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The Queen Mary 2 (l), the world's largest and most expensive luxury liner, sails near its namesake ship, the Queen Mary (r), for the first time Feb. 23, 2006 at Long Beach, California. The original Queen Mary, launched in 1934, has been permanently moored since 1967.
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updated 3/3/2006 5:27:43 PM ET 2006-03-03T22:27:43

From the moment the last Christmas ornament is put away and the last chorus of Auld Lang Syne has faded, college students, high school seniors and families all over North America start planning that warmer-weather rite: spring break.

While plenty of young adults will end up in Cancun, and high school seniors gravitate to party spots like Panama City, Florida or to a Lake Havasu, Arizona, houseboat, more and more of these groups are looking at cruise vacations for the nonstop fun and the value they provide. Families that travel with their kids are doing the same thing, made easier and more enjoyable now that most major cruise lines have ramped up and expanded their children and teen facilities.

When we thought about it, we realized that it might be a good idea to look into the policies, pleasures and pitfalls of cruising during spring break. There are age restrictions for certain activities, and -- let's face it -- certain cruise lines and certain ships are just better at handling the abundance of children and occasionally rowdy teens and young adults during this travel period.

Starting with policies, we learned that most cruise lines have rigid rules governing the age eligibility for sailing without a chaperone, for drinking alcohol and for gambling on board. And most ships' staffs are cracking down and making sure those policies are being enforced.

Alcohol: Cruise Critic has a definitive breakdown, cruise line by cruise line, of alcohol consumption policies. Look through it carefully and resolve to follow the rules.

Chaperones Required: These policies are all over the map, from Carnival's requirement that an unmarried guest under the age of 21 must be in a stateroom with someone over 25, to NCL and Royal Caribbean's policy of allowing the adults to be in an adjoining (or adjacent) stateroom, to Holland America's more relaxed policy of requiring one over-25 chaperone for every five children or young adults under 21. These rules are often hard to find, usually listed under "FAQ's" on the line's Web site (in tiny print at the bottom) and, in Royal Caribbean's case, under Cruise Documentation. They aren't kidding about following the rules, either. Carnival's Web site, for example, states that they will carefully check your documentation before they allow you to board, and if you don't follow the rules, you will be left behind with "a 100% cancellation penalty. NO exceptions will be made at embarkation."

Slideshow: Spring destinations

Gambling: Here too, the eligible ages are all over the board. Carnival, Holland America, NCL and Royal Caribbean allow gaming at the age of 18; Princess and Celebrity require guests to be 21. You need to carefully review your ship's policies; if you are under age and win a jackpot, you won't be paid.

THE BIG CONUNDRUM

The pleasures of cruising as a family are many, and cruise lines have come to recognize that as well. Most of the major big-ship lines have been working hard at adding more space and programs for kids of all ages, but the big push right now is to accommodate teens. Whereas most ships have always had some programs for children through age 12 or so, the teen group had been largely overlooked until recently. With the development of parent-free zones and clubs that serve "mocktails," places where teenagers can forget that they are actually traveling with (ewww) their parents, the cruise lines have been able win over this most finicky age group.

Disney, of course, was the pioneer who revolutionized family-oriented cruising in this contemporary era, but other lines do an excellent job with kids as well, such as Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean. Carnival recently announced that it anticipated 425,000 children on its ships in 2006. Holland America, long known for catering to the well-heeled senior crowd, actually designed their Vista-class ships (the first one, Zuiderdam, launched in 2002) to attract multi-generational family groups.

But there's a pitfall.

It's one thing to develop and hype the programs, but administering them takes time and experience. If ship personnel don't follow their own rules, if they are afraid of offending parents by asking for (or even demanding) that their children be monitored, they risk alienating the other guests on board. It's a tricky balance, as witnessed by Cruise Critic editor Carolyn Spencer Brown during spring break last year on Holland America's Westerdam.

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"It was a nightmare," she says, and goes on to describe belly-flopping, statue-climbing, screeching youngsters that no one would discipline. Click here for similar tales from Cruise Critic members.

Of course parents and guardians have to take responsibility too, to make sure that their children aren't running amok at sea. But these issues will get better with time, as cruise lines' programs evolve and as the cruise lines and shipboard personnel learn how to occupy and entertain some 25,000 (rather than 5,000) kids a year.

There is no question that certain lines have experience to back them up: Disney, built for family cruising, leads the pack. But they didn't just stop when they thought they had it right; they continue to add new shows and have converted the seldom-used sports bar into a teen lounge (The Stack) that's rarely -- if ever -- empty. Royal Caribbean didn't stop when it created such a hit with its rock climbing wall and ice skating rinks; in 2004 it partnered with both Fisher-Price and Crayola to develop programs for the youngest kids, and created active (Fuel, a nightclub) and passive (The Living Room, for relaxation and conversation) teen lounges, which are closely monitored by staff members but off-limits to parents. The teen-only Oasis outdoor decks on some Holland America ships -- complete with waterfall, hammocks and Adirondack-style chairs -- have been enormously successful.

In other words, all of the major cruise lines are working at developing family programs that will keep the parents -- who pay for these trips -- happy, while at the same time encouraging the loyalty of the young people who will, soon enough, be paying for their own cruise vacations. New programs, new kids' spaces and newer ships built with family cruising in mind all help to keep everyone coming back for more.

Which, then, are the best bets for spring break cruising?

FOR THE YOUNGEST KIDS

Disney's two ships are ideal for families with younger children, not only because of the Disney-centric themes, but also because the suite-like accommodations are comfy and elegant. There is plenty for adults to enjoy, teens have their own space ("The Stack") and Disney throws the best deck parties at sea.

