According to the Cruise Lines International Association, cruising is unquestionably a family-friendly vacation, with 42 percent of cruise groups going with them, including children under 18. In addition, cruise lines provide elaborate kids clubs, meet and greets with favorite cartoon characters, splash-friendly water parks, ziplines, ropes courses, and more to attract and keep so many youngsters happily engaged.
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Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Lines, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, and Royal Caribbean are just a few prominent cruise lines that cater to families. Celebrity and Holland America Line provide supervised activities and specific facilities for children and teenagers on most ships. However, their culture is more adult-focused, with fewer family attractions outside of the kids’ clubs. Children’s programs are available on some sailings with luxury lines like Crystal and Regent Seven Seas, but the more high-end cruises are mainly adults.
All of these cruise lines provide excellent service. However, which ship is best for your family will be determined by the distinctions — each line’s trademark features, onboard alliances, and the specifics of the kids and adolescent activities.
When choosing a ship for your family cruise, keep the following guidelines in mind.
1. Check to see if the format of the children’s program is appropriate for your children.
Cruise lines that cater to families work hard to provide innovative children’s programs that go beyond babysitting. For example, Splash Academy on Norwegian teaches youngsters tumbling, juggling, spinning, and other circus skills, ending in a circus performance for admiring parents. Carnival’s Camp Ocean has a marine theme. Disney uses its relationships to create attractions such as a Millennium Falcon-themed Star Wars play area and Marvel Super Hero Academy.
Every cruise line’s youth program divides children into age-appropriate groups, but each line’s approach to age groupings differs. Consider their ages and personality to assess whether a cruise line’s program is a good fit for your children.
Royal Caribbean, for example, has separate groups for children aged 3 to 5, 6 to 8, 9 to 11, 12 to 14, and 15 to 17, based on their natural tendencies: an outgoing 6-year-old might be bored and insulted by being paired with a 3-year-old, and a shy 8-year-old might feel overwhelmed by being paired with a much taller and athletic 12-year-old.
Carnival’s Camp Ocean has the same groups, except the drop-off program begins at two rather than three, and the youth staff changes diapers. Turtles, ages 3 to 5, Seals, ages 6 to 9, and Dolphins, ages 10 to 12, are divided into three groups at Norwegian’s Splash Academy. It brings together all teenagers between 13 and 17 into one Entourage group. If your 12-year-old is mature and outgoing, they could do well in a group with older kids and high students on Royal Caribbean and Carnival; if they’re a young 12, they might do well on Norwegian mixed with 10- and 11-year-olds.
Because Holland America and Princess have fewer age groups, each group has a more extensive age range. Princess combines children ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12, and 13 to 17 together; Holland America groups children ages 3 to 6, Tweens (7 to 12), and Teens together in Club HAL (13 to 17). Will your 12-year-old let a 7- or 8-year-old spend around with them? How many children of each age show up for events might determine your child’s enjoyment in the kids’ club. MSC’s Miniclub is for children aged 3 to 6, Juniors Club is for children aged 7 to 11, Young Club is for children aged 12 to 14, and Teen Club is for children aged 15 to 17.
Disney takes a unique approach to the subject. All kids between the ages of 3 and 12 are welcome to join its Oceaneer Club and Lab. While Club activities are geared toward younger children and Lab programming is geared toward older children, any child can engage in either. This implies that siblings or friends traveling together, regardless of age, can remain together. On the other hand, Preschoolers may be overwhelmed with the activity selection if left in the kids club for numerous hours.
Another thing to remember is that during busy seasons like spring break, summer, and other holidays, kids may be moved from designated play areas to lounges and other public areas to avoid overcrowding. In addition, age groups may be merged for cooperative activities during the fall or other times with low kid attendance.
2. Look for a line with cartoon characters on board if you have minor children.
When picking a cruise line for your child, think about which make-believe celebrity they would like to meet. For example, your kindergartener may wish to have tea with a Disney princess, and your second-grader may be counting down the days before they can join Marvel’s Avengers on a Disney adventure in this age of media commercials, blockbusters, and action figure toys.
