Complete guide to selecting a family cruise

--By Candyce H. Stapen
Two million kids younger than 15 sailed the high seas in 2013 on lines that are members of the Cruise Lines International Association Industry. To attract and keep that many children happily engaged, cruise lines offer meet and greets with beloved cartoon characters, splash-happy water parks, zip lines, ropes courses and more.

The major family- friendly lines that cater to the North American market and carry most of the junior sailors are (in alphabetical order) Carnival Cruise Lines, Disney Cruise Line, Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises and Royal Caribbean International. Celebrity and Crystal offer children's programs on selected sailings. Holland America Line's Club HAL offers supervised activities for ages 3 to 12 and has dedicated facilities for children and teens on most of its ships.

All of these lines offer great cruises. It's the differences -- each line's signature features, onboard partnerships and the structure and frequency of the kids and teens programs -- and how they match up to your children's ages and interests that will determine which ship is the best fit for your family.

To get the most from your cruise, consider the following when picking a ship:

>>> Does your young child have a character crush?
Little kids love cartoons, so consider which make-believe star your youngster wants to meet. In this age of media ads, movie blockbusters and action figure toys, your kindergartner may long to take tea with a Disney princess, and your second-grader may count the days until he can team up with Marvel's Avengers on a Disney voyage.

Disney's not the only line to make storybooks spring to life. On five of Norwegian Cruise Line's ships, kids can dance with Dora the Explorer, hold hands with SpongeBob and meet other Nickelodeon characters. Carnival has rolled out Seuss at Sea, complete with Seuss-a-palooza Story Time and Green Eggs and Ham Breakfasts. Shrek, Fiona, Puss in Boots and other DreamWorks stars parade on six Royal Caribbean ships, and DreamWorks' popular movie releases play onboard.

>>> How important is the pool?
A pool's a pool, and all family-friendly ships feature them, but water parks bring out everyone's inner child. Carnival, known for its signature slides, ups the energy on its newer and refurbished ships with longer, windier slides that snake, twirl and even "flush" passengers.

Young kids and grade schoolers relish Royal Caribbean's tame H20 Zone, which brings out the giggles with geysers, water guns and small pools. Tweens, teens and adults test their skills on RCI's FlowRider, a surf simulator.

Disney's revamped Magic features a thrill slide and a water play area for young kids. AquaDuck elicits screams by partially extending over the ship's side while swirling you down 212 feet. Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy have similar slides. At AquaLab, younger kids and parents get wet by going down a family slide, getting caught by the bucket dump and running through geysers.

>>> What are the additional family activities?
Many lines offer athletic activities, but Royal Caribbean sports are at another level, including ice skating, rock climbing, zip lines and surfing. RCI's ships, especially its newer ones, appeal to active teens and adults. On its upcoming Quantum-class ships, RCI debuts a deckside version of skydiving known as RipCord by iFLY, as well as SeaPlex, an indoor fun space with bumper cars and roller skating.

Challenge your gang on the ropes course on Norwegian Breakaway, or see who gets the highest score at bowling, available on Norwegian Pearl, Gem, Epic, Breakaway and Getaway. NCL also scored big by being the first line to offer Nintendo Wii sports games, now also available on other lines.

Disney, predictably, targets families with younger kids. At D Lounge, families can team up for the pirate-themed game show "Pirate's Life for Me" and dance at "Goofy's Rock Stars and Guitars Family Dance Party," both geared to families with younger kids. Families with older teens and sports-loving adults can test their knowledge during "ESPN Monday Night Football Call It."

>>> What about evening entertainment?
Princess Cruises introduced Movies Under the Stars, films shown on deck while you relax in a lounge chair, tucked up in a blanket. Carnival and other lines also offer outdoor movies. Disney wows kids and adults with its first-run movies in its indoor theater and its Disney-themed stage shows.

Older kids like the Blue Man Group on Norwegian Epic, as well as the Broadway-style (shortened versions) hits playing aboard RCI. "Mamma Mia" will debut on new ship Quantum of the Seas in fall 2014. "Hairspray" plays to applause on the Oasis of the Seas, "Chicago, the Musical" draws crowds on Allure of the Seas, and "Saturday Night Fever" brings back memories on Liberty of the Seas.

>>> How are the children's programs structured?
Family-friendly cruise lines work hard delivering creative children's programs that go beyond baby-sitting. The best divide kids into age-appropriate groups. The narrower the age span within a group, the better a program can serve a child.

