In a sense, my 10-year-old twin sons have grown up on cruise ships.
They've been on 27 since their first at just 9 months old, from three-day cruises to the Bahamas to two weeks around Australia and New Zealand.
I've watched them crawl up and down the aisles of empty show lounges before they could walk, and recently, scramble to the top of a climbing wall on a funnel a dozen decks above sea level.
In the beginning, I pushed them around ships in strollers; now I wave goodbye as they run off to the computer gaming room.
Cruises have been opportunities for our boys to try new things and safely push the boundaries of their budding independence. Ships are where my sons tried new foods — escargot, calamari and duck — and first heard songs by legendary musicians like Frank Sinatra. Thanks to ports of call, our sons have explored Rome's Colosseum, a penguin reserve in New Zealand and the golden temples of Bangkok, not to mention countless beaches, from St. Barts to Sardinia.
On those very first cruises when my boys were too young for the drop-off kids' programming — on most lines it's 3 years old if children are potty-trained — I only booked ships that offered private in-cabin baby-sitting, namely Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean and Holland America.
My sons would fall asleep by 8:15 every night, just in time for the off-duty cabin stewardess to arrive to baby-sit. Mom and dad could have a relaxing dinner and some adult conversation after a long day of trailing toddling 1-year-olds around the ship.
Stuff to do
The major lines all offer supervised kids' programs in bright playrooms for toddlers through teens, from arts and crafts to contests, movies and more.
Even better are ships that also have sports activities and outdoor space so kids can burn off steam. A recent cruise aboard the Voyager of the Seas, for instance, was a big hit for our energetic 10-year-olds. The ship's sports deck got big points for offering pingpong, minigolf, in-line skating, Royal Caribbean's signature rock-climbing wall and even pickup soccer games.
This active paradigm has worked well for us over the years. At 2, my guys loved peddling tricycles in a fenced-in part of the deck aboard the Caribbean Princess; a year later, they burned off energy on the Queen Mary's outdoor play equipment and splash pool during a six-day Atlantic crossing. The kiddie pools and theme-park-style water features on Disney Cruise Line and most of the Carnival Cruise Lines and Royal Caribbean fleets provide hours of fun.
The Norwegian Epic is a particularly top ship for sporty kids and parents, offering three water slides; a 33-foot climbing wall with five routes; a trampoline; batting cage; a basketball court that doubles as a mini-soccer pitch; and a 24-foot-tall climbing frame laced with giant rubber bands.
Computer games also keep kids content, and most big ships have Xbox, Wii and/or PlayStation video game consoles. Even smaller, non-kid-focused ships like Ponant's 264-passenger L'Austral, which we greatly enjoyed along the coast of Croatia when my boys were 8, have a Wii console.
As they do for adult passengers, cruise lines are forever offering bigger and better amenities for kids, often at an additional cost. Royal Caribbean recently launched the Barbie Premium Experience to be rolled out fleetwide over the next year. For $349 each, kids can live their Barbie dream cruise with amenities like special Barbie-themed tea parties, fashion shows and in-cabin gifts. Carnival offers kiddie add-ons like its Build-a-Bear workshops and after-hours "party-style" group baby-sitting.
As kids grow up and lose interest in organized playroom activities, they graduate to teen rooms outfitted with music systems, comfy seating and soft drink bars. A few, including Disney and most Holland America ships, have private outdoor decks for teens on par with adult spaces, with lounge furniture and wading pools.
Most of the time, the four of us have shared a standard 160- to 190-square-foot balcony cabin, including our first cruise aboard the Celebrity Zenith, into which we squeezed two wooden cribs the ship provided (necessitating the removal of the room's sole chair). At 2, my boys happily shared a single sofa bed that many cabins have. When we weren't afraid they'd fall, they moved into bunk-bed berths.
On a recent Volendam cruise, our 177-square-foot cabin had one pull-down berth and a sofa bed that my boys took turns occupying. We were impressed with the amount of storage space we had, even for four people; other lines offer far less.
A few times we've enjoyed the luxury of occupying two family-friendly connecting cabins, which most ships have, if you're willing to pay the price. Aboard the Crystal Serenity between Barcelona and Lisbon last summer, for instance, mom and dad occupied a posh 400-square-foot (including balcony) penthouse suite, and the kids a smaller deluxe veranda cabin.
We were also very happy in a Panorama Balcony minisuite aboard the Costa Atlantica in the Norwegian Fjords when the boys were 6. Minisuite means different things on different lines; this one was one room with the standard bed plus a large pullout sofa that slept two. The dressing room with a sit-down vanity table and large closets was my little hideout when I needed alone time.
Disney's roomy standard cabins are among the best accommodations for families, with most offering a split bathroom setup: a toilet and sink in one room and a sink and a small tub in another. Lots of lines have cabins called Family Suites that typically accommodate five or six people (or more), with features like privacy partitions, minifridges, and multiple bathrooms and sofa beds.
Just once did the four of us occupy an inside cabin, a cramped little cave aboard the Star Virgo, and we vowed never to do it again. Four in a standard cabin is very doable, but a balcony makes all the difference; it's like another room.