Holland America's New Family Approach

| April 7, 2003
Luisa Frey Gaynor

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From its brightly colored carpets and decorative chairs to its bright purple daily youth activity sheets, Holland America Line's (HAL) Zuiderdam combines energetic family-friendly elements with the best of Holland America traditions. This, the first ship in the line's new Vista class, is targeted to the ever-growing family market, and the result is a median age in the 40s (vs. 57 on other Holland America ships) -- a clear indication that this is a family-friendly ship.

Our late March Caribbean cruise on the 1,848-passenger ship had some 200 youngsters aboard between the ages of five and 17, in addition to dozens of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers. On holiday cruises, there can be as many as 300 children and teens.

Fun Facilities

There has been some talk in the cruise industry that Zuiderdam's non-traditional decor is a bit too flashy for Holland America, but my children loved the atmosphere. My nine-year-old daughter Alex deemed the ship "funky," a high compliment. Meanwhile, one-and-a-half-year-old Ethan loved toddling around the Northern Lights disco by day, with its bold, cow-print seats. (Ethan has an affinity for cows!) My husband John and I enjoyed posing the kids for pictures on the many decorative seats and benches throughout the ship, including one in the shape of lips!

Other novelties the kids enjoyed included the outside-facing glass elevators; the large fake gems adorning the walls of the Windstar Caf‚; and the huge polar bear statue by the enclosed pool. The two pools got plenty of use by children. One has a retractable roof and the other does not.

While there are two video arcades frequented by kids and teens -- one by the KidZone youth room and one on Deck 1 -- they were rather narrow, and one was hard to find. The arcades would have gotten more use if they had been combined into one larger facility.

Even the Lido Restaurant exuded energy, with its neon colored leather chairs. We found something for everyone in the family at the Lido during lunchtime. While Alex often opted for make-your-own-tacos, I loved the wok station and John frequented the pasta spot. At night, the main restaurant had an extensive kids' menu.

The Zuiderdam has many more quad staterooms for families of four than the other HAL ships. There are 81 outside and 24 inside quad cabins on the Zuiderdam, vs. only 37 quads in total on one of the smaller ships like the Statendam. According to HAL, a family of four fits comfortably into a category BB quad or higher. If you can afford it, there are 162 suites aboard the Zuiderdam (category SS and higher), which would also fit a family of four, according to HAL. We were in a category A triple, which was too tight to open the couch for Alex to sleep on and set up the crib for Ethan at the same time. Thus, Alex ended up sleeping with us in the king-sized bed.

Service with a Smile

We found that the Zuiderdam -- the prototype for Holland's second family-friendly ship, the Oosterdam, entering service on August 3 -- nicely combined family friendly facilities with Holland's hallmark gracious service and quality food. The Indonesian crew delighted in playing with little ones, and many waiters knew Ethan's name by week's end. Our waiter, Janar, not only brought the kids' meals quickly but also hurried the kitchen along for our meals on the nights when Ethan had a hard time sitting for one-and-a-half hours. Moreover, Janar always made time to show Alex a magic trick or teach her origami.

While Club HAL is for youngsters age 5 to 17, babies and toddlers are not overlooked on the Zuiderdam. Prior to our cruise, we were sent an extensive form where we could request diapers, formula, and jarred baby food. While there is naturally a fee for this service, Holland America is the only cruise line to give parents this convenient option. (See "Bringing the Baby" for other tips on cruising with an infant.)

Holland America one of a handful of lines that offer private babysitting. We generally prefer this option to group baby sitting, which many lines offer instead (after 10 p.m.). One evening, John and I enjoyed a top-rate dinner at the alternative restaurant, Odyssey, while Cindy, who worked at the front desk by day, babysat for Ethan. She made us feel comfortable right away by telling us she had a baby at home. Another night, I saw Cindy with a toddler in the youth room. HAL has a relaxed rule that babysitters can take children to public facilities. Most other lines that offer private babysitting restrict it to in-cabin sitting only. Rates for babysitters are $8 per hour for the first child and $5 per hour for the second. Book early in your cruise at the front desk.

Club HAL Specifics

Club HAL is for youngsters age five to 17. According to Shannon Wilson, the youth director on Zuiderdam, Holland America is considering lowering the age to four in order to be more competitive with most other lines, which start their youth program at age three. Children are broken into four age groups for separate activities on the Zuiderdam: 5 to 8 years; 9 to 11; 12 to 14; and 15 to 17. On other Holland America ships, which tend not to get quite as many children as the Zuiderdam, often there are only three age groups: 5 to 8; 9 to 12; and 13 to 17. Wilson noted that the more age-specific the groupings and activities, the better the attendance.

On sea days, Club HAL offers activities from 10 a.m. to noon; 2 to 4 p.m. and 8 to 10 p.m. There is no group babysitting after 10 p.m. Just recently, counselors on the Zuiderdam began offering activities on port days as well. According to Wilson, this will soon be implemented fleet-wide. Most lines that we sailed on offer youth activities from 9 a.m. to noon; 2 to 5 p.m.; and 7 to 10 p.m. on sea days. We wished the evening youth program started at 7 p.m., since we usually have waiters bring Alex's food first, and then walk her up to the youth program in between courses. Also, some younger children may get too tired by 8 p.m. to partake in youth program activities.