RCI, for example, offers separate groups for ages 3 to 5, 6 to 8 and 9 to 11, a division that takes into account kids' natural tendencies: An outgoing 6-year-old might be bored and insulted by being with a 3-year-old, and a shy 8-year-old might feel overwhelmed being matched with a much taller and athletic 12-year-old. Princess groups together ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17. During spring break, summer and other peak times, groups may be subdivided when the numbers of kids onboard increase.

Norwegian's Splash Academy separates kids into Turtles, ages 3 to 5; Seals, ages 6 to 9; and Dolphins, ages 10 to 12. Tumbling, juggling, spinning and other circus skills, long a part of the line's programming, engage the young cruisers. By the voyage's end, the kids perform their circus acts for appreciative parents.

Carnival, a leader in attracting families, expects to host more than 700,000 children in 2014. Camp Ocean, the line's revamped children's program, debuts on Carnival Freedom in May and is anticipated to appear on Carnival Magic, Carnival Breeze and Carnival Triumph by the end of 2014 and fleetwide by 2016. In the meantime, Camp Carnival continues on the remaining ships.

The marine-themed Camp Ocean divides kids into Penguins, ages 2 to 5; Sting Rays, ages 6 to 8; and Sharks, ages 9 to 11. Activities like Marine Life Trivia, Make Your Own Sailboat, Create a Penguin From Oreos and Under the Sea Mad Libs aim to make learning about sea life and conservation fun. Carnival is one of the few lines to offer a full children's program for 2-year-olds.

Holland America Line offers Club HAL, a supervised program for ages 3 to 7, 8 to 12 and 13 to 17. The two younger groups always have their own club rooms. On many ships, teens meet each other at the Loft, an indoor teen lounge, and at the Oasis, an outdoor sun deck with a juice bar, waterfall and wading pool. The Loft and Oasis are not available on Prinsendam. The Oasis is featured on seven ships.

>>> What about babies?
Although little ones aren't likely to remember their first sea voyages, minimum ages to sail vary from 12 weeks on Disney to six months on Carnival, Norwegian, Princess and RCI.

For years, Disney Cruise Line was tops for babies, offering full-service themed nurseries at sea for ages 12 weeks to 3 years, complete with toys and special one-way porthole windows that allow parents to peek at their children without being seen by their tots.

Royal Caribbean now offers an equally enticing Royal Babies Nursery for ages 6 to 18 months and Royal Tots Nursery for ages 18 to 36 months on several ships with plans to have these fleetwide. At Royal Tots' 45-minute interactive play group, children do arts and crafts, create music and enjoy other kinds of play with their parents.

At Norwegian's Splash Academy, Guppies, ages 6 months to 3 years, get creative with Wee Can Too art projects, listen to storytellers and play with puppets. At least one parent per child must be present.

>>> What about teen programs?
Teen programs are tricky, and the best ones, like the best children's programs, separate teens into age-appropriate groups. Carnival and Royal Caribbean offer separate programs and facilities for ages 12 to 14 and 15 to 17.

On Disney Cruise Line, teens divide into two separate groups by age: 11 to 13 and 14 to 17. Each has its own places to hang out. Both Norwegian and Princess group ages 13 to 17 together, with teens having their own spaces on each line.

While teens meet each other at supervised events and do fun things together, there's plenty of time for them to form cliques and couples. Be realistic. Everything you worry about at school and at teen parties on land -- bullying, drugs, alcohol and sex -- can be issues at sea. Talk to your teens ahead of time, and be aware of their activities on the ship.

>>> Do programs operate in port, and is there evening baby-sitting?
When traveling with young children, consider lines that offer activities onboard when the ship is in port. This enables your child to play happily with pals while you scuba dive, golf, visit museums or browse boutiques. Programs in port may cost extra. On port days, Norwegian charges a nominal fee to supervise kids during meals, for example.

Similarly, most lines offer evening group baby-sitting for a fee. Norweigan's Late Night Fun Zone, for example, operates from 10:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. for a per-child hourly fee. Carnival, Disney, Princess and RCI also offer late-night programs. Royal Caribbean even allows you to book in-cabin baby-sitting for children aged 1 year and older. One per-hour fee covers up to three children in the same family. If interested, set this up on the day you board the ship.

>>> What's the meal deal?
No one goes hungry on a cruise ship, and the family-friendly lines satisfy young kids and always-hungry teens with extended-hour pizza, lavish dinner buffets, specialty casual restaurants and room service, in addition to seated dinners. Have a fussy kid or one who's vegan or lactose intolerant? Talk to the head waiter; he'll be happy to work out meals that your child will eat.

