All right, maybe we'd been spoiled by Disney. Maybe we were even getting a little cruised-out. The truth is, what Disney does best is cocoon you inside its fantasy world, whereas what other large cruise lines do is immerse you in your own world, only more so. Aboard the Navigator of the Seas, the pace was fast, the music was loud, and the place never shut down.
ENTERING HERE-AND-NOW LAND The Navigator of the Seas was, at the time of our sailing, the world's largest cruise ship. (The Queen Mary 2 currently has that honor, although Royal Caribbean has an even bigger ship in the works.) The ship's literature boasts of an impressive collection of art, and some of the huge über-modern sculptures resemble works you might see in an enlightened industrial park in, say, Scandinavia—the birthplace of the Navigator, as it so happens. A 13-story atrium elicited oohs and aahs from our fellow passengers as they pressed against the glass walls of the elevators. Several times we encountered one of the ship's highest-ranking officers in the elevators, and each time he said, "This ship big enough for you?" The question should have been, "Is this ship too big for you?" The Navigator has anything and everything that a cruise ship can offer. Hell, it has much of what a midsized city can offer, minus a symphony. (Do a steel-drum band and a few jazz trios, rock bands, and crooners count?)
The centerpiece of the ship is the Royal Promenade, a deck composed mostly of stores of the Main Street, Anytown, U.S.A., variety. Perfume & Cosmetics was the name of one shop, Logo Souvenir another. Ceilings soared, fountains roared, and all at once we knew what the place resembled most: not a street but a mall. We came all the way here to walk around a mall?
We instinctively gripped our kids' hands a little tighter. And they just as instinctively wanted to let go of our hands and wander off. It didn't help that we had to endure glitches and foul-ups of the kind that only Disney seems able to prevent (perhaps owing to a one-mistake-and-you-walk-the-plank attitude toward its employees?). The trouble started when we entered the dining room and were told we'd have to join a table for 12.
"Eat with strangers?" said Charlie, voicing the horror we all felt. "No way!"
The concierge was decidedly unhelpful, but in the end it all worked out and we got a place to ourselves. (You, too, can perform the minor miracle of nabbing your own table by showing up at the concierge's station as soon as possible; a little rejiggering of seating assignments is usually possible.) Our stateroom, while large and bright and modern, had, on the first day, a distinct smell of smoke. The cabin attendant citrus-sprayed it away immediately, but it still reminded us: Oh, yeah, people smoke on this ship (though supposedly only in smoking areas and on open-air decks).
Passengers not only smoke, they drink and—gasp—they gamble. Boy, do they gamble. The casino, one of the world's largest at sea, was almost always open and active. Because it was off-limits to our kids, they were inevitably drawn to it. Each time they passed by the darkish room with the clanging coins, flashing lights, and mesmerizing voice repeating "Yes, Master" on the I Dream of Jeannie slot machine, Charlie and Gabriel had to peer in. For here was the heart and soul of the Navigator of the Seas, and they knew it.
The sanitized small world in which we'd been living the previous week had truly and completely given way to something else. But we had surrendered then, and so, in all fairness, we had to surrender now. The time had come to loosen our grip on our children's hands. We sent our sons off to their age-appropriate day programs, and then the strangest thing happened: We all had a wonderful time.
THE SHOW MUST GO ON, AND ON, AND ON Welcome to the Land of the Midnight Putt (24-hour miniature golf), to say nothing of the 2 a.m. swim (24-hour pools) and the 4 a.m. nightcap (in the Dungeon, a dance club where, at least on the one night we lasted until final call, the dancing did get dirty). Theater showtimes are at 8:30 and 10:45, instead of Disney's 6:30 and 8:30. We counted nine bars that stay open until 1 a.m. Correspondingly, the kids' programs also go on until a whopping 1 a.m., and the hangout for kids ages 12 to 17, Adventure Ocean Back Deck, is open 24 hours (!!!). Our children were hyped-up and happy. They darted about, made friends, descended upon the arcade, signed their own chits for soft drinks, and enjoyed the Navigator's programs, in truth, more than they had Disney's. They were able to ice-skate on the ship's indoor rink and scale the world's highest at-sea climbing wall, not to mention eat endless free soft ice cream cones from the self-serve machine on Main Street. For them—as for many of our fellow passengers, child and adult alike—too much was never enough.
This was excess. This was hedonism. This was...a vacation.
We were beginning to reach a realization: all cruises that cater to families possess some degree of that ineffable "tacky" factor that today's ocean liners are famous for. When an institution handles thousands of people at a time, it's aiming for the common denominator. Clearly, Americans like to eat, drink, climb walls, gamble, and then eat some more. Satisfying all these desires is Royal Caribbean's top priority.
And a place that satisfies desires can start to feel awfully comforting, even if it is visually and aurally overwhelming. This insight struck us abruptly at the end of a long day as we trudged back to the dock at whatever port of call it was—after a while every "exotic" location starts to look alike—and our ship first came into sight.
Our ship. Our ship. Our Navigator of the Seas.
ALL ASHORE Yes, when you take a family cruise, all subtlety goes out the porthole. These cruises are the opposite of looking at art and cathedrals in Europe; they are also the opposite of a rental in the Berkshires. You will definitely gain weight, no matter what you do, and you will definitely be encouraged to purchase photographs of yourselves along the way, so that you can see the weight gain in progress, like one of those time-lapse films of the growth and blossoming of a flower.
But family cruises are actually a lot of fun, as well—at least, these two were—as long as you can find a balance between your own aesthetics and your desire to give your kids a memorable vacation. Charlie and Gabriel still talk about the pleasure of having milk shakes and fries by themselves late at night in a booth at Johnny Rockets, the retro malt shop on the Navigator, and they also both talk about the witty magician on the Magic who pulled glowing red lights out of their ears.
So what's our advice to you?Parents with kids up to age 11 or 12 should consider Disney; it's more low-key than Royal Caribbean, and your children will be thrilled. Families with preteens and teens ought to consider the Royal Caribbean route, because of its decidedly edgier feel. And, if you ask us, a week at sea is just right—the only "characters" we want to be around any longer than that are, of course, the ones in our own family.
RICHARD PANEK is the author of The Invisible Century: Einstein, Freud, and the Search for Hidden Universes (Viking). MEG WOLITZER's most recent novel is The Wife (Scribner).