The Kid-Friendly Queen

| Wednesday, 28 Mar. 2007

Cunard's Queen Mary 2 offers more for kids than you probably expect

Mary Poppins, move over: Queen Mary 2's nannies are here to stay! While QM2's nannies may not be able to fly over London like Mary Poppins, they do have a knack for keeping children happily occupied for five full days at sea.

During a recent QM2 transatlantic crossing with my 11-year-old daughter Alex, 10-year-old niece Krissy, and sister-in-law Janine, we observed the caring and gentle attitude of Cunard Line's nannies (dedicated to toddlers and pre-schoolers) as well as its traditional youth counselors (who oversee grade-school children and teens). While the youth and teen program might not be as action-packed as some others, the personal touch that the Captain, nannies, and youth counselors showed kids on board QM2 was a big plus.

Options for Infants and Toddlers

Cunard Line's QM2 and QE2 are two of the few ships providing youth program staff who care for children under two years old during the day and night for no charge. While Disney Cruise Line has well-equipped nursery facilities for little ones from six months to 3 years old, there is an hourly fee for the time children spend in the nursery. Carnival's youth counselors also care for babies and those under two in the youth room, but only during very limited hours (after 10 p.m., and in the morning on port days), and there is an hourly fee. By contrast, tots 13 months and older can stay in QM2's nursery room for free during the line's youth program hours: 9 a.m.-noon; 2-5 p.m.; and 6 p.m.-midnight.

During our early July sailing, four nannies were dedicated to the toddler facility (under 24 months) and the pre-schooler room (24 months-five years). According to Helen Brown, youth program supervisor, "nursery nurses" is the correct title for nannies. To become a British trained nursery nurse, candidates must have two years of specialized training with children from three months to seven years old, including one year of course work and one year of placement in a variety of settings, like working with special needs children. Brown said one of the many advantages of having nursery nurses on board is that they are qualified to care for all of a young child's needs, including diaper changes, bottles and getting fussy babies and toddlers to nap.

Parents are asked to bring diapers, wipes and bottles to the nursery room for their child. Most youth program counselors, other than Carnival and Disney's nursery staff, do not change diapers. Cunard's nannies and youth counselors do. I felt that the nannies and youth counselors were very patient and caring with the children and it seemed there was always a lap to sit on for those who might miss their parents.

 

Parents of those less than two years old receive beepers in case of emergency. Additionally, parents of little ones are asked to call the youth room one half hour after their initial drop-off to make sure their child is adjusting well.

If you're debating whether to bring a stroller for your infant or toddler, do so. The QM2 is a whopping four football fields long and requires lots of walking, which may be tough for little ones.

 

Youth Program Details

Like most cruise lines, QM2's daytime program hours in its dedicated youth area, called The Zone, are 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 5 p.m. While most cruise lines have evening hours and start charging an hourly fee after 10 p.m., Cunard has free evening programming. For children up to six years old, the youth rooms are staffed from 6 p.m. to midnight; for those over six, evening programming is from 8 p.m. to midnight. Teen programming doesn't start until noon and lasts until 4 p.m.; it then resumes from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m.

The age grouping of children depends on the number of youngsters aboard, according to Brown. Our cruise had more than 300 youngsters, a large number for QM2. Brown said that for most of the summer, children are split into many age groups, and the number of counselors and nannies staffing The Zone is at its peak. On our cruise, children were grouped as follows: 13 to 23 months in the nursery room; 24 months to three years; four to five years; six to seven years; eight to nine years; and 10 to 12 year-olds. The teens were divided into 13 to 14 year-olds; and 15 to 17 year-olds.

Children 10 and older can sign themselves in and out of the youth program. Those under nine years must be signed in and out by a parent or guardian.

 

The ratio of youth counselors to children varies according to age: There is one staff member for every eight children in the under-six group; one counselor for every 16 kids in the 7 to 9 year-old group; and one for every 20 kids in the 10 to 12 year group.

 

Kids' Facilities

Called The Zone, the children's area on QM2 consists of three separate rooms plus a children's restroom. There is a small dedicated room for the 13 to 23 month olds, which offers cribs and cots; soft, age-appropriate toys; an area for changing diapers; and a rocking chair.

 

Across the hall is a brightly colored room facing the deck; it's for toddlers and pre-schoolers from 24 months to five years. The facility includes a ball pit; padded area for blowing off steam; large TV for videos; a few small tables for crafts and snacks; and three screens for computer games.

Down the hall is a large room used at various times by the six to eight year-olds, eight and nine year-olds, or ten to 12 year-olds. The facility has 11 X-Boxes; one air hockey table; one foosball table; two tables for crafts; and a dance floor with disco lighting.

Cleanliness is a top priority on QM2, and the youth program is no exception. Counselors ask kids to wash their hands when they come to The Zone, just as buffet staffers recommend that passengers use the hand sanitizers prior to touching serving spoons. The last night of every cruise The Zone is closed for cleaning and sanitizing. According to Brown, while Norfolk virus is obviously a concern for all cruise ships, it is even more so on transatlantic cruises. She said that if there were an outbreak on QM2, the entire youth room would be shut down and sanitized. Since there aren't any ports-of-call on a transatlantic crossing, closing the youth room would be even more of an inconvenience to families than on a traditional Caribbean cruise where kids can be entertained easily ashore. The line's dedication to sanitary conditions has paid off, since there haven't been any viral outbreaks on QM2.

