Best Cruise Ships For Families

Children’s programs on ships used to be just a place for parents to park their kids while mom and dad went off to do some important adult relaxing. Today, the best family ships devote a huge amount of resources, acreage, and innovation to making sure kids are having as good a time as their parents — or even better. For families traveling with kids, here are some of our favorite ships.

Disney’s Disney Dream: Arguably the best ship at sea for families with young kids, Disney Dream offers the biggest and best children’s facilities, a nursery for kids 3 months to 3 years, separate teen and tween centers, a kids’ pool with waterslide, a toddler-friendly splash zone, and a 765-foot water flume called the AquaDuck (if you can’t view the video above click here) — and those are just the highlights. There are also the best standard family cabins at sea, fantastic family oriented shows and movies, and lots of high-tech magic to make kids go “Oooh!,” plus some secluded adults-only areas to make parents go “Aaah.” You can even pre-order diapers and other baby supplies that’ll be in your cabin when you arrive. A near-identical sister ship, Disney Fantasy, will launch in 2012.

On Disney Cruise Line, the fun is not limited to the ship. Disney owns its own private island, Castaway Cay.

Disney’s Disney Magic & Disney Wonder: Though not quite as amazing as the newer Dream, Disney’s two original ships aren’t far behind, offering an almost identical experience at an only slightly scaled down level. There’s no AquaDuck, but there is different scenery outside, with Magic scheduled to sail from New York and Galveston next year, and Wonder doing Alaska and Mexican Riviera voyages.

Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas & Allure of the Seas: The biggest cruise ships in the world, these two sisters are also the only ones that give Disney’s ships a run for their money in the family category. Each offers a huge open-air family area styled like an old-time boardwalk (there’s even a carousel), 28,700 square feet of kids’ playrooms, a nursery for kids 6 months to 3 years, extensive teen centers with their own outdoor deck, a pool deck with three different pools and a fun water park, a sports deck with surfing simulators and rock-climbing walls, an ice-skating rink, 3-D movies, fun dining options, and more. Courtesy of a deal with DreamWorks Animation, there are also costumed characters like Shrek and the Madagascar penguins, who participate in a parade and other activities throughout each cruise. As with Disney, you can order diapers and other baby supplies and have them ready in your cabin when you arrive. To view the video “A Teen’s View of Allure of the Seas” click here.

Also see Family Cruise Advisor’s Top Ten Family Cruises

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Epic: NCL’s biggest ship, Epic is also its best for kids, with one of the cruise world’s best waterslides, a splash pool for younger kids, a rock-climbing wall, a trampoline, a 24-foot “spider web”–style climbing cage, a basketball court, a batting cage, a two-story video screen in the atrium that’s great for watching sports; and meet-and-greets by costumed characters from Nickelodeon. The kids’ center offers Wii and Playstation II games, a dance floor, a big-screen TV room full of beanbag chairs; a great play structure with a crawling maze and ball jump. Teens get their own club/hangout, located up a “secret” hideaway staircase. Bonus: Kids under 2 sail free when sharing a cabin with two paying guests.

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas & Liberty of the Seas: Once the world’s biggest cruise ships but now also-rans after fleetmates Oasis and Allure, these sister ships offer tons for families, including a huge playroom and video arcade, a teen club, a nursery for kids 6 months to 3 years, puppet shows created by Emmy and Tony Award nominee John Tartaglia, a water park, a surfing simulator, an ice-skating rink, a rock-climbing wall, 3-D movies, a basketball court, and a miniature golf course. For fun enrichment, there are educational programs offered in collaboration with Fisher-Price and Crayola; for kiddie celebrity sightings, there are character parades and photo ops with DreamWorks movie characters; and for sugar highs there are Ben & Jerry’s ice-cream parlors and fresh-baked cupcake shops.

