Jennifer Howze wasn’t sure what to expect when she boarded Carnival Sunshine with her daughter – there were lots of surprises in store on their family cruise

My nine-year-old daughter and her new friend Holly moved purposefully, with the air of executives rushing to important meetings. There was the Lido deck pool first thing in the morning. Next, WaterWorks. “We’re going to the slides,” they informed me, as if I was their personal assistant.

“The slides” are the three waterslides that spiral down from a tall platform on the aft deck. They sit alongside the WaterWorks play area that includes a mounted squirt gun and a big dump bucket.

Carnival says they carry 700,000 children every year, more than any other cruise line, and are working hard to appeal to families.

Yet when you call your update “2.0” and pitch it to the touch-screen generation, you have your work cut out for you. After the initial excitement, would it make my daughter abandon her apps and YouTube videos?

We set sail on a short cruise from Barcelona, stopping at Marseille, Livorno and Rome with the goal of seeing exactly how family-friendly the new kitted-out Carnival Sunshine was.

Our double stateroom had a balcony, which I’d consider a must for my next cruise because of the opportunity to look out to sea and over the fascinating large-scale machinery of working ports. But we didn’t stay in the room long.

First and foremost, we had to try the slides. She’d seen them from the shore, she looked longingly at them when we first boarded. At last we could stand on the platform and choose which one to take. The slides are enclosed; you zip down in almost complete darkness in parts, water splashing in your face. At a certain point on each slide I built up so much speed I prayed for it to end, just moments before splashing out at the end. After several initial runs together, my daughter rode them for an additional half hour. The “slide discussion” was the opening gambit for most of the kids’ ice-breaker conversations during the rest of the cruise, including an in-depth debate on the speed, acceleration, queuing times and overall fun quotient.

Next up was the SportSquare. We quickly worked our way around the mini-golf course – nine holes picturesquely laid out around the funnel. If it’s crowded when you arrive, wait 10 minutes and you can have it to yourself, like we did.

SportSquare was hopping practically every time we visited, with afternoons especially busy. I was surprised how spontaneous it felt – unmanufactured, free-form game playing that was leagues away from the forced fun I had expected of a family cruise.

Another big highlight of the cruise was the SkyCourse, a group of tightropes, vertical netting, wiggly tethered steps and round platforms high above the SportSquare deck.

We were clipped on by affable, efficient staff and then sent out to navigate it in our own time. You have your choice of the difficult route or one they called the “Chuck Norris”. That one starts off easier and gets more difficult toward the end. I’m not sure what it exactly says about the martial arts actor’s career but the course was an interesting (at points challenging) clamber – but it is weather dependent.

The surprises

It isn’t such a shock that kids love the waterslides, games and daredevil feats high above the deck. What surprised me were other attractions that caught my daughter’s attention and held it long after I thought it would.

I didn’t have high hopes for Epic Rock, the show on our second night on board. I expected a good-natured talent show. How wrong I was. The production was staged in the Liquid Lounge, the main theatre space, and was a song and dance extravaganza, a medley of classic rock songs and featuring stagecraft extraordinaire.

Breathtaking special effects projected onto a screen were perfectly integrated with the performers’ movements, allowing birds to fly across the sky and singers to appear to hold balls of fire. “He has to move at the right time,” my daughter authoritatively pointed out to me, between her whoops.

I defy you to not enjoy all that alongside a soundtrack from your misspent youth, including Paradise City and that Glee-popularised staple Don’t Stop Believing. Afterwards my daughter gave it the highest praise known to modern children, “I need to download those songs,” she told me.

Another evening we hit the family-friendly Comedy Show in the Limelight Lounge. My daughter liked the grown-up experience: she dressed up, ordered one of the zero-proof drinks and enjoyed the interaction with the performers, who kept reminding us that we could catch their adults-only shows later. There was a good energy, but I would have preferred more kid-oriented humour. Children love silly antics and jokes, the cornier the better.

Naturally there are kids’ clubs on board. These days, every parent expects a decent version and good ones have to be inventive as well as safe and reliable. Camp Carnival clubs are divided according to age and they have scheduled activities so your child can show up for something that interests them. If your child is over nine, they can sign themselves in and out – a nice touch offering a bit more responsibility when they’re coming to meet you elsewhere.

My daughter was desperate to take part in the Camp Carnival Night Owls programme, where kids stay up way past their bedtime and are entertained from 10pm until 3am, for an hourly charge. But we were both falling into bed at 10pm every night.

During our days on board we also hit the video arcade, the sweet shop Cherry on Top, the Shake Spot and some of the restaurants, including the fantastic Ji Ji Asian Kitchen.

Of course, one of the best things about being on a family-friendly ship is the other families. Spontaneous games broke out among the children in the swimming pool, and the kids enjoyed going on their own to get pizza at the buffet, to visit the self-serve ice cream station, or buying mocktails at one of the two poolside bars. For five hours my daughter and her new friend happily made the circuit. As for me, I had a book to read, a bit of shade in which to sip a cocktail and as the girls bounced from pool to slides, my duties as a personal assistant were suspended.

Watch: Carnival Sunshine: Cruise Ship Features

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