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. Most lines provide little beyond high chairs and travel cribs. 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 DVD players. 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 can get by with a lightweight umbrella one. And if your cabin doesn't have a tub, consider bringing an inflatable tub if baby doesn't like showers yet.
Formula, Food & Diapers. Some cruise lines will mash or puree food for babies; others don't 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. Most lines don't sell diapers and wipes onboard or might not have your preferred brand, so bring your own. And don't forget sponges, bottles brushes and a small bottle of dish soap if you're going to be washing bottles and sippy cups in your cabin.
Medications. These are hard to purchase once onboard. Even if your child doesn't have the sniffles when you leave, pack infant Tylenol or Advil, baby saline drops, Pedia-Lite and a baby thermometer, 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: Camp Carnival takes children as young as 2 in its drop-off program. (The industry standard is 3 years and toilet trained.) 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. The youth staff will change diapers. During the cruise, parents of children 3 and younger receive pagers in case they need to be contacted; if available, pagers might be provided to parents of 4- and 5-year-olds. In the club, kids can play picture-bingo to win prizes, finger-paint, put on puppet shows and listen to stories, among other activities. Mascot Fun Ship Freddy (modeled after Carnival's trademark ship's funnel) poses for photos and joins dance parties. (Plush Freddys are also for sale in the gift shops.)
When accompanied by a parent, children younger than 2 can take turns with the toys during designated family play times on sea days. This is usually scheduled between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m. During those hours, and on port days (from 15 minutes before the first tour departure until noon, or 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. when ships arrive in port after noon), babysitting services for children younger than 2 are available at Camp Carnival. Rates are $6.75 per hour, per child, plus a 15 percent gratuity.
Activity books and crayons are available in dining rooms, as is a kids' menu and whole milk. High chairs are available in the dining rooms and buffet restaurants.
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. Standard cabins on other vessels can only accommodate a max of four people per cabin.
Dream-class ships offer 230-square-foot "quint" outside cabins that have two twin beds (that can combine to a queen), two bunks that hang from the wall and a sofa bed. (Note: If sleeping five, the twins will be left separated, with a ladder up to one of the bunks inserted in the space between the beds.) The cabins also feature two bathrooms -- one with a sink, toilet and shower, the other with a tub-shower combo and sink.
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. The Cartoon Network is available on in-room televisions.
Baby Basics: Single or double strollers are available for rent ($30 per five-night cruise or longer, $8 per day on three- and four-night voyages). Cribs are provided gratis for in-stateroom use. Shipboard shops sell diapers, wipes and other baby necessities. Bring baby food; mashing is not available on Carnival ships, and baby food and formula are not available onboard.
Buyer Beware: Sadly, no in-cabin babysitting 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 babysitting 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 $6.75 per hour, per child, plus a 15 percent gratuity. 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 and Pacific crossings, world cruise segments, Hawaii cruises and many of the exotic itineraries children must be at least 1 year old and, for other sailings, 6 months old.
Why Parents Love It: All three ships have night nurseries where nannies take care of children up to age 2, free of charge. The nurseries are open from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. For early-evening playtime, the nurseries are outfitted with age-appropriate soft toys, musical toys, games and play sets. (Dinner is not offered, but parents can bring in milk or baby food to feed tykes in the room.) At 8 p.m., toys are put away, cushions and blankets laid out and the lights turned down low. Kids can sleep in cribs or small beds with blankets and pillows. Parents receive pagers in case a child wakes up or can't be settled. The nursery service includes diaper changes or can page parents to come to change diapers themselves if they prefer. There is no additional babysitting beyond 11 p.m., nor is there any in-cabin babysitting.
Children ages 2-plus can be dropped off at supervised daytime activities in the Play Zone. Hours are 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. on port days (parents must be onboard the ship) and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on sea days (with closures from noon to 2 p.m. for lunch and from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. for dinner). Age-appropriate activities include arts and crafts, outdoor play, songs and stories, scavenger hunts and themed days, such as Wild West Day, Under the Sea Day and Sports Day.
Be sure to escort your little one to the Children's Tea served in the Lido buffet restaurant (Queen Elizabeth and Victoria) or Chef's Galley (Queen Mary 2). Hours vary by ship but range from 4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. The tea is served as a buffet of kids' favorites, including baked beans, vegetables, salad and pizza, with baby food and milk also available. Balloons, artwork place mats and crayons are generally available, usually upon request.
Onboard libraries stock children's classics, while the Play Zone offers kids' books for all ages, including plastic books for babies. Books can be checked out of the Play Zone for in-cabin reading. The ships' shops also sell children's literature.
