- Royal Caribbean. Ships: Anthem, Harmony, Allure and Oasis of the Seas
- Norwegian Cruise Line. Ships: Norwegian Escape, Breakaway, Getaway and Epic
- Carnival Cruise Line. Ships: Carnival Vista, Breeze, Dream and Magic
- Disney Cruise Line. Ships: Disney Dream, Fantasy and Magic
- Princess Cruises. Ships: Regal, Royal, Ruby, Crown and Emerald Princess
- P&O Cruises: Britannia
- Thomson Cruises: TUI Discovery, TUI Discovery 2, Thomson Dream, Thomson Celebration
- MSC Cruises: MSC Meraviglia, MSC Splendida, MSC Preziosa, MSC Magnifica
Despite great strides made by cruise lines in accommodating children onboard in recent years, choosing the best cruises for families with kids is still complicated. Where once it was a struggle to find ships that were child-friendly, the challenge now is wading through the bevy of activities, kid's clubs, family cabins and child-themed bells and whistles many ships offer to determine which cruise ships are best for your youngsters.
Some ships are still better for infants than others, and ditto for teens. Not all itineraries are created equal, either. (Alaska and the Caribbean are destinations that tend to be child-friendly.) To make decisions even trickier, ships vary greatly, not just from line to line but within fleets, making some better than others in terms of onboard activities. We tend to recommend cruise lines' newer ships because the facilities were designed for families from the outset, not just adapted. They also tend to be the biggest ships, offering more space for fun activities, such as bowling alleys, elaborate water parks with massive slides, ropes courses, bumper cars and surfing and skydiving simulators. They're likely to have more dining options, family-specific cabins and the latest brand-name partnerships.
The ships -- and cruise lines -- that follow are our top cruises for kids. That said, 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 a starting point as you narrow your choices for an unforgettable family holiday at sea.
1. Royal Caribbean International
These ships, Royal Caribbean's largest, are ideal for families with kids of all ages, as well as multigenerational family groups. The Oasis-class ships have an impressive selection of family-friendly activities and entertainment -- four fantastic pools, 10 hot tubs, a 3D theatre, rock climbing walls, ice skating rink, two FlowRider surf simulators and a zipline -- and an array of family cabins to accommodate groups of varying sizes. And did we mention the ships' indoor promenades, which feature all manner of parades and special events? Anthem of the Seas takes it up a notch with SeaPlex (featuring bumper cars, roller skating, video games and more), the first skydiving attraction at sea and the North Star, a London Eye-esque ride that takes passengers in a glass capsule 300 feet above the ocean.
Southampton-based Independence of the Seas, a Freedom-class ship, though older than its Oasis and Quantum cousins, is no slouch in the kids' department either, with most of the aft of the ship on Deck 12 given over to kids and teens. The ship caters for babies from six months in its Royal Babies and Tots Nursery, right up to teens in its Fuel nightclub and Living Room, via all ages in between in dedicated rooms, filled with natural light and age-appropriate toys.
A sizable amount of space is dedicated to the kids' clubs on all of these ships, and the club leaders are some of the friendliest and most engaging in the business. Parents and grandparents can enjoy adults-only solariums and a plethora of dining and evening entertainment options. With nursery care, after-hours fun in the kids' clubs and in-cabin babysitting, adults can enjoy grown-up time in the evenings while kids play or sleep. (Voyager-class ships are also great choices for families.)
Royal Caribbean divides young sailors into Aquanauts (ages three to five), Explorers (six to eight) and Voyagers (nine to 11). Children aged 12 to 14 can take part in "open mic" karaoke contests and rock wall challenges, while members of the oldest group (15 to 17) have their own toga parties and sports competitions. Both tweens and teens have access to a separate teen lounge, where they can come and go as they like. The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programmes provide interactive classes and activities (when children are accompanied by a parent) for children from six months to 36 months old, as well as drop-off babysitting services. In-cabin babysitting is available for children who are at least one-year old.
Royal Caribbean's kid's clubs are among the largest dedicated facilities in cruising. The children's section on Oasis-class ships covers more than 28,700 square feet and is the largest of its kind. There's a toddlers-only splash pool, an arts and crafts workshop, a video arcade and computer stations. Oasis-class and Quantum-class ships also have a theatre and Science Lab, and teens will love the Fuel teen club and the Living Room, a cafe-style hangout.
