When Don and Sandy Breckon of Parkville, Mo., were approaching their 40th anniversary a few years ago, a cruise seemed like a good way to celebrate.
So they gathered their four daughters and their husbands from various points around the country and set sail for the Bahamas.
The family liked it so much that the Breckons are going to do it again -- this time with seven grandchildren, too. For their 50th anniversary in 2009, the Breckons and 15 family members are planning an Alaskan cruise.
"The great thing about cruise ships is that there are so many activities for all the different people that you don't have to worry about keeping everybody busy all the time," said Don Breckon.
Wherever cruise ships sail from, extended families are sailing, celebrating anniversaries, gathering for family reunions or just trying to get away and find a little time together.
Multigenerational gatherings have become an important part of the cruise industry, said Mark Comfort, owner of Cruise Holidays and Comfort Tours and Travel in Kansas City.
"In one adjective, it's just become huge," Comfort said. "Since Sept. 11, 2001, we have focused on it very hard. Cruising has becoming a very strong option of choice because it has something for everybody. From potty-trained on up there's something for them. The ships have been so wonderful about putting on children's programs, where children can be entertained no matter their age, and Mom and Dad can have some relaxing time and Grandma and Grandpa can have a good time, too."
"Family reunions and the family cruise market in general is the fastest growing segment of our industry," said Vance Gulliksen, public relations manager for Carnival Cruise Lines, the world's largest. "This year alone we're expecting to carry 575,000 children under the age of 18 . . . that's roughly six times what we carried a decade ago."
Dean and Ginny Trenter of Kansas City have become firm believers in cruising as a way of getting their far-flung family together.
The Trenters have been on three cruises with the families of their adult children, who live in Charlotte, N.C., and St. Louis.
"You get on the ship and you absolutely relax," said Dean Trenter, a retired accounting supervisor. "You want to get in the pool? Fine. You want to watch a movie? Fine. Everybody can do their own thing in the daytime, but whatever we do we always get cleaned up and meet for dinner. We have a big table and sit all 11 of us together."
Yet if the fun starts when the ships sails, it doesn't necessarily mean there aren't plenty of challenges in planning a big family cruise.
>Just how do you get a family of 11 or 17 or 35 together?
"The first thing I tell people is that one person has to make the decisions," said Susie VanderKamp, co-owner of the Cruise Connections travel agency in Kansas City. "One person has to decide when they're going to go and where they're going. You will never get everybody to go agree. So one person has to say, 'This is when w1e're going to go, and this is where we're going to go. If you'd like to go along, here's the price. Love to have you.' "
If several people in a family are trying to make decisions, the likelihood is that the cruise will never happen, VanderKamp said. The larger the group, the more conflicts there will be in vacation schedules, destination preferences and cruising styles.
As harsh as it might seem, "Never try to please everybody because it just doesn't work," she said. "One person has to be the planner and that person cannot buckle."
Of course, in some cases the person who's paying for the cruise gets to make the decisions. So if Mom and Dad or Grandma and Grandpa are paying for all or a large part of the cruise, they're the deciders. End of discussion.
Once you've selected a decisive family spokesman, he or she can start winnowing the many choices in cruise lines, ships and destinations. The first decision: when to go. Veteran travelers and cruise counselors advise that you begin planning nine months to two years ahead.
"Plan ahead, set a date, stick to it and go from there," Ginny Trenter said. "But the first thing is you have to get a date."
For one thing, planning far in advance increases the odds that everyone will be able to participate.
"You certainly have to let the kids know so they can protect their calendars," said Breckon, who was about to embark on his 40th cruise and had already booked three more after that.
>Early planning is essential for several reasons:
*Better prices. "If you're planning to go during spring break, over the holidays or in the summer those are the most popular times to go, and they tend to be expensive," VanderKamp said. "If you book them when they first come out or close to that, you're going to get a better deal. ... As the cruise fills up I've seen the price go way up."
Alternatively, if the cruise line drops its price, the agency also will drop its price, she said.
"There's no way to lose," she said.
Getting the best rooms. "If you want to get certain kinds of rooms, balconies or whatever, they tend to sell out first," VanderKamp said. "Some people want be in the middle of the ship. Some people want to be on the end of the ship. Booking early ensures you will be able to get what you want."
