Here's one conception of families on cruises: Parents doze in poolside loungers while their belligerent kids scare the bejeezus out of other passengers by doing cannonballs off the side of the pool.
Here's another: Kids are checked into designated age-based activities. Parents go do their poolside dozing with the kids out of sight, out of mind (and out of splashing range).
But how about this wholesome snapshot: families actively enjoying cruise activities together. Imagine dad and son building a model ship poolside; mother and daughter lounging together giggling at their just-manicured toenails; son and mom cooking up a chocolate cake with the help of a ship chef in the galley; dad and daughter joining forces in a basketball tournament. Later, the whole clan tag teams at the karaoke contest.
As cruising has rapidly gained popularity with families as a more exciting (and vastly more indulgent) variation of the classic family vacation, they want to know what they can enjoy together on and off the ships.
Here are a few good reasons families might want to seek out cruises that offer ample opportunities for togetherness:
Keeping the flock together keeps parents in charge. And when you find cruise activities to do with your family, you don't have to wonder where your kids are or what mischief they're making.
The lament of many American parents -- particularly those of us who work -- is that we don't see enough of our kids. So why separate during vacation? Indeed, vacations are a way to help make up for lost time.
Shocking revelation: Some parents and children actually enjoy each other's company. Despite being as exhausting, distracting and challenging as any 4-year-old, my own son makes me laugh more than many of my adult friends do. I like that when I'm with him I look at things differently, and talk about them in different ways. I delight in his delight. And when we're on vacation, a lot of the time, a lot of what we really want to do is be together.
I don't mean to overstate the case. There's definitely something to be said for time away from the kids. And obviously the kids shouldn't be part of certain more "grown up" cruise activities, like barhopping, casino action or late-night discos. But a relatively recent trend in cruising -- offering activities for parents and kids to participate in together -- is catching hold and there can be great joys in the experience.
Mega-lines Disney, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Carnival are still nautical miles ahead of the pack in terms of the programming for families. Of course, the challenge for the cruise lines is to find the right balance in their family programming: to not only offer activities that can suit specific age groups, but also deliver choices with broad appeal. It's relatively easy to develop activities that appeal to a narrow band of ages: the toddler set or teens or whatever. But it can be a tricky business to try to excite youth sensibilities and energy levels without infantilizing the adults -- or, conversely, to keep the adults engaged but not bore the kids silly.
Here are some questions to ask if you're planning to cruise with your family -- and want to make the most of your time together:
Are there specific programs for families (as opposed to just kids)? What are they?
Are children welcome at traditional "grown up" activities? I heard about one mother whose 10-year-old really loved High Tea, for example (and he was the only kid in the room). Kids also might like cooking demonstrations, Bingo, or evening cabaret or magic shows. Just make sure you understand what's appropriate to attend with the kids.
Can parents get involved in kid zones and kid-designated activities? Some cruise lines specifically restrict parents from entering areas where the children's programming takes place; others require parental supervision, and still others invite parents at specified times or for specific programs. It's a good idea to check the policy before booking to avoid separation anxieties (your child's, or your own).
Which shore excursions are appropriate for kids and/or families? Shore excursions can present a special challenge for families. Parents fret about whether to leave the kids onboard in kid-specific programming or bring them along for shore excursions with fingers crossed that energy levels and patience will hold out. And, with the added expense of shore excursions, parents understandably want to maximize the enjoyment and minimize the risk.
Some shore excursions -- glass-bottom boat tours, beach days, visits to aquariums and other animal-themed attractions -- may be great for children. With others, particularly those involving long boat or bus rides, limited amenities, or lots of walking, you may be asking for trouble. Also, pick your cruise region carefully. In the Caribbean and Hawaii, it's easier to find kid-friendly outings than in Europe or Asia.
A few lines have begun to eliminate the guesswork by developing and marketing family-themed shore adventures, particularly for the European market, which didn't tend to cater to kids in the past. The options change periodically, as cruise lines continue to test the waters. If a particular family excursion sells well, it stays; if not, they generally don't keep it around. Carnival's European Family Fun Tours, for example, didn't last, but the line has added a variety of "all ages" excursions like a family-style cooking class in Rome. As far as catering to kids onshore, Disney wins hands-down. Several of their itineraries offer "Exclusive Youth Activities" in port, like pizza-making in Naples, and a railway adventure in Skagway, where kids (and their parents) are center stage. Royal Caribbean also offers many excursions that will appeal to kids, like a day at a water park in Ephesus, Turkey, and a visit to Atlantis in Dubai.