Plenty of family staterooms and loft suites mean room for the family to spread out. There's even a Royal Family cabin that sleeps eight. The spa offers special treatments for teens. More than two dozen dining options, including casual eateries like hot dog and New York-style pizza joints, as well as a variety of upmarket speciality restaurants, which means no taste is overlooked. Johnny Rockets, the 1950s-style diner, is always a kid magnet (and parents think it's pretty cool, too). Anthem of the Seas features an enormous family-friendly SeaPlex with bumper cars, roller skating, a circus school, foosball and video games.
Excellent Broadway-style shows in the evenings will keep the older crowd engaged, while the DreamWorks experience offers character breakfasts, parades and meet-and-greets with Shrek and the Kung Fu Panda for little ones. There's even a DJ Academy for teens.
2. Norwegian Cruise Line
Norwegian's casual atmosphere makes it a great choice for kid cruises, particularly for families who don't want to be beholden to strict dining times and venues. Norwegian's newest ships, along with Barcelona-based Norwegian Epic, offer all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect.
Norwegian's Splash Academy features separate activities for kids aged three to five, six to nine, and 10 to 12. Children can do arts and crafts, sing karaoke and play video games. Epic's facility has a jungle gym, plenty of room to roam and a cool interactive light-up dance floor. The two-storey Splash Academies on Norwegian Escape, Breakaway and Copenhagen-based Getaway are the line's largest children's spaces at sea, home to high-tech games, a circus school and a small cinema. Entourage is a venue for teens 13 to 17, and it has air hockey, video games, plush couches and flat-screen TVs. Entourage turns into a teens-only nightclub at night. Late-night group babysitting is available for a fee. While all ships have parent-child play areas and facilities for babies six months to three years, only Norwegian Escape offers drop-off, extra-fee childcare for very small children in the Guppies Nursery.
Sadly, on the newer ships Norwegian has decided to bury the kids' areas deep down on Deck 5 in a large room with no natural light or outdoor space in which to play. Not so on Southampton-based Jade where all the facilities -- though in a smaller space than the more modern ships -- are located on Deck 12.
Popular activities throughout these ships include rock-climbing and rappelling walls, climbing cages, six bowling lanes and impressive water park areas. Epic has a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. Breakaway and Getaway have five multi-storey water slides, as well as The Plank, an eight-foot walk that extends off the edge of the ship and out over the sea. Escape offers the largest ropes course at sea, as well as the largest water park at sea. All four have two main pools, including a separate children's pool.
On Jade, there is a dedicated kiddie pool -- the Sapphire Pool -- available for use by the youngest cruisers on Deck 12, just outside the Guppies play area.
Norwegian Epic hosts "Priscilla Queen of the Desert the Musical," a great show for kids of all ages (although it's worth noting that it includes adult content, which will probably go over the heads of very young children but might not be to everyone's tastes). Epic also has 46 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six people, while Breakaway and Getaway have 20 two-bedroom villas. On Escape, the Haven has two-bedroom family suites that sleep up to six passengers, and there are an additional 40 family mini-suites that feature bathtubs.
Jade meanwhile has interconnecting cabins from standard insides to suites and, the best thing -- different grades of cabins can be interconnected -- balcony to suite or suite to penthouse, for example -- to create different sizes depending on your family group.
3. Carnival Cruise Line
Carnival Cruise Line's Dream-class ships and its newest vessel, Vista, offer an array of onboard fun and do a great job accommodating youngsters of all ages, with separate clubs for the two to 11 set, tweens and teens. The ships offer a terrific variety of family activities and venues, plus top-notch kids clubs. Families will make good use of two outdoor pools and SportsSquare; a multi-storey IMAX theatre (Vista only); and some of the largest at-sea water parks.
The fleetwide Camp Ocean entertains cruisers ages two to 11 with marine-themed activities and more. Camp Ocean occupies a large chunk of upper-deck space, while the tween and teen clubs are separate from the little ones and located on lower decks. Toddlers aged two to five (called Penguins) have sing-alongs and dabble in arts and crafts. Stingrays aged six to eight get to design aquariums and take part in Pirate Game Night. Sharks aged nine to 11 play music Jeopardy, design their own cruise ships and play sports like basketball and volleyball. Circle C pre-teens (12 to 14) and Club O2 teens (15 to 17) have their own areas, and kids have access to regular dance and pool parties, special teens-only shore excursions and PlayStation and Xbox consoles.
