Courtesy of Disney Cruise Line
By Anita Dunham-Potter Travel columnist
updated 7/9/2009 3:34:56 PM ET 2009-07-09T19:34:56

A cruise vacation is a great way to travel as a family, since many elements of the trip are conveniently wrapped up into one stress-free package.

From accommodations and meals to entertainment and activities, the almost all-inclusive cruise experience is a tremendous value. The value aspect is precisely why cruising continues to attract more families and keep them coming back for more. It’s no surprise then that cruise lines are investing heavily in more family-friendly features and innovations in their youth programs.

Still, there are ships that stand out more than others. Here are the top ten ships for kids.

Disney Magic and Disney Wonder

Disney Cruise Line is the gold standard when it comes to kids cruising. Both the line’s vessels have nearly a full deck area devoted to the little ones, with activities that are overseen by a large number of counselors.

There are separate areas for each age group. The Oceaneer Club has separate activities for 3- to 5-year-olds and 6- to 7-year-olds. The Oceaneer Lab has interactive activities for kids ages 8 to 9 and others for kids ages 10 to 12. Kids 10 to 14 who don’t want to participate in organized activities can visit the Ocean Quest area, where they can chill out and play video games, create arts and crafts or just watch a movie.

Image: Disney Magic
Courtesy of Disney Cruise Line
Disney Magic
The coolest part is the scaled replica of the ship’s bridge, where youngsters can “steer” the ship in and out of ports around the globe. For teens, there are the Aloft area (on the Disney Wonder) and The Stack area (on the Disney Magic); each area is a combination dorm room and apartment offering music, games, large-screen TV, a lounge area, Internet area and shipboard programs like animation, moviemaking, karaoke, fitness classes and pool parties just for teens. There is also a large arcade area. Outdoor fun includes the popular Mickey’s Pool, which has a winding water slide and a sports deck area where kids can let off steam.

Both ships offer a 3-D cinematic experience in both the Walt Disney and Buena Vista Theatres where guests can enjoy first-run, full-length 3-D films such as Walt Disney Pictures’ “Bolt” and “Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience.” This past spring the Disney Wonder premiered a lavish theatrical production, “Toy Story-The Musical.”

Also from July 9 through August 2 Disney Channel stars will be onboard for “Disney Channel Summer at Sea.” Disney Channel stars will participate in onboard deck parties, join guests for Q & A and autograph sessions, preview screenings of Disney Channel programming and participate in live musical performances. Disney also has abundant shore excursions geared toward kids and their families.

Freedom of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas, Independence of the Seas

Royal Caribbean’s Freedom-class ships are tough to beat for all their onboard active offerings. All offer rock-climbing walls, ice-skating rinks, in-line skating tracks, basketball and tennis courts, miniature golf, water parks and a totally cool surfing park. Royal Caribbean’s Adventure Ocean Youth Program offers specially designed programs for babies and kids from 3 to 11 and teens from 12 to 17.

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Affordable family vacationsFor the tiniest cruisers, parents and babies 6 to 36 months old can participate in the Fisher-Price Aqua Babies and Aqua Tots programs, interactive playgroup sessions developed by early childhood experts at Fisher-Price. For the older kids, the program is divided into five groups: Aquanauts (ages 3 to 5), Explorers (ages 6 to 8), Voyagers (ages 9 to 11), Navigators (ages 12 to 14), and Guests (ages 15 to 17). Every program blends educational activities with games and arts and crafts for a unique onboard experience for the kids.

Teens in Adventure Ocean have their own area called the Living Room that offers a place to relax or take part in games, sports, theme parties and movies. When teens want to boogie, they have their own nightclub called Fuel.

