Now that 1.5 million children are sailing the high seas each year, you can find family-friendly amenities on everything from mega-ships to luxurious ocean liners. And, as each new ship debuts, parents can pick from increasingly innovative perks, from cruising's first ropes course and water coaster to FlowRiders, zip-lines and playrooms that look like favorite animated scenes come to life.
One new perk is simply a clever tweak to an existing amenity: youth staffers who pick up kids toward the end of the family dinner and escort them back to children's centers so parents can enjoy cappuccino and dessert in peace.
Yet, while many cruise lines offer a boatload of amenities geared to toddlers, 'tweens and teens, it's the differences -- and how they match up to your interests and children's ages -- that will determine which ship is the best fit for your family. Before we get started on program offerings and activities, here are a handful of tips to consider as you search for the right ship:
Ask about the ratio of kids to counselors, as well as counselor qualifications. Most lines have dedicated youth staff who are college educated in the field, have professional childcare experience or are former nurses or nannies.
Consider self-sign-out privileges for your child. Many programs allow older kids (typically 10 and older) to sign themselves out of youth centers if authorized by a parent. This makes it easy for kids to meet family members at the pool or head back to the cabin in the evening when tired. The minimum age for this privilege varies by cruise line. On the flip side, if authorization is not granted, rest assured that only designated adults can sign kids out of programs, usually by showing an ID or by providing a password created at the beginning of the cruise.
The bigger the ship, the more challenging it can be for youth staff to contact parents. Hence, Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean provide pagers for parents; other lines have you sign your children in and write down where you expect to be on the ship. NCL, Celebrity Cruises and Cunard have more limited pager use, providing them to parents of special-needs kids and/or those in diapers. P&O Cruises' cabins have telephones that can be set to "in-cabin listening," allowing parents to call their cabins from any of the ships' telephones and listen in. The award for Best Communication Device goes to Disney's Wave phones. These two-per-stateroom, in-cabin cordless phones work around the ship, making it easy for family members to communicate with each other while scattered about the ship.
If you have firm rules you'd like followed about television and computer time, ask how much time kids spend parked in front of massive video walls, about the type of shows shown and if there are any restrictions when selecting video games.
Is there a homeport near you? One of the biggest advantages of family cruising these days is the industry's embrace of U.S. homeports. You can find seasonal or year-round cruises from almost 20 U.S. homeports, including Seattle, San Diego, Galveston, New York City, Charleston and Baltimore. The best news: Sailing from a close-to-home port eliminates the additional cost and the extra time needed to fly to traditional embarkation cities like Miami and Fort Lauderdale.
Note that, on small and/or luxury lines (like Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas Cruises and on Princess Cruises' small ships), children's play spaces are relatively small, and activities are limited during certain seasons. Holiday and spring-break sailings are often your best bet on these lines, during which children's activities are in full swing. This could even be true for your average family-friendly ship, as my family discovered on a Princess cruise during a non-school-break week. The centers were open but devoid of kids. My younger son loved the one-on-one attention and opportunity to do whatever craft projects he desired, but my older son missed the company of other 'tweens.
Here are some other things to keep in mind:
What's Your Idea of Family Fun?
Are you a sports enthusiast? Artsy-craftsy? Do you prefer a vacation with plenty of educational or cultural offerings or more of an outdoorsy voyage on which every day is spent in port, off on an adventure or at a beach? You'll see as you investigate cruise lines that each one has its own vibe and particular strengths.
For example, while many lines offer athletic activities, Royal Caribbean's sports offerings are at another level, including everything from ice-skating and zip lines to rock-climbing and surf simulators. Princess Cruises and Cunard, on the other hand, have a bit brainier bent, with science activities that include coral reef studies, astronomy speakers and star-gazing, respectively. Movie-loving families and future animators can learn the art of animation on Disney Cruise Line.
While much attention is paid to supervised children's programs (see below), it's also good to know what a ship offers for families to enjoy together. Standard fare typically includes some form of sports court, Ping-Pong, video game rooms, outdoor movies by the pool, waterslides and craft activities. But most lines also add their own twists on family fun, from Royal Caribbean's promenade parades and ice-skating rinks to Disney Cruise Line's interactive detective games and family-friendly stage shows. And Norwegian Epic's and Norwegian Jewel's "Slime Time LIVE!" is goopy fun for all. Take note: Offerings vary not only by cruise line but also by ship, so be sure to check specifics.
First and foremost, check the minimum age required to sail. It varies from as young as 12 weeks (Disney Cruise Line) to 6 months (Carnival Cruise Lines, Celebrity Cruises, P&O Cruises and Royal Caribbean). In addition, some vary the minimum age, as do Cunard, NCL and Princess Cruises, from 6 to 12 months, depending on itinerary.