A huge draw for kids on all ships is WaterWorks, an aqua park with a variety of water slides, sprayers, soakers and even an overhead drenching bucket that pours out water unexpectedly. Kids can play in the pool, as well as SportSquare, an outdoor activity area with a mini-golf course, basketball courts and foosball tables, and the thrilling new SkyRide cycling attraction on Vista. A SplashZone (a tot-friendly section of WaterWorks with water sprayers and room for splashing) for younger kids also is on offer.
Watch films outside on the Dream-class ships at the Seaside Theatre, a 22-foot jumbo screen. Breeze is home to the Thrill Theater, a 3Dcinema with "multidimensional effects" (think seats moving, wind blowing and even water splashing during films). On Vista, a huge Multiplex Lobby screens films in both an IMAX theatre and a Thrill Theater. Families can cavort on a deceptively scary ropes course or take part in Carnival's "Hasbro, The Game" show, a friendly competition and stage show with games as prizes.
The Dream-class ships also have more (and larger) cabin choices for families. Family Harbor, a collection of staterooms that can accommodate up to five, ups the ante on Vista, with access to an exclusive Family Lounge, free children's meals at select extra-fee restaurants, one free night at the after-hours group babysitting in Camp Ocean, and cute pint-size bathrobes. Teens are welcome in Carnival's spas. Carnival Dream even boasts a Build-a-Bear workshop.
4. Disney Cruise Line
Disney ships are ideal for families with youngsters aged four to 11, as Disney has the best facilities, dining schemes and programmes for this age group. Disney Cruise Line has done a lot more to accommodate tweens and teens -- but its ships still hold the most appeal for the younger set. We prefer the line's biggest ships, Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy, and the completely refurbished Disney Magic, which will be in and out of the U.K. throughout summer 2017. Disney Wonder can be a great choice, as well.
Disney takes a separate-but-together approach to its kids' programmes, mainly to accommodate siblings and friends travelling together. The Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab allow children aged three to 12 to access the same spaces but with programmes geared towards younger and older children respectively. (The age groupings are suggestions, not requirements, and children may participate in any of the activities offered). On all three ships, the Oceaneer Club offers several themed play areas, including Andy's Room (from "Toy Story"). On Fantasy, you'll find Monsters Academy (inspired by "Monsters, Inc."), while on Magic you'll encounter Marvel's Avengers Academy, a S.H.I.E.L.D. command post where kids can interact with the Avengers through a virtual game. A new addition to Dream is a replica of the Millennium Falcon from "Star Wars." Here, young ones can play pilot in a cockpit and learn lightsabre techniques from a Jedi Master.
The Oceaneer Lab has an Animator's Studio and a mini sound studio. On Dream and Fantasy, you'll find Magic PlayFloors that allow children to use their feet to play interactive games. There is a for-fee nursery available to care for little ones, aged six months to three years.
These ships also have a kid’s club, Edge, dedicated entirely to tweens aged 11 to 14, with video games, karaoke and computers. The teen club, Vibe (for cruisers ages 14 to 17), has modular furniture and a coffee shop feel.
Mickey's Pool, for the youngest cruisers, is on one side of the ship, and an adults-only pool is located on the other, with Donald's Pool in the centre for families or general use. The popular AquaDuck waterslide is a big hit with families on Fantasy and Dream, while the AquaDunk thrills onboard Disney Magic. On Fantasy and Magic, the AquaLab has sprayers and geysers perfect for the smallest passengers. Other great facilities include the Walt Disney Theatre, which features live shows featuring favourite Disney characters; the Buena Vista Theatre, which screens first-run movies; and D Lounge, which presents interactive activities for kids and parents.
The "bath-and-a-half " set up in most staterooms allows people to shower in one while someone else is using the toilet in the other. Castaway Cay, Disney's private Bahamian island, is one of the industry's nicest. Disney's ships also hold a cool "Pirates of the Caribbean" deck party, complete with fireworks and Jack Sparrow rappelling off the ship's funnel. All three ships feature the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where children are transformed into princesses, pirates, knights and sea captains. The handful of Norwegian fjords' cruises that Magic will offer this summer from Dover also feature "Frozen: The Musical" onboard.