Ready to start planning your next family cruise? To kick-start your deliberations, we've rounded up some examples of how cruise lines are introducing new activities (or recasting existing ones) to appeal not only to specific age brackets, but also across them.
Why: This is far from new terrain for Disney -- family-friendly cruising is why the line was created in the first place. By bringing many of Disney's theme park sensibilities (including the classic characters) to the high seas, Disney has hit its intended audience square on and sparked a revolution in the cruse industry. Now that Disney has moved into European and Alaskan waters, there are fun options for families wanting to venture beyond a Caribbean vacation.
Which Ships: All of Disney's ships -- Disney Dream, Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, and Disney Fantasy (arriving in March 2012) -- offer extensive family programming.
Special Programs for Families: Oodles. The ships' live stage shows -- "The Golden Mickeys" and "Twice Charmed: An Original Twist on the Cinderella Story" are two -- speak to the budding princess or hero in kids, and perhaps the princess and hero nostalgia in their moms and dads. Disney's themed deck parties are family extravaganzas with costumes, dancing and fireworks (a Disney cruise exclusive; no other line offers fireworks at sea). The ships' Studio Sea (on Magic and Wonder) and D Lounge (on Dream and Fantasy) are hubs for family entertainment, ranging from family karaoke and line-dancing to gameshows like "A Pirate's Life For Me," during which teams compete to win back the elusive pearl, under the watchful eye of two resident pirates. Other activities include animation classes, where families can learn how to draw Disney characters; magic lessons; kite-making and cooking classes.
Just Hangin' Together: Families can enjoy a game of mini-golf, Ping Pong or basketball on the Sports Deck, or catch a 3D movie in the Buena Vista Theater. The AquaDuck waterslide on Disney Dream and Fantasy is great fun for kids (and grownups) of all ages. On a rainy day, stop by the Midship Detective Agency (on Dream and Fantasy), and take part in an interactive scavenger-hunt-type game with the family.
Shore Excursions: The strongest contender here is the excursion to Castaway Cay, Disney's private island, which received major enhancements in 2010 that feature a large family beach (in addition to a teen beach and an adults-only beach) with water sports equipment, a huge floating platform with sprayers, a bucket dump and two great waterslides that dump you into the sea. For nonswimmers, there's Spring-A-Leak, which is a water play area ideal for the under-5 crowd, with water cannons, fountains and showers. Also great options for togetherness are a stingray adventure, parasailing and fishing tours.
Disney's shore menu offers an extensive range of family excursions, ranked by recommended age levels, exertion levels and length. In the Caribbean, the options are endless. Favorites include a visit to Grand Cayman's Butterfly Farm, a relaxing day at St. Thomas' Magens Bay and a slightly more adventurous afternoon viewing Coral World Marine Park from the semi-submarine Nautilus VI. In Italy, families can take in a traditional puppet show in Rome, or in Alaska, take a tour of a fishing boat from the show "Deadliest Catch," and have dinner with the crew.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Why: Carnival's approach centers on "fun" (as opposed to, say, "luxury," "serenity" or other buzzwords used by lines attracting cruisers sans children). For families, this means plenty of crowd-pleasing, high-energy activities.
Which ships: Go big: Carnival's Dream-class ships, including new Magic and Dream (and in 2012, Carnival Breeze) offer the largest facilities in the fleet -- and for families, this translates to bigger spaces to play (including an impressive19,000 square feet of kids' facilities).
Or, go small. The Fantasy-class ships that do shorter cruises (read: a more affordable option for families) also cater to family audiences with expanded children's areas, a water park and plenty of other activities like mini-golf.
You'll find lots of family-friendly action on the ships in between, as well.
Special Programs for Families: To start, there's a special family afternoon on every seven-day voyage; a highlight of that is an ice cream-eating competition. (If ice cream isn't a great age-leveler, I don't know what is.) Carnival also offers a boatload of activities that parents, grandparents and children can enjoy together. Among these are family parties in the disco, family scavenger hunts, karaoke and "Scattegories.” A mother-and-daughter manicure, anyone? How about a father-and-son foot massage? Carnival offers a youth spa program, where children (ages 12 to 14) and their parents can enjoy body and beauty treatments together on port days, and there are seminars on everything from towel-folding to scrapbooking.