The youth program is offered year round on all ships except for the world cruise. With one youth counselor always aboard each ship, the program is offered even for just a handful of children. If that's the case, youngsters of all ages may get grouped together.

The 2,000 sq. ft. KidZone room is spacious enough for the 5 to 8 and 9 to 11 year olds to use, and it is equipped with a movable divider. The older group often met in the Lido restaurant for card games or on the Sports Deck for outdoor activities too. I liked that fact that at least once daily, the children were brought outside for some physical game on Sports Deck. Some lines have excellent youth programs, but do not bring the youngsters outside at all. Since my daughter spends 10 months of the year inside at school, I welcome the outdoor activities.

The teens used other public rooms by day and moved into the youth facility at 10 p.m., when it doubled as a disco. The Zuiderdam is the first Holland America ship sporting a youth room that has a disco sound system for teens. The room also has Sony Playstations that will be hooked up soon.

All children receive a wristband to wear during the cruise, which designates their muster station in case of an emergency. The daily security, however, of those attending the youth program is very relaxed, in that children do not need to have their parents sign them in or out. While this is the case on many lines once children reach the age of eight or nine, most youth counselors have the children sign themselves in and out of the program with the time they arrived and departed. I felt the ship's environment was very safe and I gave Alex freedom to come and go to the youth program on her own. However, I would have preferred if the counselors kept a record of her comings and goings in case it was necessary to track her down.

Club HAL's Highlights

I thought that since she has cruised on 12 other lines, Alex might be at the point where there weren't too many unique activities for her in Club HAL. Happily, I was proved wrong. According to Wilson, the youth counselors try to cater to all interests with a variety of activities, including group games, theme nights, parties, crafts and ship tours. On other HAL ships, the daily program of kids' activities is in the form of a flyer sent to children's rooms each day. But on the Zuiderdam and Oosterdam, kids and teens receive a brightly colored CD holder at the beginning of the cruise that doubles as a list of daily activities.

Some of Alex's favorite activities for the nine to eleven year olds included: Spoons, a high action card game; Ship to Shore, a funny, nautical version of Simon Says; water balloon toss and other wet games on Sports Deck; and a number of crafts. Highlights for the five to eight year olds included a Wizard Party, a la Harry Potter, complete with wands and hats that the children made; air brush art; and sweet tooth bingo. Both age groups really enjoyed Raid the Arcade, when they were allowed free play on arcade games for a period of time. The kids-only evening pool party was the highlight of the week and was topped off by poolside tie-dying of Club HAL tee shirts.

Teen activities don't start until 10:30 or 11 a.m. and go until mid-afternoon; they then resume around 10 p.m. Daytime activities are often held at the Lido restaurant or Sports Deck. While there is a roster of activities planned for each cruise, teen counselors tend to do what the teens are most interested in. On our cruise, a core group of teens attended regularly and could often be seen playing the board game Taboo in the Lido.

On Half Moon Cay, Holland America's private Bahamian island, teens can sign up through the shore excursions office for the Teen Beach Party ($29). The teen counselors reserve a section of the beach just for teens and play beach volleyball and other games. Water sports equipment such as kayaks, aqua cycles, and water mats are included. For those ages 5 to 11, there is a Treasure Hunt and Ice Cream shore excursion for $24 on Half Moon Cay. Alex was all set to participate in this activity but we were unable to call at the island due to rain and rough seas. (Passengers must tender to the island.) Wilson explained that for the Treasure Hunt, youth counselors hide clues around the island, and kids are escorted by counselors and someone dressed in a pirate costume to find the treasure. Halfway through, the children stop and cool off with ice cream. Additionally, there is a supervised HAL playground -- complete with two jungle gyms and a slide -- on the island for children of all ages to enjoy, free of charge.

According to Wilson, the seven-day Caribbean itineraries get the most children, followed by Alaska. The line offers a Junior Ranger program, in addition to the regular youth activities on Alaska itineraries. In Glacier Bay, park rangers are aboard to discuss the natural beauty with the kids. Also, a local Alaskan native comes on board in Glacier Bay for an activity, ranging from a craft to a game or storytelling. Youngsters also get a Junior Ranger activity booklet. If they complete a certain number of activities, they earn a Junior Ranger badge and certificate. HAL also has an educational program in Alaska for teens.

Farewell

For days after we returned from our cruise, Alex kept saying, "Just think, two days ago I was in the ship's pool with the kids from the cruise," or other similar reveries. Not only did she miss the friends she made on the cruise, but also the fun group activities, the attention she got from our waiters, and the freedom she was allowed in the safe, family-friendly environment. In this day and age of safety concerns, it was certainly wonderful to let children be children, at least for a week!

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