By Eileen Ogintz

AT SEA OFF BAJA CALIFORNIA — Talk about a great holiday gift! Anneka Nelson, 11, didn’t know she was going on a holiday-week cruise aboard the Holland America Oosterdam until Christmas morning.

“Best Christmas present ever,” said Anneka, enjoying the first day of her fourth cruise playing cards with her mom.  “It is super nice to go to different places and not have to pack or unpack.” 

The outdoor pool on the Oosterdam
The outdoor pool on the Oosterdam

But she isn’t a fan of organized programs for kids on board. “Kind of boring,” she said. Her mom Lisa, a physician, explained that with the family so busy,  and grandma living across the country (the Nelsons in Boise, Idaho, Nelson’s mom in Syracuse, NY)  “it’s nice to have time together.”

Other families splashing in the pool, eating burgers and icecream cones, grazing at the expansive buffet, said the same thing. 

Selica TaFoya, 10, a veteran of eight cruises from Albuquerque, is glad to spend time with her cousins, who have never cruised, from Arizona. “We don’t give large Christmas gifts,” said her mom Victoria. “We plan a holiday vacation.” 

“It’s family time,” said Selica. For that reason, the Ooosterdam is piloting a new style Kids Club designed more for families to do activities together— everything from Fooseball to video games, old-fashioned board games to giant puzzle mazes. There are also youth spa offerings for moms and daughters and fathers and sons to do together (Mother Daughter Paradise Massage; Father/Son chill out massage). The Hi Score area on the 10thdeck is designed for 10-17 year olds, though evenings between 7-10 p.m. is designated family time when kids as young as three can come with their families.

Indoor pool on Oosterdam
Indoor pool on Oosterdam

The staff, rather than facilitating activities, sit back and allow the kids, teens and their families play together.  (There is still a small kids’ club where some supervised activities are offered for younger children, including on port days.  On the first day of a seven day trip, more than 100 kids of the 334 3-17 on board have already found their way here.

Seven year-old Abby Crawford liked the organized activities for younger kids and the chance to meet new friends while her sister Jessica,14,  liked that she could just go to Hi-Score “and do what you want…that’s really good,” the teen said.

Ooosterdam Cruise & Travel Director Betty Ann Chun explained that this new program has just been rolled out on this ship in response to a sense that today’s families vacationing together—and often including three generations—are here because they want to spend time having fun together, eating together, exploring new places (or places the adults have been but want to share with the kids) and most important, not having an agenda to be anywhere or do anything. The ship is also organizing game nights and Trivia, among activities, to engage all ages together.

John and Gerri Stoneking, for example, live in Kansas City while their daughter, her wife and their two kids live in Northern California. The Stonekings planned this trip as a last hurrah before their grandson goes off to college.  And as John Stoneking has mobility issues, it has proven a good choice, his daughter in law Elizabeth Campi said.  “It was more about the family being together in a way that worked for everyone rather than where we went,” she explained.  “This is  fantastic.”

Chun explained that while as many as half of the 2,184 passengers on board this week are part of extended family groups, the demographic changes dramatically when the kids are in school. It is a real balance, she said, to cater to a large number of families just certain weeks of the year and then a much older clientele the rest of the year, often on longer trips.  “It is evolving,” she said.

Lisa Nelson, a busy physician, noted that her husband has no interest in cruising thus the opportunity for a grandmother-mother-daughter trip., a welcome respite from laundry, grocery shopping, car pooling, cleaning. “We’re just relaxing together,” she said. “We don’t have to think about anything.”