Crib Sheet: Britannia staterooms range in size from 152 to 248 square feet and include small refrigerators. All ships have cabins with third and fourth berths in multiple categories, as well as interconnecting staterooms. Some three-berth cabins can also accommodate cribs, while four-berth staterooms are typically inside cabins. Extra berths can either be convertible sofa beds or beds that pull down from the ceiling, so be sure to inquire about the specific configuration when booking your cabin. In-cabin TVs don't have dedicated children's channels, but kids' programming is available on general channels.
Baby Basics: Onboard restaurants carry baby food and will also blend food for babies on request. The Brittania Restaurant offers a kids menu, as well. High chairs are available in all dining venues. Playpen-like cribs are available for complimentary in-cabin use. The ships' stores generally sell baby items like diapers and wipes, but you might want to bring your own just in case.
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, and children must be toilet trained to use the pools (no swim diapers allowed). Not all itineraries are available for children younger than 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 Disney Magic and Wonder) and It's a Small World Nursery (on Disney Fantasy and Dream) cater to children 12 weeks to 36 months old. Open 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on sea days (hours might vary while in port), the nurseries feature play areas and quiet time/nap areas.
Playrooms offer infant swings, toddler-sized chairs and tables, assorted toys, board books, arts and crafts for toddlers, and even a one-way viewing window for parents on most ships. 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 prebook 10 hours of nursery time for shorter cruises and up to 28 hours for longer cruises through Disney's website; register for additional hours (if available) once onboard. There is no maximum number of childcare hours allotted to each family. Unfortunately, this service 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 and Lab (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 and Donald's Pools, kids-only Mickey Pool and Aqua Lab wet play zone; there are height requirements for the waterslides. However, in the Nemo's Reef and Mickey's Splash Zone water-play areas, children in swim diapers can splash about and cool off on hot days.
Each night, dining room servers give children a kids' menu, Disney-themed activity sheet and crayons, and waiters have been known to help cut up kids' food or pour Mickey-shaped pools of ketchup. Baby food can't be brought onboard, but the kitchen can prepare pureed fruits and vegetables upon request. High chairs are, of course, available.
Crib Sheet: Disney's staterooms tend to be larger than the industry average. Deluxe inside and outside staterooms are 204 to 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 roughly 300-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 tubs -- a big plus for bathing babies and toddlers -- and split-bath designs with the tub/shower and sink in one room, and toilet and sink in a separate space. Pack 'n Play travel cribs and Playtex Diaper Genies are available for use, gratis, and can be reserved ahead of time. And, of course, the Disney Channel is included on stateroom televisions.
Baby Basics: You can find the following in gift shops: disposable and swim diapers, wipes, a small selection of jarred baby food, baby sunblock and shampoo. A limited number of strollers, bottle warmers and bottle sterilizers is available for use through guest services. Disney offers an online service that allows passengers to preorder baby supplies up to four weeks before sailing and have them delivered to their stateroom (provided by Babies Travel Lite). There are more 1,000 brand-name baby products to choose from, including diapers, baby food, infant formula, medications and specialty travel items.
Buyer Beware: With only four ships, Disney cruises can be pricey. Although you can't 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 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.
Minimum Age to Sail: The minimum age to sail is 6 months on most itineraries, 12 months on all transatlantic cruises. Note that this applies only to Aurora, Azura, Oceana and Ventura -- P&O's family-friendly ships. Arcadia, Adonia and Oriana are for adults only.
Why Parents Love It: P&O's Reef kids club offers the Splashers age group for kids ages 2 to 4 years. Youth staff look after the little ones in this dropoff program and keep them entertained with painting, singing, dancing, treasure hunts, outdoor play and sports, and storytime -- often linked to special theme days. British cartoon stars Noddy and Mr. Bump from the Mr. Men Show make appearances throughout the cruise. Staff will change diapers or give parents a pager to come and do the job themselves. The Reef is generally open from 9 a.m. until 10:30 p.m., though times can vary due to the particular itinerary. On port days, at least one parent or guardian must be onboard at all times when a child is dropped off at the kids' club.
While under-2s aren't allowed in the Splashers' space, on Azura and Ventura, there are dedicated areas for parents to play with their babies and toddlers during the day. These spaces include a soft play area and age-appropriate toys. At night, this space becomes the Night Nursery; Aurora and Oceana also have night nurseries but not the dedicated daytime play space. The nursery is a free evening group babysitting option between the hours of 6 p.m. and 2 a.m. (last sign in by 11 p.m.) for kids ages 6 months through 5 years. Space is first-come, first-served. Parents must settle kids into their cribs and will receive pagers in case they need to be contacted.
