You know you want to go on a cruise for your next family vacation, but how do you choose between some of the most popular cruise lines for families? Carnival and Royal Caribbean are two power players in family cruising, with a plethora of unique activities both on and off the ships. Based on our family’s recent experiences on Carnival Panorama, Royal Caribbean’s Symphony of the Seas and Royal Caribbean’s Navigator of the Seas, as well some industry expertise, we’ve compared Carnival vs. Royal Caribbean to help you choose the right cruise line for your next vacation.
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Cost
Royal Caribbean: “Royal Caribbean’s fares—especially on newer ships—tend to be a bit higher, but with a greater selection of options onboard, some at an added cost (such as room service and specialty dining),” says Erica Silverstein, senior editor at Cruise Critic.
Carnival: Known to be affordable, casual and focused on fun, Carnival was recently named Best Cruise Line for Value by the editors of Cruise Critic. Silverstein says this is due in large part to their budget-friendly fares and wealth of inclusions.
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Kids’ Programs
Royal Caribbean: Adventure Ocean is Royal Caribbean’s complimentary youth program for ages 3 to 17. Its edu-tainment features programs in art, theater and science. Teens will love socializing in their own spaces, including a teen-only lounge and nightclub. Arcades and 3D theaters bring the action to life and create additional opportunities for tweens and teens to meet new friends.
Late-night group babysitting ensures kids are cared for in the comfort of their staterooms while parents enjoy an evening out. “Royal Caribbean also has a drop-off, extra-fee nursery and free parent-kid play space for under-3s on many ships,” says Silverstein.
Carnival: Carnival offers Camp Ocean for children aged 2 to 11, where they enjoy games, crafts, music and more in groups divided by age (Penguins: 2 to 5; Stingrays: 6 to 8; and Sharks: 9 to 11). “Carnival is the only line in the industry to allow 2-year-olds to be dropped off at its programs,” says Silverstein. “Counselors will also change diapers.” For tweens and teens, there’s Club O2, with karaoke, sports and even a prom!
Night Owls programming offers nighttime babysitting for an added fee.
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Family Activities and Entertainment
Royal Caribbean: Royal Caribbean is an adventure in technology and entertainment. The line offers huge ships with amusement park-like amenities—including many industry firsts—such as the first ice skating rink, rock climbing wall, zip line, aqua theater, surf simulator, and 10-story slide (the Ultimate Abyss) at sea. Glow-in-the-dark laser tag, simulated skydiving, bumper cars, trapeze school and even robotic bartenders are a few of the other unique features you’ll find on Royal Caribbean. Royal Caribbean is also the only cruise line that offers Tony Award-winning shows at sea. You can expect to see Grease, Cats and other Broadway hits.
“Royal Caribbean’s entertainment is second-to-none, recently recognized as the best in the industry by Cruise Critic’s editors,” says Silverstein. (Another) case in point: Royal Caribbean recently launched a new private island experience, Perfect Day at CocoCay, with wild waterslides (including the tallest in North America), blissful beaches, a giant wave pool and a floating helium balloon ride.
Carnival: Carnival offers traditional cruise ship activities featuring cruise directors that rile up guests in poolside contests and during evening entertainment. Your kids will be able to experience comedy shows and karaoke nights, which include the famous Lip Sync Battle. There’s also Hasbro, The Game Show, plus games and dive-in movies by the pool.
Continuously recognized by Cruise Hive’s Cruise Ship Awards as a fantastic domestic cruise line that delivers fun family experiences, Carnival also won Best Cruise Ship Feature for SkyRide, its suspended cycling experience. Carnival is also known for its Sky Zone trampoline park, available on select ships. For an added fee, kids can jump, climb a wall, dunk a basketball and play dodgeball for an hour. (Our children loved it so much, they went every day, giving us an hour to ourselves!). Silverstein also calls out the popular Carnival partnership with Dr. Suess that includes themed events, such as the Green Eggs and Ham breakfast, a costume parade, and Dr. Suess Bookville, a reading and play area.
Complimentary family fun includes the SportsSquare; with mini-golf, foosball and Ping-Pong; and WaterWorks, with adrenaline-inducing waterslides.
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Family Dining
Royal Caribbean: Included dining involves the main dining room, Windjammer buffets and a few other options. For added fees, you can enjoy specialty restaurants such as steakhouses, sushi restaurants and celebrity-chef driven establishments, like Jamie Oliver’s Jamie’s Italian. My Family Time Dining is a great option for kiddos to eat with their parents for the first 40 minutes, and then get whisked off to the kids club so parents can enjoy the rest of their meal together.
Carnival: Accolades for best cruise ship dining venue often go to Guy’s Burger Joint, which is free and available on all Carnival ships. The smashed burgers are total kid-pleasers. Carnival offers several other complimentary dining options, which include room service. Don’t miss the signature Carnival chocolate melting cake served in the main dining room!
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: Family Cabins and Staterooms
Royal Caribbean: In 2019, Royal Caribbean launched another first at sea: the Ultimate Family Suite on Symphony of the Seas. The luxurious cabin has multiple TVs, video gaming systems, air hockey, a climbing maze, a floor-to-ceiling slide, and two bedrooms to sleep a total of eight guests. It also includes the service of a personal butler.
The price tag is out of most families’ budgets, but don’t worry; there are plenty of family-friendly room options available. “Royal Caribbean has a wealth of cabin selections- many with connecting doors- so families of all sizes and preferences can find a suitable option, at various price points,” says Silverstein. “That’s especially great for multi-generational groups, where you’re traveling with a wide range of family members.”
Royal Caribbean even offers interior rooms with virtual balconies, featuring 80-inch screens with real sights and sounds from outside. This is a great option for those on a budget.
Carnival: Cabins that connect or sleep up to four or five guests make it easy to cruise with kids on Carnival Cruise Line. (Our family’s cabin, a standard category 8 balcony, included bunk beds for the kids and a king bed for the parents). Bathing and sleeping get even more comfortable when you reserve a family stateroom, featuring five berths (pull-down beds) and two bathrooms, and located in the Family Harbor section of Carnival ships. The Family Harbor Lounge (available on select ships), an area for families to relax with snacks, ice cream and video games.
Royal Caribbean vs. Carnival: The Bottom Line
“Both Carnival and Royal Caribbean are fantastic options for families—with tons to do onboard, and plenty of family-focused features,” says Silverstein. The real difference is in the cost and number of inclusions, so decide which onboard experiences are most important to you and your kids before making your final decision.
Cortney Fries (pronounced “freeze”) is an award-winning Chicago-based writer and mom to two spunky elementary school-age kids. She loves nothing more than traveling with family, having adventures with friends and exploring the outdoors. Cortney believes that you should definitely do things that scare you just a little bit. Follow her on Instagram, @cortneyfries.