If you've hung out on a pool deck recently, it's no secret that cruising has become hugely popular with families. The number of children onboard is growing steadily, and about 1.5 million kids set sail each year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Yet, despite the move toward bigger and flashier ships and the great strides made by cruise lines in accommodating children onboard, choosing the best cruise for your family is still complicated. Where once it was a struggle to find ships that welcomed kids, the challenge now is wading through the bevy of activities, kids clubs, bells and whistles many of the newer ships offer to determine which ship is best for your brood.
Despite the advancements, some ships are still better for infants than others, and ditto for teens. Not all itineraries are created equal, either. (Alaska and Caribbean are super destinations that tend to be kid-friendly.) To make decisions even trickier, ships vary greatly, not just from line to line but within fleets, and some are better than others in terms of onboard accouterments. (We tend to recommend cruise lines' newer ships because these vessels' facilities were designed for families from the outset, not just adapted.)
Onboard programs and facilities for families continue to expand. Here are a few interesting evolutions:
More attention and space are being dedicated to teens and tweens. While many lines previously grouped all teens (ages 13 to 17) together, most new ships are now separating tweens (ages 12 to 14) into separate facilities. Teens-only programs incorporate a range of shipwide options, from spa treatments to shore excursions, and most programs allow them to come and go freely.
Ships are catering to multigenerational families. In addition to the focus on creating better spaces just for kids, more attention is being paid to adults-only and quiet areas on newer ships in an effort to woo extended families, and with good reason. Multigenerational cruising has become a major trend.
Family staterooms and suites are within reach of more families. Many cruise lines building new ships have designed their vessels to incorporate more family accommodations. Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Disney all have options that sleep five or six passengers.
"Megaship" has taken on a new meaning. Bigger ships offer more space, more activities and some pretty amazing features that would have seemed unthinkable several years ago. Where rock walls and miniature golf once seemed an extravagance, kids now have access to bowling alleys, elaborate water parks with massive slides, surfing simulators and outdoor movies.
Entertainment has been taken to a new level with themed cruises, now available on several ships. Families can opt for a "DreamWorks experience" on Royal Caribbean (Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas), during which they'll get to meet characters like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Likewise, Norwegian offers Nickelodeon-themed cruises on Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Jewel.
More outdoor spaces on newer ships are ideal for families. Newer ships like Norwegian Breakaway and Royal Princess have more outdoor casual dining options, and outdoor play areas are being added to all of the kids' clubs on Royal Princess.
Dining options and times for families are increasing. When you're traveling with kids, set dining times and show times can be tough. Ships are accommodating families with more flexible dining times, and special menus for tykes are offered in a variety of dining venues.
Compiling these picks was a bit like splitting hairs: picking the best isn't simply a matter of settling on a cruise line, but also looking at particular ships since vessels can vary widely within fleets. "The newer, the better" is often a useful mantra for choosing family-friendly ships ... but not always. The oldest Disney ship is arguably better suited to families than the newest Celebrity ship.
And, while these are the ships -- and cruise lines -- we've picked, we will conclude with this caveat: you know your family's tastes and preferences better than we ever could. By no means are they the only ships to consider. Think of them as just a starting point.
Why:Royal Caribbean's newest ships are ideal for families with kids of all ages, as well as multigenerational family groups. Oasis and Allure have an impressive display of family-friendly activities and entertainment -- four fantastic pools, 10 hot tubs, a 3D theater, rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, two FlowRider surf simulators and a zip line -- and an array of family cabins to accommodate groups of varying sizes. And did we mention the ships' indoor promenades, which feature all manner of parades and special events? No shortage of real estate is dedicated to the kids' clubs, and the counselors are some of the friendliest and most engaging in the business. Parents and grandparents can enjoy adults-only Solariums and a plethora of dining and evening entertainment options. With nursery care, after-hours fun in the kids clubs and in-cabin baby-sitting, adults can enjoy grownup time in the evenings while kids play or sleep. (Voyager- and Freedom-class ships are also great choices for families.)
The Program: Royal Caribbean divides kids into Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8) and Voyagers (9 to 11). Kids from ages 12 to 14 can take part in "open mic" karaoke contests and rock wall challenges, while members of the oldest group (15 to 17) have their own toga parties and sports competitions. Both tweens and teens have access to a separate teen lounge, where they can come and go as they like. The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs provide interactive classes and activities (when children are accompanied by a parent) for children from 6 to 36 months old, as well as drop-off baby-sitting services. In-cabin baby-sitting is available for children who are at least 1 year old. Excellent Broadway-style shows in the evenings will keep the older crowd engaged, while the DreamWorks experience offers character breakfasts, parades and meet and greets for little ones.
The Facilities: Royal Caribbean's kids clubs are among the largest dedicated kids facilities in cruising. The children's section on Oasis-class ships spans more than 28,700 square feet and is the largest of its kind. There's a toddlers-only splash pool, an arts and crafts workshop, a video arcade and computer stations. Oasis-class ships also have a theater and Science Lab, and teens will love the Fuel nightclub and the Living Room, a coffeehouse-style hangout.
