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Cologne
Cologne/Rhine panorama in the evening.

It all started with a chance meeting on board a river cruise ship while sailing the Danube. That chance meeting led to a high school choir booking on the Rhine. We’ll let travel advisor Mary Crowley, Vacation Specialist from Dream Vacations, tell the story.

Paloma Villaverde de Rico (PVR): How did you learn that the high school choir was interested in this type of cruise, or did you approach them?

Mary Crowley (MC): I met Michael Hayden, director of choirs at Mira Costa High School, on a Danube cruise in 2015. We were both on this cruise when we had originally both booked alternate dates and in Michael’s case a different cruise line! Karma! We talked about many things but never the possibility of a choir river cruise. We parted ways as new friends and a month later he called me to throw out the idea of a Rhine cruise for his choir. Traditionally, choir groups do land-based tours but we both agreed that a river cruise would be unique and I began the search for a cruise line that would want to book a student, friends and family group. Of all the major river cruise lines AmaWaterways was the only one that would even consider this type of group.

PVR: What was the process for putting a charter such as this one together? How many variables? And is it more difficult/any different than a more traditional adult-focused river cruise group booking?

MC: There were most certainly additional challenges in putting together a charter of this type than would have occurred with a traditional adult-focused group. Not only did we have 60 students but the remainder of the 158 passengers were chaperones, family and friends of the choir plus some of my individual clients that loved the idea of cruising the Rhine with this remarkable group and attending their performances in ancient cathedrals, churches and abbeys along the Rhine. We had to first ensure the safety for all the minors and to make certain that they were kept busy. All performance venues had to be secured well in advance for the performances and since it was Holy Week this was a bit of a challenge since all the venues where the students would sing had other activities that we had to work around. There were shore excursions to coordinate with the performance times, etc. I worked with AmaWaterways to coordinate a shore excursion for the students that I’d experienced on Uniworld and that they were not familiar with. The students and chaperones experienced a vinegar tasting excursion in Germany at Doktorenhof Vinegar Farm. I’d recommended this to Michael Hayden as I was positive the students would enjoy it and it was a huge success! We worked with AmaWaterways to arrange for a DJ one evening so the kids could have their own event and through AmaWaterways worked to have some wonderful local talent on board the ship for several evenings. Several of the activities that were planned for the students excluded the family and friends as this really was a trip for the students and it was important to Michael and his team to spend time with their students. This worked out very well and the other group members enjoyed their time seeing the sights along the Rhine, always meeting up at the end of the day. Some performances took place in the evening as well. Because we had the full ship chartered we worked with AmaWaterways and the captain of the ship to coordinate our nautical schedule with the performance schedule. This was unique due to the nature of the group. They were very accommodating!

One of the major concerns when traveling with this size group is getting through airport security in a timely manner. AmaWaterways went above and beyond my expectations in assisting this group. They were wonderful to work with.They brought staff to LAX on the day of departure to assist with getting the group through passport check/TSA.

PVR: How many kids were involved and did the parents come along as well?

MC: There were 60 students and 100 parents, friends and family. Most of the students were juniors and seniors and several sophomores. The group was multi-generational with grandparents of some of the students attending as well. It was wonderful to see the students with their extended families.

PVR: Traditionally, river cruising is a very adult-focused trip, so to point teenagers to this type of vacation is definitely thinking outside the box—why did you think they would enjoy it?

MC: I am a firm believer in traveling with your children. My husband and I have two grown sons and we’ve always enjoyed traveling with them. Knowing Michael, I had absolutely no doubt whatsoever that this group would be perfect for a Rhine cruise. These were articulate, extremely well-mannered, well-traveled students. Michael demands a level of respect amongst all the students and it was such a joy for me as a mother, a former educator and as a travel agent to witness it firsthand.

Being exposed to different cultures in a safe environment such as a river cruise ship was a no brainer. This was Michael’s vision and I just helped him develop it and bring it to fruition. I believe that this cruise has laid the ground work for future similar endeavors throughout the country and perhaps worldwide. It was unique, ground-breaking and it WORKED beautifully!