On Carnival Magic, kids and adults alike enjoy the SkyCourse, the first-ever ropes course at sea. Photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines

Carnival’s Carnival Dream & Carnival Magic: These two sister-ships — one already in service (Dream) and the other debuting next month — are Carnival’s best for families with kids, especially kids who love water slides, since they come armed with twin 80-foot racing slides; a 104-foot enclosed spiral slide; and a 303-foot-long, four-deck-high enclosed corkscrew waterslide. There are also kids’, teens’, and tweens’ centers, a basketball court, and a miniature golf course, and Carnival Magic will add a “ropes” course, in which kids (and adults) can strap into a safety harness and work their way along 230 feet of beams, rope bridges, and swinging steps suspended above the top deck.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Jewel, Norwegian Jade, Norwegian Pearl & Norwegian Gem: These ships were the most recent generation from NCL before its new Epic, and are just all-around fun vessels. For kids, they offer huge, brightly colored play and crafts area; a big-screen TV room full of beanbag chairs; a huge play structure with a ball jump and crawling maze; a computer room; a video arcade; a teen center; and a small outdoor play area. The buffet restaurant includes an adorable “Kid’s Cafe” section with chairs, tables, and serving stations scaled down to pint size, and with kid-friendly food to match.

Princess’s Caribbean Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess & Ruby Princess: Kid-wise, the best thing about these ships is the fact that their kids’ center includes a large, attached, fenced-in outdoor play area with a splash pool, lots of plastic trikes, a kids’ basketball setup, and kid-size tables and chairs. It’s a great place for energetic kids to work off steam while their parents relax nearby. Inside, the bright, cheerful kids’ centers have toys, games, computer stations, and organized activities. The teen centers have computers, video games, and a dance floor. The line’s “Movies Under the Stars” outdoor movie experience is great for families, with lounge chair seating and free popcorn.

MSC Cruises’ MSC Fantasia & MSC Splendida: Though the children’s programs at Italian line MSC aren’t in the same league as those offered by Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival, it still makes this list for one primary reason: because kids 11 and under sail fare-free when sharing a cabin with two paying guests (though government fees and taxes still apply). The line’s recent ships all have smallish children’s centers with games, arts and crafts supplies, PlayStations, and activities, plus an enclosed outdoor area with a wading pool, play structure, and tube slide. The new Fantasia and Splendida add a 4-D movie theater (with moving seats) and a Formula One racing car simulator.

Click the links below to read full ship reviews of the vessels featured in this article.

Disney Cruise Line

Planning Your Family Cruise: A Dad’s Tale

My daughter was only six weeks old when she traveled with mom and dad on our first family vacation — to Walt Disney World in Orlando. Only a few months later, at the tender age of five months, she crossed the Atlantic with dad (a travel writer) and mom to cruise to the Canary Islands on Cunard Line‘s – Queen Elizabeth 2. Lucky girl, right? Wrong. Both experiences were miserable.

Our six-week old was much too young to comprehend or appreciate Disney. Plus, she developed colic — a painful, but common, condition among infants that causes abdominal pain and uncontrollable crying (sometimes for the frustrated parents as well!).

My wife and I took turns dining at Restaurant Marrakesh, Epcot’s wonderful Moroccan restaurant. We were hoping for a romantic dinner while our sweet girl slept tableside. No such luck. Our baby girl began wailing before the appetizers appeared, and for the next hour, my wife and I swapped between bites to eat and trying to comfort our crying daughter. A romantic dinner? What were we thinking?

Months later, crossing the Atlantic, our baby slept for the entire flight. Unfortunately, we did not.

We arrived at London’s Gatwick Airport sleepy and tired. Dazed and confused from lack of sleep, we picked up our rental car and drove two hours to the New Forest, near Southampton, where we were to stay overnight in a beautiful hotel. We checked into our room and threw ourselves onto the bed. Baby, however, wanted to play. For the next week, our biological clock was out of sync with daughter’s and what could have been a wonderful trip went down in the books as “never again.”

There is a happy ending to these stories. Our children grew up, and when I wrote this story, we were planning our next family vacation: a four-day cruise on Disney Cruise Line’s Disney Wonder combined with a three-night package at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. That one went down as a great vacation. Through the years, we became experts — by making the mistakes of trying to do too much or to do vacations that were inappropriate for our kids’ ages. We dragged our kids from one vacation to the other only to discover what makes a great family vacation –and also what makes a not-so-great one.