P&O also offers a Children's Tea each evening (typically around 5 p.m.) in its buffet restaurants. It's targeted at younger cruisers, but kids up to 17 years of age can go. Parents must supervise their children at the tea, as the youth staff don't attend. Kid-friendly foods -- fish sticks, sausages, pizza -- and healthy options are served, and baby food and milk are produced on request.
High chairs are available in onboard dining venues. Restaurant staff can puree fruits and vegetables and provide baby food, but it's best to alert the cruise ship to your needs before sailing.
Crib Sheet: Families will appreciate four-berth cabins (with sofa beds and beds that pull down from the ceiling), especially those toward the aft of the ship, close to the kids club. Inside and outside cabins on Azura and Ventura measure 164 square feet, and balcony cabins are 236 square feet (including the balcony); cabins on the older ships are a bit smaller. For more space inside and out, try a mini-suite (with curtains dividing the sleeping and living areas) or a suite with a separate bedroom.
Cribs must be prebooked before the cruise.
All ships offer TV programs and feature films geared toward children, but only Aurora and Oceana have dedicated kids' channels on in-cabin TVs.
Baby Basics: In addition to cribs and high chairs, P&O's family-friendly ships can provide bottle warmers and baby bathtubs. As with baby food, parents are advised to put in requests prior to sailing. Onboard shops do sell baby necessities like diapers, wipes and children's medicines; baby food is not sold.
Buyer Beware: There is no in-cabin babysitting, and children who aren't toilet-trained aren't allowed in pools. Also, if you're not traveling during school holidays when lots of children are onboard, you might find that other passengers are not as tolerant of your young cruiser as you would like.
Minimum Age to Sail:The minimum age to sail is 6 months on most itineraries. Children must be at least 12 months old on all transatlantic, transpacific, Hawaii and South Pacific cruises, as well as other voyages and cruisetours with three consecutive sea days or more.
Why Parents Love It: Royal Caribbean offers fully staffed Royal Babies and Royal Tots nurseries on 12 ships (three more will get them in 2013), with daytime and evening daycare options for an additional fee ($8 per hour). The rooms are outfitted with age-appropriate toys, books, music and videos, as well as cribs for napping. Advance reservations are required.
On all ships, 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 or nurseries. Royal Babies (6 to 18 months) play with musical instruments, engage in baby gymnastics, learn about shapes and colors and even play with food-related toys. Royal Tots (18 to 36 months) can pretend to be pirates and princesses, sing songs and play with Fisher-Price Little People. My First Crayola workshops for the Tots age group feature art projects using Crayola products.
A complimentary toy-lending program fleetwide lets under-3s borrow Fisher-Price toys for in-cabin play. Toys can be accessed through the Nursery or Adventure Ocean facilities.
Children 2 and older (who meet weight requirements) can drive Barbie Escalades or Jeeps on the Power Wheels Tracks on the cruise line's private island, CocoCay, and all Oasis- and Freedom-class ships.
Royal Caribbean offers in-cabin babysitting for children within the same family ($19 per hour for up to three children) between the hours of 8 a.m. and 2 a.m. This service is based on availability, and you must book it at least 24 hours in advance at the purser's desk. Payment is via your onboard SeaPass card. Make sure to borrow a children's book from the ship's library for bedtime reading.
Crib Sheet: Royal Caribbean's Oasis- and Freedom-class ships offer the most family-targeted cabins, including the six-person Inside Family Stateroom (260 to 323 square feet) that includes a curtained-off sleeping alcove and sleeper sofa. The Presidential Family Suite (1,165 to 1,209 square feet) can accommodate up to 14 family members with four sleeping areas, four bathrooms, a spacious living area and a 489- to 805-square-foot balcony. These and numerous other Royal Caribbean ships offer 237- to 338-square-foot Family Oceanview Staterooms that can accommodate up to six people. The staterooms include two twin beds (which can convert into a queen-size bed), bunk beds in a separate enclosed area (Pullman beds) and a sitting area with sofa bed and mini-bar (detailed floor plans on Royal Caribbean's Web site). Royal Family Suites accommodate eight passengers with two bedrooms, two Pullman beds, a double sofa bed, two bathrooms and a refrigerator. Stateroom televisions offer the Cartoon Network, Boomerang and an Adventure Ocean channel, which includes kid-friendly new-release and classic films, TV shows and programs featuring Barbie (as part of the new Barbie Experience onboard).
Baby Basics: Complimentary Pack 'n Plays are available for in-cabin use; cribs are not provided. High chairs are available on request. Bring your stroller and your own baby items. Ship stores don't sell diapers and other necessities. However, parents can preorder Huggies diapers, wipes and cream, and Gerber baby food through the Babies 2 Go program. (Be warned: This service is priced higher than at your local grocery or baby store.) 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, soak in whirlpools or play in the H2O Zone, 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.