Not sure if this has been posted before, but it is a really cool change (or at least I think so because my DDs were in different programs Lab vs. Club and did at times want to be together, luckily they let them move around, but nice that it is being done like this now.) Think Disney Cruise Line's been resting on its reputation, rather than innovating new onboard programming for kids? Consider the Mouse back in the game. For the first time since its launch in 1998, the cruise line has undertaken a massive revamp of the once-groundbreaking program that made Disney a leader in the family cruise market. In December 2009, the line began rolling out a brand-new youth activities program on Disney Wonder, which will be fully operational on that ship as well as Disney Magic by February 2010. The philosophy of this program is revolutionary -- you won't currently find anything like it among other family cruise lines -- and possibly controversial. The biggest news is that the basic structure of the youth programming for children ages 3 through 12 is changing -- significantly. While the trend among cruise lines catering to families has been to create smaller age groupings in their kids' clubs, and organize activities exclusive to each, Disney has actually eliminated age restrictions for onboard programming. The Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab, once reserved for 3 to 7's and 8 to 12's respectively, are now open to all kids in those ranges, and activities are divvied up by interests, not age, which enables children to choose from a wider array of offerings and select those that are best-suited to their individual personalities and tastes. Perhaps most importantly, these changes mean that siblings, friends and relatives between these ages can now stay together within the program if they so choose, rather than be separated. Our children, ages 8 and 3, love to hang out together and as parents we were curious to see if the program would give them the ability to do that in a way that worked for the whole family. So we sailed on the Wonder's December 17 Bahamian cruise out of Port Canaveral to experience the new developments for ourselves. As it turns out, our children participated in some but not necessarily all activities together. Our son (the 8-year-old) is at an age where he doesn't like to admit the characters are cool, while our daughter wouldn't have missed Cinderella's Royal Ball for anything. But because they shared the same facilities, she was able to meet back up in with her brother after the dance in their favorite "down time" spot -- a game room in the back of Oceaneer's Club with computers, puzzles, books and comfy chairs -- to read together. This wouldn't have been possible under the old program. This new programming is a major leap forward for Disney, which slumbered for a long time in terms of introducing new programs, innovations and itineraries. Disney will launch two brand-new vessels in 2011 and 2012 after more than a decade with a two-ship fleet, and has been dabbling of late with cruises outside of the Caribbean and Bahamas (the line returns to Europe in 2010, and Alaska's up for the first time in 2011) and new excursions (including a special shoreside Royal Ball with Cinderella at St. Petersburg's Catherine Palace). But in tackling its 10-plus-year-old kids program, Disney is perhaps making the strongest statement about its commitment to being a pack-leader in the family cruise arena. Did the changes ultimate work for our family -- and will they work for yours? What else do you need to know about the revolutionary revamp, which also includes several new onboard activities, upgraded services for families, a tweaked tween program and changes to the private island experience? Our First-Hand Account We honestly had no idea what to expect -- and it really could have gone either way. Let's face it: All those age groups together sounds a little scary. Our children are quite accustomed to adapting to various types of kids programs, and generally do so issue-free, but we were really eager to observe all of the participating children (not just our own) in the respective rooms, to see how they were getting along. We figured we might witness a bunch of the older kids getting frustrated with younger hangers-on, activities going awry and younger children roaming aimlessly through a sea of bigger ones. But we didn't. The dynamic in both the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab was really interesting, not to mention heartening. What happened first off was that many children tended to separate themselves by age on their own, even though no one seemed to be encouraging them to do so. Many kids naturally gravitate toward others their own size. But there were definitely groups that were solely interest-based, and others that were primarily gender-based, showing no regard for age. During Cinderella's Royal Ball, we saw girls from age 3 all the way up to maybe 9 -- and they were all getting along. In fact, many of the older girls were taking the younger ones by the hand and leading the way on the dance floor. For our family, the elimination of age groups translated into more options for our children. Our son has always gravitated toward older children and tends to get along with them better than he does kids his own age. But he also loved having access to the jungle gym, reading area and computers in the Oceaneer Club -- once reserved for the younger set but now open to all -- and he spent a good deal of time in there with his little sister. Restricting our children to set activities and spaces for their different age groups would have given them fewer options, and would have meant spending less time together. Another unexpected boon to having my children able to be together within the program was that it lessoned any separation anxiety experienced by our youngest. This is always a positive, but one afternoon stands out in particular. While my husband and I were taking a break at the spa, we got a text from the counselors, letting us know that our daughter was asking for us to come and get her -- but to stay put, as they would be bringing her over to her brother's activity to see if she wanted to join him. It worked, which meant we were able to