My kids on Disney Wonder, with a Carnival Cruise Lines vessel in the background.

My kids on Disney Wonder, with a Carnival Cruise Lines vessel in the background.

Who’s Your Family?

It may seem obvious, but the first step in planning your family vacation is to know who will be traveling with you?

Are you traveling with an infant, or god forbid, infants? If you can still muster the courage after reading about our nightmare vacation with our daughter, then go right ahead. And take some solace: There are vacations that work with infants. The key is to make sure you don’t travel too far. When vacationing with infants and toddlers:

  • Stay close to home — no more than, say, a six-hour transit, whether you’re flying or driving.
  • Consider vacation venues that offer babysitting or child-watch programs.
  • Not all cater to children, and of those that do, not all cater to infants and toddlers. Let’s face it, you and your significant other need a break from baby, and there’s nothing better than being able to get away for a romantic dinner or a hand-in-hand stroll along the beach while knowing your baby is in good hands.

Three’s Company

If you’re traveling with children over the age of three, the playing field becomes a lot larger, because so many vacation venues offer supervised programs for kids. In fact, the programs are so good that you may suffer your first disappointment: Your kids may want nothing to do with you — they’ll want to hang out and play with their peers.

My wife and I quickly got over the initial disappointment of our kids not wanting to clutch at our clothing for the duration of our vacations.

As they grew older, our kids played to their hearts’s content while we relaxed, and everyone got what they came for: a vacation. The trick to the foolproof vacation with children over the age of three:

  • Consider vacation venues that offer age-specific programs and activities. Your kids will have more fun hanging out and playing with their peers than they will gnawing at your nerves.
  • Make sure your vacation venue has a pool. Any vacation that allows your children to splish and splash is a good vacation.

Traveling With Teens

Teens can be the hardest group to please, I can say from the experience of having once been a teen that they will want nothing to do with dull old dad and mopey old mom. We’re just not hip. How to please them?

  • Consider vacations that offer teen-specific venues. Several cruise lines, for example, now feature teen-only bars (for mocktails, of course) and coffee shops.
  • Book separate accommodations for your teen. Remember, we’re not hip enough to breathe the same air as our teens much less room with them. Plus, they often spend scads of time in the bathroom, mostly in front of the mirror. If you have need of this facility on your vacation, get a separate room.

Extended Families

There’s one other kind of family vacation: the extended family vacation. This is when grandmother and grandfather –and even aunts and uncles and cousins — come along.

On extended family cruises you can sit down for dinner with your family of six, eight, or a dozen or more, and no one has to worry about who is picking up the check. Go ahead and have that extra plate of lobster. Extended family vacations can be great, but to make sure they go off without a hitch:

  • Consider vacation venues that offer something for everyone. The kids may be bored to tears on small luxury ships.
  • Don’t try to pile everyone into one room. Sure, you could save money if eight of you were to share an inside stateroom on a cruise ship, but the point of family reunions is to emerge feeling better about one another — not learning more than you care to know about the hygiene habits of family members.

Family Cruising

So now that you know who you’re traveling with, how do you choose the venue? Cruises are great, because cruise ships are self-contained, floating, nearly all-inclusive resorts. Nearly all-inclusive, because most cruise lines do not include the cost of alcohol, shore excursions, and gratuities. What generally is included, however, are children’s programs, all meals, and entertainment.

That is to say that typically you won’t pay a dime extra for your child to participate in the on-board children’s programs. Most cruise lines, however, do charge for baby-sitting, whether it’s in your stateroom or group-babysitting.

Happy Endings For Everyone

My children are now 14 and 15, and I have had some of the best trips of my life with them. I traveled to Alaska with my son, Alex (‘Awesome’ Alaska: The Great Land Through The Eyes Of A Kid), and my daughter Britton and I cruised the Mekong (Cruising The Mekong). I took both of them on Allure of the Seas over Thanksgiving.

Traveling with family, while sometimes challenging, can be exceptionally rewarding. So get out there and enjoy all that this world has to offer – on a cruise, with your family.

Ralph Grizzle
Editor (and father), Family Cruise Advisor