Cruises provide impressive vacation value for families: lodging, food, activities and transportation to faraway places for one set price. Kids are kept happy with a never-ending lineup of activities, and parents have the option to relax if they so choose. Even usually grumbling teenagers are less scowl-y. It’s no wonder that one-third of all cruisers travel with their children, according to the Cruise Lines International Association.
All major cruise lines have children’s programs catering to everyone from toddlers to teens -- and they’re all constantly trying to one-up one another by offering the latest, hippest, coolest activities, from the active (surf lessons and rock climbing) and educational (animation lessons and science experiments) to the entertaining (meals with cartoon characters and sing-along musicals). Check out our top 5 picks for the most exciting family cruise lines.
Disney Cruise Line
Like its land-based theme parks,Disney Cruise Line
caters impeccably to kids and kids at heart. Every minute of a Disney cruise is crammed with parties, character-autograph sessions, Broadway-esque musicals, classes, tours, movies, games, even a 1,800-foot water play area on the 4,000-personDisney Fantasy
. You’d think that would be enough, but the children’s and teen programs are the best of any cruise line, thanks to extensive activities (think princess parties, animation lessons and science classes).
Even 3-month-old babies are welcome aboard -- in typical Disney style, no detail is left forgotten. Wheel pop off your baby stroller? Forgot to bring a bottle sterilizer? Pick up your phone, and any kiddie accoutrement you need is delivered to your cabin.
And speaking of cabins, Disney offers the roomiest family-friendly staterooms on the seas. Hip bunk beds descend from the ceiling, foldout couches save space and bathrooms are divvied up into 2 spaces (a toilet and sink in one space, and a bathtub -- yes a tub, not just a shower -- and sink in the other).
Royal Caribbean International
Not to be outdone by Disney,Royal Caribbean
has gotten into the Hollywood-style cruise business, too. The line has contracted with DreamWorks -- creator of the filmsMadagascar
andKung Fu Panda
-- on 5 of its ships (with a sixth slated for May 2013). Parades, shows, 3-D film showings and meals with characters are among the allures. And this year, Barbie is embarking, too: The Barbie Premium Experience debuts on the ships in February 2013.
Even without these add-ons, Royal Caribbean has a fine program for children. One of the top features is expedited dining for kids ages 3 to 11: They can scarf down their food, and then staff members whisk them away to play while Mom and Dad enjoy a leisurely meal. The kid’s club is spacious and divided into multiple zones for various age groups. Rock-climbing walls and surf simulators make the ship attractive to teenagers. Some Royal Caribbean ships offer family suites that can sleep 6.
Norwegian Cruise LinesNorwegian Cruise Lines
invented -- and has perfected -- the best concept for families: “free-style” cruising. That means you can do what you what, when you want, including eating dinner. So if your little one is having a “moment,” there’s no need to stress that you’ll be late for your dinner seating.
In addition to a youth program that features Cirque du Soleil-style activities, arts and crafts and video games, the teen program offers 20 team sports and themed nighttime events. Four ships -- the Norwegian Jewel, Epic, Gem and Breakaway -- also incorporate characters from the Nickelodeon network. Check schedules in advance to find out when SpongeBob SquarePants and Dora the Explorer embark.
Holland American LineHolland America
doesn’t offer the big names and cutting-edge attractions of other cruise lines. But there’s a lot to be said for Holland’s back-to-basic activities atClub HAL
-- swim parties, Olympics-style competitions, karaoke and pajama parties, all classic fun for children without over-the-top stimulation. Holland America is also an especially good cruise line for teenagers. Accessible by a secret passageway, The Loft is an entire deck devoted to teens, with nightclub events, waterfall-lined swimming pools and juice bars. And if you’re considering a family reunion, Holland America often provides discounts.
Carnival Cruise LinesCarnival
is one of the least expensive cruise lines, so it’s ideal for families on a budget. The line is also known for providing loud, party-like atmospheres, so be forewarned that a Carnival cruise may not provide a relaxing experience if that’s what you’re seeking. The children’s areas contain the usual activities that other cruise lines provide; one cool feature on the Carnival Magic is an onboard social networking tool: Fun Hub, as it’s called, is a shipboard intranet portal that offers teens (and others) info on daily activities. The ships Carnival Dream and Magic also have epic waterparks, with 4-deck-high corkscrew waterslides, and Magic has a suspended-in-air ropes course.