Gail Platt first went to sea as a holiday volunteer for the free travel - now cruise ships are her home and she aims to make her young charges on Pacific Sky feel part of an onboard family. The Australian childcare worker is youth director for the liner and runs its Turtle Cove and Shark Shack childcare centres.

To help to ensure children and their parents are happy with the ship's facilities, the centres run to the same standards that apply on dry land, and then some.

Staffing ratios, sign-in and out regulations, structured programmes and supervised sleep arrangements follow the guidelines that parents with children in daycare will be familiar with.

In addition, there are decontamination rules for any upset-tummy incidents and beepers for parents who need to be reminded to collect their children.

All staff, mostly Australian or Filipina, are trained in childcare or nursing and have First Aid certification. They work in centres open from 9am until 1 the next morning catering for up to 200 children.

On our cruise 110 children were entitled to the free care at Turtle Cove (ages 1-6) or the adjoining Shark Shack (ages 6-12), but at any one time a maximum of around 25 children would be in each room.

An enclosed deck, leading from the centres, allows for letting off steam on bikes. Parents can take their children to the gated paddling pool when the centres are closed at meal times.

Centre sessions run from 9am-noon, 1pm-5pm and 6pm-1am, with the littlies snuggling down in the evenings to watch videos and nod off.

Teenagers can participate in separate supervised activities held at venues across the ship, and in the evenings often opt for a video in their cabins or a trip to the ship cinema or a show.

Gail says some younger children take a few days to settle, but most are quickly seduced by the mix of craft, colouring-in, music, dance and storytime, plus the chance to participate in talent quests and baby discos. Morning and afternoon teas of water and plain biscuits are served.

Older children have access to PlayStations. They also play games, do bingo and karaoke, go on scavenger hunts and dress up for theme nights.

If numbers are high the Shark Shack centre is split into two groups, allowing 6-9-year-olds to play separately from the bigger kids. Thirteen-year-olds who aren't quite ready for the teenager group can also hang out at Shark Shack.

Big kids can look in on little brothers and sisters next door at Turtle Coves, but not vice-versa.

Babies get their own named pillowcase. The centre's toys are sanitised daily and its carpets shampooed every second day, with a big scrub-down between cruises. Parents are responsible for any nappy changes but staff will give bottles. The centre stays open even when the ship is in port, but a parent must be on board if a child is in care.

Gail has a special welcome for New Zealand parents. "The kids are much quieter and better behaved [than Australians]. Parents are more inclined to spend time with their children and take them to outside activities."