Voyages for tots: Guide to best family cruises for young children

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In 1998, I took my first cruise with an 18-month old in tow, and discovered that cruising was not as family-friendly as I thought, at least not when traveling with a toddler.

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In 1998, I took my first cruise with an 18-month old in tow, and discovered that cruising was not as family-friendly as I thought, at least not when traveling with a toddler.

A few years and another child later, I tried a supposedly more kid-friendly line, but still found much to be desired – cabin layouts not fit for a family, pools (as well as play areas) off limits to those not potty-trained, and activities still tailored to children older than 3.

It was enough to make a family vacationer stay on land. But thankfully, the last few years have brought an increasing number of offerings geared to those traveling with the infant to preschool set.

When Disney entered the cruise business in 1998, it instantly led the pack in catering to cruising’s youngest passengers, offering a nursery, larger standard staterooms with tubs and room-dividing curtains, and onboard stores stocked with products such as diapers and baby sunblock.

In the past few years other cruise lines have introduced tot-friendly amenities, from Royal Caribbean’s new family staterooms and toddler playgroups to Carnival’s expansive play areas that allow even diaper-wearing tots in to play.

Here are four cruise lines that parents of babies to preschoolers can love, including information on babysitting options, playgroups, baby gear you can skip packing, plus tips on the family-friendliest staterooms.

Carnival Cruise Line
(888) 227-6482,

Minimum age to sail
4 months

Why they’re great
Parents of children younger than 5 receive a pager for use during the cruise in case they need to be contacted.

Toddlers don’t have to be potty-trained (parents supply diapers and wipes) to participate in Camp Carnival’s free program for 2- to 5-year-olds. Here, kids can play picture-bingo to win prizes, finger-paint, put on puppet shows and listen to stories.

Mascot Fun Ship Freddy (modeled after Carnival’s trademark ship’s funnel), poses for photos and joins dance parties (plush Freddys are for sale in the gift shops).

Children younger than two can take a turn with the toys during designated Family Play Times, when accompanied by a parent.

Babysitting services for children younger than 2 are available at Camp Carnival during limited hours (check when you board; rates are $6 for the first child/$4 each additional). Activity books and crayons are available in dining rooms.

Bunking with baby
Carnival’s standard cabins are relatively large, measuring 185 square feet for an interior stateroom and 190 square feet for an ocean-view cabin. These staterooms can accommodate up to five people with two lower beds that convert to a king, two upper beds that fold out from the wall and a rollaway.

Be sure to inquire where the fold-out beds are located because some are directly above the lower beds instead of at the other end of the cabin which would give more privacy and distance from sleeping children.

Conquest- and Destiny-class ships offer a 230-square-foot Family Stateroom with floor-to-ceiling windows. Also consider the Outside Stateroom with Verandah, which allocates 40 of the 230 square feet to a balcony. This leaves less interior space but provides a place to sit, talk, and have a light on when children are asleep.

Nightly turndown service includes chocolate chip cookies. Cartoon Network and Boomerang available on in-room televisions.

Tiny-tot essentials
Single or double strollers are available ($25 per week or $6 per day on three- and four-night voyages) for rent as well as bouncy chairs. Cribs are provided gratis for in-stateroom use. Shipboard shops sell diapers, wipes and ointments. Bring baby food; mashing is not available on Carnival ships.

Caveat emptor
No in-cabin babysitting permitted. Children ages 2 to 5 can participate in evening activities scheduled for their age group before 10 p.m. The only nighttime option for parents of children younger than 2 is babysitting from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m. at the center, among older children watching movies and snoozing.

Disney Cruise Line
(800) 951-3532,

Minimum age to sail
12 weeks

Why they’re great
The Little Mermaid-themed Flounder’s Reef Nursery (available on both Disney ships) caters to children 12 weeks to 36 months old, offering infant swings, assorted Hasbro toys, board books, arts and crafts for toddlers, and even a one-way viewing window for parents.

Toys that were mouthed by children get thrown in the “yuck bin” to be cleaned and sterilized before available to the next child.

In addition to the drop-off service, family hours allow parents to enjoy the nursery’s toys and amenities with their children. The ratio of counselors to children is 1 to 4 for infants, 1 to 6 for toddlers.

Nursery spaces fill quickly. Book up to 10 hours of nursery time through Disney’s Web site before you cruise, register for additional hours (if available) once onboard. (Cost: $6 per hour for first child; $5 per hour, each additional child.)

Children 3 and older (or those close to 3 and potty-trained) can participate in the Oceaneer Club (free) where kids get to make their own chocolate chip cookies, climb on an indoor pirate ship, and put together a giant Mr. Potato Head.

Children in swim diapers can splash about in the moon- and star-themed fountains in the toddler pool recently added to Disney Wonder.

Each night dining room servers give children a Disney themed activity-sheet and crayons.

On April 10, a live stage performance, “Toy Story – The Musical,” debuts on the Disney Wonder ship.

Bunking with baby
Disney’s staterooms are 25 percent larger than the industry average. Deluxe inside and outside staterooms are 214 square feet and include a privacy curtain that separates the two sleeping areas, allowing you to switch on a light without waking the children. The 304-square-foot deluxe family staterooms with verandahs sleep up to five.

Unlike most sofa beds that take up precious floor space when converted to a full-size bed, Disney’s sofas convert to a twin bed. The pull-down bed above the sofa makes a bunk-bed set-up that can comfortably be left set up all day, making midday naptimes a cinch.

Unlike almost all other cruise lines, most Disney cabins include full tubs – a big plus for bathing babies and toddlers. Graco Pack n’ Plays and Diaper Genies are available for use, gratis. The Disney channel (of course) is included on stateroom televisions.

Tiny-tot essentials
Huggies disposable diapers are sold in gift shops along with two brands of formulas, bottle liners, diaper cream and baby sunblock. The kitchen can prepare pureed fruits and vegetables upon request. A limited number of strollers are available for use through guest services.

Caveat emptor
With only two ships (two more are scheduled for delivery in 2011 and 2012), destinations are limited.

In-cabin babysitting is not permitted. However, babies and children can be cared for in the children’s centers at night.

There is a television in the nursery, so be sure to inform staff if you don’t want your little one in front of the tube.

Disney ships have no casinos and the adults-only entertainment district is rarely crowded or open much past midnight – not that many of us parents of young children stay awake that late.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Line
(866) 562-7625,

Minimum age to sail
No minimum age

Why they’re great
In 2005, Royal Caribbean announced a partnership with Fisher Price, offering playgroups (two 45-minute sessions daily) for parents to attend with their children and hosted by youth counselors.

Here “Aquababies” (6- to 18- month-olds) play with musical instruments, shapes and colors, and Baby Gymtastics toys. “Aquatots” (18 months to 3 years) can pretend to be pirates and princesses, sing songs, and play with Little People themed-toys.

Children 3 and older (and potty-trained) can spend a half to a full day in the Adventure Ocean program, plus drive a Barbie Escalade or jeep on the new Power Wheels Track on the cruise line’s private island, Coco Cay.

Royal Caribbean offers in-cabin babysitting (based on availability) for ages 1 and older ($8 per hour for two children within the same family, $10 per hour for three, booked through guest services, 24-hours in advance).

Borrow a children’s book from the ship’s library for bedtime reading.

Bunking with baby
Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas and new Liberty of the Seas offer six different family stateroom categories, including the 330-square-foot, six-person Inside Family Stateroom that includes a curtained-off sleeping alcove and sleeper sofa.

Freedom and Liberty also offer a 495-square-foot Family Oceanview Staterooms that can accommodate a family of six. Numerous other Royal Caribbean ships offer 265- to 328-square-foot Family Ocean View Staterooms that can accommodate up to six guests. The staterooms include two twin beds (which can convert into a queen-size bed) bunk beds in a separate enclosed area, sitting area with sofa bed and mini bar (detailed floor plans on the Web site).

Cartoon Network available on stateroom televisions.

Tiny-tot essentials
Complimentary cribs are available for in-cabin use. Bring your stroller and your own baby items. Diapers and the like are not sold in ship stores.

Caveat emptor
The plight of children not potty-trained: In addition to not being allowed for free play in the Adventure Ocean playrooms, even with a parent, they aren’t allowed in any of the ship’s pools, even in swim diapers.

Norwegian Cruise Line
(866) 234-0292,

Minimum age to sail
6 months

Why they’re great
Most (but not all – check before booking) NCL ships offer children 2 years old and up an opportunity to play at Kid’s Crew, which is home to ball pits, tunnels, jungle gyms and Leap Frog Learning Toys.

While in-cabin babysitting is not permitted, children ages 2 to 5 have their own nighttime babysitting room sans older, rowdier kids.

NCL’s Dawn, Star and Spirit each have a children-themed water play area including slides, water squirters, and splash areas for swim-diaper- free children.

The Kid’s Cafe (available on select ships) offers tot-sized tables and chairs, plus a buffet of favorites that include plenty of fruits and veggies along with the hot dogs, French fries and cookies.

Bunking with baby
Norwegian’s stateroom categories and sizes vary considerably by ship, with notable new family staterooms and suites on Norwegian’s Jewel, Pearl (and the soon-to-launch Gem), and the Pride of America ships in Hawaii.

These ships offer 32 stateroom categories, including suites and junior suites that can connect additional staterooms to create two-, three-, four- or five bedroom configurations suitable for small to large families.

The 205-square-foot Oceanview Staterooms include balconies. Select 572-square-foot Courtyard Villas have a bedroom with queen-size bed and luxury bath (with whirlpool tub), plus a separate children’s bedroom.

The Cartoon Channel is available on stateroom televisions.

Tiny-tot essentials
Bring everything. NCL does not provide stroller rentals, cribs or any of the other paraphernalia parents need for young children.

Caveat emptor
Best for children 2 and older. Unlike Carnival and Disney, NCL’s youth staff are not permitted to change diapers; parents of diaper-wearing tots receive pagers and are paged when they need to come change junior. There is no age-specific programming for children under 2, nor are wee ones allowed in the playrooms – even if accompanied by a parent.

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