Years ago, parents cruising with small children had to contend with cabin layouts rarely fit for a crib, pools and play areas that were off limits to the un-potty-trained, and activities tailored to children older than 3. When Disney entered the market in 1998, it instantly changed the so-called teething field by catering to cruising's youngest passengers. It offered a nursery, larger standard staterooms -- with tubs, room-dividing curtains and enough room for baby paraphernalia -- and onboard stores stocked with necessities like diapers and baby sunblock.
Since then, several other lines have introduced their own tot-friendly amenities. For example, many of Royal Caribbean's ships now offer a variety of larger family stateroom options, plus baby and toddler playgroups, and diaper-wearing tots have expansive play areas on Carnival Cruise Line.
The following are five cruise lines that parents of babies to preschoolers can love. You'll get information on babysitting options, playgroups, baby gear you can skip packing and tips on the family-friendliest staterooms. But first, here's a field guide to cruising with young children:
To Bring, or Not to Bring. Even though many lines provide cribs or Pack 'n Plays, be sure to confirm availability before you sail. If you have a toddler on the tall side, ask about the size of the crib; a low bunk with a bedrail might fit your child better. In addition, pack a crib sheet if your child has sensitive skin as some of the lines starch their sheets.
Baby Gear. Be sure to note what each line provides when it comes to strollers, bouncy seats and in-cabin high chairs. You might be able to save yourself a suitcase. If your child is hooked on watching Dora or Disney before bed, consider bringing a portable DVD player as most standard staterooms do not have a DVD or CD players (or VCR's). As for strollers, think about what you'll need at the airport and during shore excursions, in addition to getting around the ship. This will help you determine whether you need a standard full-size stroller with basket storage, or whether you can get by with a lightweight umbrella one.
Formula, Food & Diapers. Some cruise lines will mash or puree food for babies; others do not offer this service. Either way, it's good to bring a supply of food and formula for use during shore excursions and as a backup in case your child has fussy taste buds. To prevent potential digestive distress, be sure to bring your child's preferred juice if he or she drinks something other than orange, cranberry or apple -- ditto with your favorite brand of diapers.
Medications. These are hard to purchase once onboard. Even if your child doesn't have the sniffles when you leave, pack infant Tylenol and Benadryl, along with anything else you think your child might need.
Sun Protection. Bring plenty of infant-friendly sunblock along with a flap hat that covers a child's neck and ears; a swim shirt for little boys to wear with their trunks will also be useful.
Here are our picks for the most toddler-friendly lines:
Carnival Cruise Lines
Minimum Age to Sail: The minimum age to sail is 6 months old on most cruises. On transatlantic, Hawaii and South America cruises, the minimum age to cruise is 12 months.
Why Parents Love It: During the cruise, parents of children younger than 3 receive a pager in case they need to be contacted; if available, pagers may be provided to parents of four and five year olds. Although parents do need to supply diapers and wipes, toddlers don't have to be potty-trained to participate in Camp Carnival's free program for 2- to 5-year-olds. Here, kids can play picture-bingo to win prizes, finger-paint, put on puppet shows and listen to stories. Mascot Fun Ship Freddy (modeled after Carnival's trademark ship's funnel) poses for photos and joins dance parties (plush Freddys are for sale in the gift shops).
When accompanied by a parent, children younger than 2 can take a turn with the toys during designated family play times. Babysitting services for children younger than 2 are available at Camp Carnival during limited hours (check when you board; rates are $6 for the first child and $4 for each additional child). Activity books and crayons are available in dining rooms.
Crib Sheet: Carnival's standard cabins are relatively large, measuring 185 square feet for an interior stateroom and 220 square feet for an oceanview cabin. On Fantasy-class vessels, these staterooms can accommodate up to five people with two lower beds that convert into a king, two upper beds that fold out from the wall and a rollaway. Be sure to inquire where the fold-out beds are located because some are directly above the lower beds instead of at the other end of the cabin, which would give more privacy and distance from sleeping children. Other vessels in the fleet can only accommodate four guests max per cabin, with the exception of the new Carnival Dream, which offers new five-berth/two-bath cabins.
Also consider the Outside Stateroom with Verandah, which allocates 35 of the 220 square feet to a balcony. This leaves less interior space but provides a place to sit, talk and have a light on when children are asleep. Cartoon Network and Boomerang are available on in-room televisions.
Baby Basics: Single or double strollers are available for rent ($25 per week or $6 per day on 3- and 4-night voyages), as are bouncy chairs. Cribs are provided gratis for in-stateroom use. Shipboard shops sell diapers, wipes and ointments. Bring baby food; mashing is not available on Carnival ships.
Buyer Beware: Sadly, no in-cabin baby-sitting is permitted. Until 10 p.m., the line provides evening activities for children ages 2 to 5. The only nighttime option for parents of infants and young children is baby-sitting from 10 p.m. until 3 a.m. at the center, but they will be among older children watching movies and snoozing. The cost is $6 per hour for the first child and $4 per hour for additional siblings. Children who are not toilet trained and are wearing diapers or swim diapers are not allowed in the ships' pools.
