A Family Affair: Big-Ship Cruises With Luxury Experiences

(Disney Cruise Line) The Concierge Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah on Disney's ships sleeps up to five; has 306 square feet of space; and offers exclusive concierge services.

When luxury travelers opt to bring their entire family ranging from parents to siblings, kids and teens along on vacation, they often desire a big-ship cruise experience that has a different vibe from their typical vacation on an intimate luxury ship. 

They’re looking for a larger ship with supervised children’s clubs, evening kids’ activities, teen clubs, as well as lots of entertainment, dining and activity choices. Yet, they still want pampering, luxury digs and butler or concierge services, and if possible, a bit more intimate aura in their own exclusive space. So, what’s the solution? 

The good news is that families can find all the above on the right premium or contemporary ship just by looking for a few key elements in the experience. Here’s how… 

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Think “Ship Within a Ship”

To sail on a big ship and, at the same time, feel cocooned from others with exclusive spaces designed for a limited number of guests, a great option is selecting a vessel with a “ship-within-a-ship” exclusive complex. We’d suggest “The Haven,” Norwegian Cruise Line’s key-card-accessible enclave that offers pampering suites with 24-hour butler service, a dedicated concierge and exclusive public spaces only for the complex’s guests. Perks include The Haven sun deck with a large pool and hot tub; a lounge, bar and restaurant; and such amenities as pre-cruise concierge service, priority embarkation/disembarkation and a private cocktail reception with the ship’s officers.

It’s the best of both worlds, really, as Haven guests can simply head out into the main part of the ship for myriad activities, big production shows and clubs, specialty dining and children’s and teen clubs to keep various age groups occupied and having fun. But what ship is best? We’d suggest reserving a Haven suite on the new 3,998-passenger Norwegian Encore, a Breakaway-Plus class vessel.

The Haven here has 80 accommodations, 50 within the two-level enclave itself and another 30 elsewhere on the ship but with Haven key-card access. That’s particularly helpful if families desire to stay in different locations on the ship, yet still wish to gather for evening socializing or dining in The Haven Restaurant.

As for top accommodations, Luxury Travel Advisor would reserve the 1,459-square-foot “Haven Deluxe Owner’s Suite with Large Balcony.” This Deck 18 forward suite provides a 488-square-foot balcony, amazing sea views, a king-sized bed, two bathrooms, additional bedding to accommodate up to six and a wet bar. Also accommodating up to six is “The Haven Two-Bedroom Family Villa with Large Balcony” with up to 622 square feet of space and a 127-square-foot balcony. 

Entering service in late 2019, this mega-ship has contemporary design, a light, breezy color palette and museum-piece-worthy artwork. Dazzling teens and adults alike are the two-level Norwegian Encore Speedway, the largest racetrack at sea. Drivers will have a hoot zipping around a track cantilevered 13 feet off the ship’s side at points. Separately, kids and adults alike will also love the high-tech, imaginative virtual reality Galaxy Pavilion. Here, reality is pseudo, allowing cruisers to zap the zombies or, alternatively, enter a “Jurassic-like” world, bounce up and down in a Jeep along rugged terrain while avoiding a T-Rex (as viewed through a virtual reality headset, of course). Guests also can play laser tag at a top-deck venue that resembles the “Lost City of Atlantis.”

The Haven on Norwegian Encore has 80 accommodations. Shown here is its courtyard pool. // Photo: Norwegian Cruise Line

Given its size and the capabilities that it affords, Norwegian Encore also excels at such entertainment as the Tony-Award-winning Broadway musical “Kinky Boots.” We also liked rocking along to classic hits in a British Pub at “The Choir of Man,” and hearing New Orleans speakeasy tunes at “Happy Hour Prohibition: The Musical.” Simply put, cruisers — and especially adult family members going “out on the town” together can expect an energetic, night-time vibe not found on most smaller luxury ships. 