For some families, it's important to get rooms close to one another.
"We get three balcony cabins right together, one for each family," said Dean Trenter, a veteran of 14 cruises.
*Making payments. "The farther out you go, the more people are able to make payments on a monthly basis," Comfort said. "That gives them an even better chance of going if finances are important."
Every year brings new itineraries for cruise lines. Some ships sail to exotic destinations in the Pacific, like Tahiti, Vanuatu or Fiji. In fall some lines ply the coast of New England to Canada. Some cruisers prefer Mediterranean ports or European capitals.
"You can never go wrong with the Caribbean," Comfort said. "That's why it garners so much of the family reunion business. When Grandma and Grandpa are making the decision and paying for it solely, Alaska is very definitely the destination of choice.
"Statistically the Caribbean is where a good 65 percent to 75 percent of multigenerational families go. Alaska is about 30 percent. The rest go to Europe or Hawaii."
Another thing to consider is the cost of shore excursions.
"If you do someplace like Alaska or Europe, the shore excursions are going to get expensive," VanderKamp said. "The Caribbean will be the cheapest place you're going to get, unless you can do a 14-day cruise to Hawaii" that includes more days at sea.
"Traditionally, destinations have been the deciding factor," said Harrison Liu, manager of brand communications for Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. "But with these larger and larger ships with all these things to do, the ship is becoming more of a destination than all of these geographical destinations."
No kidding. Royal Caribbean boasts the world's largest cruise ships, Freedom and Liberty of the Seas, whose attractions include the FlowRider surfing pool, rock-climbing walls, inline skating tracks, ice skating rinks and basketball courts. Some Princess ships have huge movie screens on pool decks. Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Pearl has a bowling alley.
"The thing you have to remember is the age of the people who are cruising with you," VanderKamp said. "Do we need to have good children's programs? Are the majority of the people seniors? Look at your demographics to see what's going to work best. If you put people on a ship that's mostly for seniors and you have a lot of kids, they're going to be unhappy and their parents are going to be unhappy."
For destination and ship choices, Comfort said, his agents try to narrow down the choices.
"We never recommend more than three products," he said. "Otherwise you get what we call the paralysis of analysis."
Groups with children should ask about the variety and range of children's programs.
Royal Caribbean, for instance, offers activities for children in five age groups, Liu said. "Kids from one age group to the next don't necessarily want to hang out with each other."
But adults count, too. On the Carnival Fantasy and other Carnival ships in that class, the former children's pool areas are being redesigned just for adults, with hot tubs, teak decks and drink service. "It's nice and relaxing," Gulliksen said. "It's a quiet area."
One advantage of group cruising is that the more people who cruise, the cheaper it can be. Although policies vary among cruise lines, the general rule is that for every 15 people who cruise together, the 16th person sails free, based on bookings of eight cabins or more.
"Holland America has come out with a program for family reunion groups," Comfort said. "They will upgrade the family member of choice, which is usually Grandma or Grandma, with a cabin upgrade."
On cabins that can accommodate three or four people, the third and fourth passengers in the cabin also pay substantially lower fares.
Groups get other perks, too. A good travel agent can work with the cruise line to arrange special events just for the group.
"We can have wine sent to the room, or we can get chocolate-covered strawberries. There are these extra little perks," Comfort said.
"We think of things you don't think of," VanderKamp said. "It makes a big difference. If people want to have a cocktail party or a pastry party in the morning, we think of those things and make them work."
>Once the cruise starts, just remember: Don't complain (at least out loud).
"It's not good to complain because if one person does there's a domino effect," VanderKamp said.
Besides, big family cruises, just like other family gatherings, are about making memories.
"One of the things the kids still talk about is snorkeling in the coral reefs," Don Breckon said. "It was spectacular, and for some of them it was the first time. It was amazing."
Ginny Trenter remembers the dinners.
"I just got a big kick out of our 12-year-old grandson, who eats anything and everything," she said. "He would order New York steak, duck, everything. Then our other little grandson would say, 'I'll have the same thing.' "
Family cruising: A check list
Ten questions to ask while planning:
*Are there activities onboard for every age range in our group?
*What baby-sitting programs are available?
*Can our cabins be grouped together?
*Are large-family cabins available (and affordable)?
*Is the ship's onboard entertainment appropriate for my family?
