Cruise travelers with disabilities have concerns that others might never consider. Can they open their stateroom door and smoothly roll in on a wheelchair? Can they easily take a shower? Is it possible to get off the ship in port or hear the evening show?
The best cruise lines have already thought through these questions. They aim to give these passengers extra peace of mind and a relaxing vacation.
While all cruise ships (even foreign-flagged ones) sailing in U.S. waters should be compliant with the U.S. Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), there aren't standards specifically addressing cruise ships, which means that some lines do more than others.
To help you find the best ship for your needs, we're highlighting the vessels that excel in physical accessibility and also accommodate passengers with hearing and visual impairments. In most cases, we recommend the cruise lines' newest ships, which have the most cabins for disabled users and incorporate the latest designs that take into account limitations faced by those traveling with handicaps. We also call out a few fleetmates, older ships that get consistently positive reviews from travelers with disabilities.
For disabled passengers, bigger may really be better. Royal Caribbean International's large ships give passengers the benefit of some of the roomiest spaces at sea. The line gets top ratings from disability-focused websites like Special Needs at Sea.
The 5,518-passenger Symphony of the Seas debuted in 2018 as the world's largest cruise ship, but disabled passengers don't get lost in the mix. Staff is attuned to travelers' needs, and the ship offers 46 accessible cabins with wide stateroom and bathroom doors with low doorsills and ramped thresholds, roll-in showers, grab bars and turning spaces. Other touches include lowered sink and vanity, a fold-down shower bench, handheld showerheads, higher toilet and lowered closet rods.
Wide gangplanks accommodate most wheelchairs and scooters. Public areas have accessible public restrooms with automatic doors, and all dining venues and bars offer wheelchair seating. There are lifts for the pool and whirlpool, along with lower playing tables at the casino and guest relations. Forward and rear wheelchair seating is available at entertainment venues, including the Aqua Theater, Royal Theater and Studio B, with the latter two offering assistive listening devices. Another plus: a roll-in shower in the spa's wet treatment room.
Throughout the ship, passengers will find Braille/tactile signage on elevator buttons, stateroom numbers and deck numbers on staircase handrails.
Sign language interpreting services are provided on cruises that depart from and/or return to the U.S. and Canada, with at least 60 days' notice prior to sailing.
Fleetmates: Royal Caribbean's other Oasis-class ships, Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas, get similarly top ratings from travelers with disabilities. In addition, the 1,992-passenger Grandeur of the Seas has many fans, who praise the personable crew.
Holland America Line attracts a mature crowd, so it's highly attuned to passengers with mobility or other accessibility needs. It receives praise from cruisers with hearing impairments for fleetwide availability of listening and other devices.
Passengers will find 27 fully accessible staterooms on the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam, the line's newest, most technologically advanced ship. Its public computers even have screen-reader software to help the visually impaired.
The fully accessible rooms have wide stateroom and bathroom doors with no sills and ramped thresholds, along with bathroom grab bars, roll-in showers with fold-down benches and handheld showerheads. There are also lower closet rods, a portable visual/tactile alert system by request, and accessible balconies for select cabins.
The ship also has 13 ambulatory accessible cabins, which have a small step to the shower and are designed for passengers with limited mobility who do not use a wheelchair, scooter or similar device. Taken together, the ship has one of the highest percentage of cabins available to travelers who have a disability.
The gangway is wide enough for mobility devices, and dining and bar areas and public restrooms are wheelchair accessible. The ship features lower tables in the casino and guest relations, and wheelchair seating in the main lounge.
The vessel offers large print or Braille menus with prior request, as well as a guided tour during embarkation. It permits service dogs and provides downloadable daily activities and menus for passengers with their own laptops or e-readers, allowing them to enlarge the type, or have it read to them by the device.
Fleetmates: Maasdam and its sister ship Veendam, in the line's Statendam (or S) class, also consistently get top reviews from disabled travelers. But with only eight fully accessible cabins (seven on Maasdam), bookings should be made far in advance.
With an emphasis on accessible shore excursions, Celebrity Cruises offers special amenities on select cruises to disabled passengers. Full-time wheelchair users are usually able to tender in port, an added freedom not afforded on all cruise ships. Celebrity also offers better and more affordable accessible shore excursions (according to Cruise Critic members), especially with the use of full-size coaches with wheelchair lift access.
The line's biggest ship, 3,046-passenger Celebrity Reflection, offers 30 accessible staterooms with automatic doors, an extra plus appreciated by those in wheelchairs. Plus, for those bringing the whole family, accessible cabins include suites that can sleep up to four people.
