8 best family cruises

Our ultimate guide to choosing the best cruise ships for families.

Illustrations: Nica Patricio

Not all cruise ships are created equal, especially when it comes to travelling with kids. Here are eight vessels that get it right.

WaterWorks aboard the Carnival Vista features a number of slides and other water attractions. The largest and most innovative cruise vessel in Carnival Cruise Line's fleet, Carnival Vista measures 133,500 tons, 1,055 feet long and has a guest capacity of almost 4,000 passengers. Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

1. Norwegian Getaway

Norwegian’s “freestyle” approach offers something for everyone, from scream-worthy waterslides to Broadway musicals. The Miami-based Norwegian Getaway, which launched in 2014 and is nearly identical to the New York–based Norwegian Breakaway, holds 3,963 passengers and attracts active cruisers.

Best for: Can’t-sit-still kids who love to slip, slide and splash.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Miami to the Western Caribbean (runs November to April), with calls on Harvest Caye, Belize; Roatan, Honduras; and Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, offering ancient Mayan culture and jungle-meets-beach adventure. Price: from $787 per person.

Why it’s great: Boredom isn’t an option: Getaway’s 14 passenger decks feature 26 dining spots and tons of activities, such as rock climbing, minigolf, comedy shows, video games and bowling.

Your kids will love: The action-packed AquaPark, with its two pools and five waterslides—including Free Fall (the fastest drop at sea), as well as the pirate-themed Kid’s Aqua Park for the littlest ones. The three-deck Sports Complex has a massive ropes course (a mini one, too) and the Spider Web climbing cage; daredevils can even walk The Plank, which extends eight feet over the side of the ship!

Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

Photo by Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

Kids’ club: Norwegian’s Splash Academy. The name sounds active, and this club is, dividing kids into Turtles (3–5), who’ll participate in arts and crafts and treasure hunts; Seals (6–9), who’ll learn circus skills; and Dolphins (10–12), who’ll enjoy scavenger hunts and theme nights. A Guppies Nursery (6–36 months) is available on Norwegian Escape, $20USD for two hours per day for the first child (plus $16USD for a sibling) and $24 USD for two hours at night for the first kid (plus $20USD for a sibling).

You’ll love: The Waterfront, a nearly half-kilometre promenade lined with lounges, restaurants and boutiques, and the Illusionarium, a magic-themed dinner-theatre experience.

Family-friendly excursions: Enjoy a pre- or post-cruise Florida Everglades airboat ride, interact with monkeys at Roatan’s Gumbalimba Park preserve and animal sanctuary, and mix culture and adventure at Chacchoben Mayan Ruins and Maya Lost Mayan Kingdom water park in Costa Maya.

Insider tip: Getaway’s volume seems to be permanently set on loud—especially in 678 Ocean Place, the three-deck central atrium—so avoid mid-ship cabins on decks 5 and 9 if you’re noise sensitive. If your budget is generous, book The Haven, Norwegian’s ship-within-a-ship.

Royal Caribbean

2. Royal Caribbean’s Anthem of the Seas

Royal Caribbean is known for its big ships­—with the launch of Ovation of the Seas it now has eight of the biggest in the world— and its emphasis on entertainment. Anthem of the Seas, which accommodates up to 4,905 passengers, has cool features and interior design that creates a true resort at sea.

Best for: Families with active kids seeking fun in the sun.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Cape Liberty, NJ, to the Bahamas (runs October to April), offering three sea days to enjoy Anthem’s amenities—including the two-deck Adventure Ocean kids’ club—while ports provide access to Kennedy Space Center near Port Canaveral, Fla.; sunny Nassau; and the calm waters of CocoCay, Bahamas (Royal Caribbean’s private island). Price: from $838 per person.

 

Why it’s great: There are lots of thrills (from RipCord by iFly’s simulated skydiving to the 300-foot-tall North Star capsule’s panoramic views) and plenty of spots to chill (including three family pools, one with a retractable roof and kid-sized deck chairs for the littles). Anthem also has 18 restaurants, among them Jamie’s Italian by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver.

Your kids will love: Interacting with Shrek, Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar characters at the DreamWorks Experience and playing in the SeaPlex, with its skating rink, bumper cars, circus school, ball courts, DJ booth and Xbox lounge.

Carnival Vista

Kids’ club: Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean. Your kids will have an on-board adventure as Aquanauts (3–5), doing cool experiments and becoming “Certified Junior Adventure Scientists”; Explorers (6–8), enjoying themed parties and science activities; or Voyagers (9–11), trying karaoke and adventure challenges. At the Royal Babies (6–18months) and Royal Tots (18–36 months) nurseries, children can be watched for US$6USD/hr (day) and $8USD/hr (evening).