If your child has a character crush, Disney is an easy pick, as it has princesses, pirates like Jack Sparrow, Mickey Mouse and pals, Star Wars, and Marvel superheroes. However, it isn’t the only line that brings stories to life.
Carnival has launched Seuss at Sea, which includes Seuss-a-palooza Story Time and Green Eggs and Ham Breakfasts, as well as appearances by the Cat in the Hat, Thing 1, and Thing 2, and other characters from Dr. Seuss’ books. In addition, MSC Cruises has its own mascot family, Doremi, Mila, Dorebro, and Dorebaby, and a tie-in with Lego, a popular toy among children.
3. Choose a ship with an onboard nursery if you are traveling with infants.
Although babies are unlikely to remember their first cruises, you will remember if traveling with a newborn made your holiday less fun or whether you were able to cruise successfully with a toddler. Most mainstream cruises need a minimum age of 6 months, whereas lengthier or more unusual excursions require a year. In addition, children are not permitted on several luxury and expedition cruise lines, so check before booking.
Several cruise lines provide hourly drop-off nurseries for children under three and play facilities for the tiniest passengers to enjoy with a parent or guardian. Disney Cruise Line is one of the best cruise lines for infants, having full-service themed nurseries on board for children aged six months to three years old, replete with toys and nap areas. In addition, parents may use special onboard cell phones during open houses to communicate with nursery personnel and accompany their children to explore the Oceaneer Club and Lab’s play areas.
On most ships, Royal Caribbean also has an equally appealing Royal Babies & Tots Nursery for children aged 6 to 36 months. Soft play spaces and age-appropriate toys, as well as cribs and beds for sleeping, are available for the little ones. The nursery also hosts interactive play sessions with arts and crafts, music, and other games for 6 to 18-month-olds and their parents.
Norwegian Escape is the only ship that has a drop-off nursery. On all ships, the Splash Academy offers either a separate play area for children under the age of three with their parents or staff-led parent-tot programs in the Splash Academy or other areas (music, sensory play, etc.) — or both.
MSC offers free childcare for children aged 1 to 3 and Baby Time, where parents may play with their infants and toddlers in the Mini Club. Chicco, a research brand, provides instructive baby toys on board.
4. When traveling with teenagers, don’t be naïve.
Teen programs may be complex, and the finest, like the most outstanding children’s programs, divide them into age groups. Carnival, Celebrity, MSC, and Royal Caribbean feature distinct programs for ages 12 to 14 and 15 to 17. Carnival and Royal Caribbean also have separate areas for the two adolescent groups. Teens on the Disney Cruise Line are divided into two groups with separate hangout locations, although ages 11 to 13 and 14 to 17 are different. Each has its own hangout spots.
On the other hand, Norwegian, Holland America, and Princess group ages 13 to 17 together, with each youngster having their own place on each line. Teens congregate at the Loft, an indoor adolescent club, and the Oasis, an outdoor sun deck, aboard several Holland America ships.
While kids meet up at supervised activities and do enjoyable things with the specialized youth crew, they have plenty of time to develop cliques and partnerships and explore the ship without adults. Your 13-year-old middle-schooler may be hanging out with seniors in high school.
Keep your expectations in check. Bullying, drugs, alcohol, and sex may all be concerns at sea, just as they are at school and at adolescent parties on land. Talk to your teenagers ahead of time, establish ground rules for where they can and cannot go on board without you (for example, into other friends’ cabins or onboard bars), and keep an eye on their activities.
5. If you want some adult time, search for youth programs in ports and ships that provide nighttime childcare.
Just because you’re on vacation with your family doesn’t mean you don’t want some adult time to relax at a spa or visit a local vineyard. Consider cruise lines that provide drop-off activities on board while the ship is in port to expand your possibilities. This allows your youngster to play contentedly with others while you go scuba diving, golfing, visiting museums, or shopping.
