When planning port excursions, keep the first rule of family vacations in mind: If the kids are happy, adults will be happy, too. Got a dolphin-loving daughter? Look into a dolphin encounter. Extreme adventure-loving teen? Consider a zip line or helicopter tour. Dragging a reluctant child shopping or on an all-day tour of historic sites is a sure way to turn your epic adventure into an epic fail.
Navigating a family vacation that everyone can enjoy isn't impossible; it just involves a little planning. From swimming with stingrays in Grand Cayman to dogsledding in Alaska, here's a roundup of some of the most kid-friendly shore excursions around the world. Many of these excursions can be booked directly through your ship, but plenty of them can be arranged on your own, sometimes saving you money. Some require nothing more than a walk or quick cab ride to a local beach, zoo or attraction.
Ages 7 and Under
Beach Bliss. You just want to relax, but your toddler has no such plans. A kid-friendly beach with chairs, clean toilets and some shade is your thing. You can lie back, drink in hand, toes in the sand, while the kids spend hours playing just a few feet away. In this case, paradise comes cheap. A day at the beach is probably the least expensive shore excursion.
Kid-friendly beaches to add to your (sand) bucket list:
Fort Lauderdale: Immortalized in the 1964 movie "Where the Boys Are," Fort Lauderdale is no longer spring break central. Today, it's also a family-friendly seaside destination. Head to the free beach just south of Las Olas Boulevard and north of the Sheraton, still known to most as the Yankee Clipper Hotel. With plenty of shade, picnic tables, a playground and water sports rentals, you're set for the day. It's only 1.5 miles from the Port Everglades cruise terminal.
Ochos Rios, Jamaica: Take the 10-minute cab ride to Reggae Beach. In addition to soaking in the sun, you can soak in Jamaican culture. Twice an hour, traditionally costumed performers dance and sing while you relax in your chaise lounge. Order up a tropical concoction at the tiki bar, or just have them cut you up a coconut, with or without rum, and stick a straw in it. A small admission fee applies for both children and adults.
Natural Wonders. Long hikes with young kids just won't fly. Instead, answer the call of the wild with these lower-key wilderness excursions.
St. Lucia: Take a winding road trip to Soufriere Volcano, also known as Sulphur Springs, the world's only drive-in volcano. Kids will be awed by the bubbling mud. Hire one of the many taxi drivers outside the cruise terminal to get you there, or book this excursion through your ship. You can also book the tour on your own through one of the local tour guide companies.
San Juan: Puerto Rico has paved the way for families to enjoy the wildlife of El Yunque rain forest with stroller-friendly trails. Grab a taxi, or book a tour through your ship for the 45-minute ride to El Yunque, where you'll see plenty of lush foliage, parrots and other tropical wildlife.
Sightseeing. No, you can't take a toddler on museum tours, but there are ways to minimize meltdowns and maximize good times while in port.
Roman Holiday: Disney's "Highlights of Rome for Families" tour allows you to explore Vatican City and St. Peter's Basilica, even with kids in tow. Children do a wee bit of sightseeing before joining youth counselors from the ship for a puppet show while parents have free time to explore the city and shop on their own.
Gondolas/Water Taxis: Here's a fun but somewhat pricey way for families to explore Venice or Fort Lauderdale. Venice gondolas generally fit up to six people and charge 80 euros, about $100, for 40 minutes. An all-day pass aboard Fort Lauderdale's water taxi costs $22 for adults, $11 for kids ages 5-11, 4 and under are free. Miami's northern neighbor has 165 miles of inland waterways that wind around the city's prettiest real estate. Kids will enjoy the boat ride, and adults enjoy getting up close and personal with the scenery.
Horse and Carriage Rides: Strollers and cobblestone streets do not go together. Instead, hail a horse and carriage in historic spots like Quebec City.
Aquariums and Zoos. Sometimes these visits are combined with other sights and can provide a fun "edutainment" component.
Cayman Turtle Farm, Grand Cayman: A half-hour ride from the cruise terminal, kids can pick up young turtles from the touch tanks and learn about conservation efforts. Across the street is Dolphin Discovery Cayman; many of the tours provide entrance to both facilities. Grand Cayman is also home to the endangered blue iguana. View it in its natural habitat at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanical Gardens.
Barbados Wildlife Reserve: Get up-close and personal with peacocks, parrots, flamingos and monkeys in a mostly cage-free setting.
