The 12 best cruise ships for people who never want to grow up
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Line: Norwegian Cruise Line
Similar sister ships: Norwegian Bliss, Norwegian Joy, Norwegian Escape
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.
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!).
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.
Line: Carnival Cruise Line
Similar sister ships: None
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.
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.
Where to find it: Mardi Gras will sail to the Bahamas and Caribbean out of Port Canaveral, Florida.
Line: MSC Cruises
Similar sister ships: MSC Bellissima, MSC Grandiosa
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.
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.
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.
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:
- The 5 most desirable cabin locations on any cruise ship
- The 8 worst cabin locations on any cruise ship
- A quick guide to the most popular cruise lines
- 21 tips and tricks that will make your cruise go smoothly
- 15 ways cruisers waste money
- 12 best cruises for people who never want to grow up
- What to pack for your first cruise
Featured image courtesy of Royal Caribbean
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