PVR: Why was it valuable for the high school choir to take this sort of trip?

MC: Traditionally, the Mira Costa High School Choirs have taken land-based trips both within the U.S. and abroad. The students get to experience different cultures and perform at world-renowned venues. Less time was wasted going from city to city by bus or train and more time was spent experiencing all that the Rhine offered from Amsterdam to Basel. Additionally,these students were incredible ambassadors for their country. They had the opportunity to sing with a local choir in Cologne, Germany that had previously spent time with them on their campus in California.

Also, this was the first time that Michael ever opened the trip up to non-students. This gave the students the opportunity to spend time with their families and in a number of situations entire families attended. The parents, family and friends were absolutely enthralled by the total experience!

PVR: What was specific to this charter while they sailed? Any specific inclusions they had that regular passengers on this sailing wouldn’t have? 

MC: As noted above, AmaWaterways worked very closely with Michael and I so that this would be a great experience for the entire group. We requested some specific foods that appeal to teens, had a DJ one evening, we had the nautical schedule amended so that more time was spent in Cologne and omitted the city of Koblenz to do so. Arrangements were made for the adults to experience local beer tasting one evening. The cruise line worked with the operators of the gondola in one of the ports so that it would remain open later in the evening so the students could ride it after one of their late mid-afternoon performances. We also worked with AmaWaterways to have one of their cruise directors who works extensively with their Adventures by Disney cruises to work this cruise. Both he and the hotel manager were top-notch! Certainly, all AmaWaterways cruises offer top-notch staff and crew, these two were handpicked and they were great.

PVR: As a follow up to the previous question, because I imagine there were quite a few specific inclusions that speak to this group, were those something they suggested, you suggested or did the team from AMA suggest them?

MC: It was truly a team effort. Michael had many ideas about what he wanted to have included and AmaWaterways made just about every single one of them happen. Also because of their vast experience with groups and charters, AmaWaterways was very helpful in making recommendations that neither Michael nor I had thought about. They worked extensively with their Europe OPS department and their Calabasas office to research the “wants” and worked with local vendors to make them happen.

PVR: Were the kids always within the group? Or were they able to wander off on their own when at port in the various destinations (obviously, chaperoned by their parents)?

MC: The kids were given time to wander but remained in groups of four and this was strictly enforced. They knew when they had to return to a certain location for their ride back to the ship. Some chose to go with family members, but for the most part they explored on their own.They also had structured excursions and generally at the end of the excursion there was free time to shop, etc. and this is when they did some exploring. We didn’t lose anyone

PVR: What were some of the logistics you had to contend with that perhaps were surprising because of the number of teenagers included?

MC: The airports are always very stressful for any group but especially with teens. However, I can tell you that Mira Costa has this figured out after years of traveling with students. Early breakfasts may have been difficult for some of the teens after very late evenings but nobody starved! Several of the performance venues were within walking distance of the ship and making sure that the teens were in performance dress and ready to disembark the ship at a predetermined time went very smoothly. In one situation, the students and chaperones went on a long bike ride while the rest of us stayed on the ship. We literally had to make a technica lstop for them to get off the ship and then we were off to sail to the next port. This was timed based on how long the ship could stay in this port. The kids did a great job and everyone got off in time and enjoyed their bike ride. One of the things you are always concerned about when you travel with students is their behavior and you always hope they will not get in trouble or break any of the rules that they have agreed to follow before the trip. Obviously, river cruising involves complimentary beer and wine for adults at lunch and dinner. We made arrangements for the students to have unlimited soda and water and this was never an issue.

PVR: Did you receive any surprise calls while they were on the cruise?

MC: Just from my husband asking me how long to cook rice! No surprise calls! However, the staff at the AmaWaterways  office in Calabasas kept close contact with Michael and I via text and email the entire time to make sure all was running smoothly!