As a native Floridian, I have been on way more than my share of cruises. In just the past year, I’ve sailed on all three major family cruise lines – Royal Caribbean, Carnival, and Disney. And there are some clear winners and losers in the bunch. So I’ve set out to give you my own comparison on how these three cruise lines stack up on all the most important factors for a family vacation!
I’ve sailed just about every major cruise line and at all different stages of life. From family vacations as a child myself, to party cruises with friends as a young adult, to family vacations with my own family in my 40s. So I feel like I have a very good sense of each cruise line and what they offer.
I’ve broken it down to the details that I see as most important – food and drinks, activities and entertainment, the staterooms, their private island destinations, kids clubs, and value for money. If you just want the snapshot – take a look at the infographic below for my winners in each category! Or keep reading for all the nitty gritty details.
All About the Food!
Main Dining Room
Royal Caribbean offers a very traditional cruise dining experience in the main dining rooms. You have the option to choose a set dining time (early or late seating), where you will be assigned the same table and servers each night of your cruise. I love this because you get to know your servers and have a clear time and place to meet up with your group every night. There is also a flexible dining option, called My Time Dining, where you can dine at your preferred time each night. But you may have to wait a bit for a table and you will not have the same servers each evening – so more like eating in a regular restaurant.
Carnival offers a very similar traditional main dining experience. Like Royal Caribbean, you can choose a set dining time or opt for their flexible dining option, called Anytime Dining.
I found the food quality was comparable on both Royal Caribbean and Carnival, with maybe a slight edge in favor of Royal Caribbean. However, I especially liked that Carnival included a new vegetarian Indian dish on the menu each night. And there was a complete vegan menu with multiple options each night as well. As a vegetarian – that was a big plus for me!
Disney is an entirely different concept called rotational dining, where you eat dinner in a different venue each night. The specific venues and number of them will vary by ship. For example, we recently sailed on Disney Wish and dined at the Marvel, Arendelle and 1925 restaurants. Each restaurant has a different theme and many have some type of entertainment during the meal.
The downside of this plan is that dinner takes a long time – much longer than on any other cruise line I’ve sailed. And there is no buffet option for dinner, so you are literally trapped attending your assigned meal. There is also no flexible anytime dining option. Some people love Disney’s rotational dining, but it was the low point of the cruise for me. (You can read my full review of that Disney cruise here.)
All three cruise lines offer breakfast and lunch in at least one of their main dining rooms each day, where you can sit and order off a menu instead of hitting up the buffet. But I especially enjoyed the sea day brunch offering from Carnival!
The winner? Carnival! But Royal Caribbean is a close second. I am giving this one to Carnival thanks to their unique brunch offering and extra consideration for the vegetarian options!
Now here is an area where you will see some real differences! Let’s start with Royal Caribbean. The Windjammer buffet is the star of the show here. On every ship I’ve sailed (and that’s a lot of ships), the Windjammer has been a highlight. The buffet is open for all three meals every day, and it’s absolutely massive with so many options. There are kid friendly foods, fancy entrees, a huge fresh salad bar, tons of desserts… you get the idea. It’s so much food, that it’s hard to decide what to eat. You could easily eat dinner at the Windjammer instead of the main dining room and not feel like you are missing out on anything. In fact, they have many of the main dining room entrees available at the buffet too.
Now let’s talk about Carnival. The buffet on Carnival ships, called the Lido Marketplace, is much more limited and with way less interesting offerings. We recently sailed Carnival Freedom and they didn’t even have bacon on the breakfast buffet. Their buffet is open for all three meals, but on our most recent Carnival Cruise there was very little variety, a mediocre salad bar, plus some fruit and desserts. Not great. Depending on the ship, you may find some action stations as well. But given the lack of other options, the lines can be extremely long for those. It took over 40 minutes to get noodles at the stir fry station one day! I actually recommend avoiding the buffet on Carnival.
