7 Best Cruises for Kids: Thrill or Chill – The Choice is Yours!

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Mickey and Minnie in front of the Disney Wish, one of the best cruises for kids
Mickey, Minnie and the Disney Wish. Photo credit: Disney Cruise Line

A family cruise is an exciting way to travel and explore destinations on shore excursions. The best cruises for kids offer onboard waterslides, kids programs, stage shows and much more to ensure mile a minute action for the whole family, if that’s what you’re looking for. Want a vibe that’s more laidback? There’s a kid-friendly cruise for your family too.

One of the best things about a family cruise is that there’s a lot to see and do for all age groups. For families, the best cruises for kids will have kids programs (including babysitting services) and activities for tweens, teens and the whole family. Some cruise ships are like floating amusement parks with mini golf, waterslides, rock climbing walls, ziplining, surf simulators, ropes course, ice skating, laser tag, skydiving, video games and more.

And port days are thrilling, an opportunity to get off the ship and explore the sights on shore excursions. Or, stay onboard and enjoy a less crowded ship.

Best Cruise for Kids

“In most cases, the best cruises for traveling with kids will be the mainstream lines – Royal Caribbean, Carnival, Norwegian, Disney and MSC. The environment onboard is more bustling, with tons of different options for every member of the family,” says Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor of Cruise Critic.

So much of the onboard programming is aimed at catering to families, so kids have plenty to keep them occupied and having fun, while grownups often have adults-only areas that they can enjoy for some quiet time, too, says Gray Faust.

And, of course, no-one goes hungry on a cruise ship. From poolside burger and pizza spots to upscale restaurants, there’s a wide range of dining options.

Since I’m my family’s travel planner, I love that cruises are mostly all-inclusive, making it easy to plan a family vacation. When planning your cruise, you just need to choose the cruise line, itineraries and departure ports. To help you decide, we selected the seven best cruises for kids. Read on to see why families love these cruise lines.

Disney Cruise Line is the best cruise for kids who want to travel with Mickey and Minnie
The Wish’s Grand Hall, which features a wishing star chandelier, also has the first-ever atrium stage on a Disney ship. Photo credit: Disney Cruise Line

1. Disney Cruise Line

Disney Cruise Line is among the top family-friendly cruises. In fact, some of my family’s best cruises have been on Disney ships. (Our first cruise ever was in 1991 aboard the now defunct Big Red Boat, the official cruise line of Walt Disney World). Disney Cruise Line launched in 1995 with Disney Magic and over the years expanded the fleet with Disney Wonder, Disney Dream, Disney Fantasy and the new ship, Disney Wish, in 2022.

Each ship offers a magical experience with outstanding kids’ programs, creative dining, theaters that show first-run Disney films, Broadway-shows and adults-only areas. Disney voyages begin with a “Pirates of the Caribbean” deck party complete with fireworks. Be ready to join themed parties by packing your favorite Disney accessories.

Disney Wish: The New Ship

The Wish, which accommodates 4,000 passengers, sails from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas and Disney’s private island, Castaway Cay. New features include an atrium that serves as a stage and has a wishing star chandelier. Each child receives a wand upon boarding. Also debuting on the Wish is Disney Uncharted Adventure, an interactive storytelling experience that uses a Disney navigational app.

Aboard Disney Ships

The ships are well designed and have thoughtful spaces for the whole family. One of my favorite features are the split bathrooms in the staterooms. One bathroom has a sink, tub (and shower) while the second bathroom has a toilet and a second sink. This makes getting ready for meals and activities so much easier. As usual, Disney shines when it comes to dining, stage shows and kids’ clubs. Plus, Disney ships have a theatre showing first run movies. Disney also carved out quiet spaces just for adults.

