Choosing the best cruise for your family is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Some ships are 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.) Add to the mix the fact that ships vary greatly, not just from line to line but within fleets, and that 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, not just adapted.)
Onboard programs and facilities have taken a wide leap, particularly in the past few years. A few interesting evolutions:
More attention and space are being dedicated to teens and 'tweens. While many lines previously grouped all teens ages 13-17 together, many ships are now separating 'tweens (ages 12-14) into separate facilities. Teens-only programs incorporate a range of shipwide options, from spa treatments to shore excursions.
"Megaship" has taken on a new meaning. Bigger ships offer more space, more activities and some pretty amazing features that would have seemed unthinkable even a few 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.
Family suites continue to grow in popularity. Indeed, many cruise lines building new ships have designed their vessels to incorporate more of them.
Cruise lines now cater to more age groups. Because kids' developmental stages vary drastically, most cruise lines are now dividing them into groups of 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 8-year-olds, rather than lumping 3- to 8-year-olds in one program. While Disney Cruise Line allows all kids ages 3-11 to share the same spaces, their programming is still geared toward these separate age groups.
Onboard activities have become as important as shore excursions. Cruise lines are creating new attractions that include elaborate water parks, ropes courses and bowling alleys.
Food options are increasing. 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. Though Holland America as a cruise line did not ultimately wind up in our list of recommendations, ships that feature Holland America's Club HAL children's club (all Vista-class ships) are good choices for families. Onboard Culinary Arts Centers offer cooking classes for kids as young as 3 years old.
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 has the most impressive display of family activities and entertainment, and the choices on their mega-ships appeal to kids of all ages and interests. Rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, miniature golf and roller-blading are just a smattering of the activities these ships offer. The Oasis-class ships continue under the assumption that bigger is better. Allure of the Seas has four fantastic pools, 10 hot tubs, two FlowRiders and a zip-line. No shortage of real estate is dedicated to the kids' clubs, and the counselors are some of the friendliest and most professional in the business. Did we mention the ships' indoor promenades, which feature all manner of parades and special events?
The Program: Though it was once a novel idea, subdividing kids and teens into smaller age categories has now become the norm for most cruise lines that cater to families. Royal Caribbean divides kids into Aquanauts (ages 3-5), Explorers (6-8) and Voyagers (9-11). Kids ages 12-14 can take part in "open mic" karaoke contests and rock wall challenges, while members of the oldest group (15-17) have their own toga parties and group skate session. The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs provide childcare and activities for children from 6 to 36 months old, for $8 per hour, per child.
The Facilities: Royal Caribbean's kids' clubs are among the largest dedicated kids' facilities in cruising. The children's program 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 still a kid magnet (and parents think it's pretty cool, too). Royal Caribbean is partnered with well-known child-oriented companies like Fisher-Price and Crayola.
DreamWorks-themed cruises are available on Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas. Kids can meet characters like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. There are also 28 Loft Suites, offering families more room to spread out.
Why: Carnival Cruise Line's Dream class may lack the flash of Royal Caribbean's Oasis duo, but it offers a marvelous all-around alternative, with separate clubs for 'tween and teen travelers. The pair offers a terrific array of family activities and spaces, plus top-notch kids clubs that accept children as young as 2 years old. Families will make good use of two outdoor pools, 10 whirlpools and one of the largest at-sea water parks.
The Program: Camp Carnival is divided into two parts: kids ages 2-5 are on one side, and two other groups, for kids ages 6-8 and 9-11, are on the other. Toddlers (ages 2-5) sing songs, dabble in arts and crafts, and have coloring and drawing contests. Juniors (6-8) play Disney trivia, paint T-shirts and participate in games. Intermediates (9-11) have talent shows and scavenger hunts. Circle C pre-teens (12-14) and Club O2 teens (15-17) have their own spaces, and kids have access to regular dance and pool parties, special teens-only shore excursions and PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox consoles.
The Facilities: Dream and Magic have 19,000 square feet of kids' 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.
Other Nifty Features: Watch movies outside at the Seaside Theatre, a 22-foot jumbo LED screen. On Carnival Magic, kids can cavort on a deceptively scary ropes course while Mom and Dad inch along. The Dream-class ships also have more (and larger) cabin choices for families. Teens are welcome in Carnival's spas.
Why: Norwegian's Freestyle Cruising and casual atmosphere make it a great choice for families who don't want to be beholden to strict dining times and venues. Its newest ship offers all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect.
The Program: The super-sleek Recess Kid's Club has separate programming for kids 2-5, 6-9 and 10-12. Kids can do arts and crafts, sing karaoke and play video games. Plus there's an interactive light-up dance floor. Entourage on Deck 16 is for teens 13-17, and it has air hockey, foosball, plush couches and nine flat-screen TV's. Entourage turns into a teens-only nightclub at night.
