Visit castles with Adventures by Disney // © 2015 Adventures by Disney
When I first heard that Adventures by Disney had teamed up with AmaWaterways to create a family river cruise product, I couldn’t help but think of Walt Disney himself. Disney was known as a visionary and an optimist. Even when others didn’t believe in his projects, he pushed on with dogged determination. In a way, Adventures by Disney’s move into the river cruise world feels like a nod to that same ethic.
Of course, Adventures by Disney is also responding to trends spotted by the rest of the travel industry: Multigenerational travel is up, as is interest in river cruising. Creating a product that addresses both markets is a smart move from Disney. It’s also a move that other companies made years back. Following is a look at the family-friendly options in Europe offered by major river cruise brands.
A Ship of Their Own
Adventures by Disney isn’t the first company to dive into the family river cruise market, but its entrance is creating a big wake. The all-inclusive charters will sail the Danube River across Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary in 2016. Guests may book pre-cruise or post-cruise stays in Prague. Five sailings were announced in April, but demand was so great that two additional sailings were added in mid-May.
“When we started this concept, we didn’t know what the reaction would be,” said Ken Potrock, senior vice president and general manager for Adventures by Disney. “The travel agent community and others kept telling us that it would sell well, that we’d hit a vein with this product, but it’s not until you actually see it that can you breathe a sigh of relief. I’m pleased to report that we are now seeing it.”
There is little doubt that the high interest is in part due to the confidence that travelers and agents have in Disney’s many platforms, from theme parks to ocean cruises. But for some, the ship is the ultimate selling point. All of the seven-night sailings will take place on the forthcoming AmaViola, which is being specially designed for families.
According to Ruth Turpin, a Travel + Leisure top agent and owner of Cruises, Etc. in Fort Worth, Texas, the vessel is the key to the market’s most hard-to-pick lock.
“Until now, our agency hasn’t focused on selling family river cruises, as today’s ships just aren’t conducive to parents traveling with kids,” Turpin said. “Few offer triples and quads, and connecting cabins are rare. But AmaViola is a strong step forward.”
Of the ship’s 79 staterooms, 12 will accommodate families of three; six sets of cabins can be connected via an internal doorway, making them ideal for groups with as many as five people; and four suites with sofa beds will sleep up to four guests.
Those familiar with Ama can expect the brand’s same signature service onboard. AmaViola will be staffed by Ama crewmembers, an Ama cruise manager and a chef.
“‘No’ is not in our vocabulary — we cater to everyone, and I believe that makes us the right fit for Adventures by Disney,” said Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways. “They know we have the highest standards and provide the same VIP service they do.”
Entertainment options on the ship also have been tailored to families. Groups might sing their hearts out at karaoke nights, enjoy screenings of their favorite Disney films or participate in themed events. Ama’s customary fleet of bicycles will be on deck, and just in case all 158 guests want to pedal in port, Adventures by Disney has partnered with local businesses to make getting extra bikes a breeze.
Off the Boat
While Ama’s crew is keeping things shipshape onboard, Disney has worked painstakingly to create engaging programming that delves into the destination and lends itself to differentiation. Standout activities on the itinerary include a falconry show at Hohenwerfen Castle in Passau, Germany; a goulash-making competition in the Budapest countryside; exploring Devin Castle in Slovakia; and a marionette demonstration in Austria’s Schonbrunn Palace.
To allow for an increased amount of onshore exploration, Adventures by Disney and Ama are breaking new ground in terms of port time.
“We want this to be an active experience, and to do that we need more time in ports,” Potrock said. “We will get into town first thing in the morning, and we typically won’t leave until midnight. We’re maximizing port time, which is vital.”
According to Heather Killingbeck, director of trip and program development for Adventures by Disney, it was also imperative that the company find the best Adventure Guides to lead excursions and activities. Each sailing will have eight such tour leaders, in addition to the Ama crew.
“Our guides bring the sizzle, the magic, the pixie dust,” Killingbeck said. “They’re the ultimate concierge and the storytellers.”
Thus far, Adventures by Disney has selected 17 guides from a pool of about 1,000. According to Potrock, being chosen to join the adventure was no easy feat. Candidates went through a multiday audition process, giving presentations, sparking conversation around a dining table and more.
“These guides are the best of the best,” Potrock said. “They may be trained in special talents — concert pianists, voice actors or maybe just someone who is terrific with kids. They are what separates us.”
Disney and Ama’s river cruise news might be stealing the limelight right now, but Tauck has been offering all-inclusive family river cruises under the Tauck Bridges brand since 2010. It has watched demand for its product increase over the years, and as a result, the company has nearly quadrupled its family offerings. In 2016, Tauck Bridges will sail three different family itineraries — all in Europe — for a total of eight departures.
“Until now, some of our competitors have simply designated select departures as ‘family-friendly,’ though the itinerary stays the same and there aren’t many additions for children,” said Julia O’Brien, brand manager for Tauck Bridges. “That has never been the case for Tauck Bridges river cruises. Since the beginning, we have designed our family itineraries from the ground up, and that includes onboard entertainment, onshore excursions, meals and more.”
