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When AmaWaterways announced that next year’s AmaViola would have connecting staterooms to accommodate families, that was only the tip of the iceberg. It turns out that Adventures by Disney is chartering the ship next year for five Danube River departures: four in July and one Christmas sailing departing Dec. 22.
Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways, said the partnership was the result of two years of discussion and work with the shipyard to create a suitable vessel.
In addition to six sets of connecting staterooms, some of the larger rooms have a third bed. With the connecting room, as many as five family members can be accommodated. Four suites have sleeper sofas, adding room for two children in addition to two adults.
Eight Adventures by Disney guides onboard will ensure family groups get personal attention, kid-friendly menu items and tweaked itineraries that allow maximum time in port. Seven-night cruises — sailing between Vilshofen, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary — will visit Austria and Slovakia.
Entertainment and shore excursions are arranged by Disney. Highlights include a falconry flight show at the 900-year-old Hohenwerfen Castle; a marionette demonstration and a strudel-making lesson at Schonbrunn Palace; and a bike ride through Austria’s Wachau Valley between the towns of Melk and Krems.
The December Christmas cruise includes a performance by Vienna Boys’ Choir. Onboard, there will be junior adventure movie nights, sing-alongs, gingerbread decorating and karaoke, in addition to the customary activities.
Karst said the response has been very strong: Half the inventory was sold in the first week.
“This will open the door for the whole industry,” she said. “It grows the entire cruise market, and it’s a great match.”
Travel agent reaction has been mostly positive. Scott Koepf, senior vice president of sales for Avoya Travel, said he is thrilled about the move.
“Although there have been a few limited programs of river cruising for families and they have had success, this is a whole other level of marketing,” Koepf said. “I was kind of surprised they only were offering five cruises next year. With the response, I would hope they would increase the number, perhaps even for 2016.”
Koepf sees the move as a strong additional differentiator for AmaWaterways.
“Disney is, of course, a strong brand partner, and apart from the wineries, there hasn’t been much of that kind of development among river cruise lines,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the maturation of river cruising.”
Jason Olson, president of True Vacation Travel and Cruise Holidays in Redding, Calif., said he was elated to hear about the partnership.
“River cruising is one of the largest emerging markets, yet it is still considered primarily an adults-only, over 55-year-old experience,” Olson said. “AmaWaterways is going to great lengths to introduce a new river cruise ship that is purpose-built to accommodate families.”
Olson added that the presence of AmaWaterways will also help prospective clients understand that this is not a river cruise version of a Disney Cruise Line.
“Instead of characters parading through the ship, they will experience the luxury of a river cruise, along with the quality and immersive experience the Disney Adventure Guides provide,” he said.
Travel consultants who preferred to remain anonymous pointed out one downside to AmaWaterways’ family cruises, which are marketed solely through Disney Adventures.
“Disney’s commissions are much lower than any we see in the river cruise industry,” one said. “In effect, this takes five sailings out of the market for agents.”
Another travel consultant agreed, citing low commissions.
“I would be willing to bet that less than 10 percent of these cruises will be sold by agents who are big players in river cruising,” said the anonymous travel planner. “Disney is difficult to work with, and the commissions are low.”
In general, the travel professional community is optimistic about AmaWaterways’ new cruising opportunities and the implications for river cruising in the long run. Rick Kaplan, president of Premier River Cruises in Los Angeles, called the move a great one for the river cruise industry and a good move for AmaWaterways.
“July and August are typically more difficult months to sell, so this should be a good strategic move,” he stated.
Kaplan said his company is seeing a growing demand for river cruises in the family market. He expects more cross-marketing in the future and sees special-interest cruises as the beginning of development of a wider base of appeal.
“I can see the Food Network getting involved in river cruising on a continuing basis, for instance,” he added. “It’s a natural.”