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. Not all itineraries are created equal, either. 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:
More attention and space are being dedicated to teens and 'tweens. While many lines previously grouped all teens ages 13-17 together, many ships are now separating 'tweens (ages 12-14) into separate facilities. Teens-only programs incorporate a range of shipwide options, from spa treatments to shore excursions.
"Megaship" has taken on a new meaning. Bigger ships offer more space, more activities and some pretty amazing features that would have seemed unthinkable even a few years ago. Where rock walls and miniature golf once seemed an extravagance, kids now have access to bowling alleys, elaborate water parks with massive slides, surfing simulators and outdoor movies.
Entertainment has been taken to a new level with themed cruises, now available on several ships. Families can opt for a "DreamWorks experience" on Royal Caribbean (Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas), during which they'll get to meet characters like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. Likewise, Norwegian offers Nickelodeon-themed cruises on Norwegian Epic and Norwegian Jewel.
Family suites continue to grow in popularity. Indeed, many cruise lines building new ships have designed their vessels to incorporate more of them.
Cruise lines now cater to more age groups. Because kids' developmental stages vary drastically, most cruise lines are now dividing them into groups of 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 8-year-olds, rather than lumping 3- to 8-year-olds in one program. While Disney Cruise Line allows all kids ages 3-11 to share the same spaces, their programming is still geared toward these separate age groups.
Onboard activities have become as important as shore excursions. Cruise lines are creating new attractions that include elaborate water parks, ropes courses and bowling alleys.
Food options are increasing. 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 particular ships since vessels can vary widely within fleets. "The newer, the better" is often a useful mantra for choosing family-friendly ships ... but not always. Though Holland America as a cruise line did not ultimately wind up in our list of recommendations, ships that feature Holland America's Club HAL children's club (all Vista-class ships) are good choices for families. Onboard Culinary Arts Centers offer cooking classes for kids as young as 3 years old.
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.
Top Picks Overall
Royal Caribbean's Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Independence of the Seas
Why: Royal Caribbean has the most impressive display of family activities and entertainment, and the choices on their mega-ships appeal to kids of all ages and interests. Rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, miniature golf and roller-blading are just a smattering of the activities these ships offer. The Oasis-class ships continue under the assumption that bigger is better. Allure of the Seas has four fantastic pools, 10 hot tubs, two FlowRiders and a zip-line. No shortage of real estate is dedicated to the kids' clubs, and the counselors are some of the friendliest and most professional in the business. Did we mention the ships' indoor promenades, which feature all manner of parades and special events?
The Program: Though it was once a novel idea, subdividing kids and teens into smaller age categories has now become the norm for most cruise lines that cater to families. Royal Caribbean divides kids into Aquanauts (ages 3-5), Explorers (6-8) and Voyagers (9-11). Kids ages 12-14 can take part in "open mic" karaoke contests and rock wall challenges, while members of the oldest group (15-17) have their own toga parties and group skate session. The Royal Tots and Royal Babies programs provide childcare and activities for children from 6 to 36 months old, for $8 per hour, per child.
The Facilities: Royal Caribbean's kids' clubs are among the largest dedicated kids' facilities in cruising. The children's program on Oasis-class ships spans 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 ships also have a Theater and Science Lab, and teens will love the Fuel nightclub and the Living Room, a coffeehouse-style hangout.
Other Nifty Features: Johnny Rockets, the 1950's-style luncheonette, is still a kid magnet (and parents think it's pretty cool, too). Royal Caribbean is partnered with well-known child-oriented companies like Fisher-Price and Crayola.
DreamWorks-themed cruises are available on Allure of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas. Kids can meet characters like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda. There are also 28 Loft Suites, offering families more room to spread out.
Norwegian's Norwegian Epic
Why: Norwegian's Freestyle Cruising and casual atmosphere make it a great choice for families who don't want to be beholden to strict dining times and venues. Its newest ship offers all the mega-ship bells and whistles families have come to expect.
The Program: The super-sleek Recess Kid's Club has separate programming for kids 2-5, 6-9 and 10-12. Kids can do arts and crafts, sing karaoke and play video games. Plus there's an interactive light-up dance floor. Entourage on Deck 16 is for teens 13-17, and it has air hockey, foosball, plush couches and nine flat-screen TV's. Entourage turns into a teens-only nightclub at night.
Late-night baby-sitting is available from 10:30 p.m. until 1:30 a.m. It's $6 per hour for the first child and $4 for each additional child.
The Facilities: Popular amenities include a rock-climbing wall, a rappelling wall and climbing cage, six bowling alley lanes and an impressive water park area with slides, including a 303-foot-long corkscrew tube and the Drainpipe, a 104-foot tube that empties into a giant funnel. There are also two main pools, five hot tubs, a wading pool and a separate kids' pool with water sprayers and its own small slide.
Other Nifty Features: The Epic Theater hosts Blue Man Group, a great show for kids of all ages. The ship also offers 20 different dining options, including 24/7 pizza delivery. Nick fans will love the "Nickelodeon at Sea" program in which kids can meet (and eat breakfast with) characters like SpongeBob and take part in family game shows. Epic also has 46 two-bedroom family villas that sleep up to six people. These have two bathrooms and a separate kids' bedroom, and offer access to the concierge lounge and a private courtyard area.
Note: While Norwegian Epic starts its kids club at age 2, the staff doesn't do diapers! They'll beep you when your child needs a fresh one.
Top Picks for Younger Kids
Disney's Disney Dream
Why: First, let us qualify what we mean by younger -- in this case we're talking about families with kids in the 4 to pre-teen range, and Disney has the absolute best facilities, dining schemes and programs for this age group. With the launch of its newest ship, Disney Dream, Disney Cruise Line has done more to accommodate 'tweens and teens -- but its ships still hold the most appeal for the younger set.
The Program: Disney has taken a separate-but-together approach to its kids programming, mainly to accommodate siblings and friends traveling together. Thus the Oceaneer's Club and Oceaneer's Lab allow children ages 3-12 access to the same spaces, but with separate programming done in two- and three-year increments. The Oceaneer's Club on Disney Dream has several themed play areas, including Andy's Room and the Laugh Floor. The Oceaneer's Lab has an Animator's Studio and a mini Sound Studio. Cool additions to both spaces are MagicPlay floors, which allow kids to use their feet to play interactive games.
The ship also has a kids club dedicated entirely to 'tweens, ages 11-13, with an 18-foot video wall, video karaoke and computers with access to an intranet-based (limited to the ship) social-media app. The teen club Vibe (ages 14-17) has modular furniture and a coffee shop feel.
The Facilities: Mickey's Pool, for the youngest set, is on one side of the ship, and an adults-only pool is located on the other, with Donald's Pool in the center for families in general. Other great facilities include the Walt Disney Theater, which features shows and movies, and D Lounge, which presents interactive activities for kids and parents.
Other Nifty Features: We like the Champagne breakfast at the adults-only Palo and Disney's unique rotating dining system, which allows you to change restaurants every night but keep the same servers and tablemates. The bath-and-a-half in most staterooms allows folks 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 Dream also has a cool "Pirates of the Caribbean" deck party, complete with fireworks and Jack Sparrow rappelling off the ship's funnel.
Princess Cruises' Ruby Princess, Crown Princess and Emerald Princess
Why: These ships were designed with families in mind, with expansive programs, facilities and accommodations for parents and children.
The Program: We love the activities offered to Princess Pelicans (ages 3-7), including arts and crafts like T-shirt painting and a variety of games. Shockwaves (8-12) are entertained with scavenger hunts and science programs geared to the region (learning about coral reefs, for instance). Princess offers an Adventures Ashore tour program with shore excursions appropriate for families. Remix (13-17) features dance parties, shipboard Olympics and karaoke. Princess also teamed with Klutz to offer an array of arts-and-crafts projects, such as building storybooks, weaving friendship bracelets and making lanyards.
The Facilities: The Fun Zone is 10,000 square feet. There's a splash pool dedicated to kids, and the ship offers family suites.
Other Nifty Features: Princess Cruises Personal Choice Dining program gives folks the opportunity to choose between traditional cruise dining (same table, same time each night) or flexible, restaurant-style eateries (eat any time). The "Movies Under the Stars" poolside cinema features kid-friendly matinees.