Like AmaViola, Tauck Bridges’ vessels offer rooms and suites for triples or groups of four, and onboard spaces serve multiple purposes. For example, the kitchen might become the arena for Viennese strudel-making when sailing in Austria. Also like the Adventures by Disney product, Tauck’s shore excursions are led by skilled tour directors and local guides. The guide-to-guest ratio onshore remains around one to 20, according to O’Brien.
Tauck Bridges river cruises do stick to a more traditional sailing schedule than the new Disney product — a fact that might appeal to mature travelers already familiar with river cruises.
“The amount of port time and time on-ship for our family cruises isn’t necessarily different than our regular adult departures,” O’Brien said. “Our clients want to dig into Europe’s rich culture, but we do want to avoid exhausting them. We try to ensure that the pacing is still such that you’re taking advantage of the destination, but you’re also having the appropriate amount of downtime on the ship.”
Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has labeled select cruise departures as family-friendly in recent years, and like Tauck Bridges, all keep to the typical nautical schedule. This year, Uniworld has five departures on three European itineraries scheduled; in 2016, families can choose from eight European itineraries and a total of 13 departures, all over usual school breaks.
“When river cruising, grandparents, parents and children are packing and unpacking only once and exploring cities together in a unique way,” said Wesley Bosnic, senior vice president of revenue management and strategic development for Uniworld. “And while sailing, there’s never a dull moment, with beautiful scenery going by, plus daily excursions.”
Bosnic notes that Uniworld’s family-friendly departures aren’t much different than its usual departures, but the designated itineraries offer activities that appeal to many ages, from touring the BMW factory in Bavaria, Germany, to eating dinner in a fisherman’s hut in Chioggia, Italy. The ships also turn one cabin into a social space with game consoles and activities for younger cruisers.
Avalon Waterways is another prominent player in the river cruise market. Though the company’s website doesn’t highlight specific tours as family-oriented, many multigenerational groups take Avalon cruises around the world, according to managing director Patrick Clark. In Europe, interest skews toward special interest and Christmas market cruises. Clark also noted that Avalon’s offerings tend to be a better fit for older kids.
“For all river cruise companies, the core traveler is still the baby boomer,” Clark said. “However, I think there is opportunity for us to grow in the direction of family cruising. And I think we’ll see more brands experimenting in this market.”
And surely travel agents will be watching that growth in an attempt to find the products that best fit their clients. Whatever the future holds, O’Brien of Tauck is happy to see family river cruising get more attention.
“We certainly welcome Adventures by Disney’s entry into the arena, just like we did when it began offering guided land tours,” O’Brien said. “After all, a rising tide lifts all boats.”
2016 FAMILY RIVER CRUISES AT A GLANCE
Adventures by Disney & AmaWaterways
2016 Offerings: One itinerary, seven departures
Ship: 158-passenger AmaViola, slated for completion next year
Duration and Route: Seven nights on the Danube River; ports in Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary
- Enjoying pretzels and beverages at Aldersbach Brewery in Bavaria
- Exploring the salt mines of Hallein, outside Salzburg
- Bike riding from Melk to Kremes in Austria’s Wachau Valley
- Hiking to the ruins of 900-year-old Durnstein Castle
- A Rubik’s Cube magic show in Budapest
Cost: From $4,439 for children (all-inclusive); from $4,669 for adults (all-inclusive)
Editor’s Pick: Romantic Rhine
Ship: Felicity, Tranquility II, Affinity, Artistry II, Imagery II, Visionary, Luminary
Staterooms: Double occupancy in all staterooms and suites; limited number of connecting cabins
- Visiting a traditional windmill village in Zaanse Schans, the Netherlands
- A trip to Anne Frank House in Amsterdam
- Excursion to Germany’s Black Forest, option to visit a local wood-carver’s workshop
- E-biking through Germany’s Kaiserstuhl region
Cost: Starting at $2,199
Savings Tip: Single supplement fees waived on select departures
2016 Offerings: Three itineraries, eight departures
Editor’s Pick: Castles on the Rhine: Basel to Amsterdam, departing June 21, July 10 and July 29
Ship: 130-passenger MS Inspire
Duration and Route: Seven-day cruise in Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands
- Dinner and evening at Reichenstein castle
- Fondue and folklore show in Lucerne
- Tarte-flambee-making in Strasbourg
- Visiting Cologne’s Karnival Museum, plus an onboard Carnival party
- Guided canal boat tour in Amsterdam
Cost: From $3,790 (all-inclusive)
Savings Tip: Single supplement fee waived on all Category 1 stateroom bookings
2016 Offerings: Multiple itineraries with family-friendly departure dates
Editor’s Pick: Venice & the Gems of Northern Italy, departing June 26, July 3 and July 10
Ship: 132-passenger River Countess
Duration and Route: Seven nights along the Po River and in the water surrounding Venice
Staterooms: Double occupancy only
- A treasure hunt in Venice, plus glass-blowing and mask-making
- An evening in St. Mark’s Basilica
- Excursions to Padua, Verona, Ferrara and Ravenna
Cost: Starting at $3,669 savings tip: Guests ages 4 to 18 save 50 percent on select departures when accompanied by an adult.