement the Freestyle Dining concept (meaning you can just show up to eat at any dining venue at any time, instead of the set early or late seating in one dining room). Over time, other cruise lines saw the success of these ideas and implemented them too.
Now, in another “first” for mega-ships, they have created a separate exclusive area on several of their ships called The Haven.
Just saying the word “haven” evokes a sense of getting away from it all. But if you’ve been on ship with 3000 other people (or more!), you know that getting away from crowds isn’t entirely possible. However, The Haven changes that notion and provides a luxurious refuge aboard a mega-ship for a privileged few.
It’s been described as a “ship within a ship” and “a private world of luxury at sea”. If you book a suite or villa in The Haven, you’ll be entitled to extra special amenities not available to the other cruisers. Upon boarding, you will receive a private escort to your suite. After that, you will have access to a dedicated concierge and a 24-hour butler to assist with any other requests, from preferred seating at entertainment venues to priority reservations in the specialty restaurants onboard. You’re even entitled to priority boarding of tenders to go ashore.
Just for guests of The Haven, there is a private courtyard and sun deck with its own pool, fitness area, and hot tub. With a limited number of guests having access to the courtyard, it is certainly easier to find a lounge chair without having to get up at the crack of dawn to reserve one at the main pool!
There are also restaurants reserved just for guests of The Haven, or you can choose to dine in-suite with white tablecloth service.
Some people might feel like this is going back to the “class system” of the old cruise ships. However, I feel that if you’re looking for luxury (and are willing to pay a premium for it), then it’s great to have this option on a large ship. The mega-ships offer so much more in terms of variety of entertainment and dining options than a smaller-scale luxury ship. Also, if you’re a luxury traveler with children, your kids will be able to enjoy all of the special programs onboard that appeal to a wide range of ages…whereas if you’re traveling on a luxury line, you’re much less likely to encounter any children’s programming or even rooms that accommodate families.
The Haven is available on the Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Jewel, and Norwegian Pearl. If you’re curious about the accommodations, here are some examples of suites available. Please note that accommodations vary by ship.
A 3-Bedroom Garden Villa is about 3355 square feet and accommodates up to 8 people – this is definitely one of the biggest and most luxurious suites at sea…enough to call it a “villa”! With three separate bedrooms with their own bathroom, there is also an entire private deck area with your own hot tub, luxury sun loungers, and even a hammock!
The Deluxe Owner’s Suite with Large Balcony has floor-to-ceiling windows all around, plus a separate bedroom, living room, dining area, and large private balcony. The bathroom even has its own whirlpool tub.
The 2-Bedroom Family Villa with Balcony accommodates up to 6 people with a living room, dining area, separate bedroom, and 2 bathrooms.
Designed for just two people is the Courtyard Penthouse with Balcony, it’s a perfect way for a couple to enjoy all of the benefits of The Haven. Like an aft-facing balcony? On the Epic, you can also opt for a Penthouse with Balcony, featuring all the benefits of The Haven, yet grants you that sought-after view.
Unique to the Epic is the Spa Suite with Balcony. These also accommodate a maximum of two people, but include complimentary access to the thermal suites in the Mandara Spa.
So if you’re looking for luxury treatment, but still want all of the amenities and offerings of a large mega-ship, then The Haven could be your perfect solution!
Who doesn’t love free upgrades and onboard credit when taking a cruise? I know I do!
So what is the best way to get these extra bonuses when you travel? Well, there are a few ways. Obviously, the most straightforward way is to wait for a sale. Cruise lines advertise these on and off all the time, and promotions always vary. Sometimes there’s a reduced deposit. Sometimes there’s a free upgrade. And sometimes they offer varying amounts of onboard credit based on the type of room you choose.
After that (and many times, in conjunction with a sale), a great way to secure extra spending money on your ship is to contact a travel agent. Obviously, I’m happiest if you contact Sunshine Travel, but generally travel agents are able to secure additional onboard credit or perks on most sailings (that’s just one perk of using a travel agent, but that’s a story for another time!). These extra bonuses are only available by booking with a travel agent. (And remember, Sunshine Travel never charges any additional fees, so you are always guaranteed the best price!)
But now, I’m about to fill you in on a third way to add extra perks to your cruise booking…
Have you ever been on a cruise before, and passed the “Future Cruise Sales” desk? I have. And to be honest, I always found it a little bit annoying. I mean, I’m already sailing on the ship, and I’m already spending additional money on shore excursions, drinks, and other fun things. And then they’re asking me for more money to take another cruise, before this one is even over?
But you know what? If you like to cruise, that Future Cruise Consultant should be your new best friend! By making a deposit for your next cruise while you are still onboard, you stand to score some great discounts, upgrades, and/or onboard credits that you could not find otherwise!