Specialty dining is a Norwegian specialty, too, and while we won’t dwell on the sizable range of eateries, one new one on Norwegian Encore is Onda by Scarpetta. It offers the aura of a modern Italian eatery with al-dente specialties. We’d order the classic Spaghetti with tomatoes and basil or such other tasty fare as Black Cod or the Veal Chop Milanese. 

Family Magic at Sea

When it comes to families, Disney Cruise Line excels at delivering “the magic” — translating into a creative, multi-faceted, family-focused experience on every level. Guests currently have a choice of the 2,713-passenger Disney Wonder and Disney Magic and the 4,000-passenger Disney Dream and Disney Fantasy

Under Disney’s unique “fixed” dining, guests assigned to a table get to know their waiters and vice versa. But what’s nifty is that Disney also rotates the table guests and their waiters as a team through three main dining venues. An innovative dinner show and fantasy evolves in Animator’s Palate, as characters and scenes from Disney and Disney-Pixar films “come to life” on the walls, for example, helping to keep the little ones entertained. 

Pre-dinner table coloring or other simple activities also can help entertain the kids. Luxury Travel Advisor was on one Disney sailing and dining in Animator’s Palate. While there were children at nearly every table, the kids were totally “engaged,” making it a relatively quiet dining experience, pleasant for the adults as well as the kids.  

Disney has robust children’s club facilities including the “It’s a Small World Nursery,” “Oceaneer Club,” “Oceaneer Lab” and Teen clubs. Character spottings onboard — say running into Goofy, Ariel or Cinderella in the corridors or atrium are fun for family members as is the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where kids aged three to 12 can dress up as a princess or knight. Yes, there are also first-run Disney movies on the big screen and a swimming pool shaped liked Mickey Mouse.

One fact that’s clear. Kids rule and yet they’re super engaged. We watched a child who had rehearsed for a show the children were putting on in the ship’s big theater; she was holding her mom’s hand and eagerly pulling her into the theater to watch — a reversal of traditional roles. Another child we talked with in an elevator and asked, “Are you having a good time on the cruise?” Sighing, she exclaimed, “I’m not really able to talk right now as I’m just SO busy!” 

But the line hasn’t neglected adults with babysitting services available and even children’s shore trips (kids are accompanied by counselors), allowing plenty of time for adults to chill out and relax. We particularly like Palo and the softly lit Remy (the latter reminiscent of the “City of Light” and only on Disney Fantasy and Disney Dream); both are adult-only, fine dining restaurants. Adults can also head for the Senses Spa and Salon, perhaps to enjoy a Spa Villa experience or a soothing treatment, such as the ELEMIS Aroma Spa Seaweed Massage. On Disney Fantasy, the Deck 4 Europa area is adults-only, has multiple bars and a Skyline Lounge; it’s a similar space but no Europe-feel and called The District on Disney Dream. 

If mom and dad desire to take the kids to the beach at Castaway Cay, the line’s private Bahamian isle, for a morning family outing, they can also bring them back onboard for lunch and drop them in the kids club for the afternoon. That allows parents to head to the adults-only beach area at Castaway Cay for their own relaxing beach time. We’d suggest a beach barbecue lunch, a pampering spa treatment in an open-air, shaded treatment room or just chilling out with a cool drink while putting your toes in the very tame surf.   

On Disney Fantasy, one good option for families is the “Concierge Family Oceanview Stateroom with Verandah” (Category V on Decks 11 and 12 forward), which sleeps up to five; it has 306 square feet, the most spacious stateroom type on the ship, plus exclusive concierge services. This accommodation has a queen bed, double sleeper sofa and upper pull-down berth, plus a sitting area with couch, TV and desk, refrigerator, and a split-bath — a sink and toilet in one compartment, second sink and shower in the other. That’s highly valued by families. Guests also have a down duvet, pillow options, a personal robe and slippers and up to 100 MB of free Wi-Fi.  

While Castaway Cay has been a hit with guests for years, another Disney Bahamian private isle experience is on the horizon too. Slated for completion in late 2022 or in 2023, Lighthouse Point on Eleuthera Island is being designed by Disney to celebrate the stories and cultures of the Bahamas. Disney Cruise Line completed the purchase of the privately owned Lighthouse Point last year and signed an agreement with the Government of the Bahamas that guides the responsible and sustainable way the site will be developed. The project spans 750 acres on the island’s southern tip, but Disney plans to develop only 20 percent of that and donate 190 acres to the Bahamas for a nature park.

As for new ships, Disney currently has three more new ships in a new class ordered from Germany’s Meyer-Werft. The first, the 4,000-passenger Disney Wish, was scheduled for a later 2021 delivery and to begin sailing from Port Canaveral in January 2022. The second and third ships in the new class are slated for 2022 and 2023 delivery, but Disney recently said in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing that construction delays are possible at Germany’s Meyer Werft shipyard this year. 

Razzle-Dazzle Galore

For luxury travelers bringing the family and wanting the ultimate “razzle-dazzle” and “wow activities” to fit everyone’s passion, Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class ships — Harmony of the Seas, Allure of the Seas, Symphony of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas offer seven neighborhoods, a slew of thrill and active attractions, 20 different restaurants/eateries, high-quality entertainment, robust children’s and teen clubs and more. Another Oasis-class ship is coming, too, Wonder of the Seas, but it was targeted at China and now will be delayed due to shipyard issues this year. 

It almost seems unbelievable, but it’s a fact that children and adults alike can hop on a working musical carousel at the Boardwalk, watch a first-run Disney movie on the big screen or admire precise divers and graceful swimmers at the aft, outdoor AquaTheater. Kids can splash away with water fun at Splashaway Bay, a children’s water park (Allure of the Seas hasn’t yet received that during a planned retrofit due to shipyard issues this year, but the ship has an existing waterpark, H2O Zone). Children and teens can also spend fun times with others their age at the line’s supervised children’s and teen clubs.

The Oasis-class ships also are designed for families with many options for connecting staterooms. For those luxury travelers who bring the family and desire even more spacious suite accommodations, the 6,680-passenger Symphony of the Seas’ top-of-line suite is the two-level “Ultimate Family Suite,” No. 1733, on Deck 17. A large blackboard welcomes guests to the suite with a chalk greeting; it’s perfect for family notes too.

Sporting colorful décor, this two-level, two-bedroom, 1,346-square-foot suite offers a downstairs living and dining area, complete with a pull-out sofa, soft chair and swinging chair, as well as a dining table that doubles as an air hockey. The suite also has a downstairs full bathroom with shower, and, off to the side, a separate movie viewing area which can double as a play room; here families will find a Lego wall, popcorn maker, an 85-inch, wall-mounted HDTV with streaming options, movie library and games.  

The Ultimate Family Suite on the Symphony of the Seas has two levels and two bedrooms, and offers 1,346 square feet of space. // Photo: Royal Caribbean International

Two-story, glass floor-to-ceiling windows face the suite’s 212-square-foot balcony area, which overlooks the pool deck. Suite guests will find lounge chairs, a whirlpool tub, table (doubling as a ping pong table) and chairs and even a three-dimensional vertical maze with safety netting, which small children can climb safely within.

Back inside, a staircase leads up to the master bedroom and full master bath, which leads to an adjacent second kids/teen bedroom (with pull-out couch and bunk berths, too) and a second bathroom with a full tub/shower. The door separating the master suite and the second bedroom is unusual as it incorporates a lower “kids’ door” for small children to crawl through (think doggy door in style). It’s also a hoot that while adults will likely take the “regular stairs” back down, kids can descend via an orange spiral staircase or use an enclosed “slide,” both accessible from that second bedroom, to reach the living room below. 

This suite also comes with many Star-class perks including that of a “Royal Genie,” the line’s less stuffy approach to butler/concierge pampering. All suite guests in this and other suites can also access a concierge lounge space with glass floor-to-ceiling windows, a lounge, casual eatery and more. 