Late-night baby-sitting is available from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. It's $6 per hour for the first child and $4 for each additional child.
The Facilities: Popular amenities include a rock-climbing wall, a rappelling wall and climbing cage, six bowling alley lanes and an impressive water park area with slides, including a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. There are also two main pools, five hot tubs, a wading pool and a separate kids' pool with water sprayers and its own small slide.
Other Nifty Features: The Epic Theater hosts Blue Man Group, a great show for kids of all ages. The ship also offers 20 different dining options, including 24/7 pizza delivery. Nick fans will love the "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. These have two bathrooms and a separate kids' bedroom, and offer access to the concierge lounge and a private courtyard area.
Note: While Norwegian Epic starts its kids club at age 2, the staff doesn't do diapers! They'll beep you when your child needs a fresh one.
Why: First, let us qualify what we mean by younger -- in this case we're talking about families with kids in the 4 to pre-teen range, and Disney has the absolute best facilities, dining schemes and programs for this age group. With the launch of its newest ship, Disney Dream, Disney Cruise Line has done 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. Thus the Oceaneer's Club and Oceaneer's Lab allow children ages 3-12 access to the same spaces, but with separate programming done in two- and three-year increments. The Oceaneer's Club on Disney Dream has several themed play areas, including Andy's Room and the Laugh Floor. 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.
The ship also has a kids club dedicated entirely to 'tweens, ages 11-13, 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 14-17) has modular furniture and a coffee shop feel.
The Facilities: Mickey's Pool, for the youngest set, 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. 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: We like the Champagne breakfast at the adults-only Palo and Disney's unique rotating dining system, which allows you to change restaurants every night but keep the same servers and tablemates. 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.
Why: These ships were designed with families in mind, with expansive programs, facilities and accommodations for parents and children.
The Program: We love the activities offered to Princess Pelicans (ages 3-7), including arts and crafts like T-shirt painting and a variety of games. Shockwaves (8-12) are entertained with scavenger hunts and science programs geared to the region (learning about coral reefs, for instance). Princess offers an Adventures Ashore tour program with shore excursions appropriate for families. Remix (13-17) features dance parties, shipboard Olympics and karaoke. Princess also teamed with Klutz to offer an array of arts-and-crafts projects, such as building storybooks, weaving friendship bracelets and making lanyards.
The Facilities: The Fun Zone is 10,000 square feet. There's a splash pool dedicated to kids, and the ship offers family suites.
Other Nifty Features: Princess Cruises Personal Choice Dining program gives folks the opportunity to choose between traditional cruise dining (same table, same time each night) or flexible, restaurant-style eateries (eat any time). The "Movies Under the Stars" poolside cinema features kid-friendly matinees.
Note: Group baby-sitting is offered at $5 per hour.
Why: When P&O Cruises launched Ventura in April 2008, the line took a step away from the traditional British cruiser it was used to going for 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 for you 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 kids ages 2-17; Splashers for 2-4's; Surfers for 5-8's; Scubas for 9-12's; and h2o for 13-17'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 for the kids to learn and play on. P&O has also brought children's characters Noddy and Mr. Bump 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 -- cool! With 12 restaurants and Freedom Dining available (no set times or venues) there's plenty of flexibility for families. A small library has board games for rainy days at sea.
Other Nifty Features: Be sure to head up to Deck 19. There you will find Cirque Ventura, where you (and the kids, of course!) can try out a bungee trampoline or join a workshop to learn the trapeze and tightrope-walking. Ventura also has the fleet's first-ever family cabins.
Note: 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.
Why: We already gave Princess our vote for taking great care of the little ones, but we also want to applaud them for catering to adults, as well. Princess' programs and amenities please everyone, from kids and teens to parents and grandparents, making it one of our top picks for multigenerational cruises.
The Program: Princess' kids program entertains young cruisers, ages 3-17. While the little ones do arts and crafts and watch cartoons, teens can hang out, play Ping-Pong and listen to music. This leaves adults free to enjoy quiet spa treatments, attend ScholarShip@Sea classes or practice their golf swings.
The Facilities: For the kids, Princess offers separate Youth and Teen Centers, with "mocktail" bars, karaoke machines, TV's, juke boxes, loads of games and, on some ships, dedicated teen sun decks with Jacuzzis. For adults, there's the Sanctuary, a peaceful sun deck for adult relaxation only.
Other Nifty Features: Multigenerational families have many choices for doing activities together as a group or apart. Families can come together for dinner in Princess' main restaurant or specialty steakhouses and Italian trattorias. The youngsters can attend special kids-only dinner events, while parents enjoy romantic Ultimate Balcony Dinners in their staterooms. Mom and Dad can hit the spa alone for a quiet moment without their offspring or take the kids for special teen treatments, such as the Fabulous Fruity Facial or mother/daughter and father/son massage packages.
--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief; updated by Carrie Calzaretta, Cruise Critic contributor