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 more than 2 million kids younger than 15 sailed on cruise lines in 2013, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. Yet, despite 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 were kid-friendly, the challenge now is wading through the bevy of activities, kids clubs, and child-themed bells and whistles many of the newer ships offer to determine which cruise ships are best for your youngsters.
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 the Caribbean are destinations that tend to be kid-friendly.) To make decisions even trickier, ships vary greatly, not just from line to line but within fleets, making some better than others in terms of onboard activities. We tend to recommend cruise lines' newer ships because the 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 for teens and tweens. While many lines previously grouped all teens (ages 13 to 17) together, most new ships are giving tweens (ages 12 to 14) their own 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 creating better spaces just for kids, lines are paying more attention to adults-only and quiet areas in an effort to woo extended families. There's a good reason for that. Multigenerational cruising continues to be a major draw, and lines can't do enough to keep up.
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 cabins 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, ropes courses, bumper cars, surfing simulators and outdoor movies.
Entertainment has been taken to a new level with themed cruises. Families can opt for a "DreamWorks experience" on Royal Caribbean (Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Mariner of the Seas and Voyager of the Seas), during which they'll get to meet characters like Shrek and Po (the Kung Fu Panda). Likewise, Norwegian offers Nickelodeon-themed cruises on Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Gem, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Jewel. Carnival is adding Seuss at Sea to several ships.
More outdoor spaces on newer ships are ideal for families. Newer ships like Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway 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 cruise isn't simply a matter of settling on a line but also looking at particular ships because 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 a starting point.
Why: These ships, Royal Caribbean's largest, 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 rink, 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? A sizeable amount 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 months 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 1950s-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 the Kung Fu Panda, Po. Of note, when Quantum of the Seas launches in the fall of 2014, it will feature an exciting and family-friendly SeaPlex with bumper cars, a circus school and interactive sea pods loaded with a variety of games.
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 offers special treatments 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 taste 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 ships, along with Norwegian Epic, offer all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect.
The Program: Norwegian's Splash Academy features separate activities for kids 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. The two-story Splash Academy, found on both Breakaway and Getaway, 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 for age groups 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 TVs. 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 group baby-sitting is available for a fee.
The Facilities: Popular activities on both ships include rock-climbing and rappelling walls, climbing cages, six bowling 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 and Getaway have five multistory waterslides, as well as The Plank, an 8-foot walk that extends off the edge of the ship and out over the sea. All three have two main pools, including a separate kids pool, and Breakaway and Getaway have 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. All three ships offer a "Nickelodeon at Sea" program in which kids can meet (and eat breakfast with) characters like SpongeBob SquarePants and take part in family game shows. Epic also has 46 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six people, while Breakaway and Getaway have 20 two-bedroom villas.
Why: Carnival Cruise Line's newest Dream-class ship, Carnival Breeze, and its newly refurbished Carnival Sunshine offer an array of onboard fun and do a great job accommodating kids of all ages, with separate clubs for the 2 to 11 set, tweens (12 to 14) and teens. The ships offer a terrific variety of family activities and spaces, plus top-notch kids clubs. Families will make good use of two outdoor pools on Breeze and one on Sunshine and some of the largest at-sea water parks. The rest of the Dream-class ships (Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic) are good for families as well.
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 take part in 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 on the Dream-class ships. On Carnival Sunshine, the entire area is located on Deck 10. A huge draw for kids on both ships is WaterWorks, an aqua park with a variety of waterslides, sprayers, soakers and even a dump bucket. Kids can play in the pool, as well as SportSquare, an outdoor activity area with a mini-golf course, basketball courts and foosball tables. A SplashZone for younger kids also is on offer.
Other Nifty Features: Watch movies outside on the Dream-class ships at the Seaside Theatre, a 22-foot jumbo screen. On Sunshine, as well as the Dream-class vessels 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 ages 4 to 11, as Disney has the best facilities, dining schemes and programs for this age group. With the launch of its newest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, and complete refurbishment of its oldest ship, Disney Magic, 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 takes a separate-but-together approach to its kids programming, mainly to accommodate siblings and friends traveling together. The Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab allow children from 3 to 12 to access the same spaces but with programming separated in two- and three-year increments. On all three ships, the Oceaneer Club offers several themed play areas, including Andy's Room (from "Toy Story"). On Fantasy and Dream, you'll find the Laugh Floor (from "Monsters, Inc."), while on Magic you'll encounter Marvel's Avengers Academy, a S.H.I.E.L.D. command post, where kids can interact with the Avengers through a virtual game The Oceaneer Lab has an Animator's Studio and a mini sound studio. Cool additions to both spaces are Magic Play floors, which allow kids to use their feet to play interactive games. There is a for-fee nursery available to care for little ones, ages 3 months to 3 years.
These ships also have a kids club dedicated entirely to tweens, ages 11 to 14, with video games, karaoke and computers. 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 or general use. The popular AquaDuck waterslide is a big hit with families on Fantasy and Dream, while the AquaDunk thrills onboard Disney Magic. On Fantasy and Magic, the AquaLab has sprayers and geysers perfect for the smallest passengers. Other great facilities include the Walt Disney Theatre, 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 and Disney Magic also hold 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's 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 summer 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 where the ship sails (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 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 passengers 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 for their first cruise.
The Program: We love the fact that Ventura has the biggest kids club on any P&O ship. The Reef contains separate rooms for those between the ages of 2 and 17. They're divided by age into the following: Splashers (2 to 4), Surfers (5 to 8), Scubas (9 to 12) and H2O (13 to 17). 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 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 offers board games, which can help entertain you on 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 a bungee trampoline or join a workshop to learn trapeze and tightrope-walking. Ventura also has the fleet's first family cabins. A children's tea is served in the Beach House from 5 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: