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.
And here's a shocking revelation: Some parents and children actually enjoy each other's company. Despite the obvious challenges of traveling with a teenager (and his eight-year-old sister), new places and faces are always more interesting when seen through my kids' eyes, more engaging when examined with their earnest curiosity and certainly funnier when narrated by their wicked sense of humor. So when we're on vacation, 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 -- has caught hold, and there can be great joys in the experience.
Mega-lines Disney, Royal Caribbean, Norwegian, Princess 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 (e.g. the toddler set or teens). 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. Some lines have developed 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.
As far as catering to kids onshore, Disney still wins hands-down. Several of their itineraries offer "Exclusive Youth Activities" in port, like pizza-making in Naples and painting Greek statues at the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, where kids (and their parents) are center stage. That being said, most major cruise lines now offer a variety of excursions that are welcoming to families. Royal Caribbean has a kid-friendly Gold Rush tour in Alaska and a visit to Atlantis in Dubai, and Princess has a FlowRider surf simulator experience in Grand Turk. Carnival has a family Nautilus adventure and sea lion show in St. Thomas, while Norwegian has a Russian Folklore show in St. Petersburg. Find out more in our story about the Best Shore Excursions for Kids.
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.
Disney Cruise Line
Overview: 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 family cruise market. All of Disney's ships -- Disney Dream, Disney Magic, Disney Wonder and Disney Fantasy -- offer extensive family programming.
Special Programs for Families: Disney's themed deck parties are family extravaganzas with costumes, dancing and fireworks. The Pirate Night celebration includes stunt performers rappelling from the ship's funnel, music and choreographed pirate battles, and kids and adults alike dress up like pirates. Disney's Broadway-style musicals like "Aladdin" and "Toy Story" appeal to even the youngest travelers. The ships' Studio Sea (on Magic and Wonder) and D Lounge (on Dream and Fantasy) are hubs for family entertainment like audience participation game shows, trivia contests, karaoke nights and dance parties featuring special appearances by Disney characters.
Other onboard activities include animation classes, where families can learn how to draw Disney characters, magic lessons, tea parties and cooking classes. On a sea day, stop by the Midship Detective Agency (on Dream and Fantasy) and take part in an interactive scavenger hunt with the family. Character breakfasts are a great opportunity for kids to meet their favorite Disney friends and get pictures and autographs. Disney's private Caribbean island, Castaway Cay, offers families countless opportunities to explore together on bikes, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards and boats.
Onboard Amenities: 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 and AquaDunk on Disney Magic are great fun for kids (and grownups) of all ages. Funnel Vision, a jumbo LED screen on Deck 9 shows movies and sporting events outdoors by the Goofy pool. Disney also allows children ages 13 to 17 to get spa treatments off a special kids' menu -- which includes fun options like a "Surfer's Scrub" and "Hot Chocolate Wrap" -- when accompanied by a parent.
Carnival Cruise Lines
Overview: Carnival's approach centers on "fun" (as opposed to, say, "luxury," "serenity" or other buzzwords used by lines attracting cruisers sans children). Carnival's Dream-class ships, including Magic, Dream and Breeze, offer the largest facilities in the fleet -- and for families, this translates to bigger spaces to play together and more family activities.
Special Programs for Families: On Carnival, parents, grandparents and children can enjoy scavenger hunts, karaoke (complete with a live band backup!) and scheduled family activities within the kids' clubs, like ice cream parties. Carnival also has a "Seuss at Sea" program, perfect for toddlers and their parents; it includes a cute character parade, interactive story time and a breakfast of green eggs and ham. Team up with the family to win prizes in "Hasbro, The Game Show" onstage in front of a live audience. See a show at the Towel Animal Theater, where the adorable towel creatures from your stateroom come to life on stage; kids can even learn how to make them at a towel-folding seminar.
A mother-and-daughter manicure, anyone? How about a father-and-son foot massage? Carnival offers a youth spa program called ZSPA where children (ages 12 to 17) and their parents can enjoy body and beauty treatments together. Families can find classes on everything from cooking and dancing to scrapbooking.
Onboard Amenities: 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 racing slides and a splash area for tots; SportSquare, a fitness area with a ropes course, Ping-Pong, foosball and mini-golf. There's also a 3D theater (Carnival Breeze only), dive-in movies at the pool and terrific stage shows. To ratchet things down a bit, families can check out books from the library to read together on all Carnival ships, borrow board games to play on deck or take in a meal at the family-style Cucina del Capitano Italian restaurant.
Overview: Royal Caribbean has been promoting family activities for years now, and their ships are a great option for families with kids of all ages, particularly those who enjoy participating in outdoor activities and sports together. Family programming is offered on all ships, year-round, with the Oasis-class and new Quantum-class ships providing the most options.