Minimum Age to Sail: For Atlantic crossings and many of the exotic itineraries: 1 year old; for other sailings: 6 months old. Be sure to check ahead of time.
Why Parents Love It: On Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria, nannies take care of children ages 1 and up, and all of the programs offered are complimentary (including late-night babysitting, complete with cribs for sleepy tykes). Onboard nurseries are stocked with everything from Fisher-Price Little People to toys by Little Tikes and Lamaze. The nursery service includes diaper changes. Preschoolers can attend pajama parties, go on treasure hunts and have their faces painted. Queen Mary 2 has a 3- to 4-foot-deep "Minnows" pool for families, plus a 6- to 12- inch-deep splash pool for smaller sailors.
Be sure to escort your little one to the Children's Tea served in Kings Court every evening with balloons, artwork place mats, crayons and kid-friendly treats. Queen Mary 2 boasts over 8,000 books in the largest at-sea library, which includes a well-stocked children's section.
Crib Sheet: Britannia staterooms range in size from 155 to 248 square feet and include small refrigerators. Princess Grill Suites include daily bottled water and fruit baskets (gratis). Bed configurations vary for third and fourth passengers within a stateroom. Some have double sofa beds; others include single sofa beds with a pull-down bed above the sofa. Be sure to inquire about the specific configuration when booking your cabin.
Baby Basics: Kings Court restaurant will blend food for babies on request. Playpen-like cribs are available for complimentary in-cabin use. Be sure to bring plenty of diapers, wipes and other baby necessities because the ship's store does not carry these items.
Buyer Beware: While Cunard has an excellent program for young children, this is not a line where you'll find a ship's deck worth of activities and facilities for kids. Private in-cabin babysitting is not available. Not all itineraries are available for children under 1; be sure to check with the cruise line for the cruise you're considering.
Disney Cruise Line
Minimum Age to Sail: The minimum age to sail is 12 weeks old.
Why Parents Love It: The Little Mermaid-themed Flounder's Reef Nursery (available on both Disney ships) caters to children 12 weeks to 36 months old; it offers infant swings, assorted toys, board books, arts and crafts for toddlers, and even a one-way viewing window for parents. Toys that were mouthed by children get thrown in the "yuck bin" to be cleaned and sterilized before they are available to the next child. In addition to the drop-off service, family hours allow parents to enjoy the nursery's toys and amenities with their children. The ratio of counselors to children is one to four for infants and one to six for toddlers.
Nursery spaces fill quickly. Before you cruise, you can book up to 10 hours of nursery time through Disney's Web site; register for additional hours (if available) once onboard. Each child is capped at 15 hours of nursery time total per cruise. Unfortunately, this service is not complimentary and costs $6 per hour for the first child and $5 per hour for each additional child. Children 3 and older (or those close to 3 and potty-trained) can participate in the Oceaneer Club (free) where kids get to make their own chocolate chip cookies, climb on an indoor pirate ship and put together a giant Mr. Potato Head.
Only toilet-trained children can play in the family-oriented Goofy's Pool or kids-only Mickey Pool. However, in the water-play area near Mickey's Pool, children in swim diapers can splash about in the moon- and star-themed fountains. Each night, dining room servers give children a Disney themed activity-sheet and crayons.
Crib Sheet: Disney's staterooms are 25 percent larger than the industry average. Deluxe inside and outside staterooms are 214 square feet and include a privacy curtain that separates the two sleeping areas, allowing you to switch on a light without waking the children. The 304-square-foot Deluxe Family Staterooms with Verandahs sleep up to five. Unlike most sofa beds that take up precious floor space when converted to a full-size bed, Disney's sofas convert to a twin bed. The pull-down bed above the sofa makes a bunk-bed setup that won't be in the way throughout the day, making midday naptimes a cinch. Unlike almost all other cruise lines, most Disney cabins include full tubs -- a big plus for bathing babies and toddlers. Cribs, Graco Pack 'n Plays and Playtex Diaper Genies are available for use, gratis. And of course, the Disney Channel is included on stateroom televisions.
Baby Basics: You can find the following in gift shops: Huggies disposable diapers, two brands of formulas, bottle liners, diaper cream and baby sunblock. The kitchen can prepare pureed fruits and vegetables upon request. A limited number of strollers, bottle warmers and bottle sterilizers are available for use through guest services. New for spring 2009, Disney has introduced an online service that allows passengers to pre-order baby supplies and have them delivered to their stateroom (provided by Babies Travel Lite). There are over 1,000 brand-name baby products to choose from, including diapers, baby food, infant formula and specialty travel items.
Buyer Beware: With only two ships (two more are scheduled for delivery in 2011 and 2012), destinations are limited. Although you cannot request in-cabin babysitting, you can take babies and children to the children's centers at night. There is a television in the nursery, so be sure to inform staff if you don't want your little one in front of the tube. Disney ships have no casinos, and the adults-only entertainment district is rarely crowded or open much past midnight … not that many of us parents with young children stay awake that late.
Norwegian Cruise Line
Minimum Age to Sail: The minimum age to sail is 6 months old.
