Grab your sea legs to set off on a memorable family vacation aboard a “Fun Ship” from Carnival.
Driving up to the port, our mouths dropped open. “Oh, WOW!” exclaimed my 5-year-old daughter, Lilliana. “That is a BIG ship! Are we getting on that?!”
We were about to embark on a voyage on the deep blue sea for the very first time aboard one of the “Fun Ships” — Carnival Fascination. I never would have thought we’d be brave enough to take on such a family vacation, but we did and I don’t regret it. Our five-day cruise took us to two ports in The Bahamas, Half Moon Cay and Nassau. We boarded our ship in Jacksonville, Fla., a good nine-hour drive from Nashville, but, if planned right, your drive should be relatively easy. We drove at night so that Lilliana and 11-month-old Seth could sleep. Once aboard, start planning your day!
Every morning, a list of the day’s planned activities is slipped under your door. Read it! Activities are planned for all ages, every day of the cruise. Be sure to catch a show! We enjoyed a phenomenal retrospective of ’80s music. Lilliana was so amazed by the production that she didn’t want to leave the theater, even after the show was over. The lights, the fireworks … so amazing. The singing was impeccable, too.
There are two days at sea during a five-day cruise. That’s when the ship’s planned activities come in handy. They have games, shopping and more. You can even sign up to be part of an all-guest show where you get to show off your talent. Or, for the stage-stricken, sign up for family trivia and see how much you really know about your brood.
If you’re not soaking up the sun by the pool, playing corn hole, giant chess, ping pong, shuffle board or mini golf, then you must be hitting the water slides. The ship has one very tall slide that swirls you around in a fully enclosed tunnel — Lilliana was just the right height and she did it over and over again. There are twin racer slides and twin mini-slides for the little ones. Lilliana had so much fun with the other children aboard that they soon started swimming and sliding together.
Parents have a place to go and hide, too. Take advantage of the fitness room, spa, salon or adult-only pool. For an additional fee, you can pamper yourself for the night with a relaxing massage followed by salon services. Dress up for a special night! Carnival has many places along one level for everyone to have professionally made pictures — with a variety of backdrops to choose from. Take all you want for free, you only have to pay for the pictures you like. Be prepared, though, as the photo packages can get a little pricey, but they’ll be worth it.
Let your children get a break from you. You know they deserve it. The Carnival cruise line offers free youth experiences — or “camps” — throughout the day, split up into different age groups. Children get to experience a variety of activities like coloring, painting, games and more. You pick a time to drop off your child, present your Sail & Sign card to check them in, and leave! Parents are not allowed to stay except for special activities. We decided to do a mother-daughter time and participated in the Stuff a Bear activity (which requires an additional fee for the supplies) while Daddy napped with baby brother. More activities for different age groups include games, dance parties, movies and more. Teens can even do teen-only shore excursions! All the clubs are supervised by experienced staff members. Carnival takes great effort and goes to extreme lengths to make it a memorable experience for the young cruisers — another reason why they are called the “Fun Ships.”
Any traveling child younger than 2 is going to need entertainment from their parents. Fascination really didn’t have a good area for Seth to swim and play. So, if traveling with an infant or toddler, be prepared to have them with you at all times. We all had fun. Seth enjoyed waiting near the end of the mini-slides and splashing around in the water there watching big sister slide over and over again.
Half Moon Cay
Just soak it all in — the sun, sand and view. Half Moon Cay is an awe-inspiring place that is secluded from the hubbub of the other developed islands of the Bahamas. This Carnival exclusive private island is 55 acres of the 2,400-acre Little San Salvador Island and only 2 percent of it is developed. Its serene environment is peaceful and relaxing. Take a deep breath, because there are not many places left like this in the world. The waters are so crystal blue, it’s just unbelievable. You can wade out until you’re neck deep in the water and still see through to the bottom. This, however, frightened my usual ride-all-the-waves Lilliana. She loves the beach, but she could see all the fish swimming around. The water is so sparkling it was like Mother Earth draped her most precious diamonds across the ocean horizon to create this magnificent place.
