Once the preserve of 'couples of a certain age', luxe liners are embracing children with a heap of innovative offerings, from ‘smart’ ships to cutting edge kids’ entertainment. Frances Marcellin hits the high seas to take a look.
Fun and games with Disney cruises.
MSC Cruises has finely tuned its innovative children’s programme and activities are age-targeted through its five dedicated kids clubs catering for littlies from zero years to teens.
These ships cruise all over the world, including Asia, and the facilities on board will entertain your kids every step of the way.
The waterslides are a big hit with young and old – some ships have ‘interactive slide-boarding’ (which is like playing a video game at the same time). Younger children will love the colourful splash playground and there are always plenty of swimming pools, outdoor as well as covered, to choose from.
Partnerships with Chicco and Lego form the basis of the play areas, but there are all kinds of board games, sports and dance contests to enjoy. There are Wii, Xbox and PS4 machines, but kids can also use technology in other ways, from creating designs and printing them in 3D, to sharing a table-sized iPad and piloting a drone.
The latest ships have a virtual reality maze, full-size bowling, a video arcade and a 4D cinema. You’ll always know where everyone in your group is too (kids and adults) as the MSC for Me app can track their geo-located smart wristbands (if you opt in).
Chat to members of your group through the app (free via the ship’s WiFi), use Google Maps-style navigation to find your way, make reservations and create an in-app personalised itinerary.
In Europe, MSC Cruises’ Family Explorer Club gives kids missions to solve and has storytelling tour guides to keep kids interested. MSC Cruises has also introduced a ‘Protectors’ programme, connecting families with nature and local communities. Saving baby sea turtles in the Caribbean and assisting at a honey-bee farm in Corfu are just some of the experiences you can share.
Family accommodation is abundant on MSC Cruises. Options include duplex suites (double bed upstairs and sofa bed downstairs), two-bedroom grand suites and family cabins. A clever modular system and bunk beds mean you can connect multiple staterooms for families of up to ten people.
If thrilling water parks are more your style, then CocoCay, Royal Caribbean’s private island, is worth a visit on a Caribbean cruise. An enormous aquapark and balloon rides add yet more fun.
This is just one of the 300 destinations Royal Caribbean sail to. Alternative regions include Europe, Alaska, America, Asia and the South Pacific.
Exploring the decks of a Royal Caribbean ship feels like a playground for all ages. Specifics vary from ship to ship – the virtual reality game on Sky Pad (a bungee trampoline experience) is only available on China sailings – but the range is vast. Waterslides galore, aqua playgrounds, crazy golf, surf simulator FlowRider, escape rooms, merry-go-rounds, laser tag, a towering climbing wall and an ice-skating rink are some of the highlights.
Royal Caribbean is renowned for the range of its kids’ programmes that cover babies to tweens and teens, including science and art-based activities, storytelling and a teen-only nightclub. Entertainment for the whole family includes karaoke night, poolside games, theme nights and movies. There’s also fencing and archery. The aqua show (which hires expert Red Bull cliff divers) is extraordinarily thrilling.
Symphony of the Seas has Ultimate Abyss, the scream-inducing tallest slide at sea, as well as a family suite with a slide from bedroom to lounge and an in-suite cinema. Loft suites, family staterooms and connected suites are also available.
Out on deck on board Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas.
Carnival says it takes fun very seriously and the cruise line provides activities though Camp Carnival (for two to 11year olds); Circle C (12-14 years); and Club O2 (15-17 years). The activities depend on the ship, but games, activity walls, climbing mazes and computer labs are common across the fleet.
Notably, the crew has also been trained to be ‘sensory inclusive’ meaning adults or kids with conditions such as autism, ADHD, down syndrome, and PTSD can maximise their enjoyment on board.
A partnership with Zumba and BabyFirst has created Zumbini, where young kids can sing, dance and play musical instruments. Carnival Horizon’s Dr Seuss WaterWorks has an aqua splash area and a raft slide, as well as an enclosed body slide with lighting effects. Kids can bounce to their hearts’ content on Carnival Panorama, which has a fun zone for all ages, including a 12-lane trampoline park, a climbing wall and soft blocks for toddlers and babies.
Mardi Gras, which launches in November 2020 and operates in Europe and the Caribbean, will feature a roller coaster with a 220-metre track, 57 metres above sea level. It surrounds a three-slide aqua park, suspended rope course and mini golf. Football, volleyball and basketball are also part of the programme. There are also several pools to splash around in.
Family-friendly staterooms, including inter-connecting are ideal for small and large families. Family Harbor accommodation on Carnival Vista, Carnival Horizon and Carnival Panorama offer staterooms and suites for families of five. There is also a separate dedicated lounge and family concierge desk.
Destinations include Singapore, Australia, the Caribbean, Alaska, Hawaii, Canada, Europe and the Bahamas. Cruising in the latter means guests can explore Carnival’s 2,400-acre private island resort Half Moon Cay. Horse rides, nature trails, lagoons and an aqua park are waiting to be discovered.
Children are particularly well catered for on Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity. On certain sailings there are activities for kids up to the age of 17 years and dedicated play areas for all ages.
