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Caribbean Cruising with a Toddler- 7 days on the Escape

Our travel decision-making has shifted now that we are three instead of two, cruising in particular. We like this kind of holiday for its ease, and now will take either a nice big ship with lots of on board entertainment OR the smaller ship with not much to do but an amazing itinerary. For our first venture as a trio, we chose the former, spending a week in the Caribbean courtesy of the NCL Casino. The Escape is the newest and largest of the Norwegian ships, having only completed a few runs prior to us boarding. We took a gamble on this inexperience in hopes of a reward similar to that we saw during a similar cruise on the Breakaway 2 years ago. That ship was fresh off the dock, and bursting with staff support from the best of the fleet. The hand-selected crew, specialty mixologists, and lots of quality control made that cruise exceptional. This unfortunately was not the case on the Escape.

Image courtesy of NCL.com

Image courtesy of NCL.com

Quick disclaimer- We have been on many a cruise as both passengers and crew, and so some of the smaller things that matter to us may not matter to anyone else. Additionally, our travel pace and the opportunities that we were able to indulge in have definitely changed due to the addition of a very motivated toddler.

Mini-suite on the NCL Escape

Mini-suite on the NCL Escape

Checking in was a disaster. Despite an expedited casino line, our attendant disappeared to print our ship cards and did not return for 20 mins. Tired and frustrated, we headed straight to the cabin once we made it on the ship. Apparently most passengers did not appreciate the funky new decor of the staterooms on the Breakaway, so NCL reverted back to the same old maroon decor of yesteryear. Our balcony mini-suite was spacious enough for the three of us, with some creative arranging to accommodate a pack and play, stroller, and various baby accouterments.

Free family activities in the playroom for toddlers

Free family activities in the playroom for toddlers- a bit of an afterthought space

The new addition that sealed the deal for us was the daycare option for children under 2. There was very little information about this anywhere- neither the NCL website, phone reps, or Cruise Critic could tell us the cost, hours, or booking policy for this, which would eventually dictate all other entertainment and dining options for us.

Entry Playroom to the Guppies Nursery

Entry Playroom to the Guppies Nursery

Therefore, the second stop once we got onboard was the Guppies Nursery to learn more. The time slots were set for each day, generally 1.5-2.5 hours, with a fee of $20 per slot. They allow you to book 2 consecutive slots (which we did a few evenings), and the max capacity is 10 children so if you have a specific request, you should reserve early. The 4:30-6:30 and 6:30-8:50 allowed us to indulge in a meal and a show, though we ended up feeding him early these days before dropping him off as they only allow you to provide pre-packaged food items as snack.

guppies sched

The back room had pack-and-plays and blankets, and since everyone else’s children seemed to party late into the night, ours had the “bedroom” to himself. The ratio was quite good, with 5 staff on the floor with the children and they were extremely accommodating, asking lots of questions and doing their best to adhere to our guidelines.

The pager provided to parents dropping off their kids in the nursery

The pager provided to parents dropping off their kids in the nursery

At each drop-off, they labeled everything we gave them and kept in a bin or fridge as necessary. Once you hand over your child, you receive a pager with phone capabilities in the event that they need to contact you. Though the rules state that they must call you after 10 minutes of crying and must call you for any number diaper changes higher than #1, the girls confided that they do their best to take care of these situations as they want you to enjoy your time. Upon pickup, they provide you with a rundown of what occurred during that time, including activities, diaper changes, and food/drinks consumed.

Balloon animal-making in the Atrium

Balloon animal-making in the Atrium

The rest of the ship seemed relatively similar to the others in its class, with ample outside space courtesy of The Waterfront, Aquapark, minigolf, and ropes course on the upper decks, and adults-only Spice H2O area for adults at the back. All of the evening game shows and crowd-participation events happen in the Atrium, supported by O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill from above.

Some of the new Food and Beverage options had us excited, such as the District Brew House, Jose Garces’ Bayamo Restaurant, and a Mondavi Wine Bar. We booked the specialty dining package with 3 dinners included, starting with Bayamo, then to Cagney’s and last to Moderno Churrascuria.

Just a few of our appetizers at Bayamo

Just a few of our appetizers at Bayamo

In general, the specialty dining did not feel as special as it has in the past, and many restaurant staff did not understand how the dining package worked. There is a $15 upcharge for Bayamo, making the cost approximately $55 pp before drinks. This is still cheap relative to what you would pay on land, but starts to feel a bit cheeky when you could probably eat a la carte there for cheaper, go to the other specialties for $30, or just eat in the very passable main dining rooms. Regardless, we ate a lot to compensate for this mental barrier, and our waitress here was lovely and took time to shoot the breeze with us.