Check to see whether you may leave the ship while your kids are at the youth club (some ships require one parent or guardian to stay on board) and if there are any port-day expenses. Norwegian, for example, charges a price to babysit children during meals when their parents are not on board.
Similarly, most cruise lines charge for nighttime group babysitting in the kids’ clubs. For example, Norwegian’s Late Night Fun Zone is open from 10:30 p.m. to 1 a.m. and charges hourly per child. Late-night programs are available on Carnival, Disney, Holland America, Celebrity, MSC, Princess, and Royal Caribbean ships.
6. Select a cruise that offers a variety of pools and water activities available.
Swimming and splashing is a popular cruise pastime for families. Pools are available on all family-friendly ships. However, some have more room dedicated to water activities than others. Look for ships with many pools and water parks if you have water babies. Compared to their elder fleet mates, newer ships offer additional water-based wow elements.
With longer, windier slides that twist, whirl, and even “flush” guests, Carnival, famed for its distinctive slides, amps up the adrenaline on its newer and remodeled ships. Splash zones and child slides are available at the WaterWorks play areas for little cruisers who aren’t ready for the major slides.
Royal Caribbean’s mild H20 Zone will delight little children with geysers, water pistols, and small pools. On the FlowRider, a surf simulator, tweens, adolescents, and adults put their abilities to the test. The line’s only water slides are on the Harmony and Symphony of the Seas, and all Oasis-class ships include several pools for family entertainment.
MSC has also jumped on the water slide bandwagon. The Forest Aquaventure Park is a multi-story water park with five water slides (two of which are racing slides with clear segments that extend over the ship’s side), multiple pools, the Adventure Trail ropes course with spray cannons, and a special AquaPlay area for small children on both the MSC Seaside and MSC Seaview. The Polar AquaPark on the MSC Meraviglia features three twisting water slides, a “Himalayan Bridge” with pieces that span the ocean, water dunkers, and various pools.
There are two family-friendly pools (one with a small child water slide), an adults-only pool, and a splash area for diapered tots. The AquaDuck, a relatively moderate water coaster that rounds the pool deck, is featured on Disney Dream and Fantasy. In contrast, the AquaDunk, a more adrenaline-pumping slide, is featured on Disney Magic, and Disney Wonder is a more traditional water slide. The AquaLab, a water play area featuring jets, geysers, and dump buckets, is also located on Magic, Wonder, and Fantasy.
7. Look for cruise ships that provide additional activities for families.
Aside from kids’ clubs and pools, the best family-friendly cruise lines provide activities and events that children will enjoy, whether or not their parents accompany them. Many cruise lines provide physical activities, but Royal Caribbean sports, such as ice skating, rock climbing, ziplines, and surfing, are on another level. Active adolescents and adults enjoy the line’s ships, especially the newest ones. The Anthem of the Seas also has the SeaPlex, an indoor amusement facility featuring bumper cars and roller skating, as well as a deckside version of skydiving called RipCord by iFLY.
On Norwegian ships, you may challenge your friends on a ropes course on Norwegian Breakaway and Getaway or bowling on Norwegian Pearl, Epic, Breakaway, and Getaway to see who can obtain the greatest score. Norwegian also made a splash by providing Nintendo Wii sports games, which are now accessible on other lines. In addition, rock climbing walls and mini-golf are available on some ships.
Carnival Vista offers an IMAX cinema and a 4D Thrill Theater, as well as a Clubhouse where you can play mini-bowling, Ping-Pong, sports video games, and arcade basketball. In addition, Hasbro, the Game Show, an audience-participation competition for kids and adults, is held aboard the Vista and other Carnival ships.
The MSC Grandiosa offers a variety of events for families, including a drone relay race, a dancing competition, and a shipwide espionage experience. In addition, everyone enjoys F1 racing car simulators and 4D theaters on numerous ships.
