Once it was a struggle to find ships that were kid-friendly, now the challenge is wading through the bevy of child-friendly activities, kids clubs and family cabins to determine which cruise ships are best for your youngsters. To make decisions even trickier, ships vary greatly, not just from line to line but within fleets, making some better than others in terms of onboard activities. We tend to recommend cruise lines' newer ships because the facilities were designed for families from the outset and have more space for fun activities such as water parks, ropes courses and rock-climbing walls.
The ships -- and cruise lines -- that follow are our top cruises for kids. Every family's travel style is different, so these are certainly not the only ships to consider. Think of them as a starting point as you narrow your choices for an unforgettable family vacation at sea.
1. Royal Caribbean International
Ships: Anthem of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas, Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas
Why: These ships, Royal Caribbean's largest, are ideal for families with kids of all ages, as well as multigenerational family groups. The Oasis-class ships have an impressive selection of family-friendly activities and entertainment -- multiple pools, a 3D theater, rock-climbing walls, ice skating rink, two FlowRider surf simulators, a zipline and parades in the indoor promenade.
The two newest of this class -- Symphony and Harmony -- also boast the Ultimate Abyss slide, a 10-story drop through light- and sound-effects, ending on the Boardwalk, which would be suitable for older kids (Must be at least 43 inches tall to slide.). The entrance on Deck 16 is a through the open jaws of a massive and unmistakable anglerfish -- probably the most terrifying part of the whole ordeal, as the ride is over in a matter of seconds.
Anthem of the Seas has a more sophisticated vibe, but many of its attractions will wow families. They include the SeaPlex (featuring bumper cars, rollerskating, video games and more), the first skydiving simulator at sea and the North Star, a London Eye-esque ride that takes passengers in a glass capsule 300 feet above the ocean. As well as a stunning aft theater, Two70, with a performance that showcases the ship's mind-blowing technology.
Parents and grandparents can enjoy adults-only Solariums, and a plethora of dining and evening entertainment options. With nursery care and after-hours fun in the kids clubs, adults can enjoy grownup time in the evenings while kids play or sleep. (Voyager- and Freedom-class ships are also great choices for families.)
Kids Club: A sizable amount of real estate is dedicated to the kids clubs on all of these ships, with separate areas for toddlers, kids and tweens/teens. You'll also find a theater, arts and crafts workshop, science lab, video arcade and the Scratch DJ Academy (not on Anthem of the Seas). The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs provide interactive classes and activities (when children are accompanied by a parent) for children from 6 months to 36 months old, as well as drop-off babysitting services, and toddler-friendly play spaces. The Adventure Ocean play spaces cater to Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (6 to 8) and Voyagers (9 to 11). Tweens and teens (12 to 17) have their Living Room coffeehouse-style hangout and Fuel disco. The counselors are some of the friendliest and most engaging in the business.
Kid-Friendly Features: Plenty of family staterooms and loft suites mean room for the family to spread out. There's even a Royal Family cabin that sleeps eight, and Symphony's Ultimate Family Suite with a slide, LEGO wall and games aplenty.
More than two-dozen dining options, including casual eateries like a hot dog joint and a New York-style pizza joint, as well as a variety of upscale specialty restaurants, mean no taste is overlooked. Johnny Rockets, the 1950s-style luncheonette, is always a kid magnet (and parents think it's pretty cool, too). Excellent Broadway-style shows in the evenings will keep the older crowd engaged, while parades and ice skating shows will wow the whole family. The spa offers special treatments for teens.
2. Disney Cruise Line
Ships: Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder
Why: Disney ships are ideal for families with kids ages 4 to 11, as Disney has the best facilities, dining schemes and programs for this age group. Disney Cruise Line has done a lot more to accommodate tweens and teens -- but its ships still hold the most appeal for the younger set. We prefer the line's biggest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, but the refurbished Disney Magic and Disney Wonder are great choices, as well.
Kids Club: Disney takes a unique separate-but-together approach to its kids programming, mainly to accommodate siblings and friends traveling together. The Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab allow children ages 3 to 12 to access the same spaces and activities, though programming is geared toward younger children in the Club and older children in the Lab.
The Oceaneer Club offers several themed play areas that are different on each ship, including Andy's Room (from "Toy Story"), Monsters Academy (inspired by "Monsters, Inc.") and Marvel's Avengers Academy, a S.H.I.E.L.D. command post where kids can interact with the Avengers through a virtual game. Disney Dream features a replica of the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars," where young ones can play pilot or learn lightsaber techniques from a Jedi Master. The Oceaneer Lab has an Animator's Studio and a mini sound studio.