One ship that is sure to be on the list next year is Royal Caribbean’s new vessel, Oasis of the Seas. Launching in November, Oasis will be the largest and most revolutionary cruise ship in the world. It will also offer a huge Youth Zone neighborhood covering a massive 28,700 square feet. The ship will also launch the cruise line’s first nursery for infants and toddlers (six months or older). Oasis will also introduce the first zip line at sea stretching 82 feet in length and suspended nine decks above the exciting Boardwalk area and the first beach pool at sea, featuring a true-to-form sloped entry and colorful beach chairs and umbrellas — the ultimate beach experience!

Ruby Princess, Emerald Princess, Crown Princess

Princess Cruises has one of the best children’s programs afloat and the line continues to add even more fun to its already terrific list of kids’ activities. Princess Pelicans (ages 3 to 8) have their own play area that offers a small rock-climbing wall, beanbag chairs, crafts area and a splash pool. The Shockwaves program, for 8- to 12-year-olds, also has its own area, which includes plenty of table games and lots of space for sitting and chatting, making crafts and playing games. Shockwaves kids can also participate in the Junior Chefs@Sea program, which takes kids to the ship’s galley to learn cooking from the executive chef and staff.

Top 10 short cruise vacationsThe Remix area for teens is a mature living-room setting similar to a coffee shop. It comes equipped with air hockey tables, foosball and PlayStation2 consoles. Teens also have an outside whirlpool (no adults allowed) and a small arcade room across the hall. A bonus is the teen makeover program, run by youth counselors and boutique staff in conjunction with Clinique, which teaches skin care to both girls and boys and makeup techniques to the girls. Princess also has a Youth Security Program, in which staff in their early 20s watch over the teenagers. These highly trained personnel continually monitor the hallways and public areas to make sure kids don’t get out of hand.

Outdoor fun includes great pools and a sports court, where kids can play basketball or tennis, and a nine-hole miniature golf course. Lastly, there is “Movies Under the Stars” where kids can lounge on a deck chair, eat popcorn and watch movies on the giant 300-square-foot screen.

Carnival Freedom and Carnival Splendor

Camp Carnival offers morning-til-night activities in its expansive indoor play areas, which are stocked with a wide variety of games, toys and activities that focus on art, reading, science, geography and physical fitness. Kids are divided into four age groups: Toddlers (ages 2 to 5), Juniors (ages 6 to 8), Intermediates (ages 9 to 11), and Teens (ages 12 to 14). Outdoor play areas offer mini-basketball hoops, jungle gyms and other playground equipment, as well as game rooms offering the latest video and arcade games.

Top 10 river cruisesKids who like to have fun in the sun also enjoy acres of deck space for outdoor games and activities such as ping-pong, volleyball and shuffleboard, along with many swimming options, including children’s wading pools and main Lido Deck pools, which have cascading water slides. Also poolside is a giant 300-square-foot screen lights up with a variety of programs throughout the day and night, including first-run movies. Carnival also offers YSPA, a youth spa program that offers teen-specific body and beauty treatments. Club 02 teen program is for kids ages 15 to 17 and has dedicated facilities and energetic counselors.

Over the next several months “Laser Tag” will be implemented onboard the Carnival Freedom and Carnival Splendor. The game is played in a large inflatable arena that is over 50 feet long. Inside the arena kids can battle among obstacles and go through a maze lit by glowing black lights. Laser guns use “sensors” that are worn around the player’s arm, which makes it easy for players to move throughout the arena’s maze.

Another ship that will be on next year’s list is the Carnival Dream. Slated to launch on September 21, the Carnival Dream will be Carnival’s biggest ship and will offer more than 19,000 square feet of space catering just to kids, ’tweens and teens. There will be expansive indoor and outdoor play areas to a sprawling aqua park housing the 303-foot-long, four-deck-high corkscrew water slide — the longest slide at sea!

With all the inventive program offerings on board these top 10 cruise ships, you no longer have to listen to the kids complaining, “I’m bored!” These ships are hip — and that’s something family cruisers can stand up and cheer about.

Sound off! Do you have a comment, an idea, a complaint or a problem for Anita to solve? Send her an e-mail and you might find yourself in her next column. And check out her blog, ExpertCruiser.com.

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