Singapore Zoo, Singapore: Kids will go wild for this cage-free zoo. Creatively camouflaged moats are all that separates you and the open range where white tigers, wallabies, emus and close to 3,000 other wild animals roam.
Snorkeling. Bring "Finding Nemo" to life by diving into the fun and discovering a dramatic underwater world.
Grand Cayman: It's a quick cab ride to the Marriott Hotel, Seven Mile Beach, one of the best snorkel spots in the Caribbean. Bring your own snorkel equipment, or rent it at a dive shop a block west of the cruise terminal. About 100 yards north of the Marriott is a public beach where you can rent chairs and umbrellas for just a few bucks.
Cozumel, Mexico: Take the shore and inexpensive cab ride to the Playa Corona Beach Club, where you get a shaded table, chairs and easy shore entry to some of the Caribbean's best snorkeling. Admission is generally free, but at busier times a smallfee might be charged to secure a beachfront table and chairs. Snorkel equipment is available to rent, and waiters are happy to bring you an ice cold beer or frozen tropical drink.
Glass-Bottom Boats & Submarine Rides. Kids who prefer to stay dry can explore the ocean on one of the many glass-bottom boat rides or dive deeper aboard a submarine ride, operated in ports throughout the Caribbean and Hawaii.
History Comes to Life. Parents search for "teachable moments," while kids would rather take a pass. Cruises are a great opportunity to teach your kids about the world, but don't overdo it or your kid will want to skip class. These fun-filled excursions ensure your history lesson isn't an a snooze.
Historic Forts: Let your little one live out her "Pirates of the Caribbean" fantasy in Old San Juan's Castillo San Cristobal, a huge stone fortress built in 1783. Dropping anchor in Cartagena? Take a free photo at the cannons that stand guard at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, high atop Colombia's walled city.
Spooky Salem: Is Boston on your itinerary? It's a 30-minute drive to the town of Salem's historic waterfront, where a dramatic presentation at the Salem Witch Museum recounts the tragic events of the witch trials of 1692.
Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii: WWII history becomes real when you tour the USS Arizona memorial. The WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument finished a $60 million renovation in 2010 and is well worth a visit. Keep in mind these words from the memorial's website: "Visitors are asked to assist in maintaining an atmosphere of decorum." That means inside voices. You know best whether your kid can handle that.
Amusement Parks. Let kids burn off their energy on rides that range from carousels to roller coasters.
Orlando, Florida: It's a 45-minute drive from Port Canaveral to the amusement park capital of the world. Say "hi" to Mickey and the gang at any one of Walt Disney World's four theme parks, or check out the movie-themed Universal Orlando. SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida in nearby Winter Park are great choices for younger kids, ages 3 and older.
Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen: The Gardens are a quintessential Denmark attraction, beautifully landscaped with fountains and flowers, but the games and rides, including roller coasters and carousels, make it a fun day out for kids, as well.
Kid-Friendly Museums. Some children enjoy art and history museums, but others need to be coaxed with more kid-friendly attractions.
Panama Canal Museum: A century after it was built, the Panama Canal remains an engineering marvel. Have fun waving at the passengers aboard cruise ships squeezing their way through this narrow passageway before you take a tour of the world-class and kid-friendly Panama Canal Museum at the Miraflores Locks. Interactive exhibits and an introductory movie explain how the canal was built and the science behind it.
Museum of Geopaleontology in Lerici, Italy: This museum, near La Spezia, houses exhibits on dinosaurs in an old castle.
Animal Attraction. Was your kid born to be wild? Wildlife encounters are great way for the whole family to enjoy the outdoors. And in places like Alaska, wildlife is so plentiful that some tour operators guarantee sightings. It's nice to know you won't be wasting your hard-earned dollars.
Whale Watching: One of the great joys of an Alaska or Hawaii cruise is the chance to see these massive mammals in their natural habitat. You can also have this once-in-a-lifetime outing in places like Mexico, California and Australia. Look for excursions that guarantee whale sightings or your money back.
