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Cruising with preschoolers: Crazy or fun?

Kori Ellis is an editor and writer based in San Antonio, TX, where she lives with her husband and four children. At SheKnows, she writes about parenting, fashion, beauty and other lifestyle topics. Additionally, Kori has been published i...

Cruise to the Caribbean, family style

With four kids between ages 3 and 5, it's not easy to travel together as a family. However, it's not impossible. And my husband and I think it's important for the kids to be exposed to different cultures, people and places, so we do it.
Carnival Conquest

Traveling together is a whole lot of fun, plus it's a terrific bonding experience. We pack up the minivan, hit the road and head out together on adventures as a family. Sometimes our trips are short — just a couple hours away to the beach. But at the end of this summer, we decided to embark on a much longer one — a cruise to the Caribbean.

We've been on a cruise with our children before (last October we were fortunate enough to go on a Disney cruise out of Galveston). However, this time we'd be driving from San Antonio to New Orleans — a nearly 550-mile trek — before getting on board the Carnival Conquest.

While all of the content on SheKnows.com reflects the honest opinions of our writers, Carnival Cruises did cover the cost of this cruise.

The drive

Alligator warning

Sure, if you are driving alone you can blow through 550 miles pretty quickly, right? But with young kids, not so much. For my 3-year-olds (I have two of them), I decided it would be a good idea to put them in overnight diapers and just tell them it was OK to pee if they really had to while we were driving. This was a mistake. They were constantly yelling from the backseat, "But you said no more pee pee in the diaper — only in the toilet. We want underwear!"

So, we stopped and we stopped. But all in all, it wasn't that bad. We even had a leisurely break at a very, very nice rest stop in Louisiana. Other than the alligator warning, it was really a beautiful place to get out and stretch our legs.

My biggest tip to parents who are taking a road trip with kids is to bring a lot of snacks. A video player is great too, but food is the key. Pick snacks and treats that you don't give to them regularly, so they'll think they are really special.

The ship

Carnival Conquest pool

We all know that Carnival has gotten a lot of bad press in recent years. I'm not going to get into it whether that press has been justified or not. However, I will say that the Carnival Conquest is an amazing ship for families and for singles.

Swimming pools, casino games, dance clubs — all the action and fun you could want. They have a spectacular spa, fabulous restaurants and a wonderful crew.

Though the pools get crowded, they are a whole lot of fun. Plus, they have a miniature golf course, a running track, an arcade and so much more to do and see on board.

Our kids spent a tremendous amount of time at Camp Carnival — one of their kids' programs.

On Carnival Conquest, the youth programs are divided by age. Club O2 is for ages 15 to 17. Circle C is for tweens, ages 12 to 14. Camp Carnival is for ages 2 to 11.

Camp Carnival is broken down even further to toddlers (ages 2 to 5), juniors (ages 6 to 8) and intermediates (ages 9 to 11) — each with their own dedicated activities and space.

Camp Carnival

In Camp Carnival, kids take part in age-appropriate activities throughout the cruise, ranging from arts and crafts to dance parties and movies to computer games. The program is open all day until 10 p.m. and is free. If you need late-night babysitting (or want your kids to take part in an occasional late-night theme party at Camp Carnival), then you have to pay extra for that.

Some days, there are also family activities available at kids' clubs where parents can participate with their kids. We took part in a "Build-A-Bear" event, for example, for which there was a fee.

All in all, my kids had a blast at Camp Carnival — often not wanting to leave to go to dinner.

Keep in mind

A big plus for some parents: Unlike some youth programs on other cruises, your toddlers don't necessarily have to be potty trained to participate. If you provide diapers and wipes, the staff will change your kids.

The food

Pizza and ice cream on Carnival Conquest

Speaking of dinner, one thing that had always made me apprehensive about taking my kids on a cruise is the dining atmosphere. Taking four young kids to a restaurant can be tough. Often they are tired. Sometimes they are overwhelmed. And occasionally they are just bratty.

The wait staff on the Carnival Conquest was more than accommodating. We had the same servers each night, and they grew accustomed to our kids' likes and dislikes — like extra broccoli for Alexis and no ketchup for Isaiah. Each evening they met us with smiling faces and bent over backwards to make our meals enjoyable. The restaurants are decorated beautifully, and we certainly didn't have any complaints about any of the food.

Outside the two standard dining rooms (the Renoir and the Monet), the Conquest has a multitude of other dining options — 24-hour room service, Guy's Burger Joint, the Blue Iguana Cantina and much more. The eats that my kids loved the most? Pizza and ice cream near the pool. Soft-serve ice cream and scrumptious thin-crust pizza are available all day and night on the Conquest. My children probably ate more ice cream and pizza in seven days than they had in the previous year.

My husband and I (and our 4-year-old daughter) also went to the Point Steakhouse. For $35 per person, you can enjoy spectacular food, service and ambiance. Though the food in the main dining rooms on the Conquest is terrific, the steakhouse takes it to a whole other level.

The ports

As I mentioned, our cruise left New Orleans and headed to the Caribbean. We made stops in Montego Bay (Jamaica), Grand Cayman (Cayman Islands) and Cozumel (Mexico).

Montego Bay

Montego Bay

In Montego Bay, we decided to make it a beach day and booked the Seawinds Family All-Inclusive Beach Day from Carnival.com. We had an amazing time. The pool at the resort was awesome, plus all the non-motorized watersports (snorkeling, catamaran, etc.) were included in the price. They also included an open bar, lunch buffet and beach grill. It wasn't crowded at all — which the staff told me was a bit unusual — so we really enjoyed the space to relax as a family.

Grand Cayman

Grand Cayman

We had been to Grand Cayman last year, so we wanted to step up our game and make our visit this time a little more adventurous. We took a risk and decided that our kids would be able to handle snorkeling and swimming with the stingrays. We booked our excursion with Moby Dick Tours to visit Stingray City. This was probably our best decision of the trip.

The water here was spectacular, and my kids (who all still use floaties) loved every single minute of it. The Moby Dick staff was helpful, knowledgeable — and very funny to boot.

Cozumel

Cozumel beach club

Last year when we went to Cozumel, we visited Nachi Cocom — a private beach club that only allows 100 visitors a day. We loved it so much that we went back again. And I certainly wasn't disappointed! We enjoy everything about this wonderful place and plan on visiting again and again in the future. Nachi Cocom isn't right near the port, so you do have to take a 15- to 20-minute taxi ride to get there (which cost approximately $25 for the six of us in a taxi van). However, it's definitely worth every penny.

Cruising with preschoolers

Carnival Conquest Cruise photos

Odds are, if you have preschool-age kids, you don't have four of them like I do. My husband and I are blessed with four kids within 19 months in age (blessings of adoption). So, to answer the question posed in the title of this article, "Cruising with preschoolers: Crazy or fun?" The definitive answer is "both."

Family fun and bonding go hand-in-hand. Sometimes, we spend our weekends doing cheap (or free) activities with our kids — such as a simple picnic at the park. Other times, we are fortunate enough to go on a spectacular trip, like this one on the Carnival Conquest. However, no matter what we are doing, it's always a lot of fun and a little bit of craziness rolled into one big adventure. And the thing that matters most is that we are making memories — together as a family.

Image credit: Kori Ellis; Carnival Cruises

More about traveling with kids

Toddler tantrum forces airplane turnaround
Baby-friendly beach vacations
Chasing the Dream: Making a dream trip happen

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