If you're a kid, you're going to like what the cruise lines are doing to make sure you have a good time on board.
How about dissecting a squid? Or painting your own T-shirt? Playing candy-bar bingo or fooling around with "space mud?"
All those, plus computer classes, scavenger hunts, trivia contests, teen "bars" and dance clubs, are some of the ways cruise lines now are catering to young people from toddlers to teen-agers.
It seems to be working, because record numbers of youngsters are boarding cruise ships these days.
Carnival Cruise Lines, for one, expects to have 400,000 children on board this year, an increase of 300 percent over the number it carried seven years ago. Royal Caribbean, too, has seen the number of children on board soar. In 1992, it carried 38,000 children under 18; in 2001 the number was 215,000.
"Ten times last year we had more than 1,000 kids on our Voyager-class ships," said Charly McDonald, Adventure Ocean (children's program) specialist for Royal Caribbean. "That's never happened before."
Disney Cruise Line, whose name is synonymous with children, boards an average of 800 under-18s with every sailing of its two ships, or a total of about 125,000 a year.
Even Holland America, which traditionally has catered to older passengers, is experiencing a boom in cruising children. "We had more than 20,000 children aboard the Maasdam last year," said David A. Giersdorf, senior vice president, "and we expect 30,000 aboard the [new] Zuiderdam in 2003."
It's still true that most children go on cruises when schools are not in session, but that, too, is changing.
"It used to be that we just got a lot of kids in summer and holidays," said Catherine Gaines, coordinator of passenger programs for Princess Cruises. "But now it's continuous."
With this boom in youngsters on board, most cruise lines not only are providing more facilities and personnel to youngsters, but also are expanding and refining their children's programs, particularly on their newer ships.
Pretty much gone is the old concept of the children's center as simply a baby-sitting operation. Today's youngsters are offered a smorgasbord ranging from strictly fun and games to sophisticated educational opportunities.
Dissecting a squid, for instance, is part of Princess Cruises' science program on its new Coral Princess, along with rocket-building. The line also partners with the Miami Seaquarium on a series of videos about and activities related to Caribbean marine life.
On sailings on the same sea aboard the new Carnival Conquest, youngsters learn about island culture and geography as part of the line's extensive EduCruise program, while those more attuned to hands-on activities can learn how to decorate cakes or make pizzas.
Youngsters aboard either of Disney Cruise Line's two ships learn how to create animation cels (used in movie cartoons) or how to become a Mousketeer, while kids on Norwegian Cruise Line's ships can participate in wacky cooking classes.
Cruise ships also are allotting more of their space to children. Royal Caribbean's new Navigator of the Seas, for instance, devotes a whopping 22,000 square feet to children's facilities -- more than a third more than on previous ships of the same Voyager class and more, it says, than on any other cruise line. Carnival substantially increased the size of its children's section on its newest ship, the Carnival Conquest, and for the first time dedicated an exclusive recreation area for teen-agers.
Norwegian Cruise Line's new Norwegian Dawn devotes much more space to children than the line's earlier ships, and even has a special children's area in its Lido restaurant complete with kid-size serving counter, tables and chairs. And Holland America's Zuiderdam, which entered service in December, gives teen-agers half again as much space as exists on its other ships.
It's important to note, how-ever, that facilities for children vary widely from line to line, from ship to ship, and from sailing sea to sailing sea. Older ships devote less space to children and may offer only minimal programs. Boutique cruise lines that attract an upscale clientele usually have few children on board, and fewer facilities for them.
You won't find many children on exotic cruises such as circumnavigations of South America or voyages through the South Pacific; the Caribbean and Alaska are the two most popular for children. Bear in mind, too, that activities vary according to where the ship is sailing -- a pool party for teen-agers goes over big in the Caribbean, but won't take place in Alaskan waters.
So how do you keep a cruising child -- and particularly teen-agers -- happy?
Sharon Dodd, editor of Cruise Critic, an independent online cruise publication, says that's as easy as A-B-C. "A as in Activities -- ships that feature age-specific activities are best. B as in Big -- Megaships, because of their great size, can have more facilities. C as in Clubs -- Ships that have private clubs for the exclusive use of teen-agers are generally best ... [because] their ideas of fun are very different from what their younger siblings enjoy."
Dodd also advises sailing in summer and on school holidays because other children will be on board to make friends with. Another tip: New ships have far more facilities and programs for children than older ones.
While there's something for every child on most ships, the lines have put a lot of effort lately into pumping up entertainment for teen-agers.
Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean now have divided their teen guests into two age groupings (12-14 and 15-17), a move that both older and younger teens seem to appreciate, as neither age group felt comfortable with the old mix (13-17). NCL also splits older and younger teens during summer and holidays.
Carnival's Carnival Conquest went further, creating a large, exclusive space for teen-agers several decks removed from its Children's World area for younger kids. It's also the first Carnival ship with a "mocktail" lounge that serve smoothies, specialty coffees and other nonalcoholic beverages to teens.
Royal Caribbean's new Navigator set up three distinct areas that serve teens exclusively. Fuel is the name of the teen disco and bar that serves nonalcoholic drinks. Teens can hang out in the Living Room, watching television or movies, listening to music or surfing the Web. In the third area, the open-air Back Deck, they can take lunch on certain days and dance under the stars at night. And don't think the younger teens can sneak into the older teens' activities or vice versa -- teen bouncers monitor the entries.
But younger kids aren't neglected on these or any other cruise ship. Depending on their ages, they can soon be immersed in games, arts and crafts, magic shows, storytelling, beadwork, pajama parties and many other activities. And most children's centers on the new ships have computers, which are popular with a spread of age groups.