Dolphin Encounters: Got a dolphin-lover in the family? Cross swimming with a dolphin off the bucket list. Dolphin encounters are available in warm-weather ports like Bermuda, the Bahamas, Hawaii and Australia. Typically, you enter the water in a small group with the dolphin. The trainer then instructs on how to interact with the animal. Some programs allow kids to actually "swim" with the dolphins. (Swimmers hitch a ride by hanging onto the fins or are pushed along the surface of the water with the dolphin's nose in the arches of their feet.) Be prepared to have the dolphin smooch you for a photo op during the encounter, after which you will likely be pitched to buy expensive photos and videos of the experience. These excursions are pricey, usually more than $100 a person, but they can be the highlight of the trip, especially for first-timers.
Stingray City, Grand Cayman: The island's most popular attraction allows you to pet, feed and swim among these odd-looking creatures with the dangerous-sounding name. Don't worry though: Stingrays are generally docile, and injuries are extremely rare. Thousands of people swim with them each year without being stung, but, as always, listen to your guide's instructions about how best to interact with these unique animals.
Dogsledding: Welcome to the world of mushing, an Alaskan experience offered in a variety of ports. A 16-dog team of huskies -- some of which might have run the Iditarod -- pulls you through Alaska's countryside. For the ultimate dogsledding adventure, consider a helicopter tour that lands you at a remote dogsled camp.
Lights, Camera, Action! The big screen comes to life at these locations, where some of your kid's favorite movies were filmed.
Wellington, New Zealand: If you've got a fantasy-loving tween or teen and Bilbo Baggins a known name at your house, you can say hello to the hobbits, elves, dwarves and trolls that troll the Middle Earth world of J.R.R. Tolkien. On New Zealand's South Island, you can tour the are where "Lord of the Rings" was filmed.
Oahu, Hawaii: About a half-hour from Honolulu's cruise pier, Kualoa Ranch was the setting for "Jurassic Park," "Pearl Harbor" and some 40 other movies. You can take a movie tour or get adventurous with ATV or horseback rides.
Take a Pass. Many Caribbean resorts allow cruise passengers to buy passes offering all-day access to resort amenities like pools, lounge chairs and water sports equipment.
Nassau, The Bahamas: It's a 10-minute taxi or a boat ride to Paradise -- Paradise Island that is, home to the mega-water park Atlantis. It's part Disney, part Vegas, and it's all about the water with aquariums, marine habitats, 11 pools, nine water slides and two river rides. Atlantis offers a variety of passes at different price levels. The most expensive pass gets you into everything, including the water slide that winds its way through a see-through tunnel submerged in a shark-filled lagoon.
San Juan, Puerto Rico: The San Juan Marriott Resort & Stellaris Casino is less than a 10-minute cab ride from the cruise terminal. A day-pass (children younger than 12 are half price) gets you a beach umbrella, chair and towel service, plus access to the Marriott's lush landscaped pool, complete with a slide.
For Teens (12-17)
Scuba. Even if you aren't certified, some excursions allow you and your kids (ages 12 and older -- check at the time of booking) to try an introductory dive with an instructor. Some cruise lines, including Royal Caribbean, will even arrange for you to get PADI certified on a cruise.
Snuba. Part scuba diving, part snorkeling, snuba is offered at plenty of warm-weather ports in the Caribbean and Pacific. Kids as young as 8 can try this underwater sport, which hooks your mask to an oxygen tank that floats above you.
Surf's Up. Encourage your kids to make waves as they try surfing, a particularly good choice if you drop anchor in Honolulu. Waikiki Beach, the birthplace of surfing, is a 10-minute drive from the cruise terminal. Surf shops are plentiful, but to ensure your excursion isn't a wipeout, go with a trusted outfitter like the Waikiki Beach Boys. They'll give you lessons on how to catch a wave on a surfboard or standup paddleboard.
Let's Get Cooking! For teens and tweens who love to cook, kid-friendly cooking classes and culinary tours can be the recipe for a good time. They've also got the necessary ingredients for a delicious multigenerational excursion that gives you a taste of the local culture. Here's a sampling from the vast menu of culinary adventures:
Tuscany: Want to learn how to make homemade pasta, pronto? After taking a two-hour ride through the Italian countryside, spend the day noodling around with Italian chefs, and get a taste of la dolce vita. You'll have fun reliving the excursion back at home when you try out your new recipe.
Nassau: Got a chocolate-lover in the family? If you're crazy for cocoa, take the 60-minute Graycliff Chocolatier Factory Tour in Nassau, where families taste some sweet treats while savoring the flavors of the Bahamas. There's a special children's tour for kids 3 to 10 years old, where they paint chocolate and learn how it's made. Older kids can take the adult hourlong tour that starts with a 15-minute tour of the facility. Then it's time to get to work making your own chocolate bar with your choice of Bahamian fruits, nuts and other fixings.
