Taking a cruise these days is simply child's play. Never before has there been such a choice of family-friendly ships bursting at the seams with exciting activities and facilities for younger cruisers.Whether it is scaling a climbing wall up the side of the ship's funnel; gliding across an ice-skating rink; flying through the air on a trapeze; or partying with Mickey Mouse; there is something to appeal to all ages.

Youngsters are no longer confined to fun and games in the kids clubs - good though they are. Some ships have dedicated deck areas for younger passengers, while others offer supervised excursions for older children who want to shake off mum and dad for a few hours.

There are sports courts where youngsters can let off steam, mini-golf courses for a quick nine holes, table tennis and even giant movie screens where they can catch a film while playing in the pool. Some larger ships also have water parks complete with water slides.

Then there are themed parties, talent shows and tribute bands, plus family-friendly restaurants and speciallydesigned cabins designed to accommodate parents and up to three children.

Cruising, it seems, has finally thrown off its reputation for appealing mainly to the retired set - and where families are concerned, it is growing up fast.

But the key to happy holidays afloat rests on choosing the right ship as facilities can vary and some vessels are better for certain age groups.

Babies and toddlers
Tiny tots are welcome on cruise ships, but most companies do not accept children under six months, while the minimum age for kids' clubs tends to be two or three years.

Only a few lines have nurseries on their ships and one of these is Cunard, where nannies take care of children on its two ships, Queen Mary 2 and Queen Victoria.

Disney Cruise Line is another that takes little ones, and probably has the lowest age limit - just 12 weeks in its onboard nurseries - while P&O Cruises' family ships also have onboard nurseries.

On Royal Caribbean International ships, special parent child playgroups are held for little ones, while the company's largest ship, Oasis of the Seas, has its own "babies and tots" nursery.

Norwegian Cruise Line is another good choice for toddlers as some of its ships have water-themed play areas or dedicated baby pools. Evening group baby-sitting is also offered.

Under 12s

Family-friendly ships have kids clubs, split into different age groups, that offer an action-packed programme of activities such as pizza-making classes, ice-cream parties, teddy-bear picnics, pirate parties and discos.

The range of onboard activities has grown too. Some Royal Caribbean International ships have climbingwalls, surf simulators and ice-skating rinks,whileNorwegian Cruise Line has bowling alleys andwater slides on some ships.

P&O Cruises' newest family-friendly ship, Ventura, boasts circus workshops, Scalextric Grand Prix-style races and a Rock School for kids who want to emulate their favourite pop stars.

Disney Cruises has a head-start when it comes to family cruises. In addition to the kids clubs, there is plenty of Disney-inspired entertainment. Its Studio Sea family club looks like a film set and hosts various shows such as cabaret and talent contests for the whole family.

On Princess Cruises and Costa Cruises ships, children can catch their favourite film on giant poolside movie screens, while Royal Caribbean International's newest ship, Oasis of the Seas, even has a dedicated children's theatre where youngsters can put on their own shows.

Lines such as Ocean Village, Carnival Cruise Lines, Island Cruises, Thomson Cruises and MSC Cruises also offer a good range of activities for children.

Teens

Probably the hardest age group to please, yet energetic teens can opt for the plethora of activities on Royal Caribbean International, while those wanting to do their own thing can try Ocean Village's teen-friendly excursions to hike up Mount Vesuvius or tour Barcelona's famous Nou Camp football stadium without their parents.

The line also has special teen TV presenter workshops and Girls Night In pampering packages.

Several ships are armed with the latest techno temptations to keep young cruisers happy with X-Box and PlayStation games plus video arcades and teen only nightclubs.

Music fans can even cut their own CD in a fullyequipped recording studio aboard Costa Cruises' ship, Costa Pacifica, or take the plunge with a private music lesson.

On Holland America Line ships, youngsters up to 17 can enjoy the funky Loft area, resembling a NewYork style artist's studio and the fabulous Oasis adult-free deck zone with hammocks and a waterfall.

Where to go

Once you've chosen the ship, it's a question of deciding where you want to sail to. One of the easiest ways of travelling with young children is to jump on the growing number of ships now sailing from the UK, which cuts out the hassle of taking flights.

The obvious place to go is the Mediterranean, which scores highly with children of all ages as there are so many different ports.

Even if you decide to join one of the many cruises departing from European cities such as Barcelona, Palma or Venice, flight times are still short.

Farther afield, the Caribbean is a popular cruising spot and tends to be a sun, sea and sand option with a more relaxed pace. However, the major downside is the flight, which is around nine hours.

The Far East offers a tempting combination of culture, experiences and beautiful beaches, but with a 13 hour flight this again is one for older children who can make the most of the shore activities.

Less-obvious destinations for older children include Alaska, which offers adventurous excursions such as bear spotting, climbing glaciers or snowmobiling, and the Baltic, rich in history and culture.

Family cruise facts

Sample cruises

  • Norwegian Cruise Line (0845 201 8912; www.ncl.co.uk) has one-week round-trip sailings fromVenice to the Greek islands this summer. Prices are from £3,156 for a family of four for a May 22 departure, including flights.
  • P&O Cruises (0845 678 0014; www.pocruises.com) is offering a 14-nightWestern Mediterranean sailing on Ventura from £6,370 for a family of four which includes a £50 onboard credit per adult. It departs Southampton on August 14 and ports of call include Cannes, Palma, Livorno and Gibraltar.
  • Royal Caribbean International (0844 493 4005; www.royalcaribbean.co.uk) has a nine-nightWestern Caribbean flycruise, departing on July 10, on the world's largest cruise ship, Oasis of the Seas, from £6,316 for two adults and two children.The price includes return flights to Florida, a one-night hotel stay pre-cruise and the seven-night sailing.


More information
The Passenger Shipping Association represents the main cruise lines and its website www.discovercruises.co.uk gives details of these and contains a section on family cruises.

All prices and details were correct when published, please check before you try cruising with the family.