When mystery writer Harlan Coben thinks family vacation, cruises always pop to mind. Coben has taken his four kids, ages 6 to 14, on cruises to the Caribbean, Alaska, and elsewhere. It’s easy to see why a cruise vacation makes sense for him and many families: ships today have waterslides, rock-climbing walls, teen and tween clubs, babysitters, mini golf, and much more—all designed to attract families.
The strategy is working: Carnival Cruise Lines reports the number of kids onboard annually has increased in 10 years from 100,000 to 600,000. All the major cruise lines now have kids’ programs with age-appropriate and fun activities catering to everyone from toddlers to teens. Several lines, including Princess and Royal Caribbean, even add an educational aspect with science experiments; Disney offers animation art lessons.
“What I’ve always liked about cruises is the no-brainer aspect,” says Coben. “No packing and unpacking, and you can hit a lot of spots. You wake up and you’re in a new port.” And thanks to supervised kids’ programs, he and his wife and the kids can all do their own thing. “You have the advantages of being with them and not being with them,” Coben explains.
Sadie MacKinnon of Boston is a veteran cruiser at age 9, and she has advice. “Going on a cruise is better than traveling on a plane or train, because they’re cool. I like that there are pools, giant movie screens, and lots of restaurants, and getting off at different islands and doing all the stuff like horseback riding and snorkeling,” says MacKinnon, whose last cruise was on a Princess ship. “I can’t wait to go on another cruise.”
Generally the newer ships are better for families, with more of the offerings kids find appealing. Queens of this trend are Royal Caribbean’s newest ships, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas, the world’s largest ships, which are equipped with ice-skating rinks, rock-climbing walls, miniature golf, wave pools for onboard surfing, water parks with squirting geysers, basketball courts, and more.
Cruise lines have also added family-friendly accommodations. Disney offers cabins for five with sleeping areas in the living room and 1-1/2 baths; Royal Caribbean has family cabins featuring alcoves that can accommodate six; and the newest Norwegian Cruise Line ships, including Norwegian Gem, have a good variety of cabin arrangements (standard cabins for the kids connect to extravagant suites for parents).
New, beefed-up dining options—buffets and pizzerias open long hours so restless kids don’t have to sit in a formal dining room every night—are now the norm on family ships. NCL and Princess also give cruising clans the chance to eat in the dining room whenever they want (the other lines still require a set time and assigned table in the dining room; you can eat anytime at the buffet).
Even luxury line Crystal, very much a posh adult playground, is encouraging visits by the younger set, organizing a kids’ activities program whenever kids are onboard and encouraging multigenerational family gatherings by offering substantial discounts for kid cruisers.
With this sea change, one thing’s certain: there’s an ocean of options for cruising families, and kids are sure to have the most fun of all.