Onboard Review: Adventures by Disney Sails the Danube

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Guides in period attire lead many of the activities, including at Devin Castle in Slovakia. (Paloma Villaverde de Rico)
Guides in period attire lead many of the activities, including at Devin Castle in Slovakia. (Paloma Villaverde de Rico)

Sailing on the Danube is a fairytale experience. You simply can’t escape the feeling of being transported to a magical world as you take in cliff-perched castles, churches whose majestic organs sing praises to the high heavens, picturesque medieval hamlets, tree-shrouded bike trails embraced by apricot farms and vineyards, and dazzling cities where Mozart reigns and architecture astounds. The entire dreamlike scenery seems plucked from the pages of an enchanted tale, so it makes perfect sense that tour operator Adventures by Disney (ABD) has started offering a 7-day family-friendly sailing on this charming river from Vilshofen, Germany to Budapest, Hungary (and vice-versa), stopping along the way in Passau, Germany; Linz, Melk, Durnstein, Krems and Vienna in Austria; and Bratislava, Slovakia, as well as the bookend destinations. It’s a game-changer in terms of river cruise offerings on the Danube, because it’s exposing this history-filled waterway to cruisers much younger than what this vacation product has largely been targeting.

“My husband and I have always wanted to try river cruising,” says Melissa Jiles, vacation planning specialist with Crazy Imagination Travel, “but were skeptical that the median age would be too old for us. We are both 48 with two teenage children. Once Disney offered a river cruise sailing, we were in!” Adds Ken Potrock, senior v.p. of Adventures by Disney, “we believe there’s an enormous amount of potential with this category, maybe 14 or 15 sailings in the second year. We are bullish.”

Onboard Life
To create the just-perfect sailing for kids and their families, ABD partnered with AmaWaterways, which custom-built the AmaViola to accommodate families (160 passengers), incorporating such room configurations as connecting staterooms, as well as rooms and suites that accommodate 3- and 4-person families. My teenage daughter and I had a cozy 170-sq.-ft. stateroom with a French balcony that gave the two of us ample room to move around in, and had plenty of storage area with a large closet and drawers; the bathroom’s cabinet had enough space for our many toiletries. Jiles notes that she had a connecting room, which was “wonderful as we were traveling with two teenagers.” She points out that the ship itself was like a “floating hotel. It’s a great way to travel without having to worry about packing your bags. It’s a great way to see the Danube River cities worry- and hassle-free.”

Although most of the time is spent exploring the many destinations the ship visits, as well as joining in on the numerous activities while at shore (more on that later), there is plenty of time spent on board, and Adventures by Disney does a great job of creating a seamless experience for families while they’re enjoying the ship and its amenities, including a pool that became party central for the little ones.

“We spent an enormous amount of time,” says Potrock, “working with the AmaWaterways crew.” And it’s noticeable. At dinnertime, for example, while parents are enjoying their delicious multi-course dinner in the main dining room, the junior adventurers are in the lounge dining on kid-friendly food such as chicken strips and pasta (as well as ice cream, of course) and hanging with the eight Adventure Guides. During the evening hours, kids play board games, and participate in pirate-themed parties, as well as karaoke and movie nights. Additionally, the wine rooms to the side of the main dining room are set aside for teens during dinnertime (there were quite a few teenagers mingling in the space). I heard quite a few parents with young kids happy to have some adults-only time while their kids were hanging with passengers their own age, although children could also choose to dine in the main dining room with their families. A couple of nights, my daughter and I opted to dine with the junior adventurers and Adventure Guides, and I noticed that the guides went out of their way to create genuine bonds with the kids; the kids, too, were enthralled by the guides. We also chose to try the over-the-top culinary spread at the ship’s Chef’s Table one night; it’s ideal for adults and older teens, and I highly recommend it for true food connoisseurs (the Chef’s Table is an AmaWaterways offering).

