The 5 best cruise lines for families

The best cruise lines for families allow parents and kids to have fun together and apart while taking the stress out of group travel. Our favorite family ships mix wow-factor activities with attractive kids clubs, plentiful and convenient dining and thoughtful touches like bathtubs and babysitting. Your family might be happy anywhere there’s a beach …

The 5 best cruise lines for families

The best cruise lines for families allow parents and kids to have fun together and apart while taking the stress out of group travel.

Our favorite family ships mix wow-factor activities with attractive kids clubs, plentiful and convenient dining and thoughtful touches like bathtubs and babysitting.

Your family might be happy anywhere there’s a beach or a pool, but if you want an at-sea family vacation you’ll always remember, book a sailing on one of our top five cruise lines for families.

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Disney Cruise Line

MATT STROSHANE/DISNEY CRUISE LINE

No one will be surprised that entertainment juggernaut Disney offers an amazing family cruise experience.

Disney Cruise Line ships are known for meet-and-greets with Mickey Mouse and Disney princesses, interactive movie-themed dining experiences and enormous kids clubs and play areas.

What might surprise the uninitiated is how good the line is at taking care of the whole family, not just the Mouse-obsessed little ones.

Disney thinks of all the little things that can help parents have a stress-free trip with kids in tow. From split bathrooms (allowing one family member to take a bath while another uses the toilet) to waiters who will cut up your child’s food, Disney Cruise Line takes the pressure off parents.

While other cruise lines limit water play to kids who are toilet trained and drop-off childcare to ages 3 and up, Disney caters to all kids with onboard splash areas and nurseries.

It also offers adults-only pool decks and restaurants, a nightlife scene and couples spa treatments to revive exhausted parents who haven’t had a date in months.

Teens might roll their eyes at the ever-present Mickeys, but Disney Cruise Line does not ignore its older kid guests. Tweens and teens get their own cool hangouts, Edge and Vibe, with video games, foosball and hip seating areas.

In addition, first-run movies and Broadway-caliber musicals, waterslides, teen spa treatments and grab-and-go food options (and free room service) keep older kids busy and happy.

The new Disney Wish features a sports area for free play and competitions attractive to this age group.

Royal Caribbean

Liberty of the Seas
Liberty of the Seas. ROYAL CARIBBEAN

With some of the biggest ships at sea and an amusement park-like private island in the Bahamas, Royal Caribbean is one of the best cruise lines for active families.

Want to try surfing, sky diving, rock climbing, laser tag, go-karts or zip lining? Families don’t have to leave the ship to get their adrenaline highs.

Even the sedentary pursuits are high-octane on Royal Caribbean. Broadway musicals, festive parades, water acrobatic performances and ice skating shows wow the crowds on sea days.

Expansive play spaces for kids include separate clubs for teens and tweens, plus drop-off nurseries for babies.

Parents can sneak off to the adults-only solarium or thermal suite while the kids live it up at cruise camp.

After a hard day of play, worn-out families can refuel at a variety of restaurants, including burger and milkshake mecca Johnny Rockets, Italian and Mexican eateries and an all-day buffet.

Family cabins and connecting staterooms give larger families their needed space. The Ultimate Family Suite on Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas, Spectrum of the Seas and Wonder of the Seas can sleep eight, but parents and kids alike might be tempted to stay up late playing air hockey, scrambling up the climbing wall, soaking in the private outdoor hot tub or watching the giant TV.

When Icon of the Seas debuts in 2024, the new megaship will offer an entire section of the ship devoted to family-friendly accommodations and an outdoor dining-and-play space targeted at parents with young children.

Carnival Cruise Line

The large WaterWorks complex sits atop Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Panorama. CARNIVAL CRUISE LINE

Practicalities first: Carnival Cruise Line is an affordable and convenient cruise line for families who don’t live the jet-set lifestyle. With home ports all around the U.S., Carnival puts its ships within driving distance of many Americans.

A variety of short-cruise destinations, affordable-yet-spacious inside cabins (they can sleep four), and lots of onboard attractions and restaurants included in the fares combine to make it one of the best-value cruise lines afloat.

Carnival doesn’t dub its fleet the Fun Ships for nothing. The whole family will have a blast on board, whether you like getting down to live music, busting a gut at family-friendly comedy shows, getting soaked at an onboard water park or eating green eggs and ham with Dr. Seuss characters.

The cruise line also embraces simple pleasures like free-flowing soft-serve ice cream and pizza and a good ol’ belly-flop contest.

Families don’t need to pull out their wallets to feed ravenous teens or sugar-fueled children. Guy Fieri burgers and barbecue, burritos for breakfast and lunch and Shaquille O’Neal’s fried chicken are all included in your cruise fares. No one’s going to make you dress up for dinner, either.

Carnival ships have plenty of cabins that can sleep four or five passengers, but its newest ships truly treat families right.

Book a Family Harbor suite or stateroom and get access to a family lounge stocked with all the essentials — snacks and coffee, games, Wi-Fi, movies and a concierge to make bookings so mom and dad can spend more time playing with the kids.

MSC Cruises

Ocean Cay. CONRAD SCHUTT/MSC CRUISES

The underdog on our list, MSC Cruises might not be a household name yet, but any cruise line that has a partnership with Lego should be on every family’s radar.

As the Mediterranean line grows its U.S.-based fleet, it is staying attuned to the needs of traveling families.

Case in point: Larger family groups don’t have to cram into one cabin or be scattered across the ship. Instead, they can select from a variety of connecting family cabins that can accommodate up to 10 people.

Families that want to room together can take advantage of ongoing “kids sail free” fares and pay only the taxes and fees for children under age 18 who are the third and fourth passengers in a cabin.

Speaking of kids clubs, MSC’s ships offer play spaces for babies, kids, tweens and teens. Its ships not only offer a drop-off Baby Club with educational toys by Chicco but also a special baby laundry service to take care of that pile of dirty onesies.

The line has recently introduced a family deck party with cupcake decorating, carnival games and snacks.

Older kids, with or without parents along, can race in a Formula 1 simulator, experience virtual reality, get soaked in a water park or brave their fear of heights on a suspension bridge.

The line’s newest ship, MSC Seascape, will feature Robotron, a three-seat robotic amusement ride guaranteed to be a hit with thrill-seeking families.

Norwegian Cruise Line

DANNY LEHMAN/NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE

Norwegian Cruise Line is all about giving cruisers options to create different versions of the perfect cruise vacation, all within the same ship.

The flexibility and choice make it one of the best cruise lines for families, especially those who need to satisfy diverse interests or get bored with the same activities day after day.

Kids clubs and adults-only sun decks allow for age-appropriate fun time apart, but Norwegian wants families to have fun together. Teaming up for laser tag, mastering a ropes course, singing along to a Broadway musical or live concert or screaming down a waterslide are guaranteed to create those unbreakable family bonds.

Norwegian’s flexible dining system and a plethora of onboard eateries let families plan meals to suit their schedules and tastes.

Also, free kids’ meals at extra-charge restaurants mean parents can sample Brazilian, Japanese, French or seafood dishes while the littles gobble up pasta and chicken fingers. Casual all-day options suit fussy eaters who need unfussy dining areas.

The cruise line also gets a shout-out for its family-friendly Hawaii itineraries. The only big-ship cruise line that sails weeklong itineraries round trip from Honolulu, Norwegian provides an easy way for families to visit multiple islands.

Beach time, boat rides, water sports, luaus and volcano tours combine for an epic family trip, with the ship taking the stress out of meals and transportation.

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