 

Group Activities

Certain types of activities tend to be offered in the youth programming. For those five years and under, there were often crafts projects overseen by the nannies in small groups while the other children had free playtime in the ball pit or padded soft sculpture area. The days were often themed and included a nautical, wild animal; or pirate day, complete with face makeup and costumes.

 

The six and seven year-olds played lots of group games. Some were indoors and involved themes like pirates; others were out on deck and included relay games, dodgeball or basketball.

Programming for the eight and nine year-olds was comprised of group games, such as Battle of the Sexes, and scavenger and autograph hunts, which were accompanied by youth counselors. There was also an ongoing foosball and air hockey tournament in The Zone for this age group.

The 10 to 12 year-olds focused mainly on fun treasure hunts such as "orienteering," where they had to find clues throughout the ship; or "swap shop," in which the kids were given a cup by youth counselors and had to try to trade it to shipboard personnel for something better. While Alex and Krissy really enjoyed all the treasure hunt type activities they participated in, there could have been a greater variety of activities, such as a pool party or a few craft projects.

Teen activities ranged from disco nights to hot tub parties, fright night at the movies, teen talent show and basketball tournaments. Additionally, every day the teens got "Zone time" from noon to 2 p.m. when the youth room was closed to little ones. During this time, teens could use the facilities there including the X-Boxes and free foosball and air hockey tables.

 

On the last afternoon, there's a party for the under-five group in The Zone that features face painting, balloons and treats. For those six years and older, there is a big party in the disco including snacks, a DJ, and a special visit by Captain Bernard Warner. From letting the kids wear his captain's hat to patiently posing with them for photos, the Captain showed a genuine interest in the children. He even knew and participated in the group line dances, which really won the kids over!

Alex and Krissy usually participated in one long youth program activity each day and then enjoyed spending time with us poolside or exploring the ship. We found that there were plenty of family oriented activities to do together day and night, and even though we were at sea for five days, the girls were never bored.

 

Out on Deck

Luckily we had many sunny days and were able to spend time on deck. There are five pools aboard QM2: a small splash pool near The Zone; a large splash pool with only a few inches of water, on the top deck; a covered pool (youngsters under 16 are not allowed in the covered pool); and two outdoor pools on decks six and eight. All pools are heated, which is a necessity for the transatlantic market. We loved that there were plenty of pool and deck options, so you never felt crowded on deck. Other outdoor facilities for families include shuffleboard, a small paddle board court, and basketball court.

The girls loved going to the daily afternoon planetarium shows in Illuminations, the dedicated planetarium theater with comfortable reclining seats and an overhead dome. Make sure you get free tickets for your desired show in the morning before they "sell out."

During the day, family-oriented acting workshops were hosted by the actors of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, who accompany all transatlantic crossings. They also put on plays during the day, but they were definitely over the heads of children. On the last afternoon, the cruise staff hosts a family-oriented talent show, which had as many kids as adults participating in magic tricks, singing, and dancing.

 

Although I usually am not a big fan of the typical cruise line evening entertainment, we attended every show and enjoyed them all. The entertainment was a step above the usual and devoid of feathered, Las Vegas-style dancers, which I feel is a big plus for families. During our cruise we were entertained by a Broadway soloist, a comedian who also played the violin, a concert pianist, and dance revues. Both Alex and Krissy looked forward to the shows each night.

 

Cabins and Food

One of the few areas where the QM2 is not as family-friendly as other large ships is in accommodations. We were in an outside stateroom (with porthole) that had two upper and two lower berths. According to the hotel manager, there are no verandah staterooms that can accommodate a family of four -- a bit unusual for a new, large ship these days.

 

Food was family-friendly and featured a "Children's Tea" from 5 to 6 p.m. in the Chef's Galley, part of the buffet area. There parents could accompany their children for a fast off-the-menu meal consisting of chicken fingers, pasta, pizza and fish sticks. For those under seven years old, the youth program resumes at 6 p.m. so that parents could feed little fidgety ones at tea time, drop them off at the youth program, and then dine alone. Other dinner options are Asian cuisine at the casual Lotus buffet area or Italian specialties at La Piazza, all part of the King's Court buffet area.

We loved the King's Court buffet for lunch; its many options ranged from Asian, to Italian, burgers and fries, and standard continental buffet food. This area also had wonderful made-to-order waffles in the morning as well as a whopping 16 ingredients to choose from at its omelet station. The dining area was full of little alcoves with ocean views; walls were decorated with Asian murals in the Lotus area and English pastoral scenes in the Carvery area. Dinner in the main Brittania dining room featured a fairly extensive children's menu.

Overall, we found that cruising aboard QM2 with children was a pleasant mix of time apart and time together to enjoy all that this one-of-a-kind ship has to offer.

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