stay where we were. Everyone wins. Our overall experience with the new programming was decidedly positive. The children enjoyed having the option to hang out together when they chose to and on many occasions they did so, participating in activities together (our youngest particularly enjoyed spending time with her older brother). However, they also spent a fair amount of time apart -- particularly when it came to activities involving video games or princesses! Caveats Still, not all parents are viewing the programming changes a step forward. Some are downright confounded by the decision. Clearly, the trend amongst kid-friendly lines has been to create more age groupings, not fewer. One mother of a young child said to me, "There's a reason cruise lines started separating out age groups to begin with -- because they discovered that they needed to." She insisted, "3-year-olds are different than 8 year-olds, and they should be treated differently." While it's an absolutely valid point, I would point out that children in different age groups are still being treated differently. For example, at Oceaneer Lab (where activities are still geared toward older kids, though they aren't exclusive to them), counselors kept a watchful eye on the interaction between younger and older participants for boredom or those feeling out of place. At the Ratatouille Cooking School in particular, there were some younger kids who didn't feel like they could participate or didn't want to participate -- and the counselors made a beeline for them, helping them to mix or stir while also keeping them out of the way of the older kids, or even taking them back over to the club for a more appropriate activity. Indeed, despite the lack of age restrictions, kids of different ages playing together are monitored very closely. It's far from a free-for-all. Disney has some of the best counselors and competitive kid-to-counselor ratios in the business, and they are implementing these changes carefully. We're talking about Disney, after all, a company that has some experience with kids. Most of the other concerns voiced to us by other parents seemed to follow two main themes: The first was that their older children expressed that they were not thrilled at the prospect of sharing their space with younger siblings, or any younger children at all; and the second was that the parents just did not feel comfortable with older children being in close and constant contact with their younger children. Both of these are very real concerns, and parents -- all with unique circumstances -- will have to weigh them against the positives. The reality is that there will be some families for whom the changes simply don't work. But Disney is clearly betting that the new program will work for the vast majority. Understanding the Changes: Then Versus Now The decision to change to a system based on interests, not ages, stems in large part from guest feedback, according to Maureen Landry, Disney Cruise Line Entertainment Operations Director. "With so many families, extended families and groups sailing together on Disney Cruise Line, the evolution of our youth activities programs was natural," she tells us. "We regularly received requests for children of different ages to participate in youth activities together -- siblings, cousins, extended family and friends. Our guests spoke and we listened, opening up more activities to more children and allowing children to customize their own cruise vacation exactly as they wish." Prior to the launch of the new changes, Disney's children's programs were organized like they are on most other kid-friendly cruise lines -- into age categories -- and Disney's categories spanned just a couple of years. The Flounder's Reef Nursery was (and remains) for babies and toddlers ages 12 weeks up to 3 years. The Oceaneer Club was the space for children ages 3 to 7, with a separate schedule of events provided for ages 3 to 4 and 5 to 7. The Oceaneer Lab, located on the same deck a several yards away, was for ages 8 to 12, with separate events planned for ages 8 to 9 and 10 to 12, with some overlap. On the Magic and Dream, there are also separate tween spaces for children 11 to 13. Teens Aloft, with its overstuffed couches and chairs, was (and remains) for ages 13 to 17. So, the two onboard spaces affected by the recent changes are the Oceaneer's Club and Oceaneer's Lab. As mentioned earlier, both rooms are now open to all children ages 3 to 12, so any child between those ages may visit either or both rooms if they want, and may participate in any activity scheduled for either space. In addition, children are able to move back and forth between the two spaces. Children 8 and older who have their parents' permission may sign themselves in and out and move independently from room to room. Those under age 8 can be escorted via a private enclosed passageway by a staff member. Disney's counselor-to-child ratios remain the same: 1:15 for ages 3 to 4 and 1:25 for ages 5 to 12. Again, despite the lack of age restrictions, many activities are still geared toward either the younger (3 to 7) or older (8 to 12) set; and those most appropriate for older kids still take place in the Lab, while those recommended for younger ones still take place in the Club. But age is by no means the first consideration anymore, as it once was. Now you will see the activities organized in the daily newsletter, The Navigator, by interest first, with secondary color-coded recommendations for age. There are several different "series" or interests into which the activities fall, each of which centers around a different theme. These include: Clubhouse Series: Activities focus on movement and generally appeal to younger children, such as a Little Einsteins mission or "Finding Nemo"-themed puppet show. Storybook Series: There's an emphasis on Disney classic stories, with activities like Do Si Do with Snow White. Jump Up! Series: This series focuses on large group activities and games such as The Challenge of Davy Jones is an interactive, big-screen video game. Create & Invent Series: Here there's a tactile focus and offerings involve inventing and creating; favorites include a lesson on Flubber (squishy green goo) and Ratatouille Cooking School. In the