Parents accustomed to taking their kids on vacations often get a rude awakening when those kids turn into teenagers.
Not to generalize, but from a parent's perspective teenagers can be morose, uncooperative and generally trying on vacations (though undoubtedly they'd say the same things about their parents).
Still, if you are like me _ parent of a 16-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter _ you are not ready yet to give up on family trips. And so, last summer, around the time the 16-year-old accused us of taking him "hostage" on a trip to Vancouver, I began to think seriously about vacation alternatives.
Here's where cruises can be useful, as we discovered over Christmas vacation aboard Carnival Cruise Line's Inspiration, a weeklong trip in the western Caribbean.
For families with teenagers, a cruise can be a way to vacation together without always being together. In our case, we ate most of our meals together and took shore excursions as a family, but beyond that our son was cheerfully on his own, inconspicuously connected to us via a set of walkie talkies we'd brought for this purpose.
Lenny Halliday, the ship's cruise director, says there has been a steady increase in children, including teens, on Carnival cruises in the past few years.
A decade ago, "If you had more than 50 or 100 children on board you'd get boggle-eyed," Halliday says. On our voyage, however, there were a staggering 787 passengers under age 21, out of 2,575 total. Of those youngsters, 188 were between 16 and 18.
The trend is industry-wide: A spokesman for Royal Caribbean reports "an overwhelming increase in teenagers traveling with us." Likewise, "We've seen our numbers of teenagers jump up considerably in the past couple of years," says Erik Elvejord, spokesman for Holland America. "If you're a 50- to 60-year-old baby boomer, you have teenagers, and . . . (the parents) have the mind set, "I have to travel,' not "I'm going to save my money and stay home.' "
And a lot of them realize that cruise vacations are a good option for teenage offspring. For one thing, parental contact can be kept to a minimum, because the mass-market ships such as the Inspiration are huge; odds are that you won't bump into your own teenager.
Most parents seem to feel reassured their kids will be safe, especially since a security guard is always on duty on the dance floor, where many of the teens congregate in the wee hours.
"The ship is entirely enclosed; you know your children haven't run off to a different beach," says Carnival's Halliday. "They don't need transportation back to the hotel because they are in the hotel."
Cruises can be economical for a family, too. "Prices are dropping for families," says Elvejord of Holland America. "A family of four can probably take a cruise for $2,500.
"And if you have a teenage son who eats everything in sight, put him on a cruise ship: They can eat as much as they want, whenever they want."
Cruise lines are pulling out all the stops to reach this demographic group. Holland America, which has long been noted for its older passenger load, has a specially designated teenage hangout room on its Maasdam, with video games, large-screen TVs, a karaoke machine and juice bars.
Holland America's Alaskan cruises even offer teen-only shore excursions, such as a rafting trip in Juneau, and a canoe adventure out of Ketchikan.
Since 1999, Royal Caribbean has introduced three mega-cruise ships that have elaborate teen facilities and such lures as an ice skating rink, in-line skating track, rock-climbing wall, full-sized basketball court and a miniature golf course.
Carnival's Inspiration did not have in-line skating, but it still had plenty to offer teens, who, for programming purposes, are divided into two groups _ ages 12 to 15, and 16 and older.
Shortly after our cruise began, we noted in our daily ship's newsletter that the younger teens were being summoned to a place called "Teen Club" at 8 p.m. to "hang out and meet other teens on board! We have Nintendo 64, music, movies, and much more!"
My daughter was one of 20 or so who attended the meeting in a clubhouselike room decorated with kids' art and well-equipped with arts and crafts supplies and various video games. The meeting was presided over by an upbeat counselor from Toronto who welcomed everyone warmly and spelled out the rules:
"The water slide (for the large pool) is open from 10 'til 5. You're not allowed in the casino. You're not allowed in any bars after 11. No running on board, unfortunately. You can play CDs as long as there are no explicit lyrics."
She emphasized that the teen programs were absolutely voluntary. "Even if you think this is lame, you can just hang out," she said. "It's a good way to get away from your parents."
My daughter didn't think it was lame. And she enjoyed the "Icebreakers" program the first day at sea. The kids gathered in one of the ship's lounges and played a word association game that centered on bopping one another on the head with a rubber mallet.
Another game involved telling one another six facts about themselves. As in "I'm from Chicago, I have braces, I have a dog" or: "I'm from Virginia, I have braces, I like pizza."
The kids got a list of teen activities for the week, which were scheduled for pretty much every hour from late morning through 1 or 1:30 a.m. Activities included karaoke, dancing, pizza breaks, late-night swimming, mini-Olympics, a talent show, a scavenger hunt and a dubious post-midnight activity called "mock blackjack."
My daughter enjoyed the arts and crafts, like T-shirt art and cookie decorating, but the rest of the time preferred to hang out with us. She kept herself happy with such activities as a comedy show, demonstrations in ice carving and folding towels into animal shapes, the "Hairy Chest Contest," and an art auction.
For the older teens there were activities such as an evening disco and an arcade event. There was also an Internet cafe, open to everyone but heavily populated by teenagers, despite the cost of 75 cents a minute. (You can buy an unlimited time package for $99.99 per person.)
"A lot of the time the teens become such good friends they just want to hang out with each other and don't come to activities any more," says Angela Spicoluk, the ship's youth director.
Our son quickly befriended several other teenagers and developed an active social life that we didn't worry about. Not that I didn't try. As he protested one night when I inadvertently slipped into land-based mother mode and asked him where he was going: "You know, I'm on possibly the most protected place I could be, besides a maximum security prison."
The one night I managed to stay up until 2 a.m., the decks seemed to have been taken over by all 188 of the 16- to 18-year-olds, who were dancing in the disco, playing pingpong and congregating in the stairwells and lounges.
The pizzeria did not close until 4 a.m. Not a bad life if you're a teen.