Special Programs for Families: Imagine four-year-olds strutting their moves along with their 40-year-old moms at the disco, an opportunity they probably don't otherwise have outside of family weddings. Yes, you'll find the solid standbys like karaoke, scavenger hunts and outdoor movies, but where Royal Caribbean really shines are in family sports tournaments, pool games and active challenges. For families that enjoy games (and competition for the sake of silliness), there are a variety of game shows and trivia contests, as well as onboard parties that take place in Studio B. Parents and kids can also take a cooking or dance class together, learn the art of cupcake decorating, take in a fashion show or help solve a crime at the mystery dinner theater.
Several of Royal Caribbean's ships offer the DreamWorks Experience, a chance to interact with characters from Shrek, King Fu Panda and Madagascar while onboard. While the character angle may seem to cater more to little kids, DreamWorks characters have a broader appeal than most. There are shows, parades, character meals and meet-and-greets, and popular DreamWorks movies play in the theater.
Onboard theatrical productions like "Cats" appeal to the entire family, while others like "Chicago, The Musical" and "Saturday Night Fever" work for those with older kids. 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. Parents of little ones will love the black-light ImagineOcean! puppet show, and all ages will enjoy the 3D theater.
Onboard Amenities: Royal Caribbean's family-friendly amenities are no longer limited to ice rinks and rock climbing walls. Their newest ships continue under the assumption that bigger is better. Oasis-class ships have multiple pools and hot tubs, inline skating, golf and surf simulators and a zip line -- all great for fostering some serious outdoor togetherness. Heading indoors, you can hang out at the family disco, ice skate together in Studio B or take in a parade. The new Quantum-class ships take things to greater heights, literally, with a new skydiving simulator, bumper cars, as well as North Star, a sightseeing "capsule" that extends out on a giant arm 300 feet over the ocean.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Overview: Norwegian'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. Family programming is offered on all ships, with the best options being Norwegian's Epic and Breakaway classes.
Special Programs for Families: One of Norwegian's greatest successes is in providing terrific family entertainment; the offerings onboard Epic and Breakaway rival those on any other cruise ship. It's tough to imagine a show more appealing to the entire gang than Epic's Blue Man Group. With its flying paint and techno music, it's part art show, part concert and all fun. Breakaway's Rock of Ages-themed deck party (who can't get down to Madonna and Quiet Riot?) is a blast for all ages and ends in a fireworks display.
Other activities that foster family togetherness include pizza-making lessons, deck parties, family charades, cupcake decorating at Carlo's Bakery, glow paint dance parties and family movie nights. Norwegian also offers a Nickelodeon at Sea program on several of its ships. Families traveling on these sailings have the opportunity to meet characters like SpongeBob and Jimmy Neutron and take part in family-oriented activities like a pajama character breakfast, Dora's Dance Party and create arts and crafts together.
Onboard Amenities: Active families will be in heaven on Norwegian. Norwegian Epic has rock climbing and rappelling walls, a climbing cage and bowling alley. Epic and Breakaway-class ships also have elaborate water parks -- Epic's features multiple slides, including a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube, and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. Breakaway has five multistory waterslides, a separate Nickelodeon-themed water park for little ones and a three-story sports complex with an ambitious ropes course and mini-golf. Poolside games and challenges are scheduled on all cruises and are fun for the whole family.
Princess Cruise Line
Overview: Princess is upping the ante when it comes to offering family activities onboard its ships. While its kid-friendly options might not be as omnipresent as on Disney or Royal Caribbean, the cruise line is a great choice for families looking for a slightly more low-key, mature family environment. For this reason, Princess holds great appeal for multigenerational groups traveling together. Royal Princess and Regal Princess offer the most amenities and programs.
Special Programs for Families: Princess is a great choice for families looking to get away from the typical character-driven, brand-heavy activities found on other family-friendly lines. (No Disney, DreamWorks or Nickelodeon events here.) Activities on the line include parent-child scavenger hunts, trivia contests and karaoke. As on many other ships, families can take in poolside movies, sporting events and concerts on a giant outdoor screen -- but on Princess the experience comes complete with blankets, popcorn, cookies and milk. The ship's TV studio, Princess Live!, hosts interactive cooking shows, singing competitions, game shows and a murder mystery; in the larger Vista Lounge, you'll find comedians, illusionists and musicians performing.
Onboard Amenities: Families looking to get their game on will find plenty of opportunities for outdoor fun with basketball, volleyball, bocce and Ping-Pong. Active families will love the batting cage, laser shooting range and driving range on Royal Princess and Regal Princess, as well as the large pool decks with poolside cabanas. In the evening, the top deck pools host an interactive sound and light show with dancing fountains that shoot water up to 33 feet into the air. Daring families will want to check out SeaWalk, a glass walkway that extends 28 feet beyond the edge of the ship and lights up at night.
--By Carrie Calzaretta, Cruise Critic contributor