For years, Disney Cruise Line was tops for babies, offering full-service themed nurseries at sea (for kids ages 12 weeks to 3 years), complete with oodles of toys and special one-way porthole windows allowing parents to peek at their children. But Royal Caribbean has come on strong, offering an equally enticing Royal Babies and Tots Nursery. These fully-staffed venues (currently on Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Radiance of the Seas, though plans are to add them fleetwide) are stocked with Fisher-Price and Crayola gear and offer a drop-off option as well as designated "Free-Play Time," during which parents can use the facility with children.
As for baby supplies, Disney provides parents with everything from Diaper Genies, cribs and strollers to milk and freshly pureed vegetables delivered to their cabins. Passengers can also preorder diapers, baby food and infant formula, which will then be delivered to their staterooms.
Toddler Time Playgroups
Five years ago, there was a dearth of options for toddlers. Not anymore. Even trendy Celebrity -- which is known more for its chic ships, lawn clubs and restaurants than kid-friendly fare -- now offers playgroups for parents and toddlers with LeapFrog interactive toys. Royal Caribbean's Royal Tots is an interactive, 45-minute music-and-art-oriented playgroup, typically held in one of the ship's onboard lounges. And NCL's :"Under 2 Zoo" is a play space for parents and children that's stocked with toys, puzzles and games geared to the toddler set.
Toy Box Away From Home
You can save a small suitcase's worth of packing space, thanks to Royal Caribbean's Fisher-Price Toy Lending Program. Parents of tots ages 6 months to 3 years can borrow and exchange toys from an onboard treasure chest and bring them back to their staterooms. Toys include Little People farm animals, transportation-themed toys, pirates and princesses, castles, phonics games, shapes and colors, learning toys and many more. On Cunard, cruisers can borrow things like Duplo toys, Stickle Bricks and books to read for bedtime stories.
One of the great things about these programs is that your children get to hang out with others their age and do cool kids' stuff for as little as one hour or up to several hours a day, depending on your family's preferences. This gives you a chance to hit the gym, attend a cooking class or read a book on an adults-only sun deck for a bit.
Here are a few important strengths and weaknesses to consider when sizing up the programs:
Unique offerings. While most lines offer video games, scavenger hunts, storytime and crafts projects, several cruise companies have developed one-of-a-kind partnerships that allow them to offer a little something extra. Princess Cruises leads the pack in this arena. Kids can meet Park Service rangers in Glacier Bay, study coral reefs and build roller coasters, thanks to a "Science on the Seas" partnership with California Science Center. And both Princess and Holland America help prep youngsters to be the next "Top Chef" as part of their culinary arts programs.
Movie-themed fun can be found on Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas, on which kids can dance with characters from DreamWorks Animation (think Shrek, Fiona, Kung Fu Panda). Pipsqueaks on Disney Cruise Line can crawl through Slinky Dog and rearrange a giant Mr. Potato Head's face in a life-size replica of Andy's room from "Toy Story." On NCL and Celebrity, future theater buffs can become characters themselves and learn how to act or produce a show in adventure theater-type programs.
Age groupings. Some cruise lines (Carnival, Celebrity Cruises, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean) group children according to three-year spans: For example, ages 3-5, 6-8, 9-11, 12-14 and 15-17, although Carnival's youngest group is for ages 2-5. P&O Cruises begins its groupings with ages 2-4. Others, like Norwegian Cruise Line, have slightly broader age spans: age groups are 2-5, 6-9, 10-12 and 13-17. Even broader are Holland America, Princess Cruises and Crystal Cruises, which group kids by ages 3-7, 8-12 and 13-17. If you have a bashful 3-year-old, he or she might feel intimidated in group activities with older children and prefer being in a program that offers a younger-child option (like Disney Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Lines. On the other end of the age spectrum, a 12-year-old who thinks she's going on 20 might feel too cool to be hanging out with youngsters, and be better suited among the 12- to 14-year-old set.
Also, be sure to ask if there is flexibility among age groupings. Siblings or traveling friends may want to stay together, even if they're not the same age. Carnival Cruise Lines NCL place children in age-specific groups, based on birth date at the time of sailing, although there are times when children of all ages enjoy activities together. Cunard and Royal Caribbean permit more wiggle room. And Disney Cruise Line has the most flexibility of all, allowing kids ages 3-10 (3-12 on Disney Magic) to float between Oceaneer's Lab and Oceaneer's Club, based on their interests and preference for playmates instead of age.