Surf and Turf at Cagney's Steakhouse

Surf and Turf at Cagney’s Steakhouse

In Cagney’s, the waitress told us that there were guidelines on what we could eat under the dining package ( a strict one app, one salad, one main), which differed with what we had been told at Bayamo and prior to our trip. We brought this up with the Manager after our dinner, which he confirmed was not the case and rebooked us later that week. During that dinner, the hostess did not have our reservation (which the Manager had supposedly made), our waitress literally ran from table to table due to a lack of support staff in her section, and the dinner took over 2 hours. Since we had already been “those people”, we brought it up again to the Manager, which he basically blamed on the company but comped our drinks to make up for it.

Lots of meat at Moderno

Lots of meat at Moderno

Moderno was more self-serve, starting with a buffet of vegetables and antipasti, and rounded out with A LOT of meat. Their servers were very prompt, and the food was tasty.

They recommend pre-booking onboard entertainment, but this is often not necessary for the main stage shows. There are two shows on the schedule for each night, the first at 7:00pm and the second at 9:00. After Midnight and Million Dollar Quartet are the complimentary Broadway-style shows, which were perfectly fine…. it may be unfair to compare, but the Breakaway’s Rock of Ages and Cirque Dreams were really spectacular. There were also “For the Record- The Brat Pack” and “Wine Lovers Musical” for an extra charge, but neither seemed worth it. The partner contract with Second City Improv and Nickelodeon were recently lost, so the comedy options were truly unfunny and the family shows non-existent. This is important to note, as other families mentioned that they booked when Nickelodeon was a partner and were told they could not cancel based on this.

Splash Zone on the pool deck

Splash Zone on the pool deck

Another family party foul- the kids splash zone is restricted for children still in diapers…. this is what the sign says anyway. Lots of families chose to ignore this rule, so we turned a blind eye as well- doublebagged in swim diaper and wetsuit, I’m pretty sure that the baby was excreting less into that water than the drunken adults were.

Sketchy drives and fabulous views

Sketchy drives and fabulous views

The ports we visited were your average Caribbean run- St Thomas, Tortola, Nassau. We stayed relatively close to the ship, with a consistent beach-town-nap schedule. Magen’s Bay Beach in St Thomas is a quick cab ride away, and allowed all of us to splash around for most of the morning. We hadn’t been back to this “Top 10 Beaches of the World” contender since we worked on ships, and we realized it was even more fabulous when you don’t see it every week.

Tortola driving is an adventure in itself

Tortola driving is an adventure in itself

Cane Garden Bay Beach in Tortola was also beautiful, but has less shaded areas so pack your sunscreen and cover-up. It felt weird not going to Virgin Gorda, but hauling the baby up rope ladders and through rock tunnels seemed slightly daunting. And Nassau is Nassau- pretty much Atlantis, Senor Frogs, Dolphins or shopping. We chose none of the above, opting instead for a tasting flight at the Pirate Republic Brewing Company. A quick lap around town and a quick dance party with the hair braiding ladies by the port and we we done.

Butterfly Garden by the port in St Thomas is a nice way to cool and calm down

Butterfly Garden by the port in St Thomas is a nice way to cool and calm down

Disembarkation was even worse than embarkation. The slow-moving line of “carry-your own bags” folks snaked all the way through the casino, and when we finally arrived in the terminal, the customs officers stopped all progression to leave us stranded for another 30 minutes. Thankfully, the elderly gentleman in an electric wheelchair behind us scooped up the baby, sat him on his lap, and let him push the buttons for the duration- They both got quite a ride.

So the moral is: this cruise felt a lot different that they have in the past. We still had a great time, and we will always jump on any opportunity to travel, but it is funny how the little things add up sometimes to feel like more than they are by themselves. We even flirted with the idea of switching companies for our next cruise….. and then booked another NCL for this month. The upcoming trip is the reverse mentality to this one- amazing itinerary, iffy ship. We are so excited to visit the ports, I’m pretty sure the ship details will not matter very much!

{ 15 comments… add one }
  • ES December 31, 2015, 10:21 pm

    So nice to read another guest post from you, Allison! I love the mental picture I got from this description: “…the elderly gentleman in an electric wheelchair behind us scooped up the baby, sat him on his lap, and let him push the buttons for the duration- They both got quite a ride.”

    I have only cruised twice but I would love to do more. Maybe when my H retires. For now, Happy New Year!

