Character cruises aren't just for kids anymore. The grown-up perks on Disney Cruise Lines and other epic ships will float your boat
By Sascha Zuger
Disney Cruise Line
WHO: Princesses, Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean, Nemo, Woody…plus Mickey
SHIPS: Disney Dream, Magic, Wonder, Fantasy
GROWN-UPS LOVE: Stretched out on a cushy chaise, I sip a frosty mudslide and watch a pair of dolphins cavort in the distance. The faint sound of steel drums is interrupted as a barista pops over to offer a plate of brie, raspberries, and warm cinnamon cookies. Being a single mom means time to myself just doesn't happen, yet here I am, wavering on whether to turn the page of my book or not. Suddenly, a steel hook reaches over my shoulder to flip it for me. I call out a thank-you to the passing mustachioed nemesis of Peter Pan, marveling at yet another Disney cast member who can, apparently, read minds.
The ships go practically everywhere, from Alaska to the Mediterranean. Kris Griffin of Homewood, AL, took the Port Canaveral, FL, route to Nassau, Bahamas, with her kids, yet came back recharged. "My husband and I hit the adult-only areas," she recalls. That included napping on the heated, ceramic-tiled loungers in the spa and having drinks in the Skyline bar, with its transforming virtual views of cosmopolitan cities. "We had a real grown-up vacation." My favorite no-kids-allowed treat: the gourmet tasting menu at Remy, complete with wine pairings.
KIDS LOVE: My 8-year-old, Nakoa, literally ran to the Ratatouille cooking lesson at the kids' club, a place I couldn't keep him out of if I'd wanted to. At lunchtime, servers cut kids' food for them and pour their ketchup into the shape of Mickey. Tweens can chill during smoothie hour on their own private sundeck or tech out at a disco with an interactive dance floor.
The littlest sailors escape to Andy's Room to play with Slinky Dog and Buzz or enjoy storytime with Belle. They'll be tagged with a GPS bracelet, and you'll be issued a pager, so their time in the club (open until 12 a.m.-yes, midnight) is worry-free. Counselors even pop by dinner tables to escort antsy kids to the club while their parents finish eating.
DON'T MISS: The enchanted paintings hidden all over the ship. They look like regular artwork, but they "sense" when someone is nearby and change from a still image to an animated one, complete with music and voices.
Plus: Fun, Affordable Mini Family Trips (One for Every State!)
WHO: Dora, SpongeBob, and Nickelodeon stars
SHIPS: Norwegian Jewel and Epic
GROWN-UPS LOVE: Can there be romance on the S.S. Dora & Diego? Sí, capitán! One special kid "dinner and a show" evening happens each cruise. While the little ones graze at a kid-friendly buffet and eat at pint-size tables, their madres and padres try one of the candlelit restaurants, like the swanky Le Bistro. (Try the rack of lamb with artichokes and blistered tomatoes.)
"We were psyched to see Blue Man Group," says Epic cruiser Melinda Marshall of Virginia Beach. The indigo-faced arts-and-music group uses paint and physical comedy in a wild audience-inclusive show. If you sit in the first three rows, you're going to need that poncho offered at the door.
KIDS LOVE: "My daughter was dying to meet Mr. Krabs and couldn't wait to get slimed," says Marshall. But SpongeBob's boss had nothing on the kids' theater, outfitted with the cushiest in beanbag seating, a "cool" climbing maze, and a mega ball pit.
DON'T MISS: The Svedka Ice Bar, a 21-and-over frozen hot spot on the Epicmade entirely of…you guessed it.
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WHO: Shrek, Kung Fu Panda, and How to Train Your Dragon stars
SHIPS: Royal Caribbean Allure of the Seas and Oasis of the Seas
GROWN-UPS LOVE: The sheer size of these massive ships and the different vibes throughout make it easy to find your ideal hangout. "We chilled on a bench in the Central Park 'neighborhood' at night, listening to crickets chirp and classical music," recalls Erin Mueller of Wilson, NC. Home to 150 Central Park, an intimate formal restaurant restricted to diners over 13 after 7 p.m., the open-air space features 12,000 trees, vines, and flowers.
Is your idea of date night more active? Take on the rock-climbing wall (and let me tell you, it's not one of those kiddie versions). The kids' camps stay open when the ship's in port, so if they don't want to go sightseeing, you're free to meander the brick-lined streets of Barcelona tasting tapas or to spike your day with a tequila tour of Cozumel.
KIDS LOVE: While you're having a cocktail at the ice rink's skate-up bar, the kids can learn about marine biology and do chemistry experiments (shh…it's fun!) at the supervised science lab, or get splashed by divers and acrobats at the 100-seat Adventure Ocean Theater.
For $6 an hour, the Late Night Party Zone hosts a pajama party for kids 3 to 11 from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Gamble on whether they'll still be awake when you get back from the casino's roulette table.
DON'T MISS: The solarium, with its bar and cantilevered whirlpools suspended 15 decks above the ocean.
Plus: The Top 10 Cruise Ships for Families