Exploring Different Worlds on the Fantasy

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Travel Weekly cruise editor Fran Golden took her kids on a vacation to Florida and the Bahamas, combining a four-day sailing on Carnival's Fantasy with visits to SeaWorld and Universal Studios. Her report follows:

ABOARD THE FANTASY -- I toyed with the idea of my kids' writing this story for me. But I knew if the kids wrote the story, every other word would be "awesome."

I didn't want to overuse the word. So instead, I decided I would try to express their views.

I have to report, from their perspective, the ship was overall awesome; the food, awesome; the entertainment, awesome; the video arcade was way cool and awesome. And let's not forget SeaWorld and Universal Studios: awesome and awesome.

That said, my youngest, Eli, who just turned 11, was a little scared as we drove from the Orlando airport to Port Canaveral to board the ship.

He had seen the movie "Titanic," and he kept asking questions like was I sure the ship had enough lifeboats.

Eli was relieved when he stepped on board and glanced up in awe at the ship's awesome atrium.

"I think we're in a hotel, not a ship," he said.

Letting go of my hand, he added, "Mom, something tells me this is going to be the best cruise you've ever been on." (Well, Mom's been on Seabourn and the like, but who was I to quibble.)

Erin, a cruise veteran at 14, was trying to remain calm and composed. But even her eyes bugged out when we toured the ship and discovered the large video arcade, conveniently attached to the disco.

Both kids held out their hands immediately for cash. I calculated this room would cost me about $20 a half-hour.

I pulled them away to tour the rest of the ship.

Erin was particularly impressed by the "retro" decor. Eli declared nearly everything awesome.

The Fantasy would prove to be a real fantasy for the kids. The show on the first night of the cruise even had bathroom and wedgie jokes.

Eli couldn't stop smiling.

Erin, by then, had found entertainment of a different sort, ditching us the first evening in favor of other teens she had met at a party, cleverly organized by the Camp Carnival kids program staff, in the disco.

She now had her group of friends to hang around with, which, as every parent of a teenager knows, means she no longer had any use for Mom and Brother.

The teens hung out in the disco and video arcade, around the pool (ordering virgin strawberry daiquiris with their on- board charge cards) or at the Ping-Pong tables located a deck above the pool.

Carnival offers a limited number of organized activities for teens, such as contests, but in the case of Erin and her friends, the activities seemed superfluous.

Erin did meet up with her brother and me at mealtimes, at my insistence, and when she needed an occasional break from the action (she would even sit at the pool and read).

With my husband unable to join us on the cruise, Eli took over the role of my escort. He at first expressed absolute disinterest in the ship's well-organized children's program, although at an introductory meeting for the program, his ears did perk up at the word Sega.

I had to force him to check out the Children's Playroom with me. But when we got there, I saw how expert the Camp Carnival counselors are.

It took them about two minutes to suck him into an activity, helped much by the fact that there were other boys his age in the room.

Camp Carnival divides kids by age, so Eli did not find himself with younger kids, as he had feared.

I went back to the cabin to enjoy some quiet time with a novel.

Eli, describing his experience later, was beginning to sound like a Carnival ad: "They have everything, Mom. You name it, I bet they have it."

We usually opted for the Lido buffets for lunch and had early-seating dinner, which I think works best with kids.

Eli was most happy eating items from the children's menu, ordering macaroni and cheese and the like.

Erin, who has gourmet tastes, ordered the most exotic-sounding appetizer and entree each night and ordered the salad and soup courses, as well, all this much to the surprise of our tablemates, who would eat only meat and potatoes and enjoyed the ship's American night the best.

When I pronounced the food just OK, Eli looked at me very critically and said, "I think it's good" before proceeding to gobble down more macaroni.

We did not do any of the ship's limited number of shore excursions.

At Freeport, Bahamas, we followed other passengers onto taxi buses to get to one of the markets, where we hunted for souvenirs and the kids had a great time bargaining.

In Nassau, we strolled around town and then took a bus to Ardastra Gardens, which proved to be a wonderful excursion.

The zoo offers a variety of animals and birds, some in cages and some pettable, as well as a short performance by trained pink flamingos.

On the way to the gardens, we passed beaches, and Erin looked around at one point and declared, "This is beautiful," turning to Eli and adding, to rib him, "Do you appreciate this?"

"I appreciate this, so shut up" was her brother's response.

There were some 250 kids on our cruise in late April. More kids, as many as 600, are on the ship in the high spring-break and summer seasons.

The crew is obviously experienced with kids. Our room steward surprised us each night with animals made out of towels, sometimes decorated with our personal items -- a squirrel wearing my daughter's glasses, for instance.

Our waiter performed spoon tricks, and when he discovered Eli loves chocolate mousse, he made sure the chef made some for him every night.

The activity staff let Eli join contests that were really designed for adults, like the knobby-knee contest and the men's hula-hoop competition. He didn't win, but he had fun trying.

As great as the ship is for kids, however, parents should be aware that the emphasis is on adults. Some of the nighttime shows are rated R.

And our sailing did attract its share of party types, some of whom drank more than they should have.

At one point during our sailing, a fistfight broke out between two men, and a young teen was injured by a wild punch.

The kids did not want the cruise part of our vacation to end. They stayed up late the last night and were a little tired and cranky when we had to get up to disembark.

After the hourlong drive to the Renaissance Hotel (across from SeaWorld), Eli was torn between wanting to visit the park and wanting to watch television (he was a bit cable-

deprived).

I was beginning to think the idea of combining the cruise experience with a visit to the parks was overkill -- too much of a good thing.

But the kids rallied, and we enjoyed a fun day at SeaWorld.

We especially liked the Shamu Adventure -- a whale performance -- and the Hotel Clyde and Seamore comedy show, with sea lions and otters. We also took in the penguin exhibit, because Erin loves penguins.

At Universal Studios the next day, we were lucky enough to have an escorted tour, which allowed us to do all of the rides, including the new Twister and Terminator 2, and to tour Nickelodeon Studios.

Both kids had been to Orlando parks before, and I asked them what they thought of the combined vacation as opposed to just staying in a hotel.

Neither hesitated to proclaim this by far our best vacation ever.

"It's awesome, Mom. Awesome."

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