You’ll love: The serene tiered pools in the adults-only Solarium and the cover bands playing in the Music Hall. Michael’s Genuine Pub also serves sinful thick-cut potato chips.

Family-friendly excursions: Options in Nassau include access to the slides, tubing rivers and aquarium at Atlantis resort’s water park and a chance to interact with dolphins on the Blue Lagoon Dolphin Experience. In Port Canaveral, head for Kennedy Space Center, where the shuttle Atlantis is on display and the simulated liftoff is a blast.

Insider tip: Check the daily schedule you’ll receive in your room for age-specific onboard activities like scavenger hunts and theme parties.

Photo: Matt Stroshane

Photo: Matt Stroshane

3. Disney Wonder

Since making a splash in 1998 with the first of its four family-friendly vessels, Disney has been earning kudos in the premium cruise ship category. Disney Wonder, which debuted in 1999 and holds 2,700 passengers, is painted in Mickey Mouse hues of black, red and yellow—and its horn toots the first seven notes to “When You Wish Upon a Star.”

Best for: Disney-obsessed kids who love character interaction, musical productions and movies.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Vancouver to Alaska (runs May to September), convenient for families looking to spy on glaciers, whales and grizzlies with calls in Skagway, Juneau and Ketchikan. Price: from $1,685 per person.

Why it’s great: It’s magical from aft to stern. Disney ships command a premium, but they deliver in all the right ways. Sail Away Celebrations and Deck Parties feature beloved animated characters and fireworks, pools are comfortably heated, and most cabins are designed with a half-bath plus a full bath with a tub—a cruise-ship rarity—and feature two portable Wave Phones so you can call or text while on board.

Your kids will love: That their favourite characters are along for the ride—among them, Anna and Elsa, as “Frozen, a Musical Spectacular” is aboard select Alaskan itineraries in 2017—that kids’ meals are served on Mickey Mouse plates and that they can experience a prin­cess makeover in the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique.

Photo: Matt Stroshane

Photo: Matt Stroshane

Kids’ club: Disney’s Oceaneer Club. Disney fantasy springs to life here as character-driven performances, dress-up parties, crafts and movies keep kids aged 3–12 entertained for hours—including at lunch and dinner if parents want to eat on their own. The It’s a Small World and Flounder’s Reef nurseries will watch little ones aged six months to three years for a $9USD hourly fee.

You’ll love: Quiet Cove Pool and Vista Spa—two serene adults-only spaces to escape to while your little ones are in the Oceaneer Club.

Family-friendly excursions: Pan for gold in Juneau, whale- (or bear-) watch in Ketchikan and shout “mush!” while dogsledding in Skagway.

Insider tip: Book as far in advance as you can (a year ahead, if possible) for savings, and reserve character meet-and-greets and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique visits ASAP after boarding.

Photo: Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

Photo: Andy Newman/Carnival Cruise Line

4. Carnival Vista

Carnival’s new 3,934-passenger ship, Vista (launched in 2016), is chock full of all the usual merry mayhem but with surprisingly sophisticated decor and entertaining innovations the entire family will love, including the first IMAX at sea and SkyRide, which zips around the upper deck.

Best for: Social moms and dads seeking poolside fun and a free program, Camp Ocean, for kids 24 months and up, including those who are still in diapers.

Coolest itinerary: Six nights round trip from Miami to the Western Caribbean (runs January 2017 to April 2018), with calls on Grand Cayman; Ocho Rios, Jamaica; and Cozumel, Mexico, as well as two sea days. Price: from $749 per person.

Why it’s great: Parents pining for more carefree days can relive them on this lively ship that’s ideal for all ages—as long as you’re not sensitive to loud music.

Your kids will love: WaterWorks aqua park, with its dizzying Kaleid-O-Slide raft ride; Dive-In Movies at the pool; whimsical Seuss at Sea activities and Dr. Seuss Bookville (a colourful library stocked with Seuss titles in multiple languages); and Guy’s Burger Joint.

You’ll love: The enthusiastic young counsellors who keep kids happy at Camp Ocean; kids’ menus at most restaurants; and supervised kids’ meals (go ahead, reserve that table for two)!

Family-friendly excursions: In Ocho Rios, horseback ride on the beach and in the sea; swim with dolphins and stingrays on Grand Cayman; and enjoy a Jeep adventure and snorkel in Cozumel.

Insider tip: This is a big ship, so if you have kids who tend to feel overwhelmed when tired, book a Family Harbour stateroom. Located on deck 2, they’re near a kid-friendly lounge that features video games and family movies on large-screen TVs, as well as daily continental breakfast and afternoon snacks.