*What are the advantages and disadvantages to buying airfare from the cruise line?
*Is it important to fly to our port a day before the ship sails?
*Does our group want to eat together every night?
*Can our travel agent arrange gatherings just for the family?
*What's more important, the destination or the ship?
SEPARATELY OR TOGETHER?
Just because you're traveling together doesn't mean you have to spend every minute with the rest of the family.
"It's a great thing to do for families, but you don't want to live in each other's pockets," said Susie VanderKamp of Cruise Connections in Kansas City. "You want to make it a vacation for you, too."
Experience has taught the Trenter and Breckon families how to keep everybody happy.
"Sandy and I end up doing one thing with one couple one day and another couple the next day," said Don Breckon of Parkville. "We'll mix and match with the grandchildren or whatever.
"Several of us went parasailing one day because we had never done that before. Another group went snorkeling with stingrays. Another group was less adventurous and took a glass-bottom boat tour. The only rule we have is we all meet for dinner."
Likewise, just because the Trenter grandchildren want to spend the day at the beach doesn't mean Grandma and Grandpa have to tag along.
"Sometimes we go our separate ways, and sometimes we go together," said Dean Trenter of Kansas City. "We [he and his wife, Ginny] might go shopping. That's what's so enjoyable about going on a cruise and stopping at the ports. There are so many activities."
Dinner and evenings, though, are family time.
"We would generally eat at the early dinner and then go right to the theater," Trenter said. "We would sit up in the balcony on the first row ... The kids will talk and chatter back and forth until the show starts."
Here are toll-free phone numbers and Web sites to help with your cruise planning.
*Carnival Cruise Lines, (888) 227-6482, www.carnival.com
*Celebrity Cruises, (800) 647-2251, www.celebritycruises.com
*Costa Cruise Lines, (877) 882-6782, www.costacruises.com
*Crystal Cruises, (888) 722-0021, www.crystalcruises.com
*Cunard Line, (800) 728-6273, www.cunardline. com
*Disney Cruise Line, (800) 951-3532, www.disneycruise.com
*Holland America Line, (877) 724-5425, www.hollandamerica.com
*MSC Cruises, (800) 666-9333, www.msccruises.com
*Norwegian Cruise Line, (866) 234- 0292, www.ncl.com
*Orient Lines, (800) 333-7300, www.orientlines.com
*Princess Cruises, (800) 774-6237, www.princess.com
*Regent Seven Seas Cruises, (877) 505- 5370, www.rssc.com
*Royal Caribbean, (866) 562-7625, www.royalcaribbean.com
*Seabourn Cruiseline, (800) 929-9391, www.seabourn.com
*Silversea Cruises, (800) 722-9955, www.silversea.com
*Windstar Cruises, (800) 258-7245, www.windstarcruises.com
Boutique lines and tour operators
*Abercrombie & Kent, (800) 554-7016, www.abercrombiekent.com
*American Canadian Caribbean Line, (800) 556-7450, www.acclsmallships. com
*American Cruise Lines, (800) 814- 6880, www.americancruiselines.com *Butterfield and Robinson, (866) 551- 9090, www.butterfield.com
*Club Med 2, (888) 932-2582, www.clubmed.us/clubmed2
*Cruise West, (888) 851-8133, www.cruisewest.com
*French Country Waterways Ltd., (800) 222-1236, www.fcwl.com
*Intrav, (800) 456-8100, www.intrav.com
*Lindblad Expeditions, (800) 397-3348, www.expeditions.com
*Majestic America Line, (800) 434- 1232, www.majesticamericaline.com
*Mountain Travel Sobek, (888) 687- 6235, www.mtsobek.com
*Norwegian Coastal Voyage, (800) 323- 7436, www.coastalvoyage.com
*Peter Deilmann Cruises, (800) 348- 8287, www.deilmann-cruises.com
*Riverbarge Excursion Lines, (888) 462-2743, www.riverbarge.com
*Star Clippers, (800) 442-0553, www.starclippers.com
*Travel Dynamics International, (800) 257-5767, www.traveldynamicsinternational. com
*Viking River Cruises, (800) 304-9616, www.vikingrivercruises.com
*Voyages of Discovery, (866) 623-2689, www.voyagesofdiscovery.com