These ships also have a kids club, Edge, dedicated entirely to tweens ages 11 to 14, with video games, karaoke and computers. The teen club, Vibe (for cruisers ages 14 to 17), has modular furniture and a coffee shop feel. There is also a for-fee nursery available to care for the littlest cruisers, ages 6 months to 3 years.
Kid-Friendly Features: Disney ships feature a kids pool, family pool and adults-only pool. The popular AquaDuck waterslide is a big hit with families on Fantasy and Dream, while the AquaDunk thrills those onboard Disney Magic. On all ships but Dream, the AquaLab has sprayers and geysers perfect for the smallest passengers. Other great facilities include the Walt Disney Theatre, which features live shows featuring Disney favorites (such as "Tangled, the Musical" and "Frozen, the Musical"); the Buena Vista Theatre, which screens first-run movies; and D Lounge, which presents interactive activities for kids and parents.
Disney's cabins are family-friendly with room-dividing curtains, bunkbeds with twinkle-light constellations and plenty of storage. The bath-and-a-half in most staterooms allows folks to shower in one while someone else is using the toilet in the other. Disney's ships also hold a cool "Pirates of the Caribbean" deck party, complete with fireworks and Jack Sparrow rappelling off the ship's funnel. Other themed events on select sailings include Star Wars Day at Sea, Marvel Day at Sea and special Halloween and Christmas events throughout the fall. All ships feature the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where children are transformed into princesses, pirates, knights and sea captains.
Onboard restaurants successfully keep kids entertained while allowing parents to enjoy the meal, as well. For example, in Animator's Palate, animated dinner shows include "Finding Nemo" characters conversing with passengers and kids' drawings coming to life; at Rapunzel's Royal Table, "Tangled" characters perform songs between courses. Waitstaff will cut your kids' food and offer an array of kid favorites, such as mac-n-cheese and mini-burgers. Two onboard restaurants are adults-only so mom and dad can take advantage of the kids club and have a date night.
4. Carnival Cruise Line
Ships: Carnival Horizon, Carnival Vista, Carnival Breeze, Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic
Why: Carnival Cruise Line's Vista- and Dream-class ships offer an array of onboard fun and do a great job accommodating kids of all ages, with separate clubs for the 2 to 11 set, tweens and teens. The ships offer a terrific variety of family activities and spaces. Families will make good use of two outdoor pools and SportSquare; a multistory IMAX theater (Vista Class only); and some of the largest at-sea water parks. We're also very excited for Carnival Mardi Gras, the line's newest and biggest ship (5,200 passengers) and which debuts in April 2021 -- boasting the first roller coaster at sea: BOLT.
Kids Club: The fleetwide Camp Ocean entertains cruisers ages 2 to 11, divided into three groups, with marine-themed activities and other games. Carnival is the only line to allow 2-year-olds into its free, drop-off programs, and counselors will change diapers. Camp Ocean occupies a large chunk of upper-deck real estate, while the tween and teen clubs are separate from the little ones on lower decks. Circle C pre-teens (12 to 14) and Club O2 teens (15 to 17) have their own spaces, and kids have access to regular dance and pool parties, special teens-only shore excursions and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
Kid-Friendly Features: A huge draw for kids on these ships is WaterWorks, an aqua park with a variety of waterslides, sprayers, soakers and a splash area for little (but potty-trained) kids. Children can play in the pool, as well as SportSquare, an outdoor activity area with a mini-golf course, basketball courts and foosball tables, and the thrilling new SkyRide cycling attraction on Vista-class ships. Mardi Gras takes it up a few notches with the Ultimate Playground -- this zone will encompass the ship's top three decks with the largest water park in the fleet, along with an expanded SportSquare.
Watch movies outside on the Dream-class ships at the Seaside Theatre, a 22-foot jumbo screen. Breeze is home to the Thrill Theater, a 3D-movie joint with "multidimensional effects" (think seats moving, wind blowing and even water splashing during films). On Vista and Horizon, a Multiplex screens flicks in both an IMAX Theater and a Thrill Theater. Families can cavort on a deceptively scary ropes course or take part in Carnival's "Hasbro, The Game" show, a friendly competition and stage show with games as prizes.
All our top ships offer plenty of family-friendly staterooms, but on Vista-class ships, Family Harbor, a collection of staterooms that can accommodate up to five cruisers, offers access to an exclusive Family Lounge, free meals for kids at select extra-fee restaurants, one free night of after-hours group babysitting in Camp Ocean and pint-size bathrobes. Teens are also welcome in Carnival's spas. In addition, all Carnival ships offer Build-A-Bear workshops where kids can create their own stuffed animal (for a fee).
