Best Cruises for Families
Cruise lines are going after the family crowd like never before, adding elaborate water parks, upgrading camplike activities, and making shows more kid-friendly.
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.
Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas
The world's largest ships can also brag about an award-winning kids’ program and attractions that include ice-skating rinks, ziplines, and merry-go-rounds. Thanks to a deal with DreamWorks, characters from Shrek, Madagascar, and Kung Fu Panda make frequent appearances on these ships (as well as Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas). Complimentary Barbie activities, including movies and storytelling, will tickle some little girls pink.
Sample Cruise: Seven-night eastern or western Caribbean, year-round from Fort Lauderdale, FL, Allure or Oasis, from $799. royalcaribbean.com
Star Princess and Golden Princess
On Princess’s Alaska cruises, kids learn about glaciers, endangered wildlife, and native animals in a Junior Ranger Program run in conjunction with the National Park Service—they can even earn a badge and certificate. The cruise line also teamed up with the California Science Center for a Science at Sea program—complete with experiments in marine biology, held in conjunction with the California Science Center. Junior chefs can take cooking classes too, and Princess is also the only cruise line that gives kids and teens the chance to practice their downward dog poses in a youth-focused yoga program.
Sample Cruise: Seven-night Alaska, round-trip from Seattle on the 2,600-passenger Star Princess, from $799 double occupancy. princess.com
Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream
The newest Disney ships launched with all kinds of whiz-bang features, from artwork that springs to life with animation to lavish high-tech show productions that are the best in the industry—and feature familiar Disney songs that will leave you humming. But the biggest star on these 4,000-passenger ships is the AquaDuck, a real water coaster at sea. Take the 765-foot ride in a translucent tube and get ready to twist and shout, especially when, for a few seconds, you are whipped over the edge of the ship.
Sample Cruise: Seven-night eastern or western Caribbean year-round from Port Canaveral, FL, on Disney Fantasy, from $1,085. disneycruise.disney.go.com
Luxury line Crystal Cruises has been making a big play for multigenerational family groups, with its dedicated play areas and kids' programming—especially during holidays and the summer school break. Activities on the 1,080-passenger Crystal Serenity include kiddie cooking classes in the galley and a tour backstage in the theater. Perhaps most attractive to parents are special promotions where kids under age 18 cruise free on select sailings.
Sample Cruise: 10-day northern Europe, Copenhagen to Stockholm, from $4,850 per person. crystalcruises.com
Queen Mary 2
A transatlantic cruise on this traditional 2,630-passenger ship, which passes only miles from the Titanic site, has novelties that even kids can appreciate. Cunard employs real British nannies for the youngest guests (older kids get decidedly modern-day perks like PlayStation 3). At night, youngsters in mini ball gowns and tuxes can be spotted dancing with their parents at fancy balls; by day, a dress-up children's high tea provides a dose of glamour. Beyond this British pedigree, the Queen Mary 2 is also distinctive for its planetarium, where kids can learn about the stars and planets.
Sample Cruise: Seven-night transatlantic, New York to Southampton, from $1,399 per person. cunard.com
When the 4,000-passenger Norwegian Breakaway debuts in May 2013, older kids will make a beeline for Deck 17, where a huge water park counts five multistory waterslides. (The feet-first slide dubbed Free Fall is determined to break the record for fastest waterslide at sea.) Little kids get their own waterpark in the fleet's largest Splash Academy play center, themed with Nickelodeon characters such as SpongeBob and Dora the Explorer. Norwegian's exclusive partnership with the TV network also includes a pajama party with the costumed characters, shows, and games—there’s even a chance to get “slimed.”
Sample Cruise: Weeklong Bermuda cruises, round-trip from New York, fares from $759 in summer. breakaway.ncl.com
Carnival's newest ship serves up a family-focused experience that includes a water park with slides and a giant dump bucket, which elicits squeals of delight as it soaks those underneath. A SkyCourse ropes course, meanwhile, lets kids dangle 150 feet above sea level. The 3,690-passenger ship has also introduced a lively game show in conjunction with Hasbro, where families compete at larger-than-life versions of Sorry! and Yahtzee. An all-cruise pass ($14.95) grants access to the 24-seat Thrill Theater, whose 3-D movies include special effects like blowing air and squirting water.
Sample Cruise: Six-night southern Caribbean, round-trip from Miami, from $399. carnival.com
In June 2013, Princess Cruises will debut its newest and largest ship, the 3,600-passenger Royal Princess, with expanded space dedicated to kids—even outdoors. In addition to using age-appropriate centers, younger kids can frolic in an open-air playground complete with spinners and a slide, plus space to ride a fleet of tricycles. Kids ages 8 to 12 get a dedicated outdoor space with living room-style furnishings and games. Teens, meanwhile, can linger in their own hip outdoor area complete with cool club lighting, loungers and even a wading pool.
Sample Cruise: 12-day Grand Mediterranean, between Barcelona and Venice, from $2,299 double occupancy. princess.com
On this 2,700-passenger ship (and sister Disney Wonder), a whole deck is dedicated to kids' facilities. With the Magic returning to Europe in summer 2013, Disney also brings its storytelling spin to new Port Adventures. In Venice, passengers can attend a reception at the famous Doge's Palace along with costumed Disney royalty, and in Turkey, families can spend quality time while decoding clues in a team competition at the ancient archaeological site of Ephesus. But for some kids, there will be nothing quite like the ooh-and-ahh moment when Disney princesses like Belle and Snow White descend the ship’s grand staircase.
Sample Cruise: Seven-night western Mediterranean cruise (France, Italy), round-trip from Barcelona, from $1,309 per person. disneycruise.disney.go.com
Lindblad’s National Geographic Endeavour
Kids were rare on small expedition ships a decade ago, but Lindblad, which has made a push for the market, reports that 12 percent of passengers on its 2012 Galápagos cruises were under age 18. For parents, a tie-in with National Geographic Kids is a big draw—expedition leaders get training from the organization and are more than willing to bend down and answer kids’ questions about wildlife. What the ship lacks in kid-specific facilities it makes up for with creative offerings such as learning to drive a Zodiac craft, wildlife photography lessons, and bridge visits with the captain. If several kids are on board, there may be an impromptu pizza and movie night.
Sample Cruise: 10-day Galápagos, including hotel stays and air from Guayaquil, Ecuador, from $4,990. expeditions.com