Kids were everywhere splashing in the ship's pools, touring the Coliseum and Pompeii, posing for family photos.
Cruising the Mediterranean, the Disney Magic (www.disneycruise.com) had at least 1,000 kids onboard, more than half of them under 10, many not yet out of preschool.
"Travel can be so stressful," said Geri Markey of Los Gatos, Calif., traveling with a 7- and 10-year-old. "Packing and unpacking, making sure you didn't forget anything, finding food they will eat. Here, everybody is happy."
Another plus: With all the deals out there -- many cruises start at less than $1,000 per person, significantly less for children sharing parents' cabins -- families may find that cruising is not only easier, but also less expensive than traveling on their own in Europe, especially with a multigenerational group and especially when meals, lodging, entertainment and transportation from port to port are included. (Check such websites as www.cruising.org for information and www.cruisecritic.com and www.cruisecompete.com for deals.)
Whatever your budget or travel style, so many kid-friendly options are available -- such as ultra-deluxe Crystal (www.crystalcruises.com), Regent Seven Seas (www.rssc.com) and Norwegian Cruise Line (www.ncl.com), which is touting a Nickelodeon-themed cruise from Barcelona, Spain, in late July. The Royal Caribbean (www.royalcaribbean.com) is embarking on its biggest season ever, with 11 ships sailing in the region, while MSC (www.msccruisesusa.com) offers seven ships, 85 itineraries and kids-cruise-free deals for those under 12 who share a cabin with parents -- or grandparents. The new Carnival Magic (www.carnival.com) also will cruise the Med -- the line's first full-season overseas cruise in three years.
Aboard a cruise ship, you can relax and meet families from around the world. And after an exhausting day of touring, you return to a place where most everyone speaks English, and big swimming pools, familiar food and morning-till-night youth activities are available, a welcome break for Mom and Dad.
You couldn't let your 14-year-old wander alone in a European city, nor would she want to. But aboard ship, she can safely have all the freedom she craves -- and plenty of company her own age.
You can even let the youngest cruisers remain onboard while you tour the sites. "The cruise is for the kids; the shore excursions are for us," explained Micah Herrelbrink, who was cruising with three friends and their 10 children, all under age 6.
The downside? You can't always linger in a museum or soak up the atmosphere in a cafe because you have to return to the ship, and you won't meet as many locals as you might have if you were touring on your own.
Be forewarned that cruise excursions -- especially in Europe -- can be expensive. Savvy family travelers, especially when touring with extended family or friends, therefore book their own independent tours that save them money and give them more flexibility.
Don't expect the kids to be fascinated by all the sites. Steven Tuck, a classics professor at Miami University and president of the Vergilian Society, which offers all varieties of European tours (www.vergil.clarku.edu), suggests "making it about the people, not the buildings." Tuck was onboard the Disney Magic as the resident historical expert and has traveled widely with his own child, as well as others.
"What you are trying to do is plant a seed so they will want to come back and explore foreign cultures and travel," he said. "You don't want that all they remember is being hot and exhausted."
For a comprehensive family cruise guide, visit www.takingthekids.com/cruising.aspx.