The best cruise ships for those who never want to grow up

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.

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 couple decades 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.

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 15 years 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 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 15):

Wonder of the Seas

Line: Royal Caribbean

Similar sister ships: Symphony of the Seas, 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 Wonder of the Seas. It is, quite simply, the ultimate floating fun zone.

At 235,600 tons, Wonder of the Seas is the biggest cruise ship ever built (although it’s about to be eclipsed by the even bigger Icon of the Seas), 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 Wonder of the Seas.

In addition, the interior of Wonder 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 2022, Wonder of the Seas is the newest and biggest of Royal Caribbean’s five 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 five of the ships are mind-blowing in their size and offerings. There’s really nothing quite like them at sea: All five Oasis Class ships are bigger than any other cruise vessel afloat.

A sixth Oasis Class vessel, Utopia of the Seas, is scheduled to debut in July.

Where to find it: Wonder of the Seas sails to the Bahamas and Caribbean out of Port Canaveral, Florida.

Norwegian Encore

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 Wonder 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.

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…

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