5. Princess Cruises
Princess' ships include expansive programmes, facilities and accommodation for parents and children. Princess' newest and largest ships, Royal and Regal Princess, have even more great additions for families, including expanded kids' club spaces, more dining options, a batting cage and laser shooting range, a bigger pool deck with a water and light show and poolside cabanas.
Further, as part of the expansion of its partnership with Discovery Communications, Princess is revamping the youth venues on several of its ships to include lively, modern decor. Although only some ships are receiving physical renovations, the children's programme includes fun and educational activities -- think science experiments and destination-immersive pursuits -- and has been rolled out fleetwide.
Dubbed Camp Discovery, the rebranded kids' clubs include The Treehouse (formerly Pelicans) for ages three to seven, The Lodge (formerly Shockwaves) for ages eight to 12, and The Beach House (formerly Remix) for ages 13 to 17. In addition to activities that inspire learning, children, tweens and teens will find story time, video game tournaments, film nights, Skee-Ball play, scavenger hunts and themed parties on the agenda.
On Grand-class ships (Ruby Princess, Crown Princess, Emerald Princess), there are two large pools that are suitable for families (Calypso Reef and Pool and Neptune Reef and Pool), and there's a splash pool dedicated to kids. Royal and Regal Princess have outdoor play areas with a jungle gym for children aged three to seven, and another for teens, with a teens-only hot tub and space for outdoor parties.
Movies Under the Stars is the line's huge outdoor cinema that shows poolside films on the top deck after the sun sets. The 300-square-foot screen broadcasts kid- and teen-friendly movies, as well as fun-for-the-whole-gang blockbusters, and live sporting events and awards shows. Another cool offering: Parents are welcome to attend the Jr. Chef@Sea Program, a hands-on chef-led cooking class that takes place in a shipboard kitchen, alongside their budding young chefs.
Princess offers an Adventures Ashore tour programme with shore excursions appropriate for families. Plus, the line's Discovery at Sea programme features special excursions and activities inspired by themes such as "Shark Week". For example, families can embark on a search for Big Foot on selected Alaska sailings (a la "Finding Bigfoot") or enjoy "Shark Week" programmes on cabin TVs.
6. P&O Cruises
P&O Cruises has five family-friendly ships (the other three are adult-only), all of which have extensive kids' facilities and programming.
The kids' facility is called the Reef and is divided into five age-specific clubs in dedicated rooms: Tumblers (six months to two years), Splashers (two to four), Surfers (five to eight), Scubas (nine to 12) and H2O for the teens (up to 17-years-old).
Flagship Britannia has the line's biggest dedicated, supervised children's club in the fleet for ages two to 17-years-old.
Ventura and Azura's kids' clubs are not far behind in terms of space; while Aurora's kids' club enjoyed a significant refresh during the ship's 2014 refurbishment. Kids on Oceana, meanwhile, have great facilities including their own fun pool, a video game room, and coffee bar/disco on Deck 12.
There is an extensive kids' programme, all of it age-specific. So, Splashers have their own room packed with toys, climbing equipment, and quiet areas to read or watch a film. Mr Bump and Little Miss Sunshine might even come into play.
Surfers enjoy face painting, inventing their own chocolate bar or activities such as three-legged races and treasure hunts. Special parties include pirate duels or gladiator bouts. In the evening, they can relax with milkshakes and a film.
Scubas enjoy ship-wide scavenger hunts, pool games and drama workshops. Night-time fun might be pool parties, discos and games.
Teens have the adult free -- but supervised -- H2O club with options including watching films, playing video games, air hockey or pool. Teams can also try out a drum set, electric guitar or even DJ equipment during school holidays. At night there is a free hour in the arcade, organised competitions and a teen disco.
Britannia has the Cookery Club high atop the ship, which runs family classes designed specifically for kids to get hands on experience in the kitchen. Each adult can bring along one or two children between the ages of eight and 17 -- and the children cook for free.
A special children's tea happens every evening featuring typical favourites , such as sausages, fish fingers and pizza. A children's menu is also available in the main dining rooms.
(Bizarrely, Britannia unlike P&O's other ships, has no dedicated family cabins, nor interconnected cabins). Ventura and Azura both have a large number of cabins with sofa beds and beds that pull down from the ceiling that will hold up to four people. Two AE grade suites at the forward end of Deck 9 have a second bedroom -- ideal for families. Aurora has 16 interconnecting family cabins.