The plight of the un-potty-trained. Several years ago, I cruised with my 2-year-old and was surprised to discover that he wasn't allowed to play in the playroom, even if I accompanied him. Why? It was against Royal Caribbean's regulations to allow children in the playroom who were not "completely toilet-trained." Thankfully, things have changed. Not only does Royal Caribbean now offer a separate diaper-friendly program for toddlers, but even late-in-the-potty-training-department 3-year-olds can visit the centers if accompanied by parents. Royal Caribbean, Celebrity and Princess do, however, still require children older than 3 to be pull-up free in order to participate in supervised youth programs. Carnival and Cunard allow staff to change diapers, and NCL's youth staff pages parents for the duty. (Don't you wish there was someone you could page for that at home?)
'Tweens and teens. Some cruise lines offer separate spaces and activities for 'tweens (11-13 or 12-14). If your 'tween is not ready to hang out with junior- and senior-high-school kids, check out Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean.
In addition to things like teens-only hot tubs, pools and clubs, teens and 'tweens have some pretty cool offerings they can enjoy. For example, Royal Caribbean offers Improv Games, the Scratch DJ Academy, teens-only ice-skating and a Meet the Stars backstage tour. Carnival Cruise Lines's teen program includes nightclub-like hangouts and supervised teens-only shore excursions, including horseback-riding, snorkeling and kayaking. Princess Cruiseshosts special teen dinners in the main dining room, complete with photographs and a group night out at one of the line's stage shows. And Holland America's Oasis (not available on Vista-class ships) is a sweet outdoor hideaway with a waterfall, hammocks and cushy Adirondack chairs scattered between "cave" walls and faux palm trees. The best part is the secret passageway from the teens' Loft to get there.
Best Bets for Date Night Babysitting
If you'd like to hit the casino or head to a show sans kids, a line's baby-sitting services will be high on your priority list. Certain lines prohibit in-cabin baby-sitting (Carnival Cruise Lines, P&O, Princess Cruises) and instead offer a slumber party type of atmosphere in their children's center (not the best situation for younger children). Other lines (Royal Caribbean, Holland America and Crystal) allow you to hire sitters who come to your cabin.
Head to the front desk on arrival day and ask about sitter experience (some are not children's program staff), if the sitters are English-speaking (if that's your preference) and about price. Pricing typically ranges from $5 per hour to more than $10 per hour, depending on the cruise line and the number of children you have. Also ask if there is a minimum age for in-cabin sitting. For example, children need to be at least 1 year old for Celebrity's in-cabin baby-sitting and 3 for Holland America's.
Evening group baby-sitting in youth program spaces varies from free to for-fee (usually an hourly rate). Ask about potty-training requirements for these slumber-party-like activities, too, as many lines require children to be self-sufficient in the bathroom.
Fortunately, there are now a wide variety of options to fit all budgets. Carnival, for example, has some of the largest standard cabins in the industry, accommodating up to five people. Disney offers a unique setup with two bathrooms (one with a tub, which is hard to come by in most cruise cabins) and a floor-to-ceiling drape to close off a portion of the room.
And, while Royal Caribbean's standard cabins on their older ships are on the small side for a family of four, their family staterooms can accommodate up to six people, and multiroom family suites sleep eight. In addition, most of the major lines offer balcony cabins, which give parents private places to relax and talk with each other after the kids have gone to sleep. Be sure to compare the cost (and bedding configuration) of having two adjoining staterooms versus a family suite. Pricing varies by cruise line and sailing.
For family meals, consider whether your children can cope with a long dining room experience without you having to skip out on dessert. If not, you might prefer lines like Carnival, with its 24-hour pizza and ice cream; Royal Caribbean, whose Voyager- and Oasis-class ships include a Johnny Rockets; or Norwegian, Princess and Disney, which can feature a different type of family-friendly dining venue almost every night.
Disney and Royal Caribbean now offer an expedited dining service. Youth center staff pick up children toward the end of meals, giving parents time to enjoy the rest of their dinner and dessert at a leisurely pace.
Consider an itinerary's mix of days in port and at sea. Families that like several days at sea in order to enjoy a ship's amenities might consider Carnival sailings or itineraries out of New York City, for example. Private islands owned and operated by Disney, Royal Caribbean, Princess, Norwegian and Holland America are also popular with families. These islands offer safe environments for exploration, a variety of water-based activities and an in-poet extension of the onboard children's programs.
Ports of call where the ship docks right at the island are easier on stroller-bound parents, allowing them to wander off the ship as opposed to waiting in line to load wiggly tots and strollers onto tenders. Note: Royal Caribbean's Labadee and Disney's Castaway Cay are the only private islands at which ships can dock.