Other Nifty Features: Johnny Rockets, the 1950's-style luncheonette, is always a kid magnet (and parents think it's pretty cool, too). There's a DJ Academy for teens, and budding artists will be thrilled with Royal Caribbean's partnership with Crayola, which brings all the newest and coolest art supplies onboard. DreamWorks-themed cruises are available on both ships, and kids can meet characters like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda.
Plenty of family staterooms and loft suites mean room for the family to spread out. There's even a Royal Family cabin that sleeps eight. The spa has special treatments just for teens. More than two dozen dining options, including casual eateries like a hot dog joint and a Mexican cantina, as well as a variety of upscale specialty restaurants, mean no one is overlooked.
Why:Norwegian's Freestyle Cruising and casual atmosphere make it a great choice for families with kids of any age, particularly those who don't want to be beholden to strict dining times and venues. Norwegian's newest two ships (while not sister ships) both offer all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect. (Norwegian Breakaway's sister ship, Norwegian Getaway, will debut in April 2014.)
The Program: Norwegian's Splash Academy has separate activities for kids of ages 3 to 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 12. Children can do arts and crafts, sing karaoke and play video games. Epic's facility has a jungle gym, plenty of room to roam and a cool interactive light-up dance floor. Breakaway's two-story Splash Academy is the line's largest children's space at sea, home to high-tech games, a circus school and a small cinema. Lower-level activities are divided into age groups of 3 to 5 and 6 to 9, while kids 10 to 12 occupy the upper level of the club. Entourage is a space for teens 13 to 17, and it has air hockey, video games, plush couches and flat-screen TV's. Entourage turns into a teens-only nightclub at night. Both ships have small nursery play areas for babies 6 months to 2 years, where parents can come and interact with their children. Late-night baby-sitting is available for a fee.
The Facilities: Popular activities on both ships include rock-climbing and rappelling walls, climbing cages, six bowling alley lanes and impressive water park areas. Epic has a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. Breakaway has five multistory waterslides (two more than any other cruise ship), as well as The Plank, an 8-foot walk that extends off the edge of the ship and out over the sea. Both have two main pools, including a separate kids' pool, and Breakaway has a Nickelodeon-themed splash area for younger kids atop the ship.
Other Nifty Features: Norwegian Epic hosts Blue Man Group, a great show for kids of all ages. Both ships offer a "Nickelodeon at Sea" program in which kids can meet (and eat breakfast with) characters like SpongeBob and take part in family game shows. Epic also has 46 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six people.
Why: Carnival Cruise Line's Dream Class may lack the flash of other ships, but it offers a marvelous all-around alternative and does a great job accommodating kids of all ages, with separate clubs for the 2 to 11 set, tweens (12 to 14) and teens. The trio offers a terrific array of family activities and spaces, plus top-notch kids clubs. Families will make good use of two outdoor pools, 10 whirlpools and some of the largest at-sea water parks.
The Program: Camp Carnival is divided into two parts: ages 2 to 5 (Toddlers) are on one side, and two other groups -- for ages 6 to 8 (Juniors ) and 9 to 11 (Intermediates) -- are on the other. Toddlers have sing-alongs, dabble in arts and crafts, and take part in coloring and drawing contests. Juniors play Disney trivia, paint T-shirts and participate in games. Intermediates have talent shows and scavenger hunts. Circle C pre-teens (12 to 14) and Club O2 teens (15 to 17) have their own spaces, and kids have access to regular dance and pool parties, special teens-only shore excursions and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
The Facilities: Camp Carnival occupies a good portion of Deck 11, while the tween and teen clubs are separate from the little ones on Deck 4. A huge draw for kids is WaterWorks, an aqua park with a variety of waterslides, sprayers, soakers and even a dump bucket. Kids can play in two pools, as well as SportSquare, an outdoor activity area with a mini-golf course, basketball courts and foosball tables.
Other Nifty Features: Watch movies outside at the Seaside Theatre, a 22-foot jumbo LED screen. Kids can cavort on a deceptively scary ropes course while mom and dad inch along, and all can take part in Carnival's "Hasbro, The Game" show, a friendly competition and stage show with games as prizes. The Dream-class ships also have more (and larger) cabin choices for families. Teens are welcome in Carnival's spas.
Why:Disney ships are ideal for families with kids of ages 4 to 11, as Disney has the absolute best facilities, dining schemes and programs for this age group. With the launch of its newest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, Disney Cruise Line has also done a lot more to accommodate tweens and teens -- but its ships still hold the most appeal for the younger set.
