Kids can make or break your family cruise. If they’re bored and hate the food options, they will loudly and repeatedly express their displeasure. Pick the wrong cruise ship and parents will feel as trapped as if they were stranded on a deserted island … with biting crabs underfoot.
The best cruises for kids take advantage of ships with endless fun for the under-18 crowd, plentiful dining that appeals to both young palates and bottomless teen tummies, accommodations and ship services that keep families in mind, and opportunities to meet and hang out with peers. No matter your family size or price range, you can find some incredible vacations at sea that will have kids exclaiming, “Best cruise ever!” by the end of the week.
Find the top ship for your next trip with our list of the seven best cruise ships for kids (and their parents).
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No one is surprised that kids are highly entertained on a Disney cruise — but what might be surprising is how much there is for adults to do and enjoy, too. That’s especially true on the new Disney Wish.
Disney Wish has four kids clubs that are divided by age, but the main Oceaneer Club for 3-12-year-olds has an all-new and exciting grand entrance. Kids get to enter the club by slide — and once inside, get to explore the “Star Wars”-, fairy tale-, Marvel- and Imagineer-themed spaces within the club.
Along with the kids club on Disney Wish, junior cruisers will find two movie theaters with first-run Disney movies, Broadway-caliber shows featuring Aladdin and the Little Mermaid and dining experiences themed around Arendelle from “Frozen” and the Worlds of Marvel.
In addition to a “Star Wars”-themed bar and adults-only fine dining restaurants, adults will appreciate the little touches on Wish that make family cruising easier — split bathrooms in most cabins, a drop-off nursery, a splash area for toddlers, and restaurant staff members who will offer high chairs and puree baby food.
Disney Wish will sail short three- and four-night trips from Port Canaveral, Florida (near Orlando), that include a stop at Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island, with its family beach, supervised child care, splash pad, and strollers to borrow.
Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas
Kids on the go will never be bored on Royal Caribbean’s Wonder of the Seas, currently the largest ship afloat. They can fill several sea days scaling a rock wall, zip lining across the ship, wiping out in the surf simulator, screaming down the Ultimate Abyss slide or racing their siblings on side-by-side waterslides. Laser tag is set up when the ice skating rink isn’t in use, and a new back-of-ship playground helps littles get rid of their wiggles.
Families who like a good show can gasp as ice skaters land jumps on a rocking ship and acrobatic divers flip and splash in the AquaTheater. Don’t miss the parades down the Royal Promenade, Wonder’s indoor shopping strip.
Kids can also ditch their parents for fun, yet supervised, time with peers in the huge Adventure Ocean kids club. In addition to play spaces and a nursery, it’s got a science lab, art studio and theater. Tweens and teens have their own cool clubs for hanging out.
Norwegian Encore has a more grown-up vibe than many of the family-focused ships on our list, but its onboard attractions make it a huge hit with teens. Its top decks lure older kids with the biggest go-kart track in the Norwegian Cruise Line fleet and an open-air laser tag arena ideal for shooting matches under the stars. A huge virtual reality playground features rides and games that blow every cruise ship arcade out of the water.
Note to parents: Cruiselong passes for the go-kart race track, virtual reality games and laser tag do not come cheap. Be prepared to pull out your wallet to keep the teens happy.
At night, teens can feed their growing bodies with tacos, hibachi and barbecue, plus 24/7 burgers and comfort food at The Local. Afterward, they’ll agree to be seen in public with their parents at cool shows like “Kinky Boots” and “Choir of Man.” It’s an easy concession, as they know they can always escape to the teen club, Entourage, to hang out with the cool kids late at night.
Norwegian Encore spends its summers in Alaska and winters in the Caribbean, with a handful of Panama Canal and Pacific Coast sailings in between.
Related: 5 best cruise lines for families
Carnival Cruise Line’s Mardi Gras
Passengers and crews on Carnival Cruise Line ships come ready to meet new friends or share a laugh, a story and a drink with their shipmates. Social kids will fit right in — and will love the line’s huge, new ship Mardi Gras. They can make friends at the Family Harbor Lounge, Camp Ocean and Dr. Seuss Bookville, or the teen and tween clubs conveniently located near Guy Fieri’s burger stand and the video arcade.
Mardi Gras is the only cruise ship boasting a top-deck roller coaster, called Bolt. A ride here is Instagram gold and the ultimate bragging rights for kids on vacation. The coaster dominates the Ultimate Playground area of the ship, where young cruisers can challenge their new friends to miniature golf, waterslide races, basketball and ropes course domination.
Kids who love a good food court can meet up with friends or family at a number of no-fee, casual eateries, including Shaq’s Big Chicken restaurant and a trio of Street Eats venues, featuring dumplings, meat on a stick and loaded French fries. All-hours pizza and ice cream will keep the whole family fueled up for the interactive “Family Feud Live” show.
Mardi Gras sails weeklong Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises from Port Canaveral.
Princess Cruises upgraded Caribbean Princess to make it attractive to families with kids, and it works. If you’ve got a multigenerational family group with a mix of interests and vacation styles, Caribbean Princess could be the right pick for you.
Kids love Caribbean Princess’ The Reef water play area. They can get wet in so many ways – a splash area, toddler wading pool, plunge pool and lower-temperature hot tub. Chaperoning family members have a bar at their service (with a menu of fun mocktails), as well as an inviting lounge area with patio furniture and games.
The line’s high-tech Ocean Medallion additions let kids create sea creature avatars that display on LED screens in public areas and explore the ship on digital scavenger hunts. Parents and grandparents can use the same LED screens to locate their RFID-wearing offspring when it’s time to round them up for breakfast with Princess’ bear mascot or a holiday- or destination-themed event in the Piazza.
Caribbean Princess sails a mix of itineraries, including one-week and two-week Caribbean cruises, 10- to 14-night Canada/New England sailings and 10-night Panama Canal partial transits.
MSC Cruises‘ MSC Meraviglia is a floating megaresort, with something for everything. Large family groups will love its Super Family Cabins, which combine two balcony cabins and an inside room to accommodate groups of up to 10 with multiple sleeping areas and bathrooms.
Outside the cabin, families might have trouble keeping all the kids together. Some will make a break for the Polar Aquapark, with slides and a splash zone, and the nearby Himalayan Bridge ropes course. Other kids might spend their parents’ money on more virtual fun, indulging in F1 race car and flight simulators, a 4D movie theater and video arcade. Family groups can split into teams for sports court or bowling challenges.
Kids of all ages can enjoy Meraviglia’s theatrical performances, especially its exclusive Cirque du Soleil shows. The ship’s Lego-themed Doremi Land kids club has dedicated spaces for babies, three groups of kids, and teens, as well as a theater with a movie screen and dance floor, and a lab with a 3D printer and virtual reality games.
MSC Meraviglia sails a mix of weeklong Mediterranean cruises and three- to 14-night Caribbean and Bahamas cruises from a variety of departure ports.
Related: 7 cruise lines where kids sail free
The typical river cruise draws a lot of retirees — except when Adventures by Disney partners with AmaWaterways. The two travel companies have created a river cruise vacation that is fun for grown-ups and kids.
AmaLea is one of the ships AmaWaterways custom-built for these family cruises. Certain twin balcony cabins sleep three and suites sleep four to accommodate kids, with connecting cabin options for families who need more space. Unlike many river ships, AmaLea has a pool, as well as a surprise kid hit — giant outdoor chess.
While other ships sail the Seine and Rhine rivers, AmaLea travels the Danube through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Adventures by Disney makes the most of your time with shore excursions planned to entertain kids and adults, with options for supervised kid activities while parents head out on more grown-up tours. Your family might meet farm animals in Hungary, play hide-and-seek in a palace’s labyrinth maze in Austria and hang around in a treetop playground in Germany.
On board, kids menus are available, and the occasional pajama party whisks kids away for pizza and a movie while adults linger over dinner.
Related: Best river cruises in Europe
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
- Guide to picking a cruise line
Featured photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean.