3 Secrets for a Fun Family Cruise with Kids of Different Ages

Here's how to balance family bonding with age-specific cruise activities on your next vacation.

Cruise Family Siblings Steve Mason/Getty Images
You’ve booked a family cruise and you’re ready for a week of shipboard family fun! But although a cruise isn’t roadtrip level of togetherness, even an enormous cruise ship can feel small when you inevitably hit some sibling squabbles.

If you’re planning a cruise with one kid who thinks she's a mini grown-up at 13 and a 5-year-old ready for a little independence, it may feel impossible to balance family bonding with age-specific cruise activities.

The secret? Let them do their own thing sometimes. That's part of the deal when you choose a cruise.

1. Find common ground.

Your best first step is to find the thing that catches the eye of both the older and the younger child. Maybe it’s racing to the pool and testing out every waterslide onboard. Ships in Carnival Cruises’ fleet boast slides with up to 300 feet of twists and turns. They're thrilling for kids ages 5 and older, while little tots can splash around on mini racing slides.

Carnival Cruise Waterpark Courtesy Carnival Cruise Line

If your kids prefer to stay dry (or you choose a cold-weather cruise route), you can always turn to indoor entertainment options to find some common ground. Kids can steal the secrets of a ship magician, watch movies under the stars on deck, or even meet characters from those very films.

Of course, a Disney Cruise is your best chance to dance with princesses and belt out your best rendition of songs from Frozen, but Royal Caribbean partners with DreamWorks to bring other family favs onboard. Teens can crack jokes with Shrek while preschoolers can meet the hilarious penguins from Madagascar.

2. Go solo.

When the kiddos get antsy and start itching to start a sibling war, it’s time to hit the kid clubs. Almost every cruise line has its own version, where kids can hang while Mom and Dad can seize the chance to pursue their own tastes: a massage in the spa, quiet reading time on deck, or a well-deserved cocktail at the bar.

Princess Cruise Kids Courtesy Princess Cruises
Princess Cruises divides kids into three age ranges, with play places for the little set (3 to 7), skee ball for the middle (8 to 12), and video games for the teenagers (13 to 17). Discovery Channel programming also gives cruisers the chance to stargaze at sea and learn about sea life, including Shark Week-themed activities. For big kids ready for even more freedom, parents can allow their 8- to 17-year-olds to sign themselves into and out of Princess’ clubs.

Norwegian Cruise Lines even offers kid club participants the chance to perform their very own showstopper with circus trick classes. Kids ages 6 to 9 learn scarf juggling and plate spinning while the 10 to 12 group tackles stilts. Everyone comes together to show off their new skills in a performance at the end of the cruise, including a tiger act by roaring 3- to 5-year-olds.

3. Plan for family time.

Since your kids now have circus pals and friends from the club—Norwegian, Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean all offer kids’ dance party nights—you may find yourself wishing for more family time at sea. If you don’t want kids running off to find their peers during dinner, draw some guidelines for which meals are for family bonding and which can be pizza parties at a kids-only table.

You could also block off formal theme nights for some quality time: Prey on some teen vanity to show off a cute new outfit and tempt the younger siblings into the chance for a fancy grown-up outing, while you break from the buffet (always a kid-favorite) and make a fine-dining reservation.

Don't forget to take advantage of your black tie optional-ish dress and pose for a family portrait! You can expect one or two formal nights during your Carnival, Princess, and Royal Caribbean cruise; Norwegian opts out of assigning coded dress nights.

Your time in port is the easiest to cater towards your family’s needs. Whether you choose a pre-planned excursion through the cruise line or piece together your own from parks, museums, and beaches, with the option to return to their own spaces and hobbies on the cruise ship, kids of all ages will love soaking up the togetherness while exploring each land-bound stop.