Many parents take their kids with them on cruise vacations. The big ship lines have responded with youth counselors and supervised programs, fancy playrooms, teen centers, and even video-game rooms to keep kids entertained while their parents relax. Some lines even go so far as to offer special shore excursions and spa treatments for children and teens, and most ships provide additional evening activities and in-cabin babysitting (for an extra charge). You may even find reduced cruise fares for kids; MSC Cruises is famous for offering kids-sail-free promotions at certain times of the year.
And children certainly enjoy cruising. The largest ships have splash parks, water slides, game show-style activities, and character meet and greets as well as sea day brunches with costumed favorites. On land, there are often family-friendly activities (sometimes at ships’ private islands) such as beachcombing, trampoline parks, splash parks, water slides, zip-lines, and kid-friendly barbecues. Cruise vacations can be a hybrid of a resort, an amusement park, and a shopping mall, meaning plenty of entertainment for kids of all ages.
Infants, Babies & Toddlers
While many lines are kid-friendly, far fewer welcome babies, so if you expect to travel with a baby you’ll want to make baby-friendliness a priority in your line selection.
Requirements: Most lines require babies to be at least 6 months old on their cruises, and some require them to be 12 months old. There are outliers: MSC Cruises has no age requirement at all and on the other end of the spectrum many luxury and expedition lines have a minimum age requirement of 14 and up.
Gear: The most baby-friendly lines will have cribs or playpens and high chairs at your disposal. Disney Cruise Line, for example, also offers loaner diaper genies and strollers. Many have programs that allow you to order formula, wipes, and diapers in advance and have them waiting on arrival so that you don’t have to schlep these products from home. Some luxury lines, including Crystal Cruises, offer handmade baby food in the dining room
Swimming: Pool access is restricted on all cruises to potty trained children, and in play pools and splash parks lines will expect babies and toddlers to wear swim diapers.
Babysitting: Policies on babysitting vary widely. Cunard, Disney, and Royal Caribbean have nurseries for babies that are full-service. Other lines, including Celebrity Cruises and Regent Seven Seas, offer in-cabin babysitting programs for babies. Plenty of other lines require kids to be potty trained before you can leave them alone with a staff member, so be diligent in your research so that you’re not surprised on arrival. Costs can vary wildly, but expect to pay about $19 per hour for this service.
This is one place where what the lines offer ranges widely from full-service for children of most ages at most times, to very limited or even no offerings at all. It’s also important to ask your travel agent or cruise line whether a supervised program will be available on your specific cruise, because sometimes lines that allow children but don’t cater as specifically to them only provide programs if a certain number of children are on board.
Television & In-Room Movies
On the mainstream lines every cabin will have a TV, though some smaller and expedition-style ships will not. Channel selection ranges from a limited number of stations to a full On Demand set-up. Watch out most lines will charge for movies on-demand, so make sure the kids don’t go wild with the remote. If you think what the ship offers may not meet the needs of your family, consider bringing along a laptop or iPad with movies and television shows pre-loaded. This is also a good idea if you’re going to find yourself in your stateroom during nap times and once you’ve put the children to bed.
For lines that have kids’ clubs in a dedicated space with dedicated staffers, you will find the process usually follows this plan: On the first day of the cruise, you need to register your child, filling out paperwork. You’ll get a chance to explore the space with your child which is important because later, once the voyage begins, no adults are allowed in the kids’ areas. These kids’ clubs are divided by age group. On some lines, they share a large room with dedicated areas; other lines, like Carnival, Disney, and Royal Caribbean feature separate clubs for toddlers, kids, tweens, and teenagers.
Think these programs are just frosting on top of the cake of children’s programs? The second you see a group of small children squeal as their favorite character walks into the room like they’re seeing a rock star in the flesh for the first time you’ll understand how far these programs go in entertaining the littlest cruisers.
Without a doubt, Disney Cruise Line has the most extensive character program. Mickey greets cruisers at embarkation and at the end of the gangway, and the sail-away party on the first evening includes Donald Duck’s band. Throughout the cruise there are meet-and-greets with Mickey, Minnie, and their friends, but also the princesses (who line up to sign autographs for a long, long line of little girls, many of whom have dressed up for the photo op). One special option: Y ou can sign your children up to get a phone call from one of their favorite characters telling them how excited they are to meet them on the cruise, a treat that toddlers compared notes on during one of my sailings.
The Dreamworks partnership with Royal Caribbean Line includes screenings of Dreamworks films, some of which are 3D movies, as well as an evening parade of Shrek, Fiona, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, and the Madagascar animals. Cruisers can also sign up for character breakfast and luck into photo ops throughout the cruise. On Allure of the Seas there’s a Madagascar-themed aquatic show. One important note: Characters are not on all ships, and the line’s newest builds, Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, do not feature the Dreamworks experience.
The Seuss-a-Palooza program on Carnival Cruises is a winner, the highlight of which is the Green Eggs and Ham brunch. Kids can also take part in a parade of characters (think Thing 1 and Thing 2 as well as the Cat in the Hat) which ends in the ship’s main show lounge where cruise director’s entertain kids with a special story time, read from an oversized copy of The Cat in the Hat. The line has also begun rolling out Dr. Seuss’ Bookville, a children’s reading room.
In recent years, MSC Cruises has ramped up its Lego partnership: You’ll find plenty of brightly colored classic and Duplo bricks in play rooms and, on some ships, in special Lego-themed play areas with Lego walls. On each sailing, a sea day is designated as the
official Lego day, and passengers play games and compete in building contests. Guests can also have their picture taken with the Lego-based character on board.
When you bring your child back and drop him or her off, you will typically pay per hour for the service. You can drop your child off during the day for an hour so you can hit the spa, or for several hours so you can lie in the sun; at night, many lines offer dinnertime and evening kids’ club services as well.
If you’re worried about safety, you may feel better to learn about the precautions the cruise lines take. Some cruise lines (including Disney and Norwegian) place wristbands on children so that if they’re in the club the staff can bring them to the right lifeboat to meet you in the case of an emergency. A few lines including Disney offer pagers to parents so they can keep in touch.
Activities vary widely among age groups, but you may find arts and crafts, character-related meet and greets, open playtime with toys, and story hours. Some lines also offer pajama parties, movies under the stars, and other events geared toward kids and teens. On one sailing aboard Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun, kids were encouraged to make paper airplanes that were then launched into the air from the top of the atrium. Carnival throws a kids parade through the main dining rooms, during which the young ‘uns, dressed as pirates, chanting, We want dessert! We want dessert!
One of the better offerings for parents looking to combine a mix of family time and adult time: Some lines (most consistently Disney, Royal Caribbean, and Carnival) will have members of the kids’ club staff pick up children during dinner, so that you can finish your meal as a couple and even catch a show or have some cocktails before picking the children up later.
Discounts for Families & Other Groups
Most cruise lines that cater to families offer discounted fares for the third or fourth passenger in a cabin with two full-paying guests, whether they’re adults, teenagers or young children. Some have special children-sail-free programs for kids who share a cabin with two adults paying the full fare. Those discounts are sometimes seasonal, so you will have to do some research but MSC is a line with consistently good deals for families.