Fantasia (for youngsters) includes supervised activities, board games, arts and crafts and puzzles. Waves (aimed at teens) offers PlayStation, Nintendo Wii and Xbox 360 gaming. There is a swimming pool on board and special children’s activities run during the summer holiday season.
Cruise holidays operate close to home in destinations such as Singapore, Japan and China, and some depart from Hong Kong. Elsewhere, most corners of the world are covered, including Africa, Australia and New Zealand, the Caribbean, the Middle East, South America and the South Pacific.
A Paul Gauguin liner pulls into Polynesia.
Do your kids love the Disney film Moana? If so, check out this luxury cruise line with a special ocean-based, Moana Explorer programme for those sailing to Tahiti, French Polynesia and the South Pacific.
The programme has been developed in partnership with the South Pacific Marine Education and Conservation Foundation, Te mana o te moana. Youngsters aged seven to 15 years get to explore the natural habitats in this part of the world through science, art and games-focused activities.
Water experiments, treasure hunts, Tahitian culture and discovering underwater life are some of the highlights.
Also included in the overall cruise price are water sports such as kayaking and paddle boarding. And don’t miss a visit to the private islet Motu Mahana, where the whole family can snorkel among the fish and bright coral in warm, crystal-clear waters.
Celebrity Cruises, with its all-female bridge and officer team on Celebrity Edge, is pushing the boundaries for gender equality.
Kids programmes include Toddler Time for under threes and run all the way up to Senior Teens for 16 to 17 year olds. Celebrity also holds a Camp at Sea for three to 12 year olds and an X-Club for teens aged 13 to 16 years.
Kids can investigate marine organisms, delve into the world of plastic pollution and learn how lifestyle choices can impact positive change. Overall, there are more than 500 activities that aim to nurture young directors, artists, scientists and chefs. The cruise line’s foodie focus enables children to enjoy hands-on culinary experience with the chefs on board.
STEM experiences launched on Celebrity Equinox are a result of a partnership with Frost Science Museum. This is the third ship to have been part of a $500 million fleet revamp, which is set for completion in 2023.
Celebrity operates across 79 countries and sails to 300 destinations all over the world. Asian countries include Hong Kong, China, Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Thailand, India and Malaysia.
Most children have at least one Disney film they’ve seen ten times, and the chances are that they’ll meet the characters on board a Disney cruise. The entertainment starts as soon as the ship sails with a Pirates ‘in’ the Caribbean deck party.
In terms of kids’ clubs, three and unders are looked after at the nursery. The Oceaneer Club entertains three to 12 year olds, and Tweens (11-14 years) have access to movies and video games.
Teens sailing on Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream are lucky enough to have their very own deck with music, games and food.
Disney cruises are obviously big on Broadway-style entertainment. Shows include Frozen, Tangled and Beauty and the Beast.
There aren’t any Asia cruises on offer, but regions Disney does sail to includes Europe, the Pacific Coast, Mexico, Canada, Caribbean and Alaska.
Disney also has its own private island, Castaway Cay, in the Bahamas where there’s a snorkeling bay, volleyball and water playgrounds. Disney characters constantly on-hand to meet and greet kids, too. For those who want to explore the more natural side of the island, there are plenty of walking and running trails.
Norwegian Cruise Lines
Norwegian Cruise Lines is loud and proud about its kids programmes. Petrol heads will want to cruise on Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy, the only cruise ships with a racetrack at sea. All cars are electric (cleverly disguised with gas engine sounds) and many have double seats so you can race with your kids.
For water-based adrenaline-fuelled fun you can speed down the waterslides that hang over the side of the ship. The virtual gaming world of Dark Ride 7D is found in the Galaxy Pavilion (along with other VR games) and augmented reality laser tag is up on the top deck of Encore, Bliss and Joy.
On Norwegian Breakaway, there are multi-level rope courses. Those feeling brave can walk ‘the plank’, although you’re safely strapped in as you lurch above the sea below.
Teens are well catered for with creative and sports activities, along with gaming and theme nights, such as White Hot Party and College Night. All of the ships in the fleet have family staterooms and most have two-bedroom suites near the kids’ area.
Hong Kong is one of the departure ports for NCL cruises and many Asian destinations are covered.
The cruise industry has been deeply impacted by the coronavirus, reports Carolynne Dear, with trips cancelled and ships at anchor for the foreseeable future.
Bustling ports are silent and workers affiliated both directly and indirectly with the industry have been affected. Lay-offs have occurred in many areas, from port workers and cruise line contractors, to hotel workers, crew and suppliers.
This is the biggest challenge the industry has faced since 9/11, But, dire as things may be, experts believe the industry will bounce back, just as it did in 2001.
It’s anticipated that cruise companies will rebound post-coronavirus with deep discounts and special offers. And if you have booked, the advice is to hang on to that holiday, don’t cancel but wait it out.
In the meantime, companies have introduced a raft of cancellation and rebooking policies, including cash refunds and full credits on fares which in some cases can be used on sailings until the end of 2021.
This is a constantly evolving situation, so be sure to check individual cruise line policies on booking.