Carnival Vista

5. Regal Princess

This 3,560-passenger vessel is more about cultural appreciation than adrenalin. Younger kids (ages three to seven) can have their faces painted and play games at the Pelican kids’ club.

Best for: Older kids who don’t need theme-park thrills .

Coolest itinerary: Eleven nights round trip from Copenhagen to Scandinavia or Russia (runs April to August), visiting cities in six additional countries: Stockholm, Sweden; St. Petersburg, Russia; Oslo, Norway; Helsinki, Finland; Berlin (via Warnemunde) and Tallinn, Estonia. Price: from $1,525 per person.

Why it’s great: Not only does this ship have a glittering multi-level atrium and piazza, a dazzling top-deck sound-and-light show and a glass-bottomed SeaWalk with nothing but air between you and the waves 128 feet below, but Princess also has the best pizza at sea—at Alfredo’s, and by the slice poolside at Prego’s.

Your kids will love: Movies Under the Stars on the giant poolside screen, and The Voice of the Ocean singing competition and Discovery at Sea activities (in conjunction with the Discovery Channel).

You’ll love: The Chocolate Journeys desserts and the casual piano-bar camaraderie of Crooners.

Family-friendly excursions: Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens (a Victorian-era amusement park) and Stockholm’s Vasa Museum (home to the world’s only preserved 17th-century wooden ship) are easy to navigate on your own, so allocate shore excursion dollars for St. Petersburg so you don’t have to secure Russian visas yourself.

Insider tip: Menus in the main dining rooms reflect the ship’s Mediterranean heritage, both in the smaller serving sizes and in a focus on fish and pasta; there is a kids’ menu, but if your children are picky eaters (or have big appetites), you can opt for the abundant yet sometimes chaotic buffet, where you’ll find lots of familiar choices like pizza, French fries, hot dogs, and fresh fruit.

Carnival Vista

6. MSC Divina

Cruising from Miami to the Caribbean since 2012, this glitzy Italian-owned mega-ship (it accommodates up to 4,345 passengers) features a lively Mediterranean vibe, an international clientele, and fun and games galore.

Best for: Parents seeking savings—kids under 11 cruise free (availability can be limited, however, so confirm at booking)—and interaction with families from around the world.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Miami to the Caribbean and Antilles (runs throughout 2017) with calls on Philipsburg, St. Maarten; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Nassau, Bahamas. Price: Because kids under 11 sail free, for families the cost amounts to a starting rate of about $537 per person.

Why it’s great: The multiple pools (the kid-friendly Aqua Park is rambunctious, while the Garden Pool is chill) and the range of accommodations geared to families, from budget-priced Inside Cabins that sleep four to Super Family Suites for up to six (in connecting triple staterooms with two bathrooms for one fixed price).

Your kids will love: The simulated thrills of virtual Formula One auto racing and the interactive 4-D cinema, the Virtual World Arcade, and the Lego activity areas and demonstrations.

You’ll love: The free Chicco child care equipment (strollers, bottle warmers, baby backpacks) and the authentic cappuccino at Caffe Italia and gelato at Venchi.

Family-friendly excursions: Head to Balmoral Island off Nassau to interact with stingrays, try a zip line adventure in Puerto Rico, and kayak and snorkel in the clear waters of St. Maarten.

Insider tip: Once you know when the kids-only dinners are scheduled, reserve two spots at a Wine Maker’s Dinner (well worth the US$40 per person fee) to enjoy an intimate, adults-only wine-paired three-course menu.

Aerial Harmony of the Seas

7. Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas

With its seven neighbourhoods, including the kid-friendly Boardwalk, the world’s largest ship (along with sisters Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas) has enough action-oriented amenities—from an ice rink and carousel to a zip line and the tallest slide at sea—to keep kids of all ages entertained. More than three football fields long, Harmony holds up to 6,272 passengers.

Best for: Daredevil kids and their parents—but there’s lots for tiny tots, too.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to the Western Caribbean, with calls on Falmouth, Jamaica; Cozumel, Mexico; and Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s private island) in Haiti, Price: from $924 per person.

Why it’s great: It’s a marvel of engineering and imagination: big, bold and playful—what kid wouldn’t love meeting Shrek or getting soaked by a drench bucket in the splash park?—with multiple oceanview and interior cabins (featuring a virtual balcony or overlooking the promenade) that let little ones be safe as you enjoy the sunset.

Your kids will love: The stomach-dropping slides— if they’re brave enough and tall enough to try the 10-storey-high Ultimate Abyss or Perfect Storm slide trio (they must be at least 44 and 48 inches, respectively)—and yummy fun on a bun at Boardwalk Dogs (preferably in that order). Younger kids can interact with Dreamworks characters or cool off at Splashaway Bay.