Royal Caribbean has partnered with Fisher-Price and Crayola to create imaginative, compelling programs for young children. With the amazing array of activities on the Voyager-class ships in particular, and the teen lounges Fuel and The Living Room now on all ships, these are fabulous family options.

Norwegian Cruise Line has always been family-oriented, but its innovative Freestyle Dining on both NCL and NCL America ships has made cruising with toddlers and young kids a piece of cake for harried parents. With seven to 10 restaurants on almost all of its vessels, there is no need to wait for a set dining time and no need to appease cranky, hungry children. Kids love the separate dining station at the Lido Deck buffet just for them; it's cheerfully decorated with child-sized tables and chairs, but also has plenty of Mom 'n' Dad seating adjacent. Extended kids' club hours allow parents to dine alone too when they want to relax.

FOR AGES 6 TO 12

The hands-down winners here are the Voyager-class ships of Royal Caribbean, and its new Freedom of the Seas, set to debut in May 2006. Ice skating, in-line skating, rock climbing, mini-golf, and even surfing on Freedom will keep this age group busy and active all the time.

Disney Magic and Disney Wonder have great "lab" programs where kids can do scientific experiments and create animations, and fabulous entertainment to enchant the whole family. Visits on every cruise to the line's "private island," Castaway Cay, are designed for family togetherness, although Mom and Dad can escape for an hour or two of solitude.

Princess Cruises does an excellent job with this age group too, and the line's association with the California Science Center is key to helping kids learn about the destinations they're visiting, whether it involves whale watching, sailboat racing or -- for the really adventurous -- dissecting a squid.

FOR MULTI-GENERATIONAL GROUPS

If you can remember that their programs are new and still evolving, kids, parents and grandparents can all travel in comfort on Holland America's Vista-class ships (Zuiderdam, Oosterdam, Westerdam and the new Noordam). These vessels are at once familiar and new; most of the Holland America traditions remain intact, but the ships have a definite 21st-century ambience with newly designed children's centers and private teen-only retreats. Holland America's liberal chaperone policy (one adult over 25 for every five under 21) allows for more family groups traveling together, and the line's "friends and family" promotions are designed to encourage togetherness.

Princess Cruises' large ships are also standouts in this category, with age-appropriate kid's groups, parent-free teen centers, and family-centric activities such as "Movies Under the Stars" and Island Night deck parties. The layout of the ships ensures that there will always be a quiet space for the grands if they so desire, and Personal Choice dining gives options for set-time or at-will suppers.

FOR TEENS, YOUNG ADULTS AND COLLEGE STUDENTS

Editor's Note:
If you intend to travel without parents, remember to check and thoroughly understand the age-eligibility requirements for each person in your group. The cruise lines aren't kidding about enforcing the policies, and will leave fully paid but underage passengers on the pier with no hesitation whatsoever.

Carnival Cruise Line excels in this arena, with its myriad of loud, wacky pool games and entertainment options. The Fantasy-class ships have huge open decks and big, dorm-like accommodations, perfect for the party-all-night crowd. College students might particularly enjoy cruises that stop in Cancun or Montego Bay, land-based spring break hot spots. The newer ships have elegant staterooms and divided social areas, so those who want to escape the crowds and cocoon in peace -- in the staterooms and the adults-only deck spaces -- can do so while the revelers have free reign elsewhere.

Nothing can beat Royal Caribbean's ships for active-lifestyle cruising, so teens and young adults who enjoy lots of physical activity will feel right at home climbing rock walls perched 200 feet over the ocean or ice-skating around an indoor rink. The teen-only areas, Fuel and The Living Room, are safe havens for "separate but equal" vacations. Parents can take advantage of the well-appointed staterooms and the chance to learn salsa dancing in the signature Boleros Lounge.

No Kids? No Problem! Although some cruise lines do offer "adult-only" cruise weeks, you're unlikely to find anything like that during spring break season. There are, however, options for cruise passengers who want to share their vacation with as few children as possible:

Take a longer cruise: Most children-filled spring break cruises are of the three- to seven-day variety. Choosing a 10-day or longer cruise will lessen your chances of being surrounded by young 'uns.

Go exotic: The Caribbean, the Mexican Riviera and Hawaii are out. You're less likely to find many family groups on cruises to Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific, or South America, so choose an itinerary that's off the beaten path.

Choose a luxury or boutique line
While most of the luxury lines welcome children, they also do not have the extensive facilities that the mainstream cruise lines offer. The ships of Silversea, Windstar, Oceania, Seabourn and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises are likely to have few children onboard, while the Statendam class of Holland America ships and the Century class of Celebrity ships are also good bets for minimal children's presence. Viking River Cruises has a couple of late-March itineraries, sure to be virtually kid-free, but remember, northern Europe will be cold at that time of year.

For more on escaping the little ones, check out Holiday Travel -- Avoiding Kids and Holiday Cruises: Don't Kid Around. When the days start getting longer, when the skies are more sunny than gray, and when winter coats give way to nylon windbreakers, spring break is just around the corner. Now more than ever, you can enjoy it, with your family, on the seas.

San Diego-based Jana Jones, is the creator and editor of lodging Web site Sleeping-Around.com, as well as one of Cruise Critic's stalwart ship reviewers.

Cruise Critic, which launched in 1995, is a comprehensive cruise vacation planning guide providing objective cruise ship reviews, cruise line profiles, destination content on 125+ worldwide ports, cruise bargains, tips, industry news, and cruise message boards.

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