The last time I cruised the Danube River, six years ago, the Christmas markets were in full swing, the only masks we saw were in the art shops of Vienna, and my husband and I, both securely in middle age, were among the youngest passengers on board.
On our cruise this past August on the same river, and with the same cruise line, AmaWaterways, none of that was true.
While we visited many of the same ports as we did on our original sailing, that’s about where the similarities ended. This time, we were sailing with Adventures by Disney, Disney’s tour operating arm, which has been partnering with river cruise line AmaWaterways since 2016 on family-focused itineraries. Our two sons, Ethan, 20 and Cameron, 17, were with us. We were comfortably within the age range of the adults on board (a far younger average than our original cruise), and most, like us, were traveling with their kids or grandchildren. As for masks, while they weren’t required on the cruise ship (being vaccinated was a requirement, however), given the ongoing pandemic, some passengers chose to wear them around others and we spotted some masked locals in the European countries we visited, including Germany, Austria, Hungary and Slovakia.
Another big difference on this river cruise: many of the excursions—including a marzipan pig–making lesson in Germany—were designed with kids in mind.
For those who perhaps have an aversion to the extravagant and themed experiences of Disney’s oceangoing cruise ships or the amusement parks, it’s worth noting that there are no Disney characters on board (unless you count the plush Mickey and Minnie on the welcome desk), but there is a pixie-dusted feeling to the way trips are run.
Families can travel Europe in comfort on an AmaWaterways river cruise ship.
Courtesy of Adventures by Disney
While an Adventures by Disney river cruise isn’t in your face with the branding, the well-oiled machine that is Disney is clearly there, working behind the scenes to provide an enviable level of efficiency and service. And when Disney sets its sights on providing a magical experience, it consistently delivers. For instance, during an excursion to an apricot farm, two of the younger kids in the group seemed restless, so they were whisked off on a separate mission to find some baby bunnies and came back grinning when the boring schnapps tasting was over. When three out of four members of our family felt like staying on board as the ship cruised between two ports, Cameron joined a four-hour bike trip to the next port. When he returned to the ship, he shared some of the adventure with us over dinner, before the boys took off for late night shenanigans with some of the other teens in the lounge. That’s where the pixie dust comes in, creating a relaxed and seamless “something for everyone” experience.
Within a few hours of boarding our eight-day sailing with our sons, we felt the difference. My fear was that the boys would find the trip was either too juvenile or “kiddy” or too adult (read: boring). Instead, despite a wide range of kids on board (ages 5 to 20), junior adventure guides (Disney’s term for its activity hosts) facilitated connections, allowing the boys to find a groove with kids their own age and join us for activities when it moved them.
Based on our experience, river cruises offer a great way to spend some quality time together as a family, visiting numerous sites throughout Europe in comfortable accommodations with an active itinerary all laid out for everyone. But only a handful of river cruises cater specifically to families, and for those cruises, only a small selection of rivers are available. Because river cruise sailings tend to be more expensive than larger ocean cruises and seek to offer a luxury experience to match, it’s worth doing some research about the pros and cons before committing.
These considerations will help you make the right choice for your family.
What to know about taking a family-friendly river cruise
River cruise ships sail through the heart of Europe, offering families easy access to the cities and towns along the way.
Courtesy of Adventures by Disney
Set your kids free on an ocean cruise liner and you’ll be lucky to find them again before you disembark. It’s not just the size of a ship or the crowds of people—thousands on a big ship versus fewer than 200 on a river cruise—but the sheer number of ways they can be entertained. You won’t find go-karts, waterslides, and sprawling kids’ clubs on river cruises. Most offer a small pool and some lawn games (corn hole and life-size chess among them), but the focus in terms of how you spend your time is mostly on the cities you’re visiting, not the on-board experiences.
Quality family time
Each river cruise itinerary is different, but all of them offer the opportunity to explore the cities you’re visiting together—either as part of an organized tour or to head out on your own, with just your crew. The majority of activities (both on and off the ship) are meant to be kid-friendly when the cruise is geared toward families, but considerable efforts are made to make sure they aren’t boring for parents, which helps to enhance time spent together. And most meals are enjoyed as a family in the main common dining room.
Proximity to shore
Most European rivers run through the center of towns. That means it is easy to walk off the ship and explore when the planned excursion isn’t of interest. A local playground, museum, or the option to head back to the ship for some relaxation is also possible.
Everything is easier
Embarking and disembarking is a far easier process on a river cruise than on a big ocean ship. For instance, we were comfortably seated in the lounge within minutes of first walking onto the ship as we awaited our room keys. On a larger cruise ship, embarkation can take hours, and it’s not uncommon to be waiting in a busy landside terminal long after you arrive at the shore. And there are no overly formal nights, so packing is made simple, and parents aren’t fussing over kids who really want to play, not dress in clothes they can’t get messy.
Perfect for teens and tweens
On bigger ships, I’ve found that it can be tough for tweens and teens to find their rhythm—they might be too old for some of the kids’ clubs but too young for the night club. My sons quickly found younger passengers who they could hang out with. While previous river cruises I have been on often fell silent by 10 p.m., my sons reported late night conversations with new friends about favorite TikTok videos and college choices while soaking in the hot tub on the top deck. (One thing to consider is that the drinking age in some European cities is younger than that in North America. You’ll want to talk to your kids and the ship’s hosts about what is acceptable.)