You’ll love: The sophistication of Central Park and the familiar old-school fun of Grease, The Musical.

Family-friendly excursions: Nassau options include access to Atlantis resort’s water park. In Jamaica, swim with dolphins or play in Dunn’s River Falls; in Cozumel, raft through underground caverns; and on Labadee, try the world’s longest overwater zip line.

Insider tip: Reserve the same table nightly in one of the dining rooms and your kids will enjoy being greeted by the same waiters. But do set aside at least one night to dine as a duo on Michael Schwartz’ menu at One Fifty Central Park or to savour Jamie Oliver’s dishes at Jamie’s Italian.

Carnival Vista

8. Pride of America

This 2,186-passenger Norwegian ship, launched in 2005 and refurbished in 2016, sails year-round from Honolulu, making it a convenient way to see Hawaii’s top sights. Pride of America does, however, lack the active vibe of the line’s newest vessels—you’ll have to break it to your kids gently that there are no ropes courses or waterslides.

Best for: Nature- and culture-loving kids old enough to appreciate volcanoes and Hawaiian lore.

Coolest itinerary: Seven nights round trip from Honolulu, with two days each on Maui, Kauai and the Big Island of Hawaii. Price: from $1,376 per person.

Why it’s great: It’s one of a kind—the only way to cruise between four of Hawaii’s islands in a single week—and there are family cabins and suites in an array of prices.

Your kids will love: The Cadillac Diner, with its 1950s decor and retro shakes; the Sports Court for a hoops challenge; and the Blast Off Video Arcade.

You’ll love: The bars and lounges—there are 12—including the Napa Wine Bar and the Aloha Lanai Bar.

Family-friendly excursions: Try a sailing or snorkelling expedition (one has a floating dock and inflatable toys for younger kids) from Kona on Hawaii; go humpback whale–watching (from December to April) or on an Atlantis submarine voyage on Maui; older kids can try cave tubing on Kauai.

Insider tip: Rent a car for one day on each island. Sightsee in the morning—head above the clouds to the summit of Haleakala on Maui, visit Waimea Canyon on Kauai and explore Volcanoes National Park on Hawaii.

*Lowest approximate price per person at press time in Canadian dollars for a family of four sharing an inside cabin, not including taxes and other fees, and subject to change.

10 Family-Friendly Ports

These ports will be a hit with the youngest cruisers.

TP01_FT_Cruises_9 1. Georgetown, Grand Cayman

Learn about turtles, play with stingrays, or simply sun and swim on gorgeous Seven Mile Beach.

TP01_FT_Cruises_7 2. Nassau, Bahamas

Swim with dolphins, enjoy a thrilling water park adventure, or hit the beach.

TP01_FT_Cruises_13 3. Port Canaveral, Florida

Not only is it adjacent to Kennedy Space Center, but Orlando’s theme parks are about an hour away. If you have at least 10 hours in port, spending a day at Disney or Universal is possible.

TP01_FT_Cruises_11 4. Ocho Rios, Jamaica

The island’s jungle— complete with famous waterfalls and soaring zip lines—meets its legendary beaches, making a call here perfect for active youngsters.

TP01_FT_Cruises_13 5. Kona, Hawaii

A visit to Volcanoes National Park is a must for budding scientists. Watching wild dolphins play or interacting with trained ones will delight wannabe marine biologists.

TP01_FT_Cruises_13 6. Juneau, Alaska

Go mushing, even in mid-summer, during a dogsled adventure (on wheels) or zip line through the tree canopy (and above the wildlife). You can even get close to a glacier.

TP01_FT_Cruises_12 7. Barcelona, Spain

Imaginative kids will be intrigued by the fantastical architecture of Antoni Gaudi—from the spires of La Sagrada Familia to the alien-looking chimneys atop Casa Mila. Afterward, an urban beach beckons.

TP01_FT_Cruises_8 8. Copenhagen, Denmark

The city of Hans Christian Andersen (a sculpture based on his Little Mermaid sits in the harbour) is home to Tivoli Gardens, a Victorian amusement park that mixes centuries-old charm with modern thrills. Walt Disney was so inspired he created Disneyland.

TP01_FT_Cruises_10 9. Rome, Italy

Because Civitavecchia port is more than an hour from the Italian capital, a cruise that begins or ends here will provide more time for history-loving middle school and high school age kids to appreciate the city’s ancient architectural wonders.

TP01_FT_Cruises_7 10. Private Islands

The cruise lines’ private oases —most located in the Bahamas—offer a relaxing day at the beach, with free buffet lunches and water toys for rent.

Read more:
9 tips for choosing the best family-friendly cruise cabin
Family travel: Cruising with kids
10 things to think about before booking a family cruise

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