Disney is different still. Disney’s Marceline Market buffet is broken up into more stations, and the staff serves all the food. It’s great from a hygiene standpoint but pretty terrible for time and efficiency. And it’s really annoying to explain exactly what you want and how much of each thing and what toppings and on and on and on. It takes a long time get through the buffet line. And while the options were more varied and better quality than Carnival, they weren’t anywhere close to the Windjammer! And the biggest problem with the Disney buffet is that it’s only open for breakfast and lunch – no buffet option for dinner.
One more point regarding the buffets – cleanliness. Royal Caribbean and Disney cruises are both pretty serious about hygiene. They both have staff with sanitizer at the entrance to all buffets, asking guests to sanitize or wash their hands before coming in. You really can’t get into the buffet without cleaning your hands. Carnival didn’t even have a jug of sanitizer in sight on our last cruise. It’s no wonder that I left that ship with the flu.
The winner? Royal Caribbean wins this one hands down. The Windjammer is the best buffet at sea in terms of both quality and variety!
More Food Venues (Free)
In addition to the buffet and main dining room, most of the larger cruise ships include additional food options, either as part of the cruise fare or available for an extra fee. These vary a ton from ship to ship, so I will just touch on some of the more popular free (included in your cruise fare) venues in each fleet here.
Royal Caribbean seems to have the most additional dining venues (both free and paid). The majority of ships have a Sorrento’s Pizza, which serves fresh hot pizza into the late night hours. Most also have a Cafe Promenade, which serves light fare along with specialty coffee drinks. If your ship has a Park Cafe or Solarium Bistro, you can find sandwiches there for lunch. Oasis class ships have a Boardwalk Dog House for hot dogs too! Some of these are grab and go options by the pool deck, but if you are on a neighborhood style ship you can also find options in Central Park and at the Boardwalk, so food options are spread out throughout the ship.
Carnival’s most popular food venue is probably Guy’s Burgers, as in the famous Guy Fieri, which you’ll find by the pool on most of their ships. They also tend to have a pizza place and a Mexican place also near the pool, with some grab and go options. In my opinion these feel like extensions of the nearby buffet. And the pizza doesn’t compare to Sorrento’s.
Disney has the Festival of Foods area, which is typically on the pool deck near the buffet. You’ll find some grab and go options there like chicken fingers and pizza. But the hours are somewhat limited. And note – if you don’t want to go to the formal dining room, these fast food offerings are the only option you have for an evening meal, since there is no dinner buffet.
One thing that all three cruise lines have in common is free (and virtually unlimited) soft serve ice cream. I think it might be illegal to build a cruise ship without soft serve machines for the kids. ;)
The winner? Royal Caribbean wins for having the most options, the best pizza place, and also having food offerings more spread out throughout the ship!
Specialty Dining (for an Extra Fee)
Again, the number of specialty restaurants can vary greatly from ship to ship. So if something sounds amazing to you, you’ll want to make sure the ship you’re considering offers it! But here are some of the highlights from each cruise line.
Royal Caribbean again offers the most specialty dining options, and some of the more interesting ones too. There’s a wide variety from Italian food at Giovanni’s, Hooked Seafood, sushi and hibachi at Izumi, burgers and shakes at Johnny Rocket’s, Chops Steakhouse, and the new Wonderland restaurant.
Carnival offers some extra fee restaurants as well. The most popular is probably their Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse, then Guy’s Pig & Anchor BBQ, there is an Italian restaurant called Cucina del Capitano, and some grab-and-go options like the Seafood Shack or a sushi station.
Disney has the least number of specialty restaurants, but the most high end options. Palo is an Italian themed restaurant and Remy is a high end French restaurant exclusively for adults. I find an adults only restaurant on a Disney cruise to be an odd choice, but people seem into it.
The winner? Royal Caribbean wins this category too with the most options and the best variety. Their hibachi restaurant is a big winner for me!
All three cruise lines offer some room service options, but vary on cost and options. So here we go.
Royal Caribbean offers a 24/7 room service menu for a fee of $7.95 per delivery – which has plenty of options for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. They also offer a continental breakfast via room service at no charge, which includes coffee and light options like pastries, fruit, and bagels.