8. Look for nighttime entertainment that is appropriate for the whole family.
Although cruise lines are notorious for R-rated comedians and adult-only games, they also provide a variety of family-friendly performances at night, so seek a line that offers after-dark entertainment for your children. Princess Cruises developed Movies Under the Stars, a series of films screened on deck as you relax in a lounge chair with a blanket. Outdoor movies are also available on Carnival and other cruise lines. Disney entertains both children and adults with first-run movies, and Disney-themed stage plays at its indoor theater.
Broadway favorites like “Grease,” “Mamma Mia,” and “Saturday Night Fever” are popular with older youngsters on Royal Caribbean. Ice skating, acrobatics, and diving displays are also terrific family entertainment on certain ships.
9. Onboard, look into family-friendly food alternatives.
No one goes hungry on a cruise ship, and the family-friendly lines satisfy young kids and always-hungry teens with extended-hour pizza, lavish dinner buffets, specialty casual restaurants, and room service, in addition to seated dinners. Just be aware that lines like Norwegian and Royal Caribbean now charge for room service, so consider if that will be a problem because your little kids can’t handle long restaurant meals or your teen is always starving at 11 p.m.
Do you have a picky eater, a vegan, or a lactose intolerant child? Notify the cruise line ahead of time, and while onboard, speak with the head waiter; the cruise line will be glad to figure out meals that your youngster will like.
Lunch and supper meals for children are available on most cruise lines. Young cruisers can order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti, and meatballs, hot dogs, or mac and cheese in Carnival’s dining rooms, for example. Carnival kid-friendly eateries include Guy’s Burger Joint, Pizza Pirate, Cucina del Capitano for lots of pasta, and SeaDogs for hot dogs aboard Carnival Breeze and Magic, in addition to specialty restaurants oriented at adolescents and adults.
When Norwegian launched Freestyle Dining, which allows passengers to arrive in the dining room at any time for supper and sit anywhere they wish, it ushered in a new age for travelers who value flexibility. There are up to 29 dining options on each ship, some complimentary and others that are not. You may go in and try your luck or make reservations if your children need to eat early or won’t tolerate waiting. Children can order free from the usual children’s menu in any specialized restaurant or pay full price from the venue’s menu.
Traditional dining, which includes the same server every night, has its devotees. Even before you ask, your server will deliver the fruit cup for your seven-year-old and the crackers for your ten-year-old. A new waiter every night will be unfamiliar with these minor subtleties.
In the main dining room, cruise lines such as Princess, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival offer both traditional dining (set time, set table, same waiters and tablemates) and a flexible dining option (arrive any time during dining hours and hope your preferred table size is available or share with others). Disney does things a little differently; you have the same tablemates and servers each night, but you rotate between three restaurants.
If you’re concerned that your children won’t be able to sit through a two-hour meal, search for lines that provide speedy children’s eating. Kids finish their meals in 40 minutes or less with Royal Caribbean’s My Family Time Dining program, and kids club employees pick them up from the dining room and deliver them to the youth activities while parents eat at their leisure.
Disney runs a similar program. If your family eats at the later, second dinner setting, you can choose the Dine and Play option, which has waiters serve children aged 3 to 12 first, then youth counselors pick up your child from the dining room and lead them to the children’s program after about 45 minutes. In addition, MSC provides Happy Dinners, which are similar in concept, and Fun Time Dinners, which allow children to have supper with MSC employees at the buffet while their parents enjoy a more leisurely meal.
10. Choose a ship with accommodations and suites designed specifically for families.
It’s surprising how family-friendly cruise lines don’t necessarily have the most family-friendly rooms — unless you’re prepared to pay more for a family suite. Consider connected cabins, numerous beds in one cabin (if this means lights out for everyone after the kids go to bed), and family-focused staterooms when choosing a cruise ship and cabin type.