Your reservation will seamlessly transfer into the hands of the travel agent you booked your current cruise with (or another travel agent if you wish). And when your travel agent takes care of your reservation, you’ll be able to take advantage of all of the additional credits mentioned above, plus the personalized service of an agent!
Specifics vary by cruise line when it comes to Future Cruise Sales, but in general, you can expect a reduced deposit for the future cruise of $100 per person. And for that next cruise that you choose, you can be eligible for an onboard credit that varies between $25 and $200. Some cruise lines also offer a free upgrade. Some cruise lines offer a discount on your next cruise. And one cruise line even lets you book up to 2 additional staterooms with the same reduced deposit/onboard credit perks so you can bring friends and family along!
If you don’t have a specific future cruise in mind, or you’re not ready to make a decision, some cruise lines even offer an option that allows you to purchase cruise certificates for the same amount of the reduced deposit, so you can choose your specific cruise later, and still keep the bonus offers! (Of course, restrictions apply.)
Let me give a brief example, based on a real life cruiser. Mr. Smith is sailing on a Celebrity Cruise. Mr. Smith loves Celebrity and knows he will sail on them again in the future. He goes to the Future Cruise Consultant and arranges to make a deposit on another cruise for next year. He pays a total of $200 deposit for him and his wife. He chooses a category 2C veranda room, but gets a free upgrade to a category 1C, which would have ordinarily cost him an additional $300. Furthermore, he receives a $200 onboard credit on the next cruise. Mr. Smith’s reservation automatically gets placed in the hands of his trusted travel agent. The travel agent then informs Mr. Smith that she has an additional $50 onboard credit available for his sailing!
So for putting down $100 per person, Mr. Smith ended up with a savings over $300 for his cruise, and a total of $250 onboard credit! Not a bad deal! If he called the cruise line directly after he returned home, he would have received none of these benefits. And if he just called his travel agent, he would have only received the $50 onboard credit.
Obviously, taking advantage of this benefit involves you getting on a cruise in the first place, but if you like to cruise, this is a great way to save money on your next sailing!
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!
Here are some pointers I picked up along the way. Be sure to let me know if you’d like to add anything to this list!
Sunblock, hats, and water are a must. It’s hot, so make sure you protect your skin from the Florida sun by applying (and re-applying) sunblock. Keep drinking fluids all day to stay hydrated too.
There are no bags allowed on any of the big thrill rides. This means you need to find a locker for your things while you ride, or leave them with a non-rider. The latter is easier if you’re traveling with small kids, because the little ones can’t ride anyways, so whoever stays with the kids gets to keep the bags too! However, if you’re not traveling with non-thrill-riders, I think that it would be annoying to have to get a locker to stow your things each time.
The Quick Queue pass is great. This is a bracelet that lets you by-pass the long lines, very similar to a Disney FastPass. However, they can cost between $15 and $30, and they are only valid on a handful of rides. We also found it tricky to find where the Quick Queue lines are for the rides. Quick tip: stay at a neighboring Marriott or Hilton property, and you can pick up a Quick Queue pass for free at your hotel lobby! (Though passes are limited, we didn’t have any trouble.)
The big thrill rides really are “thrilling”! Even though my daughter (“The Tween”) was tall enough to ride Manta and Kraken, it would have been much too overwhelming for her. So it’s really important know your kids, and their comfort levels on rides. Just because they’re tall enough to ride doesn’t mean that it’s a “good” ride for them.
The ride area for smaller children is a bit separated from the rest of the park. At Disney, the little ones can ride all but a handful of rides. At SeaWorld, they couldn’t do any rides except in Shamu’s Happy Harbor. And since we saved that half of the park for later in the day, the little ones fell asleep in the stroller by the time we got there, so it was lost on them.
Strollers are not allowed in most of the aquarium areas. This is tricky if you have a little one napping in the stroller. Even though many of the aquarium and animal viewing areas are stroller-accessible, you have to park outside and carry your little one. I suppose I can understand this – if the aquarium areas are packed, the last thing you want is strollers blocking more space. But still, it’s not particularly convenient.
When they say, “Arrive at least 45 minutes prior to a show to get a seat”, they’re not kidding. We showed up to One Ocean about 15-20 minutes prior to the 2:30pm show, and we were in the nosebleed section!
Take advantage of the “2nd Visit Free” option. This allows you to return to SeaWorld at no additional charge for an extra day within a week of your first visit. Florida Residents also sometimes have a “Pay for a Day, Play for the rest of the year” option. This allows you to return to do your favorite things or things you missed the first day. Or better yet, you can return to take part in special activities, such as the Marine Mammal Keeper Experience or Beluga Interaction Program (additional fee). Please note that ticket promotions vary, and Sunshine Travel can help you choose the ticket that’s best for you.