Cruise lines have been catering to kids for years now, and the perks keep getting better. The latest improvements are the optional add-ons that parents can purchase when dropping their kids off in the playroom after dinner.
While supervised programming is free during the day until about 10pm on most big ships, after that most cruise lines charge an hourly rate of about $5 to $7 per child until the playroom closes (anywhere between about midnight and 3am). The standard after-hours service is like a group slumber party, with kids watching videos and enjoying light snacks until they finally doze off. The souped-up version of the classic slumber party also includes fun gifts for the kids.
Another trend for families is the option to pre-order toys, activities, kiddy snacks, and baby supplies and have them waiting in the cabin on the first day of the cruise.
Read on to learn more about how cruise lines are improving onboard child-care services -- and freeing parents up to enjoy part of the cruise sans children.
Camp Carnival Night Owls program (www.carnival.com)
Currently being rolled out fleetwide, Night Owls on Carnival Cruise Lines offers three different late-night theme parties at least once per cruise (in addition to the option of choosing late-night childcare on a per hour basis). These parties are hosted primarily in the children's playroom, with activities including arts and crafts, sports competitions, movies, pizza parties, and video game tournaments. The parties, which range from two to five hours, also include giveaways ranging from branded plush toys to flashlights, watches, backpacks, Rubix cubes, and lunch bags all emblazoned with the "Night Owls" logo.
- Owl Jams: Runs from about 10pm to midnight for kids ages 2 to 11 ($13 per child, plus a 15% gratuity)
- Fun 'Til One: Runs from 10pm to 1am, for kids ages 6 to 8 ($20 per child, plus a 15% gratuity)
- Fun at Sea 'Til 3: Aimed at kids ages 9 to 11, this one is for the parents who need a long night out (or in). This party keeps kids occupied from 10pm until 3am, with activities throughout the ship. The kids are escorted back to their staterooms after the party ($33 per child, plus a 15% gratuity).
Royal Caribbean Adventure Ocean program (www.royalcaribbean.com)
As part of its extensive fleetwide Adventure Ocean program, Royal Caribbean offers all-day free programming, late-night group babysitting, and theme parties (at an hourly rate) for the 3-to-17 set. The line also has free daily baby and toddler playgroups for parents and children with Fisher-Price toys and gear, and a new drop-off nursery aboard Oasis and Allure of the Seas (chargeable at an hourly rate). The family-friendly line also offers these great add-on options to make kids' cruises memorable (and life a lot easier for Mom and Dad):
- Toys for the Cabin: On the Royal Caribbean website, you can pre-order a kids' fold-up beach chair and sand toys ($19.95), Crayola finger paint and coloring book set ($13), a cookie decorating kit ($9.95), a stuffed toy-making kit with outfit ($29.95 to $42.90), and more.
- Baby Supplies Delivered to the Cabin: On the Royal Caribbean website, pre-order a Royal Caribbean canvas tote bag filled with one package of Huggies diapers (packs contain 24-34 diapers depending on size), a tube of baby rash ointment and a pack of wipes ($35), extra packs of diapers ($23.95), and Gerber's organic fruit and vegetable baby food packages ($38.95-$116.95).
Norwegian Cruise Line's Nickelodeon programming (www.ncl.com)
As part of its Kid's Crew and Teen's Crew, family-friendly Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) offers free programming fleetwide for ages 2 through 17 from 9am through 10:30pm. Afterwards, late-night group babysitting and theme parties are offered at an hourly rate. Year-round on Norwegian Jewel and Norwegian Epic, kids can enjoy a slew of free Nickelodeon-themed interactive shows, from Nick's signature slime to character meet-and-greets, dance parties, and more.
- Breakfast with Nickelodeon: Year-round aboard the Norwegian Jewel out of New York (to the Bahamas and Florida, and to Canada and New England) and the Epic out of Miami and Barcelona (to the Caribbean and Europe), eat pancakes and other fun foods with SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora the Explorer, and other characters as they dance around the room and entertain young diners ($10.95 per child 12 and under; $17.95 for teens and adults).
Disney Goes Overboard with Inclusive Kids Perks (www.disneycruise.com)
Disney Cruise Line wrote the book on pleasing families and their cruises do not charge for a lot of extras. For instance, free supervised programming is offered daily until midnight in the playrooms for ages 3 to 13 (the teen clubs are open until 2am).
There are Disney character photo ops and meet-and-greet sessions, plus 3-D and regular Disney movie screenings, animation classes, dance parties, kid-friendly dining options (from a pool deck-venue that serves chicken nuggets and fries to unlimited fountain soda), and excellent Broadway-style musical productions -- all included in the cruise price. The restaurant chefs will even puree foods for babies and toddlers -- all at no extra charge.
Passengers can also borrow complimentary strollers while on board (Disney and most other lines offer free loans of cribs or Pack 'N Plays if requested in advance), and on the line's Castaway Cay, there are free wagons to use for carting the little ones and all their gear to the beach.
- Baby Supplies Delivered to the Cabin: Pre-order diapers, wipes, formula, bottles, and other necessities for delivery to your cabin when you first board the ship. For example, a 7-day supply of diapers, wipes, dirty diaper disposal bags, disposable changing pads, and training pants is $74.99.
- Flounder's Reef Nursery: This drop-off child-care center is for babies and toddlers ages 3 months to 3 years ($6 per child per hour).
Celebrity VIP Party Pass for Kids (www.celebritycruises.com)
Celebrity offers free kids' programming all day on sea days from 9am until 10pm for ages 3 to 17. If you think your kids will be using the last-night group babysitting service ($6 per child per hour) between 10pm and 1am, and between noon and 2pm on port days, consider buying the VIP Party Pass. The Pass covers all group babysitting for your entire cruise at a 40% discount from the à la carte rates. The pass also includes one big-screen movie for you child, with free refreshments, plus free souvenirs and behind-the-scenes tours. Prices vary by itinerary, with a pass on a 14-night Mediterranean cruise aboard Eclipse, for example, going for $220.
Lindblad Expeditions (www.expeditions.com)
Lindblad Expeditions is an expert in hands-on learning and up-close exploration in the world's most exotic cruising regions. On all Galápagos and Alaska sailings whenever kids are on board, they can enjoy a mix of free fun and educational activities that include scavenger hunts both on board and on shore (for example, finding glacial striations and discovering that calving doesn't involve a cow), stargazing, arts and crafts with local materials, postcard making, and snorkeling. In the Galápagos, a "Crossing of the Equator ceremony" includes getting a special certificate, drinking iguana blood (fruit juice), and doing a ceremonial pool jump to mark the occasion. In Alaska, kids meet with the local ranger in Glacier Bay National Park and can earn a Junior Ranger badge.