Destination Guide: Family Cruise Ships

A guide to the destinations, activities, and food that family cruise ships offer.

The truth is, every cruise line is family-friendly, offering everything from kid-centric activities to onboard childcare. But these two popular lines offer the most extensive and creative programs for children.

 

Royal Caribbean International


Personality: Action-packed
Royal Caribbean's newest boats are the largest afloat, with a dizzying array of onboard adventures from surfing pools to ice-skating rinks to mini-golf courses and ziplines. Families prize these ships not only for the variety of activities but for the expertly run kids' clubs (for ages 3 and up), which provide creative, age-appropriate activities not only for the little ones, but also for hard-to-please teens and tweens. 

Prices: All over the map. Inside cabins can sometimes be found for as little as $60/day, per person, on Caribbean, Bahamian and Alaskan sailings; on other itineraries, $120/day will be the lowest rate on the least expensive cabins, with porthole and balcony cabins going up in cost significantly.

Destinations: Despite its name, Royal Caribbean now sails slightly more in Europe (224 departures a year) than in the Caribbean (181 per year), which is good news for dieters; it's easier, in general, to get foods low in SmartPoints® values across the pond than it is in the islands. Cruises also head to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, Alaska, Bermuda, Asia, South America, and along the Eastern seaboard in North America.  

Food: Bigger is better. “On the newer ships, the buffets are much, much, larger, which means more healthy choices,” says Rich Tucker, founder and editor of Cruise Source. What it doesn’t mean is bigger plates. “We changed the plate size for all of our Windjammer Café buffets several years ago, making them smaller,” says fleet-wide Executive Chef Josef Jungwirth. “There was a tendency to overfill the larger plates, and a fair amount of food went to waste. Now we see guests taking smaller portions.” Royal Caribbean also no longer supplies trays at the buffets, making it harder to carry multiple plates and a drink back to your seat.

Beyond buffets, Sherry Laskin, a travel agent and blogger at CruiseMaven.com, praises the sugar-free desserts, which she considers the best at sea. “There’s a sugar-free coconut angel cake that’s just awesome,” she raves. Carolyn Spencer Brown, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, is a fan of the smoothie bars for healthy snacks.

Fitness: The vast size of many of the fleet’s ships translates into larger gyms, more equipment and therefore fewer lines to get onto the treadmills, ellipticals, and bikes. (Smaller, older boats will have fewer machines.) Royal Caribbean has the widest array of fitness classes, but “they’re always packed,” says Laskin. “So sign up early in the cruise if you’re interested.” Try sunset yoga and stretch classes on deck when at sea, or beach yoga on Royal Caribbean’s private islands. 

Tucker notes that Royal Caribbean offers many opportunities to burn calories outside the gym. “The Flow Rider for surfing, the rock-climbing wall, ice-skating — they’re all great for getting your heart rate up,” he says. “And with the immense size of the Allure of the Seas and the Oasis of the Seas, simply walking around the ship is a workout in itself!”

 

Disney Cruise Line


Personality: Magical
The creativity and care that has gone into the design of these ships is awe-inspiring: For example, animated characters dash around the live-streaming shore pictures that are broadcast into the fake portholes of the inner rooms on Disney’s newest ships. As at the theme parks, a generous number of princesses and costumed creatures keep the kiddies happy. And as with Royal Caribbean, the onboard kids' clubs are renowned. Another perk for those seeking a wholesome vibe: None of the Disney ships carries casinos. 

Entertainment is top-notch, including first-run Disney films and elaborate stage shows. Expect surprises around every corner, some of which, unfortunately, may be the prices for the cruise itself and the onboard specialty restaurants, which are among the highest in the industry.

Prices: It’s rare that any of the Disney Cruise Line's three ships goes lower than $115/day per person, with many sailings starting at $150/day per person for the least expensive cabins (bigger cabins skyrocket in cost). 

Destinations: The Disney Wonder alternates between Alaska and the Mexican Riviera. The Disney Magic cruises from Bayonne, New Jersey (outside New York), to the Bahamas or Canada. The fleet’s newest ships sail from Cape Canaveral, Florida, to the Bahamas (the Disney Dream) and the Caribbean (the Disney Fantasy). Of those, Canada and the Mediterranean have the best on-land food options for dieters.

Food: Experts praise Disney’s buffets. “They have pretty extensive choices, including a lot of non-sauced fresh shrimp and crabmeat and raw veggies,” notes Laskin. As always, the food in the restaurants can be customized and includes a number of diet-friendly choices. Spencer Brown, however, warns about one freebie: “The soda machines are free — it’s a big, bad temptation!” she says.

Fitness: Ships have gyms that range in size from 1,250 to 2,500 square feet, adults-only pools, a sports deck that includes a full-size basketball court, and jogging tracks. Like Royal Caribbean, Disney offers yoga on its private island, as well as a 5K group run and bike rentals.

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