Great for younger kids, too
Make sure to check the river cruise line’s age requirement; most have a minimum age of between two and four. Adventures by Disney is great with younger children, often giving them even more attention and creative options than some of the older, more independent kids. At the beginning of the cruise, the junior adventure guides host a no-parents-invited meet and greet. It’s a good way for all the kids to meet each other and find friendships that are cemented through special “just the kids” events throughout the week. At the end-of-trip karaoke night, the bond between the kids and their guides was evident in the hugs and tears shared over croaky notes and raucous laughter.
Accommodating a wide range of families
Our cruise had a variety of multigenerational and blended, step families, as well as passengers with various mobility needs. All were accommodated both in stateroom type and with special assistance during tours. But not every room on every ship has a connecting option, so some families may find they need to book more than one room to make it work. This can be an issue if you are traveling with smaller children and aren’t able to have larger or connecting staterooms.
The best family-friendly river cruises
On Uniworld family cruises, kids are split into two categories: junior cruisers (ages 4 to 12) and teen cruisers (ages 13-17), with corresponding activities for each.
Here are a few cruise lines that offer family-friendly river cruises with room configurations, public spaces, on-board services and amenities, and excursions and programming designed with families in mind.
Adventures by Disney/AmaWaterways
One thing that really makes the Adventures by Disney river cruises stand out are the junior adventure guides. The guides audition for the role and the result is cruises led by a high-energy group of talented individuals dedicated to family fun. A full ship generally has six guides on board who do everything from supervising pajama parties to organizing a karaoke night and leading active excursions. All of the junior adventure guides have photography training, which means that even when the kids are off doing their own thing with the guides (yes, Disney guides will occasionally take kids off on their own, which can be a major bonus for parents who want some alone time and for kids, too, who are happy for a break from their folks), you’ll get a peek at the memories they’re making. The minimum age to join a cruise is four, but Disney recommends age eight and older for its river cruises. Prices start from $4,799 per child and $5,299 per adult.
Lauded as the first to offer a family river cruise in 2010, Tauck sticks to cruises in its family-friendly Bridges portfolio that run during school breaks and holidays and host a maximum of 130 passengers. Your fare includes all transfers to and from airports and hotels, gratuities, and even some off-ship meals and special events (in addition to all on-board meals, adult and kid-friendly drinks, and all shore excursions). The focus is on families exploring together so there are no dedicated kids’ excursions, but activities—like a knights tournament and hands-on medieval games at Devin Castle on the Danube family cruise, or a scavenger hunt inside the Louvre—ensure that everyone is having fun together. Newer ships have game spaces (there are board games are on all cruises and select cruises have video game options as well), a hot tub and small pool, and a small putting green. Tauck director guides organize trivia and movie nights, as well as family feud contests and a French food Fear Factor contest (that introduces kids to new foods like oysters) during evenings on board. The minimum age is three; Tauck recommends its river cruises for kids age eight and older. Prices start at $3,990.
As part of its “Generations” collection, Uniworld has a unique approach to family river cruises. Kids are split into two categories: junior cruisers (ages 4 to 12) and teen cruisers (ages 13 to 17) and activities for each group are planned and run by two dedicated “family hosts.” They include movie nights, kids-only tables at mealtimes, and craft workshops that focus on the culture and traditions of the region the cruise is sailing through. On board, kids get a special VIP ship tour with the captain and can learn how to cook and make pastries with the ship’s chefs. There’s also a dedicated lounge where kids can hang out parent-free, and parents can also opt to leave kids on board for supervised activities while they go ashore. Each night kids get a surprise gift at turndown. Prices start at $3,199 per person.
A-Rosa vessels feature a kids’ club for younger passengers.
Families with younger kids will love the German-owned cruise line A-Rosa with activities designed to match the ages of the kids on any particular sailing. The brand-new 280-passenger A-Rosa Sena, which launched in 2022, is leading a new wave in family river cruising. An entire deck of the ship has been set aside for families. It features family cabins with space for up to five people, a dedicated kids’ pool, and a full kids’ club with slides, mini climbing wall, ample games, reading nooks, and arts and crafts activities. The minimum age is two and kids need to be four to be able to access the kids’ club. The vessels often host a mix of passengers from Europe and the United States, and announcements are in German and English. This is another way to immerse younger travelers in the destination and expose them to other languages and cultures. Prices start at $1,500 for a one-week sailing, with discounted prices for kids (including those under 15 sailing for free on select departures).
Other things to consider before booking your family river cruise
Choose the itinerary based on what your family might be interested in. The Rhine is known for its ample castles, which might delight some in your brood. Sailing the Seine includes the showstopper Paris. No matter where in Europe you sail, there are often opportunities for biking on shore for more active families. Additionally, some family cruises will do a deep dive into the Sound of Music during a day trip to Salzburg, Austria (where many scenes of the movie were shot) during Danube cruises, for fans of the iconic musical. Christmas market cruises are another option for families who are feeling festive.
River cruise itineraries are typically around one week. If you want to extend your stay, consider the options offered by the cruise line and compare them with the costs and flexibility of planning that additional time on your own.
While excursion costs and tips are often included in your fare, the flights to get to and from your ports won’t be—and remember that you will start and finish in two different ports, which means booking either two different one-way flights to and from the United States or a flight or train ride back to the original arrival airport for a round-trip flight. Your budgeting should also account for a pre-embarkation or post-disembarkation hotel accommodation, if it’s not included with the cruise fare, depending on your flight options.
Lastly, itineraries can change based on rising and falling water levels. For instance, this past summer saw record droughts in Europe. Ships always anticipate the possibility of a wrinkle in the plan and often have alternate options available, but it may not be exactly what you and your crew expected from start to finish if weather woes get in the way.