You can book several different shore excursions, if you wish. We saw several people enjoying horseback rides on the beach. Many of us opted to just sit by the shore and be amazed by the scenery. This is a cashless island, too. All you need is your Sail & Sign card. Whatever you want to purchase on the island will be billed to your room — easy peasy, right?
Nassau is the capitol of The Bahamas, and its culture still thrives. Shops are everywhere featuring hand-made crafts and souvenirs. Wait! Before you get off the boat, grab your picture ID — you will need it to get back on the boat — and sunscreen! As you start to get off the boat, the ship offers bottled water and drinks for a nominal fee. But don’t buy them! You can get $1 drinks just after you go through the security check when you get on the island.
We grabbed the first taxi we saw and made our way to Paradise Island for our Aquaventure shore excursion at Atlantis.
Ahhh, Atlantis. Yes, it does exist. The vast beauty of it all is something you really don’t want to miss. Paradise Island is home to extraordinary marine habitats featuring lagoons, caves, underwater ruins and more. It is the largest marine exhibit in the world with 8 million gallons of salt water and more than 50,000 aquatic animals representing more than 250 species — a lot to see and enjoy!
Mixed in with the marine habitats is Paradise Island’s Aquaventure Water Park. It comprises 141 acres of waterscapes, more than 18 thrilling water slides, Atlantean-themed towers, high-speed water slides, a mile-long river ride with rapids and wave surges, 20 swimming areas, a kids’ water fort like no other and 11 different swimming pools sprinkled throughout the resort.
Lilliana and I took The Current for a fabulous ride! The two-seater tubes or even the single-seat ones allow you to float along the lazy river, but hold on to your seat as it is really not that lazy. You turn a corner and a wave surge rushes gallons of water into the river, creating a fun ride. If you start to grow tired of the river, there are many exit/entrance spots along the way. Some areas are also a little higher in elevation, but don’t worry. You don’t have to even leave your tube to go higher. The water conveyor belts gently escalate you up to the next level.
There’s a cluster of little pools (that are about waist deep to an adult in most spots) that go around the base of the Mayan Temple. This area consists of bridges to go under and little water falls. Four mini water slides connect the pools — perfect for little swimmers! You can find little water slides all over the resort.
For the thrill seekers, there are many slides to choose from including Leap of Faith, Challenger Slide, The Abyss, The Surge, Serpent Slide, The Falls and the Jungle Slide (for the young thrill seekers). Be prepared to wait about 30 minutes for most of these slides during peak season — except for The Abyss within the Power Tower. This body-slide is intense! I sat down to take my turn, grabbed the handle to thrust myself forward — but I did not go forward. I went DOWN! A 50-foot near vertical drop in complete darkness sent my heart racing. I clutched my arms and held my breath — it was nearly taken away by the excitement anyway — and popped out at the end of the 200-foot slide into The Cenote’, an underground lair with a view point of one of the aquariums. It takes a mere five seconds to reach the bottom. I came out of that giggling like a little girl and rushed to find my husband, Shane. Then I sent him! I grabbed the kids, retraced my steps from the exit back down the stairs and we waited in a cave-like area to see their daddy shoot through the waterfall and out into the opening. What a rush!
With children as young as ours, we didn’t get to ride any of the other water slides, but we did spend an awesome, action-packed six hours at Atlantis — and we barely scratched the top of what there is to do. The resort also offers dolphin encounters at Dolphin Cay, stingray encounters and more. This resort is also cashless; remember to bring your debit/credit card if you want to get anything at the resort — your room key (Sail & Sign card) does not work here. You can rent lockers in the changing area, grab a bite to eat and shop in the many shops. Don’t worry about bringing a towel, either — the resort provides them. They also provide life vests for nearly any size child. It’s an absolute must-do shore excursion while on your cruise to Nassau!
When your trip is over and it’s time to get off the ship, be prepared for another wait. If you opted to carry your luggage on/off the boat, you get to leave first, and they’ll call you off by deck. But, if you are having your luggage taken down to the dock for you, a zone is assigned to you. They will call the zones by groups of 10 and allow you to leave after all the others who are carrying their luggage have already debarked the ship. This is a moment where you really need something for children to do. The ship nearly shut completely down and Lilliana was getting stir crazy — another reason to keep activities in your carry-on!