Carnival offers 24/7 room service as well, but you’ll pay menu prices for each item. Most of the dishes range from $5-8 – we paid $6 per pizza on our last cruise. Much like Royal Caribbean, there is a free continental breakfast option in the morning. But I will warn you that it wasn’t being offered on our last Carnival Freedom cruise.
Disney is the only cruise line of the three that is still offering completely free room service, 24/7. There are continental breakfast offerings and then plenty of lunch, dinner, and snack items throughout the day. Don’t miss the warm cookies – so good!
The winner? Disney wins on room service. They have a great menu and it’s all included in your cruise fare!
Of course, much like the restaurants, the specific attractions on each cruise ship will vary. But there are a few standouts that each line is known for, and they definitely each have a unique vibe.
Royal Caribbean tends to focus on more “family adventure” type of activities. The bigger ships feature things like zip lines, rock climbing walls, mini golf courses, water slides, Flowrider surfing simulators, and more. Some even have ice skating rinks, skydiving simulators, or bumper cars! You will not run out of things to do on a sea day with these kind of activities onboard.
Carnival ships tend to have less attractions, but more organized activities on board. I have found that they do a great job of keeping the party going with a nonstop stream of activities like trivia, scavenger hunts, hula hoop competitions, dance parties, and more. Of course, all ships have activities like this but Carnival just seems to have more – and more targeted to younger people. They don’t call it the party ship for nothing! Many of the ships do have a few attractions though- like Carnival Waterworks slides, mini golf, and the new Carnival Jubilee will have the first roller coaster at sea.
Disney tends to be more focused on character interactions than other types of activities, so I found it to be best suited for families with very young children. Each ship tends to have just one or two headliner activities, like the new AquaMouse on Disney Wish. Some have extra activities like mini golf or the Incredibles course.
The winner? Royal Caribbean wins for just sheer breadth of activities on board their fleet. But your opinion may vary based on who you’re cruising with. If your kid’s dream day includes meeting a Disney princess, than Disney might be the cruise for you. And if you’re there for a day drinking party vibe, Carnival might be your jam.
Evening Entertainment & Shows
Royal Caribbean ships tend to be pretty traditional in terms of entertainment. You’ll find a headliner show each evening, with a showing for the early and late dinner seatings. They tend to include a comedian at least one night and a Broadway style show at least once as well. The Broadway shows are pretty good quality! On the larger ships, you may find options like a comedy club, wine bar, or sports bar too! And of course, you can always find karaoke in at least one lounge. If your ship has an ice skating rink or an Aquatheater amphitheater, the shows at those venues are really special and fun!
Carnival is similar to Royal Caribbean, but with a bit more focus on the smaller venues rather than the big theater shows. Most of the ships feature a comedy club with multiple showings, a piano bar, a sports bar, and more. And while there is a show available in the theater most days, they are less of a production than the Royal Caribbean offerings. Of course, you’ll find the usual karaoke hours and such as well.
Disney really shines in terms of their theater productions. And honestly – it would be disappointing if Disney wasn’t great at this, right? The production quality is amazing and of course the shows revolve around the characters you know and love. These are shows your kids will actually want to sit through! I was also super impressed with the amount of late night activities targeted to families. There were late night game shows, trivias, and family karaoke until the wee hours of the morning.
The winner? Disney takes this one. They just know how to put on a better show than everyone else and the late night activities are much more family friendly than I’ve seen on any other cruise line. Between Carnival and Royal Caribbean – I would say that Royal does the headliner shows much better, and Carnival does a better job with the small venues like comedy clubs and piano bars. So it depends on which type of entertainment you enjoy more.
Staterooms obviously vary by ship and the cabin category that you choose. It’s always a good idea to research the best cabin locations on your ship before booking. I prefer a central location and not having any noisy venues above or below me!