Diverse “Live Music” Nightly

While Holland America Line has a storied, 147-year history, in recent years, it’s evolved with new “threads,” most notably “Music Walk,” that are designed to attract bit younger travelers and groups of multigenerational adults who want a big-ship experience while traveling together. Music Walk is on the newest Pinnacle-class ships — the 2,650-passenger Koningsdam and the 2,666-passenger Nieuw Statendam and Ryndam (slated for spring 2021 delivery), and has been added (with many of the music venues) to Noordam, Westerdam, Nieuw Amsterdam and Zuiderdam

Nightly “live music” entertainment is coupled in one “walk” so — almost like strolling a block or two in New Orleans or Memphis — guests can move between venues easily with “set times” published in the daily program, and usually multiple sets each night. On Nieuw Statendam in 2019, we listened to a sultry blues singer’s performance at the B.B. King Blues Club and then headed just a few steps away for the dueling pianos belting out pop hits through the decades at Billboard Onboard. 

We also ventured at two different points to the “walk’s” newest venue (not on all ships), the Rolling Stone Rock Room, with all rock musicians vetted by the magazine (it shows in the quality of the performances). For those with a different musical bent, Lincoln Center Stage offers afternoon recitals and early evening classical performances too. 

Holland America’s Pinnacle-class ships also offer kid-friendly entertainment like the new BBC Earth Experiences, amazing eco-videos shown in the main theater. Club HAL is the line’s supervised kids’ club, and while it’s not as robust as some contemporary lines’ kids clubs, it’s well thought out. We walked through Koningsdam’s Club HAL and it occupies a nice, top-of-the-ship, Deck 10 locale. Onboard babysitting services are also available. 

How do families head out in evenings to Music Walk if they have children with them? One multigenerational family group sailing on Koningsdam told us they all enjoyed Music Walk together every evening by assigning one couple each evening to “chaperone” — watching a movie or playing games with the kids in one of the suites — while the other adults headed as an entourage to Music Walk. The next night, it was a different couple’s turn. So, all the adults were able to enjoy the nightly entertainment, and kids were entertained, too. 

Pinnacle-class ships have a large, spectacular, multi-level dining room with crystal chandeliers (harkening back to cruising’s Golden Age in the early 20th century, so appealing to grandparents purchasing a cruise who want traditional elements), attentive onboard service, good specialty dining and wine options too.  

Rudi’s Sel de Mer, a specialty dining venue by Rudi Sodamin, master chef and the line’s Culinary Council chairman, is a savory plus as is BLEND by Chateau Ste. Michelle is a tasting room where guests can taste up to five wines, blend the ones they like, make their own wine label and take their bottle to dinner.

We’d suggest reserving the 1,290-square-foot (including veranda) Pinnacle Suite on Koningsdam, Nieuw Statendam or Ryndam

It makes a good “family base” with a living room, dining room, pantry with microwave and refrigerator and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the private veranda with whirlpool. The suite’s bedroom has the line’s signature, king-sized, Mariner Dream bed with plush Euro-Top mattress. 

Billboard Onboard on Koningsdam. “Music Walk” on Holland America Line is designed to attract younger travelers. // Photo: Holland America Line

Guests will also find a separate dressing room, master bathroom with oversized whirlpool and shower, plus an additional shower stall. A sofa bed can accommodate two more people and there’s a guest half bath. Suite guests have such complimentary services as access to the exclusive Neptune Lounge, where guests also have concierge service. In addition, if travelers book the Pinnacle or Neptune suites, they’ll also receive added pampering perks from the onboard Club Orange program.

Families seeking beach time can select a Bahamian/Caribbean itinerary calling at Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private Bahamian isle. Guests take tenders ashore, but in a late 2019 statement, the Central Bank of the Bahamas said that HAL Properties Limited “has been approved to construct a cruise pier on Half Moon Cay, as well as landside facilities.” No further details were available at press time, but Holland America confirmed the basic concept with Luxury Travel Advisor. Whether that will be delayed, though, in this pandemic timing as parent Carnival Corp. seeks to cut costs is unknown. But it’s a positive thought for the future.

