Yes! You will find the most kid-friendly options on family-oriented cruise lines such as Disney, Royal Caribbean, Carnival, MSC and Norwegian, and the least on luxury lines or small ships geared more toward adults.
All mainstream lines, and some luxury ones, will have a kids club -- a kind of onboard camp for kids ages 3 to 17, where trained counselors organize age-appropriate activities throughout the day and into the night, in dedicated play areas that might include science labs, arts and crafts areas, theaters and electronic game areas. These are typically drop-off programs, and adults are often not allowed to join their kids in the clubs. Some also have nurseries or play spaces for babies and toddlers.
Yes, many ships offer family-friendly cruise activities. Programming might include parades, deck parties, fireworks displays, water shows and breakfasts or meet-and-greets with favorite characters. Some lines have video game systems and host tournaments, and most have arcades.
Plus, you might find that your kids take an interest in typical cruise ship activities not specifically aimed at children, such as silly pool games, fancy afternoon tea, trivia contests, crafting sessions, dance lessons and art auctions. Many cruise lines also show movies on indoor or poolside screens and on in-cabin TVs. Onboard libraries or card rooms might carry board games and kids' books. Some ships even have surprising amenities like zip-lines, roller and ice skating rinks, carousels, bungee trampolines and bumper cars or go-karts.
Very few activities specifically prohibit children; these usually focus on drinking, gambling or spa treatments. Older children can access the spa and fitness center but might require a parent's presence or permission.
Cruise ships may have waterslides, pools and water play areas. In addition, mini-golf, rock climbing walls, sports courts, ping pong, foosball, giant chess and shuffleboard are typical onboard attractions. Royal Caribbean even has cruise ships with surf simulators and zip lines.
With few exceptions, children who are not toilet trained may not use shipboard pools or hot tubs. Swim diapers are not allowed in most pools. This is in accordance with the Center for Disease Control's Vessel Sanitation Program (VSP.)
In most cases, even splash pads and spray parks designed for small children share water recirculation systems with other pool areas, making them off limits for non-potty trained toddlers. Cruise lines may apply for variances for splash parks with independent water systems. To date, only Royal Caribbean and Disney Cruise Line have the variances on select ships.
In addition, certain pools and hot tubs may be labeled adults-only. Water slides and water rides tend to have height minimums (often between 42 and 48 inches tall) and younger children might need parental permission.
Parents are not allowed to join in kids club activities, except for specific free play times or parent-kid events. Children old enough to sign themselves in and out of the kids club (usually 9 or 10 years old) can roam the ship on their own, though many lines set curfews on when kids cannot be in public areas without a parent present. Obviously, misbehaving unsupervised youngsters are frowned upon and will usually be dealt with by cruise officers.
At night, most kids clubs host drop-off parties, so kids can hang out with their friends while their parents enjoy leisurely dinners or hit the bars. The ship's main theater will offer family-friendly shows, such as song-and-dance revues, musical soloists or guest groups, magicians, comedians or local acts (think Polynesian dancers in Hawaii). Any adults-only comedy shows or interactive games tend to take place much later at night. Evening movies or deck parties might be family-friendly or adults-only.
Some cruise lines offer in-cabin baby-sitting, for an extra fee, only if crewmembers are available to take on the extra work. The minimum age for in-cabin sitting is usually 12 months.
Otherwise, most cruise lines offer group baby-sitting in their kids club; daytime activities are free, but late-night "parties" from about 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. often incur a per-hour, per-child, cost. When ships are in port, some kids clubs will entertain children while their parents are ashore; others require that at least one parent or guardian remain onboard.
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The What to Expect on a Cruise series, written by Cruise Critic's editorial staff, is a resource guide, where we answer the most common questions about cruise ship life -- including cruise food, cabins, drinks and onboard fun -- as well as money matters before and during your cruise and visiting ports of call on your cruise.