Donation Motivation. If you love the idea of giving back on vacation, voluntourism is a growing trend in the cruise industry. Crystal Cruises offers one complimentary volunteer excursion on each cruise, covering all expenses for passengers who participate. You can help children, animals or the environment, or feed the hungry in ports throughout the world.
Eco-Adventures. Let your teen go wild on these nature excursions.
Key West, Florida: It's smooth sailing aboard Danger Charters, located at the end of the cruise pier. Ride like the wind onboard a sailing schooner, which tows along its own kayaks. After a one-hour sail, passengers enter the kayaks and explore the surrounding mangroves. There's also a half-hour snorkeling stop.
Ochos Rios, Jamaica: Visit Dunn's River Falls, a collection of cascading waterfalls and small lagoons that most kids (ages 8 and older) should be able to climb.
Ketchikan, Alaska: Grab a cab, and cruise right past the tourist shops for the Deer Mountain trailhead in America's largest national forest, Tongass. It's only a five-minute, inexpensive cab ride. After an hour or two of easy hiking along cleared trails in the old growth rain forest, you'll start heading back. It's a scenic 45-minute downhill walk.
Zip Lines. Originally built to transport people across remote rivers and canyons, these fast-paced cable rides are now in ports across the world, and excursions last from a few minutes to a few hours. Puerto Rico has plenty to choose from, including a classic canopy ride at the JungleQui Rainforest Ecoadventure Park. Channel the spirit of Tarzan as you soar through the forests of Rio Grande, a half-hour outside San Juan. Check on any height, weight or age restrictions before you book.
Helicopter/Flightseeing Tours. Imagine boarding a helicopter or small plane and landing on a fjord or glacier. No one will be plugged into their iPods or checking their phones on this ride. These Alaska excursions are not cheap, but if you're looking for an extreme adventure, this is it.
Adventure Parks. Some of the busier cruise ports have adventure parks where you can choose from a long list of activities -- a great option for families with kids of multiple ages or interests. One parent can take the toddler to the water park, while the teen heads to the zip line.
Riviera Maya, Mexico: The whole family can frolic in natural pools and lagoons, take a wildlife-viewing boat ride or float through underground rivers at Xcaret Natural Adventure Park, a water-themed eco-park outside Cozumel.
Luquillo, Puerto Rico: There's no end to the adrenaline-charged excitement at Carabali Rainforest Park, an eco-park that lies 45 minutes from San Juan's cruise terminal. Activities include ATV rides, mountain biking, go-kart racing, horseback riding and zip-lining through the rainforest.
Biking. Let the good times roll by renting a bike in port, or go on a guided tour. It's a great compromise between a sightseeing excursion and a more physical activity. Some tours have age or height/weight requirements, so make sure your kids meet the criteria before you book.
Teens Only. Too-cool teens want adventure and their own spaces. Luckily, today's cruises offer plenty of both. Give your teenager the freedom to choose his own fun, and you'll end up with a family vacation where everyone wins.
Teens-only beach: Disney's private island, Castaway Cay, offers a teens-only beach that's ideal for some parents-free time.
Teens-only port excursions: Some cruise lines like Carnival offer teens-only shore excursions. No parents are allowed on these outings. Instead, adult staff from the ship accompany the kids.
Warning: Adults Only
OK, we've helped identify the great-for-kids options. Now let us warn you away from shore adventures that generally don't appeal to small fry.
Sunset or "Fun" Cruises. Any description that includes the words "free rum punch" or the equivalent is a tip-off that the outing wasn't designed with children in mind. Fun cruises are typically suited to young adults who want to mingle and party hard.
Shopping Excursions. To most children, being dragged through Nassau's Straw Market or St. Thomas' jewelry shops for hours is not going to make Mom and Dad popular. Save it for when the children are in the kid's club -- or for another cruise.
Motorcoach Sightseeing. Even children who like lighthouses and museums are going to balk at hours of stops and starts on a motorcoach, especially if they're zipping by sandy beaches and inviting blue waves. If you really want to sightsee, consider an excursion that tacks a few stops -- at, say, a botanical garden or a shipwreck museum -- onto an activity-based outing on a boat or beach.
--By Andrea Guthman, Cruise Critic contributor