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The 12 best cruise ships for people who never want to grow up

Jan. 25, 2021
16 min read
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Wouldn't it be great to be a kid again?

Even if you're just a few years out of school and only beginning your toils in the workforce, you've probably already found yourself pining for those carefree days of childhood.

Maybe you want to relive the thrill of endless afternoons racing your friends around go-kart tracks or hunting them down in laser tag battles. Maybe you want to be back at the arcade, rolling 100s in Skeeball. Maybe you just want to spend a day getting soaked at a waterpark again -- without needing the excuse of bringing a child or grandchild along to do it.

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We've got some good news: Your misspent youth is still there, waiting for you -- on a cruise ship.

One of the biggest trends in cruising over the past decade has been the transformation of mass-market cruise vessels into giant floating megaresorts that offer every sort of amusement known to humans -- from massive water coasters to bumper cars and skydiving simulators.

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New fun zones on cruise ships include bumper car pavilions, now found on several Royal Caribbean vessels. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

Often these amusements were designed with teens and tweens in mind. After all, family cruising is one of the hottest things going in the industry these days. But a quick glance at all the millennials, Generation Xers and, yes, even baby boomers waiting in line for many of these attractions on ships proves they aren't just for young cruisers.

Indeed, if you're the kind of person who has never wanted to grow up -- and aren't we all -- there are few more enticing vacations than a week spent on one of today's giant megaships.

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The best ships for childlike fun

In the early days of cruising, in the 1970s and 1980s, the biggest deck-top attraction on most ships was the pool. Shuffleboard was another hot activity -- really, that's not just a cliché. By the late 1990s, a few waterslides had begun popping up on vessels, as well as such then-wow-inducing activities as miniature golf courses and rock climbing walls.

But it's only in the last decade or so that we've begun to see truly over-the-top fun zones at sea. And we do mean over-the-top. In the last few years, we've seen cruise lines add everything from sprawling go-kart tracks to (soon) a roller coaster to the top of ships. Deck-top waterparks with multiple waterslides are increasingly common. So are features like surfing simulators, zip lines, virtual reality play zones and even ice skating rinks.

Royal Caribbean's giant Oasis Class vessels feature miniature golf courses, basketball courts and surfing simulators on their top decks, among other amusements. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
Royal Caribbean's giant Oasis Class vessels upped the ante for attractions at sea with entire deck-top sports zones featuring miniature golf courses, basketball courts, surfing simulators and a zip line. The ships also have multiple pool areas, ice skating rinks and other amusements. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
The Perfect Storm complex of waterslides is a highlight of the top deck of Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
Giant waterslide complexes such as The Perfect Storm on Royal Caribbean's Harmony of the Seas adorn a growing number of cruise vessels. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

Among cruise lines marketing to North Americans, there are four lines, in particular, that have been at the forefront of the trend: Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carnival Cruise Line.

The first three of those lines dominate the world of big, bustling megaresorts at sea, with vessels that are as much as twice the size of the biggest cruise ships that existed 25 years ago. Carnival hasn't gone quite as big with its ships, for the most part. But Carnival still packs its vessels with a lot of fun-focused activities.

Related: The best credit cards for booking cruises

For the biggest array of back-to-your-youth amusements, you'll want to stick to the newest, biggest ships from each of the brands, which also boast an overabundance of restaurants, bars, showrooms, spas and casinos. They are, as your kids would say, sick. Or is it dope? While you're waiting in line for the go-karts, you can ask the nearest 15-year-old.

Here, the four ships that we rate the best for reconnecting with your inner child (along with eight similar sister vessels that expand your choices to 12):

Symphony of the Seas

Line: Royal Caribbean

Similar sister ships: Harmony of the Seas, Oasis of the Seas, Allure of the Seas

Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas can carry more than 6,500 passengers. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas can carry more than 6,500 passengers. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

If your goal is to relive your childhood on a cruise ship, we can think of no better vessel than Symphony of the Seas. It is, quite simply, the ultimate floating fun zone.

At 228,081 tons, Symphony of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship ever built, and it's packed with every sort of amusement you could imagine, including a trio of monster waterslides, two surfing simulators, two rock climbing walls and a zip line.

There also are multiple pool zones, a miniature golf course, a basketball court, an ice skating rink and an entire New Jersey shore-like Boardwalk area with its very own handmade carousel.