Carnival and Royal Caribbean tend to have very similar cabin layouts. Your typical cabin will have a king size bed (really two twin beds that can be pushed together or pulled apart) and a pull out sofa. You might also have a pull down bunk bed for an additional person. The bathrooms are all small, so no real winners or losers there.
Disney differentiates itself a bit here with their split bathroom designs. On most ships, your cabin will have two bathrooms! Don’t get too excited – they are small. One bathroom will have a tub/shower combination with a sink. And the other will have a toilet and another sink. This is very handy for families all trying to get ready at once. Plus Disney is the only one of these lines that has a bathtub standard in most cabins – very helpful for bathing small kids.
Another differentiator here is cabin service. You will likely have a great stateroom attendant on any cruise line! But both Royal Caribbean and Carnival have cut back to servicing the cabins just once per day. Disney is still offering twice daily cabin service. This is helpful for getting fresh towels more often and also for having any extra bed (sofa bed or bunk beds) put away during the day and made up again at night. It makes a big difference to have the actual use of your sofa during the day!
The winner? Disney wins this one due to their unique split bathroom design and twice daily cabin service.
Royal Caribbean and Carnival kids clubs are very similar. They have a dedicated club space on the ship where the kids can be checked in and out, with a variety of activities planned each day. Activities range from free time and video games to organized activities like gaga ball competitions and science experiments.
The age ranges for the kids club are also similar, with the exception of the youngest kids. On Royal Caribbean, the kids club age groups are broken into 3-5 years, 6-8 years, and 9-12 years. There are also spaces for preteens (12-14 years) and teens (15-17 years).
On Carnival, the kids club age groups are 2-5 years, 6-8 years, and 9-11 years. They also have spaces for te preteens (12-14 years) and teens (15-17 years).
Disney’s kids club is an entirely different beast. The club is massive, with most ships having a literal slide you can use to enter the club. Then the club is split into various areas with themes like Marvel, Star Wars, and Imagination Studios. The age groups for the Disney kids club recently changed, causing some controversy amongst cruisers. The new age range for the Disney kids club will be 3-10 years for the kids club, 11-14 years for the preteen space, and 14-17 for the teen space.
The age splits can be an important factor if you are hoping to keep siblings together or have a child who has “aged out” of the Disney kids club now.
The winner? Disney wins this one for the sheer scope and design of their kid’s club spaces. Although, I personally wouldn’t send an 11 year old to an unsupervised teen space, so that is something to consider if you have older kids (who are not quite teens yet).
Ah, let’s talk drinks. It’s a vacation, after all.
Royal Caribbean offers the Deluxe drink package, which will get you basically all of your alcoholic drinks included. There is no limit to the number of drinks you can order in a day – so long as you aren’t drunk enough to get cut off by a bartender. You can also get bottles of water, specialty coffees, and sodas. There’s no real catch – except the price tag. The Royal Caribbean drink packages typically range from $70-90 per person per day. Now, if your cruise stops at Cococay or Labadee (Royal Caribbean’s private islands), your drink package will be honored on the private island for the day as well. So factor that in to your drink calculations.
Carnival offers a similar all-inclusive drink package called Cheers! Carnival’s package does have a limit of 15 alcoholic drinks per day. That might seem unsurmountable anyway, but you would be surprised how many drinks you can fit in if you start at breakfast. ;) This will also get you water bottles, fancy coffees, milkshakes, and sodas. But if you’re stopping at Half Moon Cay or Amber Cove (Carnival’s private ports), your drink package will not be honored on their private islands. But the price tag is also much lower. You can usully pick up the Carnival drink package for $50-65 per person per day.
Disney doesn’t offer any alcoholic drink packages – so nothing to see here. They do have some specials like a cooler bag full of six beers, which you can refill at a discount. But in general, there is much less of a party vibe on the ships. I had a hard time even finding a great cocktail on our last Disney cruise. But one nice thing about Disney – soda is included free and is readily available from soda fountains around the ship.
The winner? Carnival wins this one. Even with their 15 drink limit, the lower prices of their drink packages make it a great value.