As with any vacation that you have never taken before, be sure to read all that you can on the Frequently Asked Questions part of the website. It is very helpful. Before we left, Lilliana received hugs from several of the little girls she met on our cruise. That is one of the great things about this kind of adventure. It is not so overcrowded and you really get a chance to meet new people and make new friends.
Wait! Before I let you go, I must tell you about the food. The wide variety of offerings are delicious and endless — including the ice cream! If you don’t find yourself seated at the table with other cruisers in the casual dining restaurant, you are surely taking advantage of one of the several buffet-style eateries on the ship. The pizza bar and room service are even offered 24 hours! You can really get carried away by all the choices.
Useful Tips to Better Prepare You
There are many things that you may not be aware of when planning for a cruise. Here are several useful tips that I found out — and would have liked to know much sooner — that will hopefully make your trip a little more easy … some of which involve a little more money being budgeted for the trip.
• Attire — Aside from the sun dresses and shorts and tanks you would wear about the ship and to the pool, be sure to pack something more casual for dinner or go all out with a ball gown and tuxedo for the one captain’s dinner. Make sure that you pack shoes other than your flip flops, too, as you will need to wear more casual attire at the regular sit down restaurants. Other than that, the buffet style restaurants about the boat are fine with flip flops, sun dresses and such.
• Babysitting — This is offered from 10 p.m. – 3 a.m. when the camps are closed and the parents want to get out on their own for the night. It is generally $6 (or more as prices may change) per child per hour PLUS 15 percent gratuity. So, if you would like a dinner just for adults and want someone to watch your kiddos 11 and younger, be prepared to pay this price and plan for it in your budget.
• Free Food — That’s right, it is all free. There was a 24-hour pizza counter on our ship, too. You can get just about anything from the different buffets on the ship. There was a deli counter for cold cuts or toasted sandwiches and wraps, and endless supply of deserts and ice cream.
• Infants — Must be 6-months-old to cruise (12 months for Transatlantic, Hawaii and South America cruises)
• Port Parking — If you are driving to the port, be prepared to pay around $10 – $15 per day to park your car. And if you park a little bit away from the port, be sure to have cash at the ready to tip your driver to take you to and from your car and ship. At the Jacksonville, Fla. port, we found a place to park just before you enter the area, Cruise Parking (3500 Zoo Pkwy., Jacksonville; 904-210-3900) that was $10 per day. They had 24-hour security at the lot, too. That was $5 cheaper per day than parking right at the port and they drove us right to the terminal (only about a minute or two away).
• Porters — these are the people at the port that take your luggage from you and make sure it gets to your room by 8 p.m. the day the boat departs from the port. You must be prepared to tip the porter $1 – $2 per luggage.
• Prepaid Tips/Gratuities — this is something that many don’t know. The standard fee is $10 per person per day, regardless of age. So, if you are traveling with an infant, he will be paying the same as an adult. This is to cover the stateroom service, waiters, etc. So, you don’t tip anyone throughout the entire cruise … unless you are just feeling very generous. The money is put together and dispersed to all areas of the ship.
• Room Service — This is also free and the tips/gratuities is included with your prepaid gratuities through your Sail & Sign card.
• Sail & Sign — This is actually a nice service as it is a card assigned to you as you board that has your name on it and is connected to your debit/credit card. The entire cruise is cashless. All you need is this card now and everyone boarding the ship gets one of their own. When you get it and first get toward the boat, they will take your picture and it is saved to that card. You should keep this card on you at all times as it is also your room key and your passage to get on and off the boat (along with your picture ID — don’t ever forget that!).
• Soda Card — You will need this if you want anything other than water, milk, sweet tea or lemonade. Other juices are also offered through room service.
• Staterooms — When you are ready to book your cruise, be sure to pick the right kind of room to fit your families needs. We were in a room that had only a shower in the — which posed to be a problem when trying to bathe our little guy, Seth.