All four of Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships have a Jersey shore-like Boardwalk area with a hand-carved carousel. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).
All four of Royal Caribbean's Oasis Class ships have a Jersey shore-like Boardwalk area with a hand-carved carousel. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

Whether you're a teenager or teenage-wannabe, you'll also get a rush from The Ultimate Abyss -- the longest slide ever on a cruise ship. It drops nine decks (from the Sports Zone on Deck 16 to the Boardwalk area on Deck 6). Royal Caribbean says this is a 10-deck drop, but don’t be fooled: There’s no Deck 13 on Symphony of the Seas.

Launch of Symphony of the Seas, Royal Caribbean International's newest and largest ship.
The Ultimate Abyss slide on Symphony of the Seas drops nine decks. (Photo courtesy of Royal Caribbean).

In addition, the interior of Symphony of the Seas is chock full of restaurants, bars, a spa, a casino and a giant theater that's home to Broadway productions.

Unveiled in 2018, Symphony of the Seas is the newest and biggest of Royal Caribbean's four Oasis Class vessels, which began debuting in 2009. You'll find many -- but not all -- of its attractions on the other Oasis Class ships, too, and all four of the ships are mind-blowing in their size and offerings. There's really nothing quite like them at sea: All four Oasis Class ships are more than 20% bigger than the next-biggest cruise vessel afloat.

Where to find it: Symphony of the Seas sails to the Bahamas and Caribbean out of Miami.

Norwegian Encore

Line: Norwegian Cruise Line

Similar sister ships: Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Escape

(Photo courtesy of Norwegian)
Unveiled in 2019, Norwegian Encore is the biggest Norwegian Cruise Line ship ever. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line)

At 169,116 tons, Norwegian Encore isn't quite as super-sized as Royal Caribbean's Symphony of the Seas. But it still features an insane array of over-the-top activities to excite your inner child.

For starters, there are two serious water slides on the deck top -- Aqua Racer and Ocean Loops -- that are sure to get your heart racing. Ocean Loops, in particular, is a doozy. It's one of those horrifying "drop" waterslides that start with you standing above a trap door that opens to send you plunging downward. At one point, you go spinning over the side of the ship.

The Ocean Loops waterslide on Norwegian Encore will send you spinning over the side of the ship. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)
The Ocean Loops waterslide on Norwegian Encore will send you spinning over the side of the ship. (Photo by Gene Sloan/The Points Guy)

Still, the standout feature for fun seekers on Norwegian Encore is its massive go-kart track. Nearly 1,150 feet long and sprawling over two decks, the so-called Norwegian Encore Speedway is truly a sight to behold. It includes four sections that extend up to 13 feet over the sides of the vessel. Just to amp things up a bit, it also has a middle-of-the-track observation area where your family and friends can shoot you with “lasers” that’ll give you a power boost.

Note that this is some serious go-karting. The cars that Norwegian uses can hit speeds up to 32 miles per hour, as I experienced firsthand during a test run when Norwegian Encore first debuted.

Norwegian Encore also is home to the largest laser tag arena ever put on a ship and a massive gaming and virtual reality zone. Themed after the lost city of Atlantis, the former is at the very back of the vessel and is a romp. The latter area, called Galaxy Pavilion, has an amazing line-up of high-tech virtual reality experiences, including incredibly realistic race car simulators, hang-gliding simulators, virtual mazes and a virtual reality "Jurassic Park" jeep ride (watch out for dinosaurs!).

The top deck of Norwegian Encore includes a sprawling go-kart track and a outdoor laser tag area. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line).
The top deck of Norwegian Encore includes a sprawling go-kart track and a outdoor laser tag area. (Photo courtesy of Norwegian Cruise Line).

Just be warned that none of these attractions come cheap. You’ll pay $15 per person for an eight-lap race on the go-karts. Joining a five-minute laser shoot-out costs $10 per person. In both cases, you can buy a week-long pass for $199, and there's a similar pass available for the Galaxy Pavilion.

Norwegian Encore's sister ships -- Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Joy and Norwegian Escape -- offer many of the same features, but the lineup varies from one vessel to the next. Only Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Joy have go-kart tracks, for instance, and their versions of the attraction aren't quite as big.

Where to find it: Norwegian Encore spends its winters sailing to the Caribbean out of Miami. For the summer of 2021, it's scheduled to sail to Alaska from Seattle.

Mardi Gras

Line: Carnival Cruise Line

Similar sister ships: None

At 180,000 tons, Mardi Gras will be one of the 10 biggest cruise ships in the world when it debuts in November 2020. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line).
At 180,000 tons, Mardi Gras will be one of the 10 biggest cruise ships in the world when it debuts in April 2021. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line).