A casino is a casino, as far as I’m concerned. So there really isn’t much difference between Royal Caribbean and Carnival here. You will find a big casino that is happy to take all your money on both cruise lines.
Disney, however, doesn’t have a casino at all on its ships. So I guess they lose this category. Or maybe they win – that’s really a matter of perspective. You also won’t find a video arcade for the kids on Disney ships.
The winner? Tie for Carnival and Royal Caribbean!
Private Islands – Cococay vs Half Moon Cay vs Castaway Cay
Now all three of these cruise lines operate multiple private port areas on their itineraries. But the most popular and easy to compare are the private islands in the Bahamas!
Royal Caribbean offers Cococay, which is so incredibly popular that they now offer itineraries that sail just to Cococay and nowhere else. In my opinion, this is the best private island on offer by any major cruise line. Cococay has stunning beaches and crystal clear waters, and a nice snorkeling area. There are multiple beach areas all around the island, so it never really feels overcrowded. There are two huge lunch buffets, in addition to some quick service food stations. And there’s a massive freshwater pool with swim up bar and a great waterplay area with slides for kids – all totally free. For an extra fee, there’s a water park with adult sized slides, zip lines, a private beach club, a new adults only area, and plenty of excursions.
Disney’s Castaway Cay is also a great island experience, but not nearly as extensive as Cococay. The beach space is more limited, and a large portion of that is taken up by the adults only beach and private cabana areas. In my experience, their family friendly beach areas feel much more crowded as a result of this. There are some great water slides and climbing structures built right in the ocean, which are great fun for the kids. The lunch buffet is good here also – albeit with less options than Cococay. There is a small spray ground for little kids, but no pool here and certainly no waterpark or other big adventure activities. The snorkeling area at Castaway Cay is a winner though – huge and filled with fish.
Carnival actually has two private islands in the Bahamas, Half Moon Cay and Princess Cays. They both have beaches and snorkeling, although the beach area is nicer at Half Moon Cay and the snorkeling is better at Princess Cays. Both offer a buffet lunch, similar to the other cruise lines. One interesting thing is that if you purchase a drink package, your drinks at Princess Cays are included but not at Half Moon Cay. Half Moon Cay has a small aqua park area for kids, but neither island has a pool or larger water park.
The Price Tag
While prices can vary widely based on the specific ship, seasonality, and cabin types – there is a definitive pricing tier amongst these three cruise lines. Disney Cruises are by far the most expensive of the three – I’ve seen one week Disney cruises advertised with a price tag that could send my kid to college. And while they are not all that expensive, they are consistently priced at a big premium compared to Royal Caribbean and Carnival. If you are “Disney people” it might totally be worth the upcharge to you – it’s not for me.
Carnival Cruises, on the other hand, are consistently the least expensive of these three cruise lines. In fact, you can find some downright bargains on Carnival. And I’ve also found their prices for onboard expenses are more affordable too – with their drink packages being a particularly good value.
Royal Caribbean falls somewhere in the middle. There’s a definite premium charged above Carnival, but the price tag doesn’t come anywhere close to a Disney cruise. For the higher price, you do tend to get a little more premium experience and ships with more “features”.
The winner? Carnival. When it comes to value for money, Carnival really does have the edge. For a lower cost than comparable cruise lines, you can get to the same destinations on some really nice, fun ships. Although, I will say that we have always felt we got good value for our money on Royal Caribbean as well. I suggest comparing specific ships to see if the extra features are worth the cost to you.
So which cruise line is best for a family vacation?
I think the question is which cruise line is best for your family. In my opinion, Royal Caribbean is best if you’re looking for an action-packed ship with lots of activities to keep the family busy (i.e. rock walls, zip lines, ice skating, etc.). Carnival is best if you are looking for a more affordable option with a lively atmosphere and more focus on ship activities rather than features. Disney is best if you are Disney people and value the character interactions and themed dining experiences, or if your kids will spend a ton of time in the kids club.
More Cruise Planning Tips
If you found this review helpful, be sure to check out more of my cruise reviews and tips!