The accommodations on Disney Cruise Line are all family-friendly. The majority of cabins include a welcoming bath and a half set-up. The second bathroom contains a vanity, sink, toilet, and one full bathroom with a toilet, sink, and tub/shower. This goes a long way toward ensuring that everyone in the family is prepared for trips and meals with the least amount of fuss, and you won’t have to spend more for a suite. In addition, several rooms have pullout sofas and pulldown bunk beds that may accommodate additional travelers, with dividing curtains between the kid and adult sleeping areas.
The Family Harbor cabins on the Carnival Vista range from inside staterooms to suites, but they all have free access to the Family Harbor Lounge, which has a buffet breakfast, midday snacks, and soft-serve ice cream, as well as TVs and computer stations and board games. In addition, residents receive a free night of Night Owls babysitting and complimentary specialty meals for children under 12.
Look for unique cabins and suites that can sleep more than four people if you have a large party and are willing to invest. For example, Norwegian Cruise Line has a 500-square-foot villa with two bedrooms that sleeps six in The Haven on numerous ships; occupants have access to Haven benefits such as a private pool and sun decks, restaurants, and lounges.
Royal Caribbean’s family suites sleep five to eight people; Anthem of the Seas’ Family Connected Junior Suites with Balconies sleep ten people in a maze of rooms with three cabins combined: a Junior Suite, a Studio cabin, and an ocean-view with balcony. The Presidential Family Suite on Freedom-class ships and Harmony of the Seas can accommodate 14 people in a four-bedroom arrangement.
MSC has a Superfamily series of cabins that can sleep up to ten people and include connected suites. Superfamily Plus and Superfamily+ Oceanview or Balcony are two options.
11. Find the right cruise ship size for you and your children.
What size ship is best for you depends on the ages of your children and the temperament of your family. On the one hand, the larger ships tend to include the most complex facilities for children and teenagers and many restaurants and extravagant activities such as a ropes course, simulated skydiving, and Broadway performances.
On the other hand, big ships can be challenging to maneuver for more minor children and seem crowded during busy seasons. This might involve standing in lines for elevators and restaurants, traveling through crowded corridors, and having to schedule specialty restaurants and entertainment ahead of time, restricting some of the cruise’s spontaneity.
Smaller ships are also more likely to be older, with fewer balcony suites or family-friendly accommodations, restaurant selections, and glitzy top-deck entertainment. On the other hand, most cruise lines have renovated their older ships.
Carnival has been adding famous restaurants and bars to several of its older ships, including Guy’s Burger Joint, Pig & Anchor Bar-B-Que, and the BlueIguana Tequila Bar, as well as the Alchemy Bar and RedFrog Rum Bar. Disney Magic, for example, has been updated with a new water slide and splash park, a new Tiana’s Place restaurant, an English pub, and an enhanced spa and kids club (now with Marvel Super Hero Academy). Likewise, many of Royal Caribbean’s older ships have been upgraded with aqua parks, new eateries, and Royal Babies & Tots nurseries.
Another factor to consider: The big, glitzy new ships book at top dollar, while older, smaller ships tend to cost less.
12. Choose an itinerary that is suitable for the entire family.
Everyone loves the beach, so trips to the Caribbean, Bahamas, and Mexico appeal to people of all ages. However, with its kayaking, rafting, fly fishing, and dogsledding, Alaska seems to appeal more to grade students and adolescents than young children.
Depending on how you plan your days, Europe is somewhere in the center. If your itinerary includes a combination of parks and palaces, little children may be able to cope with the international travel and resulting jet lag. On the other hand, preschoolers and even teenagers might get irritable if they are exposed to a lot of museums and historical places. Therefore, look for programs that include bike trips, hiking, and water activities for active teenagers.
Consider leaving from a port close to your house. If you drive to your ship, you can save money on flights and avoid the inconveniences of flying, plus you will be able to bring as much luggage as you like (especially helpful when traveling with diapers and strollers).