4. Norwegian Cruise Line
Ships: Norwegian Escape, Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Epic
Why: Norwegian's casual atmosphere makes it a great choice for kid cruises, particularly for families who don't want to be beholden to strict dining times, venues and dress codes. Norwegian's newer ships offer all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect (though we found Norwegian Encore and Bliss to have a more grownup vibe, so it's not making our list of top family-friendly ships).
Kids Club: Norwegian's Splash Academy features separate activities for kids ages 3 to 5, 6 to 9 and 10 to 12. Children can do arts and crafts, sing karaoke and play video games. Epic's facility has a jungle gym, plenty of room to roam and a cool interactive light-up dance floor. The two-story Splash Academies on Norwegian Escape, Breakaway and Getaway are the line's largest children's spaces at sea, home to high-tech games, a circus school and a small cinema. Entourage is a space for teens 13 to 17, and it has air hockey, video games, plush couches and flat-screen TVs. Entourage turns into a teens-only nightclub at night.
Late-night group babysitting is available for a fee. While all ships have parent-child play areas and programming for babies 6 months to 3 years, only Norwegian Escape offers drop-off, extra-fee childcare for very small children in the Guppies Nursery.
Kid-Friendly Features: Popular activities throughout these ships include rock climbing and rappelling walls, climbing cages, bowling lanes and impressive water park areas. Epic has a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. Breakaway and Getaway have five multistory waterslides, as well as The Plank, an 8-foot walk (part of the ropes course) that extends off the edge of the ship and out over the sea. Escape offers one of the largest ropes course at sea, as well as one of the largest water parks at sea. All four have two main pools, including a separate kids pool.
Norwegian Epic hosts "Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical," a great show for kids of all ages. Epic also has 46 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six people, while Breakaway and Getaway have 20 two-bedroom villas. On Escape, the Haven has two-bedroom family suites that sleep up to six passengers, and there are an additional 40 family mini-suites that feature bathtubs.
5. Princess Cruises
Ships: Regal Princess, Royal Princess, Ruby Princess, Crown Princess and Emerald Princess
Why: Princess' ships include expansive programs, facilities and accommodations for parents and children. Two of the line's newest and largest ships, Royal and Regal Princess, have even more great additions for families, including expanded kids club spaces, more dining options, a batting cage and laser shooting range, a bigger pool deck with a water and light show and poolside cabanas (The reason we are not including Sky Princess in this list is that the pool deck lacks any kid-friendly elements and there is no video game arcade onboard.)
Further, as part of the expansion of its partnership with Discovery Communications, Princess is revamping the youth spaces on several of its ships to include lively, modern decor. (All the ships on our list have either received or will receive the makeover.) Discovery-inspired programming, which includes fun and educational activities, has rolled out fleetwide.
Kids Club: Dubbed Camp Discovery, the rebranded kids clubs include The Treehouse for ages 3 to 7, The Lodge for ages 8 to 12, and The Beach House for ages 13 to 17. Activities might include a scavenger hunt themed around Caribbean sharks, hands-on "Mythbusters"-style challenges, learning the science of magic, junior ranger programs and general cruise favorites, such as video game tournaments, art projects and storytime. The kids clubs are outfitted with foosball, air hockey and even Skee-Ball. Teens can choose from sport tournaments, themed parties, dance classes and late-night movies.
Kid-Friendly Features: On Grand-class ships (Ruby Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess), there are two large pools that are suitable for families (Calypso Reef and Pool, and Neptune Reef and Pool), and there's a splash pool dedicated for kids. Royal and Regal Princess have outdoor play areas with a jungle gym for kids ages 3 to 7, and another for teens with a teens-only hot tub and space for outdoor parties.
Movies Under the Stars is the line's huge outdoor movie theater that plays poolside features on the top deck after the sun sets. The 300-square-foot screen broadcasts kid- and teen-friendly movies, as well as fun-for-the-whole-gang blockbusters, and live sporting events and awards shows. Another cool offering: Parents are welcome to attend the Jr. Chef@Sea Program, a hands-on chef-led cooking class that takes place in a shipboard kitchen, alongside their budding-chef kiddos.
The Discovery connection extends beyond the kids club to whole-family programming. Shark Week at Sea offers shark-themed games and activities for the whole family on select summer cruises, while families on select Alaska sailings can embark on a search for Big Foot (a la the TV show "Finding Bigfoot") or participate in a crab-sorting challenge (inspired by "Deadliest Catch"). Princess marks select shore excursions as Discovery Family Tours, which are targeted at families with kids ages 3 to 12 and involve hands-on activities that connect kids to the destination. Animal Planet tours are ideal for parents and kids who want to see whales, sharks, sloths and other critters up close.