Spotlight Series: Involved are stage shows and performances, such as Lights, Camera, Improv. Solve It! Series: Activities, like Detective School, encourage problem solving. Out & About: These activities, for kids 8 and older, are set outside of the Club and Lab. One offering is Mickey Mania, a game-show-style guest participation experience. How Disney Differs from Other Family Lines These are bold changes from Disney in an industry where age-based groupings and youth programs are the accepted norm. While other kid-friendly lines are, like Disney Cruise Line, continuing to add more special-interest based activities -- particularly Royal Caribbean, with its impressive array of family sporting options -- they are not doing so in conjunction with the elimination of their age-based programs. Some lines -- like Carnival, Norwegian Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean -- still group children in only two- to three-year spans (for example: 2- to 5-year-olds, 6- to 8-year-olds, etc.). Others have slightly broader groupings (for example: ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17), which is the case on Holland America, Princess Cruises and Crystal Cruises. You'll hear many differing views of the benefits and shortcomings of these age groupings, due in part to the reality that all children develop differently, especially between ages 3 to 12. What works for one child may very well not work for another, even within the same family. Some parents would not dream of putting their 2-year-old in a group with a 5-year-old, while others would much prefer that scenario. Despite the lack of age restrictions for ages 3 to 12, other age requirements on Disney remain the same. The requirements for the youngest cruisers has not changed on its ships; babies still must be 12 weeks to enter the Flounder's Reef Nursery and you are still required to pay for the nursery services, $6 per hour for the first child and $5 per hour for a second child. No other cruise line's nursery accepts children as young as Disney does. Royal Caribbean, NCL, Carnival and Cunard require babies to be 6 months on most cruises. To participate in the free youth programs onboard Disney, children must still be 3 and potty-trained. Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Princess also require that children be 3 years old and potty trained to participate in their free children's programs, while Carnival's and NCL's accept kids beginning at age 2, and do not require them to be potty trained. Finally, the activities that take place within Disney's children's spaces -- as well as the extraordinary live shows, deck parties and personal character greetings -- remain unique in that most naturally center on beloved characters, storytelling and movies. It's something you just can't experience anywhere else. What Else to Expect: Other New Activities and Programs Considering Disney? In addition to the aforementioned changes and policies, you can also expect several new (and new-ish) activities onboard. There are more than 100 activities and programs designed for children, including the new and popular Cinderella's Royal Ball, which gives kids a personal character experience as she teaches them how to be a princess or prince. Also new is the Animal Tracking Series activity, which takes place partly on the ship and partly on Disney's private Island Castaway Cay. Developed under the guidance of Dr. Anne Savage, veterinarian and conservationist from Disney's Animal Kingdom, the program helps children learn about endangered animals. They create an animal tracking device ahead of time on the ship, and once on Castaway Cay day they disembark and track plush versions of the animals they learned about. The Dine & Play program (although not brand-new -- it began in April) has become a popular service and has affected some families' choice of seating for dinner. For families dining at the second seating at 8:15 p.m., youth activities counselors are available at the entrance to all the dining rooms (with the exception of adults-only Palo) to take children up to the Oceaneer's Club and Lab when they are finished eating, so mom and dad can enjoy a portion of their dinner alone. There is currently no comparable service for the first seating. There is also a new sign-in system to accompany the changes in programming, which allows kids to come and go with the beep of a wristband. When they register, children are fitted with a “Mickey band,” which provides secure access to the onboard youth spaces. The band uses RFID (radio frequency ID) technology to store info, take roll call and facilitate the tap-and-go function. The band stays on for the duration of the cruise and can be worn in the pools. While definitely a time-saver, we did find it a bit heavy and cumbersome for our 3-year-old. The new system also affected the registration process. At the time of our sailing, registration involved a bit of an unpleasant wait as it had to be done in the terminal or onboard -- but parents will soon be able to register online, which will likely alleviate the problem. Disney's beeper system is still in place, where parents receive a personal pager for the duration of the cruise, and are texted if anything is amiss. Parents of tweens will be happy to hear that there will also be new and much-needed activities added for them in the near future. With the introduction of the Out & About series (detailed above) Disney is creating more activities for tweens. There are already spaces for tweens on the existing ships, and there will be dedicated tween areas on the new Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy. Finally, Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in the Bahamas, is undergoing enhancements as well, including a bigger (by 700 feet) family beach with a new lunch buffet and separate bar, a 2,400-foot floating platform with two water slides called the Pelican Plunge, and a 2,400-foot water playground with a splash pad called Spring-a-Leak. The island will also have a new area just for teens, called the Hide Out. The island changes are expected to be completed by summer 2010. --by Carrie Calzaretta. The New Jersey-based mother of two has traveled extensively with her children and lives to tell about it.