In addition, Reflection's accessible staterooms offer extra-wide stateroom doors without sills, and bathroom doors provide ramped thresholds, grab bars and roll-in showers with fold-down bench and handheld showerheads. There are also lowered sink and stateroom vanities and a raised toilet, along with lowered closet rods, lowered safe, open bed frames, accessible balconies for select cabins and amplified telephones. Bed blocks are also available to raise the bed. A kit with strobe door knocker, strobe light telephone and vibrating alarm clock under pillow or mattress is also available.
In public areas, passengers find accessible bathrooms with automatic doors, along with wide gangways, and Braille/tactile signage in public rooms, elevators, staterooms and deck numbers on staircase handrails. Sign language services are available with at least 60 days' notice on cruises that depart from and/or return to the U.S. and Canada.
Elsewhere, there's wheelchair seating in all dining venues and bars; a lower counter at the Martini Bar, in the casino and at guest relations; and forward and rear wheelchair seating plus an assistive listening system at the Reflection Theater. Passengers with impaired mobility will also appreciate lifts at the pool and whirlpool. There's also an accessible route to the tender platform, again not standard on every ship.
Fleetmates: You'll find similar amenities on Celebrity's Solstice class sister ships: Silhouette, Eclipse, Equinox and Solstice. Millennium, which was last updated in 2012, also gets good reviews, although it's scheduled to be overhauled in February 2019.
Princess Cruises has long focused on accessibility, launching its first access program in 1992 and becoming the first cruise line to employ a manager of access compliance 10 years later.
In St. Thomas, the line helped develop tours featuring the island's accessible trolley. Princess Cays, the line's private Bahamas beach, has ramps for easier access. The line's excursion listings indicate the level of access for each tour. Alaska cruisetour passengers will find the line's wilderness lodges meet ADA guidelines, with accessible rooms and public spaces. And Princess' Midnight Sun Express railcars offer wheelchair access to the lower levels of the car, including dining areas and outside observation platforms.
Launched in 2014, 3,569-passenger Regal Princess is one of the line's newest ships, and offers an impressive 38 accessible staterooms -- especially welcome because most cabins on the ship are on the tight side.
The accessible cabins have wide stateroom doors without sills and wide ramped-threshold bathroom doors. They have roll-in showers, grab bars and wide turning spaces. They also have a fold-down shower seat and handheld showerheads, and ship staff can provide shower stools and toilet risers upon request. Each bathroom has a high toilet and bath distress alarms. Rooms have a lower closet rod and refrigerator.
Elsewhere onboard Regal Princess, a wide gangway eases access, and a wheelchair assistance team can help with embarkation and debarkation. There are accessible public restrooms, and a sign-language interpreter can be provided with request several months before sailing. All dining and bar venues have wheelchair seating, as does the main theater, which has an assistive listening system.
ADA kits are available featuring telephone amplifiers, visual smoke detectors, door knock sensors and text telephones. A lift offers access to the Neptune pool and whirlpool. The cabin directory and emergency information are provided in Braille. Most service animals are permitted.
Note that while special gangway stairlifts can help with tendering, access is not guaranteed at all ports, due to local conditions, and passengers may find themselves unable to go ashore.
Fleetmates: Princess' other Royal-class ships, such as Majestic Princess and Royal Princess, have similar accessible amenities. In addition, travelers with disabilities give high marks to Ruby Princess, which was refurbished in late 2015, and welcomes disabled passengers in 31 accessible staterooms.
Norwegian Cruise Line has a long history of working with special needs passengers, employing trained access officers, and even providing passengers an embarkation day meeting with a staff member who will assist with accessibility needs during the cruise. The line also offers accessible ground transportation to and from ports in the U.S.
The line's newest ship, 4,004-passenger Norwegian Bliss, has 42 accessible staterooms with alarm pull rods in bathrooms and alarm buttons beside the beds. Staterooms and bathrooms have wide, ramped entries without sills. Bathrooms have grab bars, roll-in showers, handheld showerheads and high toilets. They also have lower closet rods and accessible balconies with automatic doors. The toilet is high and has collapsible arm guards, proving support and making it easier for transfer.
Gangways are wide enough to accommodate most wheelchairs and scooters, and accessible public restrooms are widely available. All dining and bar venues have wheelchair access, as does the video arcade. There's also wheelchair seating in the theater and showrooms.
The line also provides pagers for the hearing impaired, assistive listening systems and Braille/tactical signage. A sign language interpreter can be provided with at least 90 days' notice before sailing for cruises that depart and/or return to the U.S. Service animals are accepted.
Fleetmates: Sister ship Norwegian Escape is another of Norwegian's newer ship, with similar amenities and 47 accessible staterooms. The older, 2,394-passenger Norwegian Gem, which has 27 accessible cabins, also gets consistently positive reviews from passengers with disabilities.
Children with disabilities can still join in the fun on this 2,500-passenger family-focused ship. The line adheres to the philosophy that any child should be able to participate in youth programming, regardless of ability, and youth counselors have experience working with children with special needs, including autism and behavioral challenges.