Most lines offer kids menus at lunch and dinner. In Carnival's dining rooms, for example, young cruisers can order peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, spaghetti and meatballs, hot dogs, or mac and cheese. Along with signature restaurants geared to teens and adults, Carnival kid-friendly eateries include Guy's Burger Joint and the Shake Spot. Carnival Breeze also has Bonsai Sushi, great for college-age kids, and Fat Jimmy's C-Side BBQ, which serves pulled-pork sandwiches and grilled chicken and sausage.

When Norwegian introduced Freestyle Dining -- the ability to arrive at the dining room between certain times for dinner and sit wherever you want -- the line literally started a sea of change for those who like flexibility. The line features up to 29 dining options per ship; some are complimentary, and some aren't. Norwegian also hosts a Kid's Cafe on eight ships. In addition to kid-sized furniture, the buffet set at child-height features hot dogs, sandwiches, fruit, French fries, Jell-o and cookies.

Traditional dining with the same waiter every night has its fans. Your server knows your preferences and will bring the fruit cup for your seven-year-old and the crackers for your 10-year-old even before you ask. A new waiter every night won't know these little details.

Princess Cruise Lines lets you choose between traditional dining and Anytime Dining, allowing you to show up between 5:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. To limit your wait, you'll be asked to share a table with others. This can be a wonderful way to make new friends or lead to a tense evening with people who do not like children.

Royal Caribbean offers traditional dining plus My Time Dining, which enables you to limit waits by making a reservation for a seating between 6 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Additional eateries may include the Boardwalk Dog House (hot dogs and sausages), the Park Cafe (salads and prepared-to-order sandwiches) and Jade Sushi.

On Disney ships, you don't necessarily need to book first seating to get your kids finished with dinner so they can rejoin the children's program, but that's the best option if you have young children. With Dine and Play, waiters serve children ages 3 to 12 on the second seating first; after about 45 minutes, counselors pick your child up from the dining room and escort them to the children's program.

>>> How are cabins configured?
Disney Cruise Line features a most welcome bath-and-a-half in most cabins. In addition to one full bathroom with a toilet, sink and tub/shower, the second bathroom has a vanity, sink and toilet. This goes a long way to getting everyone in the family ready for outings and meals with the minimum number of hassles, and you don't have to pay extra for a suite.

Traveling with grandma and grandpa, your 8-year-old and your twin teenagers? Ask about connecting cabins and suites; most family-friendly lines offer them. Norwegian Cruise Line, for example, offers a 572-square-foot villa with two bedrooms that sleeps six in the Haven. RCI's family staterooms can accommodate six, and multi-room family suites sleep eight apiece. Carnival has some cabins that sleep up to five people each.

>>> Does size matter?
That depends on the ages of your kids and your family's temperament. Megaships like Royal Caribbean's 5,400- passenger Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas offer surfing simulators (FlowRiders), ice skating rinks, ice shows, zip lines and high-dive acts, as well as fun themed areas that suggest a boardwalk with a carousel or a green space with benches like a faux Central Park. Quantum of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas add a skydiving simulator and North Star, a glass-enclosed capsule high above the decks that allows panoramic 360-degree views.

Norwegian Breakaway has 27 eateries and stages Broadway shows. Passengers on Carnival Breeze, Magic and Sunshine can challenge themselves at SportSquare's ropes courses, an addition to the typical basketball/volleyball courts. At Breeze's Thrill Theater, seats move, and you get sprayed with water and air at appropriate moments.

The bigger ships also tend to offer the most elaborate kids and teens facilities. That said, remember that the bigger the ship, the more confusing it may be for younger children to navigate and the more crowded it may feel for everyone during peak seasons. That can mean waiting in lines at elevators and eateries, moving through packed hallways and needing to reserve specialty restaurants and shows in advance, limiting some of the spontaneity of a cruise.

Most lines have upgraded their older and typically smaller ships. Disney, for example, upgraded Disney Magic with a thrill waterslide and other features. RCI has enhanced many of its older vessels, such as Liberty of the Seas, by adding rock climbing walls, bungee jumping trampolines and Royal Babies and Tots nurseries.

Consider what's important to you and your children. The big, glitzy new ships book at top dollar, while older, smaller ships tend to cost less.

>>> What are the family-friendly itineraries?
Everybody loves a beach, so Caribbean itineraries play to all ages. Alaska, with its kayaking, rafting, fly fishing and dogsledding, tends to appeal more to grade schoolers and teens than to young kids. Europe is somewhere in the middle, depending on how you structure your days. If a mix of parks and palaces are on your schedule, then little kids might be fine. A heavy load of museums and historical sites can make preschoolers -- and sometimes even teens -- cranky. With active teens, think about bike riding through cities, but only with kids who know how to pedal in traffic.

Also consider departing from a port near your home. If you drive to your ship, then you automatically save the cost of airfare and the hassles associated with flying.

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