Why families love Disney Cruise Line:

  • Kids’ clubs
  • Activities for kids of all ages
  • Family staterooms with split bathrooms
  • Creative dining options
  • Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island
 Cruise deals and onboard fun for the whole family make Carnival Cruise Line one of the best cruises for kids
Cruise deals and onboard fun for the whole family make Carnival Cruise Line one of the best cruises for kids Dr. Seuss WaterWorks. Photo credit: Heidi Gollub

2. Carnival Cruise Line

We’ve been cruising on Carnival’s “Fun Ships” for 26 years. Mostly from the Port of Los Angeles (near our home) to the Mexican Riviera, but also from Miami for Caribbean cruises. Carnival offers many good deals, making a cruise getaway affordable for a family vacation. Plus, it has a lot of fun features and even the mega ships are easy to navigate.

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Jill Robbins, a mom of two, gives Carnival a thumbs up for its Camp Ocean, the kids’ program for ages 2-11. Kids are grouped by age and take part in fun, marine-life themed activities.

“Camp Ocean offers Dr. Seuss-themed activities, Build-A-Bear workshops and is definitely more than a cruise ship babysitting service,” she says. In addition, there are other activities kids can such as SkyRide, Sky Course, Thrill Theater, various sports, late night parties and an arcade. There’s also a teen lounge.

The whole family will enjoy WaterWorks, an aqua park with waterslides and other water features. Dr. Seuss WaterWorks. Carnival Horizon has a water park with a splash zone play area and a 150-gallon dumping bucket.

Why families love Carnival Cruise Line:

  • Cruise deals
  • Large fleet
  • Camp Ocean kids’ clubs
  • Aqua Park
  • At-Sea attractions like SkyRide and ropes courses
Onboard adventures make Norwegian Cruise line one of the best cruises for kids
The main pool on the Norwegian Encore. Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line

3. Norwegian Cruise Line

Norwegian Cruise Line is a pace setter with ships leaving from Seattle calling on Alaska, ships leaving from Miami calling on the Western Caribbean and Eastern Caribbean and ships departing New York to Bermuda, New England and Florida and the Bahamas. Currently, Norwegian Encore is the newest ship, having launched in 2019. It’s also the largest in the NCL fleet.

About Norwegian Encore

Families who’ve sailed with the cruise line say the Encore offers great cuisine, upscale experiences and adventure for kids and adults. An Escape Room and the world’s largest collection of virtual reality games make the Norwegian Encore a stand-out choice for teens (and the rest of the family). Plus, the Encore Two swimming pool includes a children’s pool with a selection of toddler and child-sized swim safety vests.

“There are an amazing 25 dining options on board the Encore! Many of them are dining upgrades available at an additional price. But there’s also plenty of good food included in the basic cruise rate,” says SheBuysTravel Editor-in-Chief Cindy Richards, who was among the first to sail on the Encore.

Why families love Norwegian Cruise Line:

  • Diverse itineraries
  • Depending on the ship, Norwegian has a two-level go-kart track, laser tag, immersive virtual reality games, mini golf, waterpark, splash zone
  • The highlight for teens on the Norwegian Encore (and its sister ship, the Norwegian Joy) is the thrilling Galaxy Pavilion
  • Two swimming pools, including a children’s pool with a selection of toddler and child-sized swim safety vests

4. Princess Cruises

For our family cruise to Alaska we chose Princess Cruises, which differs from many other mainstream cruise lines that are loaded with mega at-sea attractions. Instead, Princess Cruises teamed up with Discovery, Animal Planet and the Science Channel to offer a Discovery at Sea program on all its ships and itineraries.

Kids aboard Princess Cruises can join activities like the Deadliest Catch crab bucket challenge. Activities include making shark tooth necklaces during Shark Week at Sea and taking an Animal Planet shore excursion. More onboard fun features the Reef Family Splash Zone and kids’ clubs.

A mother of two, Kendra Pierson raves about her family’s Eastern Caribbean cruise aboard Caribbean Princess. She was especially impressed by the MedallionClass service. The OceanMedallion replaces the cruise cards that traditionally managed your experience with a simple wearable device and a few apps.

She recommends finding a seat or space in a tub tub for Movies Under the Stars, a huge outdoor movie theater that plays poolside features on the top deck after the sun sets.

