Choosing the best cruise for your family is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Some ships are better for infants than others, and ditto for teens, and not all itineraries are created equal (Alaska and Caribbean are super destinations that tend to be kid-friendly). Add to the mix the fact that ships vary greatly not just from line to line but within fleets — and that some are better than others in terms of onboard accouterments.
Onboard programs and facilities have taken a wide leap, particularly in the past few years. A few interesting evolutions:
The biggest, most important trend: Because kids’ developmental stages really do vary drastically, some cruise lines divide them into groups of 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 8-year-olds, rather than lump 3- to 8-year-olds in one program.
Teens-only programs incorporate a range of shipwide options, from spa treatments to shore excursions.
Programs have been created in conjunction with popular companies that market to kids, such as Crayola, Coca-Cola and Fisher-Price.
In the accommodations arena, the hottest new concept is family suites — and many cruise lines building new ships have designed those vessels to incorporate this type of stateroom design.
Entertainment achieved a major pinnacle with the launch of Disney’s two ships, but there are numerous productions — not to mention in-cabin television channels — designed to distract across the board.
Onboard activities have become as important as shore excursions, if not more so. Cruise lines are creating new attractions (rock climbing walls, believe it or not, are passe!) ranging from elaborate water parks to movie matinees.
Special menus for tykes are offered in a variety of dining venues.
Compiling these picks was a bit like splitting hairs: Picking the best isn’t simply a matter of settling on a cruise line but also looking at ships in particular (vessels can vary widely within fleets). “The newer, the better” is often a useful mantra for choosing a family-friendly ship … but not always. Though Holland America as a cruise line did not ultimately wind up in our list of recommendations, ships that feature HAL’s brand-new teen area Oasis (such as Ryndam) really do offer something special and unique. (Alas, while the facility is fabulous, this particular example didn’t make it to our list of recommendations, because that’s pretty much all there is.)
And while these are the ships — and cruise lines — we’ve picked, we will conclude with this caveat: You know your family’s tastes and preferences better than we ever could. By no means are they the only ships to consider: Think of them as just a starting point.
Want to nominate your family’s favorite ship? Send it along — with an explanation of why — firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
Royal Caribbean’s Voyager-class ships (Voyager of the Seas, Adventure of the Seas,Explorer of the Seas, Navigator of the Seas and Mariner of the Seas) and Freedom-class ships (Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas)
Why: Rock climbing walls, ice skating rinks, miniature golf and roller blading are more innovative ways to tire out your kids than, say, a basketball court or pool games (though these ships do have pretty fantastic pool areas, not to mention the usual basketball courts). And did we mention the ships’ indoor promenades, which feature all manner of parades and special events? Plus, Freedom, Liberty and Independence of the Seas offer the FlowRider, the industry’s first surf park at sea.
The Program: What we like about Adventure Ocean in general is that it subdivides kids and teens into smaller age categories. For instance, Aquanuts (ages 3 – 5) may engage in activities like storytime and “toilet paper soccer;” Explorers (6 – 8) can play backwards bingo, make their own surfboards, and take part in adventure and science activities; and Voyagers (9 – 11) play foosball and capture the flag as well as undertake science experiments ranging from earthquakes to hailstorms. Even the teens are divided into two groups: Navigators (12 – 14) take part in “open mic” karaoke contests and rock wall challenges; the oldest group (15 – 17) are so cool they don’t have a kitschy name, and have their own toga parties and group skate session.
The Facilities: With 22,000 square ft., they’re among the largest dedicated kids facilities in cruising. There’s a toddlers’ only splash pool, arts and crafts workshop, video arcade and computer stations. The company is redesigning its teen facilities to include Fuel, a nightclub; the Living Room, a coffee-house style hang out; and a bank of Internet-connected computers (discounted per-minute rates are vastly less than those paid by adults).
Other Nifty Features: Johnny Rockets, the 1950′s-style luncheonette, is a kid magnet (and parents think it’s pretty cool, too). Royal Caribbean is also one of the few cruise lines to provide activities, at no charge, for the under-3 set: The line is partnered with well-known child-oriented companies like Fisher Price and Crayola.
Carnival’s Conquest- and Splendor-class ships (Carnival Conquest, Carnival Glory,Carnival Valor, Carnival Liberty, Carnival Freedom and Splendor)
Why: Carnival’s Conquest class may lack the flash of Royal Caribbean’s Voyager class, but offers a marvelous all-around alternative, with a special and successful focus on teen travelers.
The Program: Carnival divides kids into five age groups with strong edu-tainment offerings incorporated throughout. Toddlers (ages 2 – 5) play “Fun Ship” bingo; dabble in arts and crafts such as sponge painting, coloring and drawing contests; and have sing-alongs. Juniors (6 – 8) play Disney trivia, paint t-shirts and participate in games throughout the ships. Intermediates (9 – 11) have talent shows and scavenger hunts. Circle C pre-teens (12 – 14) and Club O2 teens (15 – 17) have access to regular disco evenings, special teens-only shore excursions, and PlayStation 2 and Microsoft Xbox consoles.
The Facilities: At 4,200 square feet, the facilities range from an arts and crafts center to a soft play area, a computer lab to a video wall. The littlest cruisers have their own enclosed wading pool. Unlike most cruise lines that wedge the teen disco into a corner of the overall kid’s area, Carnival’s Conquest-class ships feature their teen discos on the main promenade alongside “adult” bars and lounges.
Other Nifty Features: Teens are welcome in Carnival’s spas; Carnival’s program accepts children as young as 2, while other lines start at the age of 3.