    • Allison January 1, 2016, 11:41 am

      Thanks Elaine,
      Cruising has its perks for sure. We are REALLY excited for our next one around the tip of South America!! This is something we have both wanted to do for a long time, and having all of the transportation concerns taken care of is definitely a perk… especially if we don’t have to load up all the baby gear each time. We’ll see what D thinks of penguins, and what they think of him!

  • MickiSue January 2, 2016, 10:17 pm

    The challenges of traveling with a toddler are myriad, but sounds like you guys managed to enjoy yourselves–all of you.

    I’m vicariously excited for you on your trip this month. As I mentioned to Matt, my cousin and his wife did that cruise the January after he retired, and they both thought it the most amazing trip, of many, that they’d ever taken.

  • Vanessa February 2, 2016, 2:42 pm

    So the splash zone allows for children to wear swim diapers?

    • Allison February 3, 2016, 2:34 pm

      Officially, no, but there were enough kids in there that they let us all stay. We just came off of a much older ship, which had a dedicated kids pool with a hot tub right next to it- best of both worlds for parents!

  • Lewis May 1, 2016, 1:09 am

    Leave your toddlers and children with grandma!

    • Allison May 1, 2016, 9:10 am

      For your benefit or mine?

  • Lewis May 1, 2016, 1:11 am

    Leave your kids and toddlers with grandma!!!

    • samantha December 13, 2016, 11:26 pm

      We don’t all get that luxury =(

  • Linnette May 30, 2016, 6:27 pm

    Hi Allison!
    I loved reading your blog! Im travelling on the Escape in July same itinerary with a 10 month old baby girl. I really wanted to do the Breakaway or the Getaway since I hear they are better but the Escape is the only one ive read that has the Guppies Nursery. I also read that there is a one time $75 diaper change fee. Did you encounter that?
    Also did you need to bring a car seat to get to Magens bay? Or Cane Garden beach?

    • Allison May 30, 2016, 9:38 pm

      Thanks! The Guppies Nursery is definitely helpful to give you a little bit of alone time. I know they are rolling out the nursery to other ships, but they have to retrofit the existing layouts to accommodate as well as train the staff. They are also not very good about communicating the timeline of these changes, though it can be a pivotal addition when booking!
      We did not have a diaper change fee…. weird! We didn’t bring the car seat as most of the taxis are of the open-air large group variety, making carrying anything larger than a stroller complicated. When he was smaller, we brought it and took private taxis, but since there was no chance of him sitting still once we got to the beach, we left it on the ship. Hope that helps!

  • Vaden January 19, 2017, 8:10 pm

    Hi Allison,

    How many staff/how many kids did you observe the guppies program to support?

    We looked at the Royal Caribbean equivalent, and they were apparently limited to 8 (or sometimes 12) children per session. That seems crazy small on a 4 thousand passenger ship.

    • Allison January 22, 2017, 8:21 am

      When we were there, they only allowed 10 or 12 kids at a time, so we made our way there as soon as we got in the ship to secure a few slots. We also thought it would be in very high demand, but we often find that there were a bunch of open spots and only 6 kids were registered at a time. There ratio was quite good as well (I remember an almost equal number of staff to kids), and we felt like the kids were well taken care of.
      We are thinking about doing another ship with guppies in the near future, so we can see how if/how the rollout has changed over time.

  • Travis September 13, 2017, 9:28 pm


    Finding information about the Guppies Nursery is next to impossible. Are you limited on the number of days you use the nursery? Also I know you can only do back-back sessions, but can you do multiple back-back sessions a day? We are going to be travelling with our 8 month old twins and I’m trying to decide if we should bring nanny along or use this nursery.

    Thank you for your time.

    • Allison September 14, 2017, 9:02 am

      Hi Travis,
      Yes, the only information I would really trust came directly from the ship once we boarded, unfortunately. It has been a while since we went on the Escape (we are going on the Breakaway on Sunday, so I will be able to comment on their status thereafter). From what I remember, usage is mostly limited by availability, so you have to plan and be proactive about when you will use the nursery. The same goes for dining, shows, etc so being organized is a necessity. The guidelines on the website were a bit flexible in our experience, but I think this would depend on the staff at that time.
      I would say that if you need assistance on port days, a nanny is a better option since one person is required to stay on board when the children are in guppies. This would also allow more flexibility about what you do and when during sea days. We were perfectly happy to have an hour or two here and there to ourselves, and we brought the little guy out to all the ports with us, so the Guppies worked for us. Good luck!

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