Why families love Princess Cruises:

  • Discovery at Sea adventure program
  • Reef Family Splash Zone
  • Kids’ clubs
  • Movies Under the Stars is the line’s huge outdoor movie theater that plays poolside features on the top deck after the sun sets.
For families seeking European and Mediterranean voyages, MSC Cruises is the best cruise for kids.
MSC Cruises and LEGO have partnered to bring the famous bricks onboard. Photo credit: MSC Cruise Lines

5. MSC Cruises

MSC Cruises isn’t quite as popular (yet) as the mainstream cruise lines in North America, but it’s definitely worth checking out. As a family-owned company and one of the leading cruise lines in Europe, South America, and other parts of the world, it offers great deals on family cruises.

For example kids under age 18 sail free on select itineraries, and tots under age 2 always sail free. The whole family will enjoy Fun Time Dinner, Happy Dinners and Kids Around the Clock. For youth there are kids’ clubs, Aqua Park, swimming pools, waterslides and top game consoles (PS3, Xbox and Wii). Meanwhile, adults can enjoy various entertainment including Broadway-style shows.

MSC Cruises accommodations range from luxury suites with whirlpool baths to family staterooms.

Why families love MSC Cruises:

  • MSC Cruises is a family-owned company
  • Kids under 18 sail free on select itineraries; kids under age 2 always sail free
  • Activities for the whole family including LEGO play areas
  • Family-friendly staterooms
Royal Caribbean is the best cruise for kids whose families prefer mega ships with lots of onboard play areas and attractions
The Wonder Playscape is an underwater-themed, outdoor play area for kids and their families. Photo credit: Royal Caribbean International

6. Royal Caribbean International

When Royal Caribbean debuted Quantum of the Seas followed quickly by Anthem of the Seas a few years ago, it was hard to imagine the cruise line could outdo its own mega ships. However, the new ship, Wonder of the Seas, is now the largest cruise ship in the world. The Wonder is a floating city with eight neighborhoods, 20 restaurants (two more than Anthem), 11 bars and lounges plus five incredible play areas for kids and teens.

At-sea attractions are over the top with the FlowRider surf simulator, a carousel, rock climbing wall, zip line, mini golf, laser tag and ice skating rink. All that plus an outstanding Adventure Ocean kids’ club. A cruise highlight is a day at RCL’s private island, CocoCay, which has the tallest waterslide in North America, a balloon ride and swim-up bar.

RCL offers an array of staterooms. Kids – and parents – will love the two-story Ultimate Family Stateroom, which features an in-suite slide, an air hockey table and even table tennis on your balcony.

Why families love Royal Caribbean International:

  • Crib and supplies available
  • Adventure Ocean kids’ programs
  • Onboard attractions to thrill all ages
  • Tallest waterslide in North America
  • Variety of state rooms including deluxe family suites
  • 20 dining options
  • Private island, CocoCay
Celebrity cruises is the best cruise for kids whose families are seeking a pampering experience
The Magic Carpet is a transformative and functional space. Photo credit: Celebrity Cruises

7. Celebrity Cruises

Celebrity Cruises is the luxury brand of the Royal Caribbean line. The new ship, Celebrity Beyond, pampers families with amenities and has the widest range of staterooms and suites in its fleet. From inside staterooms to two-story Edge Villas, there’s an ideal space for everyone on this luxury ship.

Celebrity Cruise Line boasts outstanding kids’ programs that are divided into four age groups. Camp at Sea is for ages 3-12 and the Teen Club caters to ages 13-17. In addition, Celebrity has a special program for youth with autism. These include sensory-friendly films and toys, dietary menu options and overall autism-friendly training for Camp at Sea.

Meanwhile, adults can indulge in wine tastings and cuisine programs like Top Chef at Sea and wine workshops.

Why families love Celebrity Cruises:

  • Luxury staterooms and amenities
  • Kids’ programs
  • Autism-friendly programs and services
Native Angeleno and seasoned travel journalist Mimi Slawoff writes for numerous print and digital publications. She is also the author of Oldest Los Angeles (Reedy Press, 2022). A lifelong world traveler, Mimi is an award-winning journalist who writes about outdoor adventures, cruises, Europe and cultural activities. Mimi has three grown kids and lives with her husband and their dog, Maya, in Los Angeles.
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