Our family loves all kinds of travel, and cruising is one travel style we like to throw into the mix now and then. For me it’s a great blend of easy and fun; you have the simplicity of unpacking once and having most of your arrangements looked after for you, but you actually get to visit new places. Some of our cruises have been more adventurous, like the Eastern Med cruise where we explored six new ports in seven days, and other times we’ve cruised in search of a more relaxing vacation. This last Spring Break cruise was definitely in the latter category and it was probably one of the most relaxing family trips we’ve ever been on.
This was our fifth cruise as a family, but our first on Norwegian Cruise Lines (NCL). We had previously cruised on Disney Cruise lines, which we love, and I have to admit I was worried that Norwegian wouldn’t measure up, especially for the kids. We loved the shows, the random character encounters, the decor and all the other amazing touches on Disney. So how did NCL compare for this Disney loving family? Well, here is how the main categories stacked up for us:
DCL has rotational dining where you have set dining times, but you rotate through the three themed restaurants. There is also a buffet, one or two paid specialty restaurants and several quick service counters. NCL has freestyle dining where you can make a reservation for any restaurant at any time. They have three main dining rooms with rotating menus plus a buffet and an “Irish Pub” style restaurant for no extra charge as well as about a dozen paid options. We enjoyed both, but preferred the flexibility and variety of the NCL ship, especially when traveling with kids.
We received excellent service from dining staff and cabin stewards on both lines. It was nice to have the same waiters every day on Disney, but we felt the service was just as good on NCL even though we rarely saw the same servers twice.
Disney is known for their fantastic production shows and each ship has a dedicated movie theatre showing recent releases. Of course it helps that they own the rights for some of the best family entertainment available. NCL offers shortened versions of Broadway shows on their ships and on our ship there was the entertaining, but definitely not family friendly, Rock of Ages. There was also a dance show which I enjoyed but the kids found boring. The shows also repeat so the same show will play two or three nights. There were a few family movies showing in the atrium during the day as well. For us, the family friendly entertainment was the biggest thing we missed about Disney.
Both cruise lines have large pool decks that always seem busy with music thumping, drinks being served and large numbers of happy, splashing kids. NCL’s seemed a little less crowded, but that may just be because Disney has so many kids on board. Disney has several waterslides and the newer ships have the “aquaduck” water ride. The NCL Breakaway had five waterslides, a rock climbing wall, a ropes course that covered a huge area of the upper deck, a nine hole mini golf course, a bungy trampoline ride and a small climbing structure with a slide for little ones. While Disney was a lot of fun, especially with the huge movie screen by the one pool, there was way more to do on NCL, especially for older kids.
Both cruise lines stop at private islands in the Bahamas. Disney has Castaway Cay and NCL stops at Great Stirrup Cay. Both were lovely, with turquoise water and white sand, but Disney had some big advantages. First of all, it docks rather than tenders, which makes getting on and off so much easier. They also have kids clubs available on the island where you can check your kids in for a few hours and they also have separate family and adult beach areas. I also felt the dining options were better on Disney’s island and we loved the pirate theming everywhere. Overall it just felt more “finished” somehow. Still, the kids enjoyed both stops and we’re not huge beach fans so it wasn’t a deal breaker for us.
This was the biggest surprise for us. One of the biggest selling points for Disney is their huge, elaborately themed kids club areas. Kids aged 3-12 can be checked into their Oceaneers clubs and can enjoy organized activities and free play in what looks like a child’s wonderland. NCL has clubs as well, with bright and friendly, but much simpler looking play areas run by enthusiastic leaders. When we signed the kids up on the first day we worried a bit at how plain they looked compared to Disney and wondered if the kids would be disappointed.
Well, we shouldn’t have worried! Our kids ended up spending way more time in the NCL clubs than they ever did in Disney. Every block of time was themed and organized and my kids thrived in this setting. Another difference was that kids were divided into 3-5, 6-9 and 10-12 year old age groups which meant that activities were more geared towards a specific age group and no one ended up bored or overwhelmed. My kids did superhero crafts, played jungle games, went on a pirate parade and many others and loved every minute.
Another huge difference was screen time in the clubs. The Disney clubs were filled with gaming stations and televisions with movies playing and it felt that half the time when I went to pick them up they were ignoring whatever activity was going on and just wandering around watching one screen or another. In the NCL clubs they were participating in activities the entire time. It may not be ideal for kids who are loners or like to watch from the edges before joining in, but for my social butterflies the NCL kids clubs were like a little slice of heaven.
Here’s the biggie. Disney is awesome and we love to cruise with them, but the main thing that pulled us away was the crazy prices they’re charging these days, especially on school breaks. You can often find a similar cabin on a different line for 50-60% of the price of the equivalent cabin on Disney. We where actually able to afford a suite on NCL in the exclusive Haven area of the ship for the same price as a standard verandah cabin on Disney for the week we wanted to travel. We loved our beautiful suite and all the perks that came with it and for us, the fact that the kids loved cruising NCL as much as Disney was just the icing on the cake.
So, overall, we found Norwegian to be an excellent cruise vacation for families. Not quite as good as Disney in some areas, but better in others. Our family loved it and we hope to cruise with them again some day.