Disney Fantasy's 25 accessible rooms offer wide cabin and bathroom doors with low doorsills and ramped bathroom thresholds, along with roll-in showers, bathroom and shower grab bars and open bed frames, allowing access from both sides. There are fold-down shower seats, handheld showerheads, lowered towel and closet bars, and emergency call buttons, which can be activated upon request.
The ship can also provide a bed board (which can be helpful to people with a back injury or arthritis), a bed rail, portable toilet, raised toilet seat, shower stool and transfer bench.
A wide gangway allows for wheelchair access, and accessible restrooms are found throughout the ship. On the line's private island, Castaway Cay, paved paths provide access to shops and wheelchairs. Sand wheelchairs are available, and a tram accommodates manual and electric wheelchairs. An accessible cabana is also available.
Large print communication is available, and theaters provide assistive listening systems. Assistance packets also contain show scripts, and stateroom communication kits include a bed-shaker alarm, doorbell and phone alerts, a phone amplifier and a smoke detector with a strobe light. Sign language interpreters can be requested at least 60 days before sailing for U.S.-based cruises, and are available on some European sailings. Trained service animals are allowed.
Wheelchair seating is available at dining venues, in theaters and for on-deck activities. Wheelchairs can also access the miniature golf course and the laundry.
The pool lift is not permanently installed and must be requested when booking the cruise. It will only be available at specified times because it cannot be kept in place throughout the sailing.
Fleetmates: Disney Dream also offers similar amenities.
Disabled passengers can experience luxury cruising on the small Regent Seven Seas Cruises line, which offers all-suite ships and a high crew-to-passenger ratio. Due to Explorer's relatively small ship size, passengers may find it easier to navigate the vessel.
The 750-capacity Seven Seas Explorer, the largest ship in Regent's fleet, has three accessible cabins, which can sell out quickly. They offer wide cabin and bathroom doors, with low doorsills and ramped bathroom thresholds. The roll-in showers have a fold-down bench, handheld showerheads, higher toilet, lowered sink and vanity, and closet rod. A refrigerator and commode chair are available by request, and balconies are accessible for select cabins.
Public restrooms are accessible. All dining and bar venues accommodate wheelchairs, and the showroom and casino are both accessible. There's also Braille/tactile signage for elevator buttons and stateroom numbers. Wide gangways allow wheelchair users to more easily get on and off the ship.
Fleetmates: Seven Seas Mariner, though smaller than Explorer, is similarly equipped and has six cabins for passengers with disabilities.
With 65 accessible staterooms, this bold, new ship, launched in 2018, includes plenty of options for disabled travelers. The 3,960-capacity Carnival Horizon has three types of accessible cabins: fully accessible cabins with approach to the bed from both sides, fully accessible cabins with a single side approach to the bed, and ambulatory accessible cabins for passengers that don't require a wheelchair, but can still benefit from accessibility features like grab bars.
Each of the wheelchair-friendly cabins has wide doors with no doorsill, roll-in showers and a fold-down bench with ramped bathroom thresholds, grab bars and additional turning space for wheelchairs or scooters. In addition, they feature tall toilets, lowered closet rod and accessible balconies for select staterooms.
All dining areas and bars have wheelchair seating, as does the main theater. Sign language interpreting services are provided on cruises that depart from and/or return to the U.S. and Canada, with at least 60 days' notice prior to sailing. Service dogs are welcome.
Fleetmates: Other Vista-class ships -- including Carnival Vista, which launched in 2016, and Carnival Panorama, expected to debut in 2019 -- include the latest accessible features and are also good choices.
The Italian-founded cruise line meets international accessibility standards, and the 4,132-passenger MSC Seaside has plenty to interest passengers who are disabled. It's the line's first purpose-built vessel for the North American market, and offers an impressive 51 accessible cabins, one of the highest numbers (and percentage of cabins) available on any ship.
The accessible cabins have wide stateroom and bathroom doors with no sill or lip. They have bathroom grab bars, fold-down shower benches, handheld showerheads, lower closet rods and accessible balconies.
Wide gangways will accommodate most wheelchairs. The ship has accessible public restrooms and wide elevator openings. For the visually impaired, there are Braille stateroom door plates, stairway handrail markings, elevator button and directional signs in hallways. Personal amplifiers are available in theaters, and hearing impaired kits are provided upon request. Service animals are welcome.
Children or young travelers with special needs can be placed with a lower age group in youth programs, or can take part in specific activities with their parents, if required. Sign language interpreters are provided for cruises that depart and end in a U.S. port with at least 60 days' notice before sailing.
Shore excursions list outings suitable for travelers who are mobility impaired.
Fleetmates: MSC Seaview is similarly equipped.