Just Hangin' Together: Carnival's newer ships are giving Royal Caribbean a run for its money with the addition of more outdoor recreation options for families. Among the latest is Carnival's WaterWorks water park, with slides and a splash area for tots; SportSquare, a fitness area with the first ropes course at sea; and a seaside theater. To ratchet things down a bit, families can check out books from the library to read together on all Carnival ships, or borrow board games to play on deck or in cabins.
Shore Excursions: Many of Carnival's excursions are suitable for families, including (in the Caribbean) a day at the Sea Life Park Vallarta, with its sea lions, dolphin swim and hot dog or pizza lunch. While the excursions on Carnival's European itineraries don't exactly cater to families, you'll find plenty that appeal to kids. Look for those with activity level "easy," like a visit to the Hard Rock Cafe in Athens, or a boat tour of the Amalfi Coast.
Why: Royal Caribbean has been promoting family activities for years now, and it's a great option for families with kids of all ages, particularly those who enjoy participating in outdoor activities and sports together.
Which ships: Family programming is offered on all ships, year-round.
Special Programs for Families: Imagine 4-year-olds strutting their moves along with their 40-year-old moms at the family disco, an opportunity they probably don't otherwise have outside of family weddings. Other family activities include karaoke, scavenger hunts, family sports tournaments, pool games and theme nights like Rock 'n' Roll Night and Kids' Pirate Night.
Architecturally inclined parents and youth can team up in the Lowes-branded "Build and Grow" program, outfitted with goggles, aprons and all the tools they need build their own wooden ships. Thpse ships -- and the merit badges they earn -- just might win their hearts more than souvenirs from the gift shop! For families that enjoy games (and competition for the sake of silliness), there are versions of "Family Feud" and "Parent Trap," a game that tests parents' and kids' knowledge of each other. More daring? Try the belly-flop competition or salsa lessons.
Onboard theatrical productions like Hairspray and Chicago are safe bets for teens, but they don't really cater to young kids; however, the ice-skating show is a must, and the performance in the AquaTheater (Oasis and Allure of the Seas) will delight the entire family with synchronized swimming, acrobatics and high-diving.
Just Hangin' Together: Royal Caribbean's family-friendly amenities are no longer limited to ice rinks and rock-climbing walls. The new Oasis-class ships continue under the assumption that bigger is better. Allure of the Seas has four pools, 10 hot tubs, two FlowRider surf simulators and a zip line -- you're bound to find something to do together! Heading indoors, you can hang out at the family disco, ice skate together in Studio B or take in a parade.
Shore Excursions: While Royal Caribbean doesn't identify specific excursions for families, the line gives parents plenty of options, from leisurely days at the beach to more adventurous fare like jet-skiing or zip-lining. In Europe, there are plenty of options beyond walking and bus tours, which can be a drag with kids. Fun options include a cruise to Capri, or a visit to a water park in Santorini.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Why: NCL's relaxed "freestyle cruising" atmosphere has always made it appealing to families, and newer ships have added an increasing number of activities and spaces for families looking to spend time together onboard.
Which ships: Family programming is offered on all ships, but the best options are NCL's Epic and Jewel. Epic provides an unbelievable array of entertainment and sporting options, while both ships offer NCL's Nickelodeon at Sea program.
Special Programs for Families: One of Norwegian's greatest successes is in providing terrific family entertainment; the offerings onboard Epic rival those on any other cruise ship. Activities that foster family togetherness include pizza-making lessons, charades, Pictionary, LEGO building challenges and family movie nights. NCL also offers a "Nickelodeon at Sea" program on Epic and Jewel. Families traveling on these special sailings have the opportunity to meet characters like SpongeBob and Jimmy Neutron and take part in family-oriented activities like a Dora Dance Party, arts and crafts and the game show "Slime Time Live," which culminates with one lucky individual getting slimed onstage.
Just Hangin' Together: Active families will be in heaven on Norwegian Epic. There are a rock-climbing wall, rappelling wall, climbing cage and six bowling alley lanes. There's also a water park with slides, including a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube, and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. Poolside games and challenges are fun for the whole family. And it's hard to think of a show more appealing to the whole gang than Blue Man Group; with its flying paint and techno music, it's part art show, part concert and all fun.
Shore Excursions: NCL offers a variety of shore excursions designed with families in mind, including a whale watch and wildlife quest in Alaska and an underwater submarine adventure or dolphin swim at Atlantis in the Bahamas.
--By Deborah Bogosian; updated by Carrie Calzaretta, Cruise Critic contributor