The best cruise ships for kids

By Heidi Sarna,

It's no secret that cruises pack in extra value for families most of the larger ships offer free kids' activities, lavish playrooms with computer games and toys galore, and family-friendly diversions like waterslides, miniature golf courses, and rock-climbing walls.

But with dozens of cruises to choose from, how do you know which ship is best for your family?

These ships all have a few things in common: drop-off age-specific programming and well-stocked playrooms, plus after-hours group babysitting (usually starts at 10 p.m.) or private babysitting (usually $6-$8 per hour per child).

# Disney Cruise Line's Disney Dream
Minimum Age for Drop-off Programming: 3 months
Private In-cabin Babysitting: No

Much to the delight of even the youngest Disney fans, characters from "Toy Story," "Monsters, Inc.," and Tinker Bell's fairy forest make appearances in the Oceaneer Club and Oceaneer Lab children's activity centers. Outside is Goofy's Sports Deck, with a miniature golf course, a full basketball court that can be used for soccer or volleyball, and a pair of digital sport simulators to play soccer, tennis, and other sports.

Though kids will enjoy splashing around the "Finding Nemo"-themed water play area, more daring passengers will ride the Aqua Duck, a 765-foot-long, four-deck-high flume ride. Sit in two-person inflatable rafts, zip around the edge of the ship's top deck, and zoom 13 feet out over the ocean inside a transparent tube.

Got a picky eater? The Animator's Palate restaurant has video wall displays in which a turtle named Crush (of "Finding Nemo" fame) actually interacts with passengers and calls kids by name. Other eating venues are popular for their kid-friendly burgers, fries, hot dogs, chicken tenders, and pizza.

The extravagant production shows in the Walt Disney Theatre feature impressive stage props and favorite Disney characters in Broadway-style shows with original story lines. Even Castaway Cay Disney's private island in the Bahamas is a dream for kids, with a water park both offshore and on.

# Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Epic
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 2 years
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: No

Norwegian Epic has everything from Wii games and PlayStation 3 to one of the best waterslides at sea: a three-part slide that requires sitting in a giant inner tube before zipping down a giant shoot and into a large open-top bowl to do a few fast spins before splashing down to the end. For younger kids who don't want to feel left out, the Epic has a splash pool with mini slides and spray fountains.

Recreational sports activities include a 33-foot climbing wall with five routes, a trampoline (complete with harness and cables for doing flips), and a 24-foot-tall climbing cage called the "spider web" that's laced with giant rubber bands to climb through. Kids also appreciate the basketball court (that doubles as a mini soccer pitch), batting cage, and the two-deck-high video screen in the atrium that sometimes features special sporting events.

NCL also features Nickelodeon characters at a special breakfast for kids. Another perk: children under two sail free if sharing a cabin with two adults.

# Royal Caribbean's Oasis of the Seas and Allure of the Seas
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 6 months
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: Yes

The two largest ships at sea each have pretty much everything you need to entertain the kids: a sprawling H2O Zone water park, a pair of rock-climbing walls, a miniature golf course, two surfing simulators, a basketball court, an ice-skating rink, and a hand-carved wooden carousel.

Ten play areas, which are connected to a main boulevard, include a big open gym for romping, rooms for arts and crafts, kiddy theater productions, and even a space for simple science experiments.

Super kid-friendly eating outlets include a donut shop and a pizzeria, both of which are free. At la carte pricing, there's an ice-cream parlor, a cupcake shop, and a Johnny Rockets diner for burgers, fries, and milkshakes. There are kid-centric shops, too: one selling vat candy by the pound and another selling stuffed animals you can create and dress.

Fleetwide, you can pre-order baby gear (Gerber baby food, Huggies diapers, and more) in the Shop Gifts and Gear section of, and the stuff will be waiting for you in your cabin. There is a drop-off nursery for ages 6 months to 3 years ($8 per hour).

# Royal Caribbean's Freedom, Liberty and Independence of the Seas
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 3 years
Private in-cabin babysitting: Yes

Aside from a huge playroom and video arcade aboard the Freedom-class ships, kids can't enough of the H2O water park, rock-climbing wall, ice-skating rink, surfing simulator, mini golf course, and basketball court. Kids of all ages love the Ben & Jerry's ice-cream parlor and the Johnny Rockets diner on board for burgers, fries and milkshakes (both venues at an extra charge).

Daily mom-and-baby 45-minute play dates offered for ages 6 months to 3 years old focus on music, storytelling, and Fisher-Price toys. Starting later in 2011, these Freedom-class ships are also expected to offer a nursery for ages 6 months to 3 years. The fancy cupcake shop introduced on Oasis and Allure of the Seas will also be added.

# Carnival Cruise Lines' Carnival Dream and Carnival Magic
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 2 years
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: No

Carnival's newest megaships have impressive water features, including a pair of twin 80-foot-long racing slides and a 104-foot-long enclosed spiral slide called the DrainPipe. There's also the massive 303-foot-long, four-deck-high Twister enclosed corkscrew waterslide. This pair of ships also has a mini golf course and a basketball court.

Aboard Carnival Magic (slated to debut May 2011), there's a great space called Sports Square, which features the first ropes course at sea (suspended above deck); the line's first two-level nine-hole mini golf course; and a court for basketball, volleyball, and soccer.

On the mornings of port days and after hours, children as young as 6 months can be dropped off for $6 per hour. To lighten your load, a handful of strollers, bouncy seats, travel swings, and Game Boys are available for rent on board. But if you absolutely need a stroller, don't take a chance and be sure to bring your own.

# Celebrity Cruises' Celebrity Millennium, Infinity, Summit and Constellation
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 3 years
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: Yes

Each of these Millennium-class ships has a kiddy pool and a ball pit, as well as an outdoor play area with a climbing maze geared to young kids.

For kids who plan on being in the playroom most evenings for the group babysitting program, the V.I.P. Party Pass covers all group babysitting during the cruise at a 40 percent discount (it's normally $6 an hour per child between 10 pm and 1 am). Kids also get perks like behind-the-scenes tours and can attend one big-screen movie with free popcorn and drinks. Toddlers under age 2 can use the playroom if accompanied by a parent.

# Cunard's Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 1 year
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: No

There are no stiff upper lips here; the Queens cater to little kids big-time. Certified British nannies are part of the staff in charge of the playroom, which includes a room with baby cribs. An outdoor play area next to the playroom has a climbing frame, a wading pool, and sprinklers.

The King's Court buffet restaurant has an area reserved for kids and "high tea" is served daily for them at dinnertime, offering favorites like pasta and chicken nuggets.

# Princess Cruises' Caribbean, Star, Crown, Emerald and Ruby Princess
Minimum Age for Drop-Off Programming: 3 years
Private In-Cabin Babysitting: No

For bigger kids, each of these ships have basketball courts and mini golf courses. For toddlers, the Fun Zone kids' center has a large fenced-in outdoor play area next to the playroom. With tricycles and a mini-basketball set-up, this outdoor area is the best place for energetic tykes to run around while Mom and Dad sit on the sidelines and relax.

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