Leave it to the so-called Fun Ship line to come up with what just may be the ultimate playground at sea for people who never want to grow up. Scheduled to debut in April, this 17-deck-high megacruiser, the new flagship for Carnival, will have all sorts of deck-top amusements, including -- we kid you not -- a full-blown roller coaster.

Dubbed Bolt: Ultimate Sea Coaster, the first-ever roller coaster at sea will be far from the biggest roller coaster in the world, with just under 800 feet of track. The coaster vehicles -- which hold two people each -- only will reach speeds of 40 miles per hour. But you've got to give Carnival top marks for chutzpah.

Carnival's Bolt roller coaster
Carnival Cruise Line will debut the first roller coaster at sea in 2021 on its new ship Mardi Gras. (Image courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line).

Other fun-focused diversions on the top deck of Mardi Gras -- one of TPG's picks for the most exciting new cruise ships of the year -- will include one of Carnival's signature WaterWorks waterparks with multiple waterslides, a miniature golf course, a basketball court and a suspended-in-the-sky ropes course.

Mardi Gras is the first of a new series of bigger Carnival ships designed to take the line’s Fun Ship shtick to a new level. In addition to a deck top full of amusements, it’ll also have a far broader array of suites than earlier Carnival vessels and new dining venues such as the first Emeril Lagasse restaurant at sea. It’s also notable as the first ship from a North America-based line designed to operate on liquid natural gas. The fuel is touted as being cleaner than traditional ship fuel.

At 180,000 tons, Mardi Gras will be nearly 35% bigger than Carnival’s recently unveiled Carnival Panorama, and one of the biggest new ships to debut from any line in 2021.

Where to find it: Mardi Gras will sail to the Bahamas and Caribbean out of Port Canaveral, Florida.

MSC Meraviglia

Line: MSC Cruises

Similar sister ships: MSC Bellissima, MSC Grandiosa

Fast-growing MSC Cruises has added several new activity-packed megaships in recent years including MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
The massive Aqua Park waterpark on the top of MSC Meraviglia is clearly visible in aerial photos. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).

Fast-growing MSC Cruises jumped into the activity-packed megaship game in a big way in 2017 with the debut of MSC Meraviglia. At 171,598 tons, the 15-deck-high MSC Cruises vessel is one of the 10 biggest cruise ships in the world, and it offers such deck-top diversions as a polar-themed waterpark with three waterslides.

There's also a suspended-in-the-sky ropes course called Himalayan Bridge -- the latter also has a polar theme.

MSC Meraviglia is one of five MSC Cruises ships with a full-blown waterpark on its top deck. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
MSC Meraviglia is one of five MSC Cruises ships with a full-blown waterpark on its top deck. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
Adults and children alike can get a thrill at the suspended-in-the-sky ropes course on MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
Adults and children alike can get a thrill at the suspended-in-the-sky ropes course on MSC Meraviglia. It's located at the back of the ship next to the vessel's Aqua Park. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).

Still, it's not just deck-top activities on MSC Meraviglia that will set off your fun meter. The interior of the vessel is home to one of the coolest virtual reality play zones at sea. Among its highlights: Two of the most sophisticated Formula 1 race car simulators anywhere.

MSC Meraviglia also houses a multisensory, motion-simulating XD theater. For something a little less hardcore, there also are two full-size bowling lanes.

Two full-size Formula 1 racing simulators are among the attractions on MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
Two full-size Formula 1 racing simulators are among the attractions on MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
A multi-sensory "4D" theater is among the attractions on MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).
A multi-sensory "4D" theater is among the attractions on MSC Meraviglia. (Photo courtesy of MSC Cruises).

Designed to hold 4,488 passengers at double occupancy, MSC Meraviglia also offers a dozen dining venues, a spa, a casino and a custom-built, high-tech, 450-seat theater that houses exclusive Cirque du Soleil shows.

A nearly identical sister ship to MSC Meraviglia, the MSC Bellissima has a similar array of attractions, as does the slightly bigger MSC Grandiosa.

Where to find it: MSC Meraviglia spends its winters sailing to the Caribbean out of Miami. It sails in Europe during the summers.

Bottom line

You don't have to be a kid to enjoy the wild array of attractions on the new crop of floating megaresorts. If it's carefree fun you're after in a vacation, a cruise on one of the giant vessels of Royal Caribbean, MSC Cruises, Norwegian or Carnival may be the perfect choice.

Planning a cruise? Start with these stories:

Featured image by ©2016 Michel Verdure - www.verd
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

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  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
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  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023