The Program: Disney has taken a separate-but-together approach to its kids programming, mainly to accommodate siblings and friends traveling together. The Oceaneer's Club and Oceaneer's Lab allow children from 3 to 12 to access the same spaces, but with separate programming done in two- and three-year increments. The Oceaneer's Club has several themed play areas, including Andy's Room (from "Toy Story") and the Laugh Floor (from "Monsters, Inc."). The Oceaneer's Lab has an Animator's Studio and a mini-sound studio. Cool additions to both spaces are MagicPlay floors, which allow kids to use their feet to play interactive games. There is a for-fee nursery available to little ones, ages 3 months to 3 years.
These ships also have a kids club dedicated entirely to tweens, ages 11 to 13, with an 18-foot video wall, video karaoke and computers with access to an intranet-based (limited to the ship) social-media app. The teen club, Vibe (ages 14 to 17), has modular furniture and a coffee shop feel.
The Facilities: Mickey's Pool, for the youngest cruisers, is on one side of the ship, and an adults-only pool is located on the other, with Donald's Pool in the center for families in general. The popular AquaDuck waterslide is a big hit with families, and the AquaLab (on Fantasy) has sprayers and geysers perfect for the smallest passengers. Other great facilities include the Walt Disney Theater, which features shows and movies, and D Lounge, which presents interactive activities for kids and parents.
Other Nifty Features: The bath-and-a-half in most staterooms allows folks to shower in one while someone else is using the toilet in the other. Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island, is one of the industry's nicest. Disney Dream also has a cool "Pirates of the Caribbean" deck party, complete with fireworks and Jack Sparrow rappelling off the ship's funnel. Disney Fantasy has a Muppets-themed mystery game and the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls are transformed into princesses.
Why:Princess' ships were designed with families in mind, and they include expansive programs, facilities and accommodations for parents and children. Princess' newest and largest ship, Royal Princess, set sail in June 2013 with even more great additions for families, including expanded kids club spaces, more dining options, a batting cage and laser shooting range, a bigger pool deck with a water and light show, and poolside cabanas. (A sister ship to Royal Princess, Regal Princess, will set sail in June 2014.)
The Program: We love the activities offered to Princess Pelicans (ages 3 to 7), including arts and crafts like T-shirt painting, dance parties, air hockey (on Royal Princess) and a variety of games. Shockwaves (8 to 12) are entertained with scavenger hunts and science programs geared to the region (learning about coral reefs, for instance). This age group can also take part in a junior chef program. Remix (13 to 17) features dance parties, dance lessons, foosball and Skee-ball (on Royal Princess), shipboard Olympics and karaoke. Princess offers an Adventures Ashore tour program with shore excursions appropriate for families.
The Facilities: On Grand-class ships (Ruby Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess), the Fun Zone is 10,000 square feet, with spaces for games and sports tournaments, as well as quiet spots to read and nap. There's also a splash pool dedicated to kids. Royal Princess has a new space within the kids club for kids 3 and younger, where parents can come to play with their children. Royal Princess also has a new outdoor play area with a jungle gym for kids ages 3 to 7, another for kids ages 8 to 12 (complete with lounge chairs and outdoor games) and a third for teens with a teens-only wading pool and space for outdoor parties.
Other Nifty Features: Princess Cruises gives folks the opportunity to choose between traditional cruise dining (same table, same time each night) or anytime dining (flexible dining between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m.). The "Movies Under the Stars" poolside cinema features kid-friendly matinees. Princess also teamed with Klutz to offer an array of arts-and-crafts projects, such as building storybooks, weaving friendship bracelets and making lanyards.
Why: When P&O Cruises launched Ventura in April 2008, the line took a step away from the traditional British cruisers who make up the majority of its fans and decided to reach out to families. With an expansive area at the aft of the ship dedicated to kids and the first circus school at sea, it's a great ship on which to take the youngsters on for their first cruise.
The Program: We love the fact that Ventura has the biggest kids' club on any P&O ship. The Reef has separate rooms for those between the ages of 2 and 17. They're divided by age into the following: Splashers for 2 to 4's, Surfers for 5 to 8's, Scubas for 9 to 12's and H2O for 13 to 17's. Each room (well, for the younger kids, anyway) is filled with bright, colorful play areas (some have ball pits) and tiny decorated computer desks on which the kids can learn and play. P&O has also brought children's characters Noddy and Mr. Bump onboard to entertain.
The Facilities: In addition to ample space set aside for kids' clubs, families will love Ventura's four pools (plus a small dip pool outside the kids club) and six hot tubs. There's a large sports court with tennis, cricket, basketball and golf nets. In the evenings, older children can take part in the kids' talent shows and also a teens rock school in show lounge Havana. With 12 restaurants and Freedom Dining available (no set times or venues), families have plenty of flexibility. A small library has board games for rainy days at sea.
Other Nifty Features: Be sure to head up to Deck 19. There you'll find Cirque Ventura, where you (and the kids, of course) can try out a bungee trampoline or join a workshop to learn trapeze and tightrope-walking. Ventura also has the fleet's first-ever family cabins. A children's tea is served in the Beach House from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m., but it moves to Waterside on themed buffet evenings.
For more of our favorite cruises for families, see our other stories on the topic: