A tentative bonding on the river, Mississippi River cruise
Getaways - December 2004
Tuesday, November 23, 2004
This is a story of the best intentions. And how, sometimes, they aren’t enough. The Delta Queen Steamboat Co. wants families to think of its riverboat cruises in much the same way retirees already do—as a destination of choice. To that end, the company has created what it calls “riverbonding” cruises.
The idea is to bring families together with a different choice from the standard family cruise—those that offer separate daylong programs for kids and adults. Instead, the Delta Queen Steamboat Co. markets family cruises on the Mississippi River (we traveled from New Orleans to Natchez, Miss.) that focus on bringing families together. Each child chooses a board game to play while onboard and take home, along with a few day trips at ports of call for the whole family.
It’s a great theory. The reality is the problem.
The folks at the company and the folks on the boat (and you don’t call them ships if they only run on rivers, we learned) are all wonderfully nice. But they simply don’t know how to serve families with children. They have had little or no experience.
Our trip was at the end of August. We spent a lovely 24 hours in New Orleans, with a stay at the fabulous Fairmont New Orleans just off the French Quarter, dinner at one of the city’s finest restaurants and passes to its cultural attractions. We bypassed the aquarium and children’s museum and opted for the touristy horse-drawn carriage tour of the French Quarter. The next day, we headed to the boat. Few other families Our first clue that this wasn’t as kid-oriented as we expected came as we waited in line to board. The only other folks under 65 were two families, one with surly teenagers in tow and the other (thankfully) with kids about the same ages as my children Evan, 10, and Tess, 8.
On board the American Queen, my husband and I were enthralled with the $65 million Victorian-style steam-powered riverboat, with its 222 luxurious staterooms, opulent theater, incredible food and friendly staff. We settled into our stateroom for four (two skinny single beds and one double futon couch) and headed off, as instructed, to book our shore excursions before they sold out. Then came our second clue.
From the list of kid-friendly excursions, we chose the day trip to the Global Wildlife Center in Folsom, La. We were told we were the first—ever—to make that choice. The staff tour director assured us, however, that he would figure out some way to get us there, even if it meant the company had to hire a cab.
Sounded good—until the next morning when we got in the cab. About 20 minutes outside of Baton Rouge, my daughter uttered the first “Are we there yet?” Our Jamaican cab driver responded: “Oh, no. We’re not even halfway. Didn’t they tell you how far it is?”
Turns out, the game preserve is 70 miles outside of Baton Rouge—or 120 miles if your cab driver misses the exit, as ours did. Was it worth it? Absolutely. We won’t likely get another chance to have a giraffe eat out of our hands (see story page 30). But our resolve was tested on the way back, when the cab’s air conditioning stopped working on a typically humid, 95-degree Louisiana day. After our experience, they decided to kill this trip. Bored kids
On the boat, the kids were disappointed to find the pool closed for maintenance for the first day of our three-day cruise; we were disappointed to find it difficult to bond over family games on the upper deck where we could enjoy the view and the breeze that cooled us but blew away the cards for the Clue game. The kids enjoyed the tour of the pilot house, making Mardi Gras masks during the craft hour and flying kites off the back of the boat. But they were turned off by the “Riverlorian” who offered lessons on the river history and riverboating. She had little patience when the children’s questions distracted her from her planned lecture.
The riverbonding cruises, which feature kids’ menus, various activities and the family oriented shore excursions, are offered throughout the summer and during the Thanksgiving and winter school breaks. The company accepts 20-25 families per cruise, limited by the number of cabins large enough to accommodate three or four people, according to spokeswoman Lucette Brehm.
On a final note, this is not a cheap vacation—a family of four could spend from $2,220 to $5,360 for a three-day cruise. My family and I cruised as guests of the Delta Queen, but a visit to the Web site offers a glimpse of the confusing pricing options—is it cheaper to choose the riverbonding price in which children under 18 travel free? Or should you go with the plan that offers 30 percent off each ticket, as one family of five did after spending nearly a week searching the Internet and talking with the Delta Queen booking agents?
Bottom line: This was a great trip for my husband and me. We loved the lazy moments (all too rare once you have kids) relaxing on the upper deck and watching the river flow. Our kids found much of it boring. So my advice is to leave the kids with grandma and spend time riverbonding with your spouse.
Cindy Richards is the associate editor of Chicago Parent and mother of Evan and Tess.
• Delta Queen Steamboat Co. (800) 543-1949 www.deltaqueen.com
• Global Wildlife Center (985) 624-WILD (9453) www.globalwildlife.com