Given the dozens of great cruise ships catering to families today that offer great cruises for kids, you can easily get overwhelmed with deciding which one will be the best fit for your family. And, if your family is traveling with a toddler, you may be particularly concerned about making the right choice. After all, a family vacation should be a vacation for each member of the family. The ship you select will have a huge impact on how much fun your family will have and how much work could be involved for you. You want to know that you and your kids, including your toddler, will be able to relax and have fun. Read on to learn what are the best family cruise ships for toddlers offered by the best cruise lines. Discover which ones are the best fit for your family.
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What Makes The Best Family Cruise Ships for Toddlers?
So, what criteria determine which cruise ships are the best family cruise ships for toddlers? First, this list focuses on ships that sail Caribbean itineraries. Caribbean itineraries are the easiest cruises to sail when you are just starting out cruising with young kids. Also, almost all cruise lines have age restrictions on non-Caribbean sailings. They require that passengers be at least 12 months old. While many toddlers obviously fall within that range, some don’t. Plus, for North American passengers, sailing a Caribbean itinerary means you can skip that really long flight to your embarkation port.
Second, the best family cruise ships for toddlers should have a wide range of on-ship activities. You should know whether the ship has activities appropriate for toddlers. More specifically, can toddlers access the ship’s kids’ club? And, are there drop-off child care options? Also, are there character experiences? And, will you find a range of other activities that will appeal to all of the age groups in your family?
Third, how do the water activities stack up? All of the best family cruise ships should have pools, water slides, and/or splash park areas that are appropriate for young kids, including babies and toddlers.
Finally, what about toddlers that aren’t yet fully potty-trained? Will they be allowed in the youth centers? Will staff change diapers? Are there water activities available for them?
After reviewing all of the major family-friendly cruise lines, 13 ships met a sufficient number of these criteria to be included on this list.
The 5 Best of the Best Family Cruise Ships for Toddlers
Considering all of the identified factors, five cruise ships immediately pop to the top of the list. Read on to find out which ones those are and why.
Two Best Family Cruise Ships from Disney – Dream & Fantasy
It’s probably no surprise that Disney would have a ship or two in the top group. For decades the Disney brand has set the platinum standard for family entertainment.
Best-In-Class Toddler Amenities.
For infants and toddlers, Disney features a wide array of special amenities. First, Disney offers It’s a Small World Nursery. The nursery provides drop-off care for children ages 6 months to 3 years. The nursery includes a separate quiet nap area complete with cribs. Space is limited, so advance reservations are required. The nursery charge is $9/hour for the first child and $8/hour for additional kids.
As for character experiences, Disney offers a wide range of character experiences throughout its ships. These are opportunities to meet and interact with a variety of your favorite characters from numerous Disney films. Some of the structured experiences include photo ops with favorite characters, designated meet and greet locations for specific characters, a royal tea party with Disney princesses, a meet-and-greet with the Disney princesses, character breakfasts, and special character greeting with the stars of Frozen.
Disney also offers a wide range of complimentary baby gear available on board its ships. Probably more so than any other cruise line. These include diaper disposal units, bottle warmers, bottle sterilizers, cribs and playpens, and strollers.
You also have the option to order and purchase a wide range baby items in advance of your cruise. The pre-purchased items will be delivered directly to your stateroom. You can also purchase baby supplies from the shops on board.
What Separates Fantasy & Dream From the Fleet
Disney currently has four ships in active service – Fantasy, Dream, Magic and Wonder. All four Disney ships offer extensive character experiences and drop off care for toddlers and infants (additional fees apply). And all four offer fantastic support to families traveling with babies and toddlers. So why do the Disney Dream and the Disney Fantasy prevail over the Disney Magic and Disney Wonder?
Dream and Fantasy are two of the best family cruise ships because they offer more extensive water-based activities. Not all of these upgraded water facilities will be suitable for all toddlers, but they do enhance the overall program activities for the entire family.
An Array of Water Activities
Both Dream and Fantasy feature Nemo’s Reef – an elaborate water play area designed for kids ages 8 and under. Nemo’s Reef contains equipment and activities based on characters and events from the movie Finding Nemo. It consists of a 1,500 square foot splash deck that includes fountains, bubblers, pop jets, and a small water slide.
These two ships also offer Mickey’s Pool. A swimming pool shaped like Mickey Mouse that includes Mickey’s Slide. A one deck slide that starts one deck above the pool and winds down below to a shallow pool. While it is intended for guest ages 4 to 14, the minimum height is 38 inches which could sweep in some older toddlers.
Both ships also feature the Funnel Puddle, a family wading pool. This area caters to families who are not necessarily in the mood for the full pool experience. Families can lounge around a shallow wading pool that features a central water play fountain. While you always have to be vigilant around water activities, when you are talking about inches of water rather than feet, you have more opportunity to relax. Both ships also offer an adults-only wading pool, Satellite Falls.
Related Post: Our Top Pool Safety Tips For Your Family Cruise
Other Key Distinguishing Factors for these Best Family Cruise Ships.
You can also find Goofy’s Sports Deck on both the Fantasy and Dream. This open-air activity center features a miniature golf course, virtual sports simulators and a basketball court.
Both Fantasy and Dream also offer special themed snack and dessert activities. Both ships host Flo’s Cafe. A trio of food stations based on the the movie Cars. And, each ship also features it own themed dessert shop. Fantasy has Minnie’s Sweet on You. And, Dream has Vanellope’s Sweets and Treats (based on the character from Wreck It Ralph).
Each ship also features it’s own live production show based on a favorite Disney film. Dream has a live production of Beauty and the Beast. Fantasy has a live show based on Aladdin. (If you are looking for a show based on Frozen, you will need to visit the Disney Wonder – see below.)
Two Best Family Cruise Ships from Royal Caribbean – Harmony of the Seas & Liberty of the Seas
Royal Caribbean currently has more than two dozen ships sailing around the world, including many that sail Caribbean itineraries for at least part of the year. All of the ships have great activities for families. And, many of the ships have activities and features that target younger travelers including babies toddlers. But of all the choices currently available, both Harmony and Liberty hit all the bells and whistles that Royal Caribbean has to offer when it comes to toddlers.
Excellent Toddler Amenities
These two best family cruise ships from Royal Caribbean ships both offer drop off care at the Royal Babies & Tots Nursery, which provides care for infants and toddlers ages 6 to 36 months. Fees apply. Royal Caribbean also offers organized parent/child activities at designated times (not drop off). And, unlike most other cruise lines, Royal Caribbean also offers an option for in-room sitting for children 12 months or older through its Sitters at Sea program.
(UPDATE: Royal Caribbean will be ending its Sitters at Sea program as of 9/30/2018).
Through Babies 2 Go, Royal Caribbean offers a pre-order service for diapers, wipes, and baby food that will be delivered to your stateroom at the beginning of the cruise. Play yards must be reserved in advance so that enough will be placed onboard.
As for character experiences, both ships offer the DreamWorks Experience. The DreamWorks Experience features characters from several DreamWorks animated pictures, including – Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, Trolls, How to Train Your Dragon, and more. Activities include character dining, live shows and character parades, 3D movies, and photo opportunities. Encounters with these characters are interspersed throughout the cruise itinerary and include scheduled and unscheduled photo sessions, dance parties, parades, various shows, and a character breakfast.
(UPDATE #2: After April 2019, Royal Caribbean will be discontinuing its DreamWorks Experience programming.)
What Separates Harmony & Liberty From the Fleet
What separates Harmony and Liberty from the other highly ranked Royal Caribbean ships are the upgraded and expanded water facilities for toddlers. Both of these ships feature Splashaway Bay. Splashaway Bay is the upgraded and expanded version of the line’s splash park. It features water slides, cannons, fountains and a large overhead tipping bucket. Splashaway Bay also features either two or three small to medium water slides – at least one of which is toddler appropriate.
Both of these ships also feature an additional separate set of very large water slides for true thrill-seekers, the Perfect Storm.
Several Royal Caribbean ships offer some combination of the Royal Tots Nursery, the Dreamworks Experience, and Splashaway Bay. Harmony and Liberty are the only ships to offer all of these programs.
Harmony is one of Royal Caribbean’s largest ships. In fact it was the world’s largest ship until it was recently eclipsed by Symphony of the Seas. Liberty is an older ship and smaller ship, but it was recently refurbished in 2016. Unlike all of the other cruise ships featured on this list, Liberty ports out of Galveston, Texas rather than Florida.
The Top Of Best Family Cruise Ships Includes MSC Seaside
MSC Seaside is the newest ship from the Italian cruise line, MSC Cruises. This particular ship ports out of Miami. To learn more about the wide range of great features that Seaside offers to families, check out Our Top 10 Reasons MSC Seaside Rocks Family Cruising.
As for families with toddlers, babies and toddlers have their own large dedicated play space in the Kids’ club rooms on MSC Seaside. This room features developmentally appropriate toys and activities from Chicco. The space is very large, spacious, colorful and designed to appeal to babies. The use of the space alternates between “Baby Time” when parents or caregivers can bring their kids under age 3 to come play with the toys or participate in special organized activities. And “Baby Care” when drop-care is offered and parents are not permitted.
Note, that while Seaside does provide periods of drop-off care throughout the day, the drop off option is not continuous throughout the day. (Unlike the Disney and Royal Caribbean ships listed above). Times will vary based on itinerary and time of year. Generally, the drop off option opens for about 2 hours in the late morning/early afternoon and about 3 hours in the evening.
As part of its partnership with Chicco, MSC offers numerous products for families traveling with infants. These include on-board bottle warmers, strollers, bouncy chairs and “Caddy Knapsack child carriers.”
Key Features Matching Other Best Family Cruise Ships
MSC Seaside also features its Aquaventure Park. This is an extensive set of water play facilities, including a fantastic area open to toddlers. Aquaventure Park includes a large children’s splash park area and kiddie pool. The splash area includes various sprayers, a climbing structure and a big dumping bucket. It also has a couple of smaller water slides.
As for character experiences, MSC Cruises has its own set of proprietary characters that are part of the DOREMI Family. These characters can best be described as a walking set of personified sun stars. The Family includes Doremi, his sister Mila, his brother Dorebro and their baby brother, Dorebaby. They roam the ship presiding over a range of family activities such as a cooking class, talent shows, a disco, and costume parade. They also have scheduled photo opportunities.
MSC Cruises also has an extensive partnership with the LEGO Group. Thus an extensive amount of lego bricks, including DUPLO bricks can be found throughout the play areas. And, many Lego themed activities, including a Lego Family Fun Night.
The 6 Very Next Best Family Cruise Ships For Toddlers
4 Additional Best Family Cruise Ships From Royal Caribbean
Royal Caribbean offers four more ships that are some of the best family cruise ships for toddlers: Anthem of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, and Freedom of the Seas.
Each of these ships offers the drop off Royal Tots Nursery and the Dreamworks Experience. And, they also offer all of the other Royal Caribbean amenities referenced above. The primary difference between these ships and the higher ranking ships is the water activity areas. All of these ships have great splash parks suitable for toddlers in the H2O Zone. The H2O Zone does include many toddler and preschool favorites like spray cannons, water geysers and wading pools. But, H2O is not as extensive as Splashaway Bay. So, for instance, it has no tipping bucket or small water slides.
2 Additional Best Cruises For Kids From Disney
Disney offers two more ships that are some of the best family cruise ships for toddlers: Disney Magic and Disney Wonder.
Magic and Wonder provide great sailing experiences for families traveling with toddlers. They both feature the It’s A Small World Nursery, and an abundance of baby/toddler amenities. They also both have extensive character experiences. As for live shows, the Wonder features a live show based on the movie Frozen. Disney Magic has a show based on Tangled. Although there are numerous differences between these two ships and the newer Disney ships as described above, both of these ships would still make an excellent choice.
The Rest of the Best Family Cruise Ships for Toddlers
Extremely Awesome, But No Character Experiences
The next two ships on the list host many features that appeal to toddlers and their families: Norwegian Escape and Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas. What primarily distinguishes them from the earlier groups is the lack of any character experiences.
The Norwegian Escape offers drop-off care for children 6 months to 3 years at its Guppies Nursery. Currently, the Escape is the only Norwegian ship to offer drop-off care for toddlers. In addition to drop off care, families can participate in guided toddler friendly activities through the Guppies Hosted Activities program.
Norwegian’s primary kids’ club, Splash Academy, offers programs for children ages 3-12. Notably, kids who are in diapers or pull-ups can still participate in the regular youth club. A parent will be a given pager and must report within 15 minutes to make any necessary changes. If child is in diapers, one parent must remain on board when ship in port to respond to pages. Failure to respond to pages within the required time frame will result in monetary penalties and dismissal from the program.
Previously Norwegian had a promotion with Nickelodeon that featured Nickelodeon characters like Spongebob Squarepants. That program ended. Norwegian has not yet replaced it.
Royal Caribbean Symphony of the Seas
Symphony is Royal Caribbean’s newest ship. And, it currently claims the spot of being THE largest cruise ship in the world. From the toddler perspective, Symphony features all of the great activities and features found on Harmony. The key distinction between the two ships is that Symphony does not participate in the Dreamworks Experience. So, you will not find any characters on board.
Very Honorable Honorable Mention: Carnival Cruises
Carnival Cruises offers great cruises for kids, including some excellent options for families sailing with older potty trained toddlers. The sole reason that no Carnival ships made the list for Best of the Best Family Cruise Ships is that no Carnival ships offer any water play options for toddlers in swim diapers.
Related Content: How To Actually Cruise With Swim Diapers
Notably, Carnival’s basic youth club starts at age 2. So, toddlers in the two year old category can attend on their own at no additional charge. And, unlike most other cruise lines, kids who aren’t fully potty-trained can still participate in regular youth program activities. However, parents must provide their own diapers and supplies.
Carnival Staff will not change children over the age of 3. If necessary, staff will provide parents with a cell phone, and they will be called to come and make the change.
Kids Under Age 2
Carnival also offers some limited programming options for kid under the age of two.
There are specific times on board each ship when children under 2 are permitted to use the youth club facilities. Hours may vary based on itinerary. Generally, on sea days, children under 2 can use the facilities from 8:00 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. During this period, parents can stay with their children and use the facilities at no charge. Alternatively, parents may drop off their child for an hourly fee ($6.75 plus 15% gratuity). On port days, parents may drop off infants starting 15 minutes before the first tour until noon (or from 1:00 p.m. until 5:00 p.m. for ships arriving in the afternoon). The same hourly fee applies.
Carnival also offers a fee-based nighttime option for younger infants and toddlers. The night owl group babysitting starts at age 6 months. Pillows, blankets, and cribs will be provided as needed. The program runs each evening from 10p.m. until 3:00 a.m.
As for character experiences, Carnival offers several promotions featuring characters from several beloved Dr. Seuss books. These include Cats in Hats, Fish Red and Blue, and Thing 1 & Thing 2. Some of the available activities include a character parade, interactive story time, arts & crafts activities, and a Green Eggs and Ham character breakfast.
Carnival’s newer ships also offer extensive Seuss-themed water activities. But, again, kid in swim diapers can’t participate.
The absolute best of the best toddler ships with all of the bells and whistles including drop off care and toddler-friendly water activities goes to five ships: Disney Fantasy, Disney Dream, Royal Caribbean Harmony, Royal Caribbean Liberty and MSC Seaside.
If you are cruising with older potty trained toddlers, then Carnival also rises to best of best. Carnival offers drop off programs starting at age 2. And, they also have limited for-fee drop off options for kids under two. Plus, they have fantastic character tie-ins with Dr. Seuss. The only factor keeping Carnival from the best of the best is the lack of any water play options for kids in swim diapers.
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