Pool rules aboard cruises can leave toddlers out to dry

ByUSA Today
December 24, 2008, 7:48 PM

— -- Question:Our family took a five-day cruise to Mexico and Belize on Royal Caribbean's Navigator. I researched the cruise line thoroughly through its website and posed many questions to my travel agent.

Although I knew that it would be difficult to travel with my 2-year-old son, as he was not potty-trained, we looked forward to the trip.

On Day 2 at sea, we found out that toddlers who are not potty-trained are not allowed in the pool. I was livid. If we have known about this policy, we would have picked a cheaper cruise or one with a kid's pool.

We also thought their Fisher-Price program for toddlers was a joke. The play sessions consisted of just two buckets of water with some water toys.

When I got home, I wrote to the cruise line CEO. I received a call back from a customer-service agent, who told me that I should have checked the swim-diaper policy on the website. I did, but the policy was not there.

My travel agent won't respond to my e-mails. The vacation was not a good value for my money, since my son's fare was $349.

— Sue Johnson, South Riding, Va.

Answer:Booking with a different cruise line wouldn't have given Johnson any more poolside lounge time. No cruise with a U.S. stop will allow swim-diaper clad toddlers in the main swimming pools.

These cruises fall under the purview of the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP), whose mission is to prevent gastrointestinal illnesses on board. The VSP conducts unannounced twice-yearly inspections of cruise ships, scrutinizing a vast checklist of sanitation standards, from food-handling safety to swimming-pool maintenance.

The VSP also provides public health information and safety requirements to cruise lines, including the ban on soggy nappies. The idea is to prevent contamination of pools, and ward off the spread of norovirus, cryptosporidium, giardia and E. coli — all of which have caused illness outbreaks after fecal accidents at public pools and water parks on terra firma.

"Many of the cruise lines have been questioned by parents who don't understand the policy," says CDC representative Bernadette Burden.

Here's the straight poop: Swim diapers are not leakproof. If properly fitted and changed regularly, swim diapers can prevent solid feces from escaping. However, they don't contain urine or diarrhea, nor do they stop seepage of infection-causing germs, leading critics to dub them "fecal tea bags."

Not all cruise ships entirely poo-poo the notion of water play for their youngest sailors, and have engineered special wading pools for children who aren't toilet trained. These facilities are VSP approved, and feature isolated water systems, secondary UV disinfection, and increased filtration, and can quickly be flushed out in case of diaper accidents. Royal Caribbean has Baby Splash Zones on three ships, the Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas, and Disney features a toddler fountain play area on the Disney Wonder and Disney Magic.

The swim-diaper policy is on Royal Caribbean's website, though it can be a wee bit hard to spot. Look at the All About Cruising tab, and choose Family Cruising; the details are at the bottom of the page.

As for Johnson's disappointment with the toddler play sessions, although many cruise lines have comprehensive programs for kids, they're generally geared for toilet-trained children aged three and up. Royal Caribbean's Royal Tots group programs are designed by early childhood experts at Fisher Price and combine learning with playtime, says Royal Caribbean representative Michael Sheehan, who points out that a parent or caregiver must accompany children under 36 months. Parents looking for some solo time can hire babysitters on board.

"We regret that we did not meet Mrs. Johnson's expectation," says Sheehan. "As a gesture of good will, we would be happy to provide the Johnson's child with a future cruise certificate."

The credit may be applied to a sailing onboard Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas or Independence of the Seas, where he can romp in the Baby Splash Zone.

How can you avoid trouble?

Check your expectations. Cruise entertainment options for toddlers are limited on any cruise ship, and usually consist of in-cabin babysitting, basic day care and perhaps parent play sessions. Although programs are nominally for kids three and up, they won't accept children who aren't toilet trained, and may have a three strikes and you're out policy for accidents.

Talk with your travel agent. A good agent booking a family trip will alert you to the options as well as the limitations of kids' programs, on land or at sea.

Read previous columns

Linda Burbank first began troubleshooting travelers' complaints for the Consumer Reports Travel Letter. She now writes regularly for Consumers Union publications and is a contributing editor for National Geographic Traveler. E-mail her at travel@usatoday.com. Your question may be used in a future column.

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