Additional Upscale Family Options

Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Celebrity Cruises’ newest Edge-class ships deliver a new-age look with innovative design plus the largest range of suites in the fleet. The 2,918-passenger Celebrity Edge, and its new sister, Celebrity Apex, delivered this spring, also offer such family-friendly amenities as the supervised Camp at Sea (ages 3-12) and teen clubs; a teen spa; kids’ menus and autism-friendly initiatives for families. 

We like the Edge-class’ exclusive Retreat, a key-card-only complex for suite guests; inside are the restaurant Luminae, a lounge and pool deck. Retreat guests enjoy personalized butler service, a dedicated concierge, complimentary 24-hour in-suite dining, preferred specialty restaurant seating, reserved theater seating on Evening Chic nights, a premium beverage package, unlimited Wi-Fi, prepaid gratuities and more. 

Celebrity Apex’s top suite? It’s the Iconic Suite with 1,892 square feet of interior space plus a 689-square-foot balcony. Families will also find 178 possible options for connecting staterooms; families that choose two adjoining Edge Staterooms with Infinite Verandas will have more usable interior space (over a normal balcony stateroom); a top glass panel drops down or up (with the push of a button) to open/close the open-air balcony.

Named to Time Magazine’s 2019 “World’s Greatest Places” list, Celebrity Edge also has the innovative Magic Carpet, a moveable (up and down) platform cantilevered off the ship’s side; here guests can sip cocktails or dine while admiring the exterior of the ship and sea views. Its 12,000-square-foot Eden features soaring expanses of glass and an eerie night-time vibe with live performers delivering an “out of this world” ambiance. 

Separately, Luxury Travel Advisor sailed on Princess Cruises’ newest vessel, Sky Princess, in December 2019 and toured one of the ship’s two Sky Suites — S310, perched atop the pool deck with 270-degree views, both of the pool and ocean. Outside on their private veranda, Sky Suite guests can relax with a drink at high-top table or dine at the four-chair table, and a separate roomy space fans out with loungers, a wall-mounted TV screen and a whirlpool. 

Inside, the Sky Suite has a modestly sized living area with sofa, upholstered chairs and wall-mounted HDTV. It’s separated from the dining area (a table and four chairs) by a see-through, lattice-work room divider. That dining area also has a coffee/fruit/entertaining credenza bar with mini refrigerator. There’s also a guest bathroom, separate master bedroom and well-outfitted master bathroom. 

Sky Princess is the first vessel built from the ground up with the Princess MedallionClass technology experience. Also, it offers new Discovery and Animal Planet partner programming; Take 5, a snazzy new jazz theater club; and the specialty restaurant, Bistro Sur La Mer by Emmanuel Renaut, the owner, founder and head chef of the three-Michelin-star restaurant Flocons de Sel in the French Alps. 

MSC Seaside docked at Ocean Cay, MSC Cruises’ new private island experience. // Photo: AP images for MSC Cruises

For those seeking an upscale, ship-within-a-ship enclave, MSC Cruises’ MSC Yacht Club is another appealing option. While guests have access to big ship venues for dining and entertainment, the more intimate MSC Yacht Club complex is within a key-card-only accessible space and guests in its suites or staterooms have their own exclusive private restaurant, pool and lounge, plus 24-hour butler and concierge service.  

For late 2020 through spring 2021, the 4,132-passenger MSC Seaside will sail from Port Canaveral, replaced with the 3,502-passenger MSC Divina starting in March 2021. A highlight is that all cruises will call at Ocean Cay MSC Marine Reserve, the line’s new private island experience that opened in late 2019. 

This private isle offers shoreside food, beverages, entertainment, watersports and tour options as well as opportunities to see marine life up close. Don’t expect thrill rides or slides, but it’s a great laid-back option for families seeking relaxation and beach fun.

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