Why Parents Love It: All NCL ships offer children 2 years old and up an opportunity to play at Kid's Crew, which is home to ball pits, tunnels and jungle gyms. Age-appropriate activities headed up by the youth staff include Pirate Parades, Dora the Explorer sing-alongs and Blue Clues scavenger hunts. While in-cabin babysitting is not permitted on this line, children ages 2 - 5 have their own nighttime babysitting room sans older, rowdier kids. NCL offers group babysitting in the Kid's Crew for $6 per child/per hour and $4 per sibling/per hour. Port Play is offered when the ship is in port, and Late Night Fun Zone is offered nightly from 10:30 p.m. – 1:30 a.m. Norwegian Dawn, Star and Spirit each have a children's themed water play area, which includes slides, water squirters and splash areas for kids old enough to no longer need diapers. The Kid's Cafe (available on all ships but Norwegian Majesty) offers tot-sized tables and chairs, plus a buffet of kids' favorites like hot dogs, French fries and cookies, along with fruits and veggies to keep them healthy.
All ships now offer the Under 2 Zoo, a play area with toys (tunnels, balls, Leap Frog Leaning toys) for little kids to play with under parental supervision. Timing and locations for free play vary based on ship and cruise itinerary.
Crib Sheet: NCL's stateroom categories and sizes vary considerably by ship, with up to 32 stateroom categories. The newest ships offer cabins and suites that can connect to create two, three, four or five bedroom configurations, suitable for small and large families. Balcony cabins measure 205 square feet, including the balcony; select 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas have a bedroom with a queen-size bed and luxury bath (with whirlpool tub), as well as a separate children's bedroom. The Cartoon Channel is available on stateroom televisions. The new Norwegian Epic, which launched in June 2010, has Family Deluxe Balcony and Family Balcony cabins located adjacent to the Kid's Crew area.
Baby Basics: NCL does not offer stroller rentals, but cribs may be available on certain ships. However, they will only fit in specific cabin categories, so be sure to ask when booking your cruise. Baby wipes and diapers can be purchased in the ships' onboard shops.
Buyer Beware: Best for children ages 2 and older. Unlike Carnival and Disney, NCL's youth staff is not permitted to change diapers; hence, parents of diaper-wearing tots receive pagers and are paged when they need to come change junior.
Minimum Age to Sail:The minimum age to sail is 6 months old on most itineraries, and 12 months old on all transatlantic, transpacific and Hawaii cruises, as well as select South American and other cruises and cruisetours.
Why Parents Love It: Royal Caribbean partners with Fisher-Price to offer playgroups for parents to attend with their children. Youth counselors host 45-minute sessions for two age groups in onboard lounges. Royal Babies (6 - 18 months) play with musical instruments, engage in baby gymnastics, learn about shapes and colors, and even play with food-related toys and activities. Royal Tots (18 - 36 months) can pretend to be pirates and princesses, sing songs, and play with Fisher-Price Little People. When Oasis of the Seas debuts in November 2009, the ship will offer a fully staffed Royal Babies & Royal Tots Nursery with both daytime and evening daycare options, for an additional fee. Age-appropriate activities will include music, movement and storytime. Advance reservations will be required.
Children 3 and older (and potty-trained) can spend as much or as little time as they like in the Adventure Ocean program, plus drive a Barbie Escalade or Jeep on the new Power Wheels Track on the cruise line's private island, CocoCay (and on some of the larger ships). Royal Caribbean offers in-cabin babysitting for children within the same family ($10 per hour for two children and $15 for three -- payments must be made in cash). This service is based on availability, and you must book it 24 hours in advance. Make sure to borrow a children's book from the ship's library for bedtime reading.
Crib Sheet: Royal Caribbean's Freedom-class ships offer six different family stateroom categories, including the 330-square-foot, six-person Inside Family Stateroom that includes a curtained-off sleeping alcove and sleeper sofa. Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas also offer the 1,215-square-foot Presidential Family Suite that can accommodate up to 14 family members with four sleeping areas, four bathrooms, a spacious living area and 810-square-foot balcony. These and numerous other Royal Caribbean ships offer 265- to 338-square-foot Family Oceanview Staterooms that can accommodate up to six guests. The staterooms include two twin beds (which can convert into a queen-size bed), bunk beds in a separate enclosed area, sitting area with sofa bed and mini bar (detailed floor plans on the Web site). Cartoon Network is available on stateroom televisions.
Baby Basics: Complimentary Pack and Plays are available for in-cabin use; cribs are no longer provided. High chairs are available on request. Bring your stroller and your own baby items. Ship stores do not sell diapers and other necessities. However, parents can pre-order diapers, wipes and cream through the Babies on the Go program, a partnership with Huggies. The baby essentials will be delivered to your cabin on embarkation day.
Buyer Beware: Children who are not potty-trained are not allowed to swim in the ship's pools, with or without swim diapers. However, on Freedom- and Oasis-class ships, kids who are not toilet trained can play in the specially designated Baby Splash Zone.
--by Christine Koubek, Cruise Critic contributor. Updated by Erica Silverstein, Features Editor.