But the true gem of this river-based itinerary, and of any of ABD’s land-based programs, is the array of unique excursions that make it an “only with Disney” vacation. “Disney,” says Jiles, “did an amazing job selecting just the perfect excursions to immerse us in the culture.”

Imaginative Excursions
ABD hits it out of the ballpark if your clients are looking for a river cruise itinerary packed with an array of imaginative excursion options that kids will eat up (literally!). There’s a pretzel party in Vilshofen to kick-off the sailing (for clients starting the “adventure” in Germany), and the next morning, while at port in Passau, the day begins with a fun marzipan activity, as well as tasty treats from a local bakery. Throughout the 8-day itinerary, there’s also time for apricot tasting, a marmalade-making activity, and learning how to make apple strudel. The days are active, without a doubt, if clients want to do it all, but Jiles points out that although at first she felt a little pressured to choose all of the excursions for the entire week all at once on the first day, “I loved that Jennae [the head Adventure Guide on the sailing] explained that nothing was written in stone and we could easily change any option that we wanted later in the week. The excursion schedule was very flexible. ABD had a plan in place and accommodated any guest’s wishes.” Additionally, guests can decide to stay on the ship to relax, or spend their time in a port discovering it on their own. There are only two things they need to keep in mind—where the ship is docked and sailing time, because the ship does set off to the next destination on time.

Although I’d love to squeeze it all in, I only have room to highlight a few of the many excursions that truly make the ABD program set itself apart. Take our first port stop in Passau, where the afternoon excursion heads to the Tree Path Kopfing, where visitors climb among the treetops and make their way through obstacle courses. Families with a sense of adventure should opt to visit one of the oldest salt mines in the world while at port in Linz, where they’ll get the chance to take a raft through the underground salt mines and zip down a mineshaft slide (it’s a cool experience). An early morning sailing into Melk, with views of the town’s stunning abbey, is unparalleled, but the day’s activities get even better. After touring the abbey (jr. adventurers can opt for a kid-friendly tour here), there’s the option of taking a 28-mile bike ride from Melk to Krems, an area known as the Wachau Valley. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site sprinkled with medieval towns and glorious castles. If your clients are up for this bike ride, it’s a must, but kids should be no younger than 12 and be confident on two wheels (getting kid-sized bikes might prove to be a challenge). While in Bratislava, there’s an excursion to Devin Castle, where kids get to try their hand at medieval activities such as candle making, calligraphy, archery and coin making. Think it’s just fun for the little ones? Think again. My 16-year-old daughter sampled each of the activities, fully engaged with the performers who were dressed in period outfits. Later that afternoon, we entered Schloss Hof, a hunting lodge, not via the main doors, but along an underground passageway as we followed a guide draped in an Empress Maria Theresa–era dress; and while touring Bratislava’s Old Town, we all went on a scavenger hunt, learning about the city’s history along the way. There are also castle hikes, horse and marionette shows, and lots of time to discover celebrated cities like Vienna, Budapest and Salzburg.

Travel agents, let clients who’ve already traveled with ABD and know how close the group gets to both the Adventure Guides and the other folks on the tour, that due to the number of guests on these river-based itineraries (the ship carries 158 passengers), travelers are divided into several groups, with a local guide at each port, and the Adventure Guides are split up among the several groups.

Book It
ABD is offering two 8-day holiday sailings on the Danube, with departures on Dec. 15 and Dec. 22 (the latter is currently waitlist only). Rates are $4,439 per child and $4,669 per adult. In 2017, departures run June through August, with rates at $4,489 for kids and $4,719 for adults. Suggested minimum age is 8 years old.

Additionally, ABD has introduced an 8-day Rhine itinerary for 2017 that sails along France, Switzerland, Germany and the Netherlands. Departure dates are June through July, with a Disney Vacations Club exclusive sailing in April. Rates are $4,489 per child and $4,719 per adult. This is an ideal region of the world, says Potrock, because “there’s a lot of connection to the Disney lore on the Rhine.”

Contact Information
Adventures by Disney: adventuresbydisney.com