Call it a kid takeover of the high seas.
Why the sea change? Here is the number that has caught the cruise lines' collective attention: more than 1.5 million children (ages 18 and younger) are now cruising each year, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
Carnival Cruise Lines alone hosted 710,000 kids onboard its 24 ships in 2012, and expects 725,000 kid passengers in 2013. The numbers, says spokesman Vance Gulliksen, represent records both for the cruise line and the industry.
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The Carnival Breeze, its newest ship, puts the focus on family with its waterslides, a SkyCourse ropes course that dangles kids 150 feet above sea level, and a lively game show in which families compete at larger-than-life versions of Sorry! and Yahtzee.
Activity rosters for toddlers to teens are so full of age-appropriate programming that some big ships give kids their own daily newsletter. And as a result, there can be less time together than you might expect out of a family vacation.
“Within half an hour they meet their 'new best friends' and we have to make an appointment to see them,” quips Mary Beth Casey, owner of an Expedia CruiseShipCenters franchise in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and parent of two.
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To make the time back in the cabins more comfortable, ships like the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Breakaway, which debuts in May 2013, have designated family cabins that sleep five, conveniently located near youth playrooms. And most Disney Cruise cabins come with 1.5 baths.
For 12-year-old Sasha Wenograd of West Hartford, CT, who has taken cruises on Norwegian and Disney, friendly youth counselors and free time to hang out between activities are key to a good time at sea. Facilities, she says, aren’t everything.
Some ships without any whiz-bang features find other ways to appeal to kids. On a recent Galápagos cruise on Lindblad Expeditions' 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavour, six-year-old Jamie Koplow of Wilmette, IL, was thrilled by the wildlife sightings.
“You know, there are actually three species of boobies in the Galáapagos, red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca,” he eagerly recounts.
For more vacation moments that your kids won’t stop talking about, set sail on one of the best cruise ships for families.