7. Thomson Cruises
The TUI holiday group -- of which Thomson Cruises is a part of -- raison d'aitre is family holidays, and that extends to its ships. All three ships (Spirit and Majesty leave the fleet in late 2017), have a dedicated kids' club and extensive kids' programmes. On the two newest ships -- TUI Discovery and TUI Discovery 2 -- there is a dedicated kids' club on Deck 11, which has a baby centre for the tiniest tots, equipped with changing facilities, a food preparation and bottle-cleaning area, and somewhere safe to play, complete with plenty of soft toys, games and a small ball pit. There is also a spacious area for teens, and opposite a kids' club offering plenty of daily activities. The room is open for two- to 11-year-olds and is painted in bright colours with small sofas, chairs and tables, plus lots of activity books, stimulating games, and toys. On Celebration, The Kids Club includes a DVD player and large flat-screen TV, a giant Connect Four, a giant Jenga and Nintendo Wii station.
There is an extensive kids' programme across the fleet, which includes arts and crafts, breakfast clubs, dressing up at superhero theme parties, treasure hunts and behind-the-scenes tours that include visits to the bridge. In the evening, there are talent shows, mini-discos, movie nights and pyjama parties.
On Thomson Dream you'll also find a Showtime Stage School for nine- to 16-year-olds. The onboard show team teach acting, dancing and singing, and youngsters get to perform their own live show in front of an audience at the end of the cruise.
ON TUI Discovery and TUI Discovery 2, a new show "Splash Live!" aimed at six- to 10-year-olds, features animated aquatic characters brought to life to take children on an interactive journey under the sea. And for older youngsters there is the Breakout & Escape Room, in which you have to work out how to "escape" from a room following a series of clues within an hour. Groups are from two to five players, and there's a choice between a murder mystery or spy-themed experience. Movies by Moonlight are screened on both ships on an outdoor cinema screen overlooking the main pool. There are two showings, with films often family-friendly blockbusters.
8. MSC Cruises
MSC Cruises has always been very family-friendly, with kids travelling free. The line also promotes a laid-back Mediterranean vibe where children stay up late, eat with their parents and everyone takes part in fun-filled family activities. The line also has some of the best kids' facilities afloat with recent tie-ups with LEGO and Chicco, an Italian babywear specialist. The result is all the kids' clubs in the fleet have been designed in full LEGO primary colours, with LEGO furniture and toys. Chicco sponsors the Baby Club, and for parents with younger children, items such as bottle warmers, pushchairs and bouncers are available to hire, and day-to-day baby necessities are available in the shop. On the newest ship -- MSC Meraviglia -- as well as three separate rooms divided by age, there is also an interactive family room and a tech room -- complete with 3D printer.
MSC Preziosa (which calls in at Southampton this summer), has a water playground on Deck 16, with features such as sprays, fountains, water pistols and a drenching bucket, as well as a large kids' club.
MSC Magnifica, which will be based in Southampton next summer for a part-season, has kids' areas situated at the aft and midship on Deck 14, that consist of age-divided indoor and outdoor spaces.
The kids' programme is extensive, exhaustive and carefully tailored to the different age groups. Activities on offer include arts and crafts, games, gymnastics, quizzes, treasure hunts, video games, puzzles, dance, circus games, karaoke and themed evenings such as a pirate night and carnival night. MSC Cruises has also introduced a couple of video characters -- Kelly & Kloe. Youngsters have the chance to become Kelly & Kloe stars themselves by taking part in a casting session and making a video of their performance to take home as a souvenir. The children's club teams are excellent -- enthusiastic and kind -- and all of them multi-lingual.
On Meraviglia there is a games arcade, a 4D flight simulator, a F1 simulator and even bowling. The kids' area is above the sports complex, where fun games like dodgeball and basketball competitions take place. Happy Dinners offers a speedy children's dinner for Mini Club members, where the youngsters are served their meals while parents enjoy their starters. The children are then escorted to the Mini Club by the entertainment staff while the adults enjoy a leisurely dining experience. Meraviglia also debuts "family cluster" cabins comprising three interconnecting cabins, one of them with a virtual window.
Both MSC Splendida and MSC Magnifica have three Executive and Family Suites, which can sleep up to four people.