I’ve made scores of visits to Walt Disney World, am a platinum level guest on Disney Cruise Line (DCL), and have visited Aulani, Disneyland, Disneyland Paris, and Hong Kong Disneyland, but if I had to choose my favorite Disney vacation experiences, I’d choose those related to Adventures by Disney (AbD).
I recently returned from Adventures by Disney’s newest offering, a seven-night trip on the Danube River on the AmaWaterways AmaViola river cruise ship. Last week I discussed the differences between the AbD river cruise and sailing on Disney Cruise Line. I’m now covering the differences and similarities between the Adventures by Disney river cruise product and a traditional AbD vacation. As point of reference, I have previously been on the AbD Costa Rica, Germany, Peru, China, and Wyoming standard trips, as well as the AbD add-ons to DCL cruises in the Mediterranean and Baltic seas, and the Barcelona 3-day pre-cruise escape, making the recent river cruise my 9th AbD vacation.
Do AbD river cruises have the same number of guests as a regular AbD trip?
No. Other AbD trips have their advertised maximum number of guests at 40. In practice, my traditional AbD trips have ranged from 28 to 42 guests. The maximum number of guests on the AbD river cruise is 158, with a likely real load of 130-140, as not every stateroom will be filled to maximum capacity.
So what do they do about guides?
There are two guides on a traditional AbD trip, giving you a guide to guest ratio of about 1 to 20 or better. There are eight guides on the AdB river cruises, giving you the same guide to guest ratio of about 1 to 20 or better.
When there are AbD trips on the Disney Cruise Line ships, the AbD guests are just a small portion of the ship’s guests. How does this work on the river cruise?
The Adventures by Disney DCL add-ons typically happen on the Disney Magic. The 40 or so AbD guests are a tiny portion of the 2,700 Magic passengers. When AbD runs river cruises, they charter the entire ship. All the guests on board will be participating in the AbD program.
So are there a bunch of concurrent small groups, or one big group?
The river cruise is run like one big group. The eight guides rotate among the guests as needed, you won’t be assigned your own pair of guides. You’ll also be touring with different subsets of the guest pool, depending on which excursions you, and they, choose.
So you won’t always have same guides every day?
All eight guides will be on the ship in the morning and the evening, so you’ll see them all then. But you may have a different pair of guides on each of your trip excursions.
For example, you could have guides A and B for a farm visit in the morning, then guides C and D for a museum visit in the afternoon. The next day you could have guides A and E for a wine tasting and guides C and F for a city walk. You might have the same guide leading your excursion many times, and there’s a possibility that there’s a guide or two you might never have as a lead on your excursions.
So how to excursions work?
Excursions, or “port adventures” if you’re thinking in Disney Cruise Line terms, work differently on the river cruise than on a traditional AbD trip. On a regular AbD trip, with the exception of brief periods of free time, all 40-ish guests and two guides do everything together. There is one plan for the day. If the group is visiting a museum, everyone goes to the museum. If the group tours a farm, everyone goes to the farm, and so on.
There is more flexibility on the river cruise. At several points during the trip, you’ll have options from which to choose. For example, on Day 3 in the itinerary photo above, guests have a choice in Salzburg of a tour featuring the Basilica of Mondsee (site of the wedding in “The Sound of Music”) or a tour featuring the Hallein Salt Mine. Guests were allowed to choose whichever version of the tour appealed more to them. As it turned out on my river cruise, about 1/4 of the guests chose the Basilica and 3/4 chose the Salt Mine. So two guides went with one set of guests (on one bus) to the Basilica, and six guides went with the other set of guests (on three buses) to the Mine.
The guests at the Mine were divided into three groups with two guides each. We all did the same activities, but to facilitate traffic flow, the activities were done in a different order for each group. The subgroups were assigned randomly, but you could always be with your family.
For many guests, adding a the ability to choose an excursion (even from a small selection), will make the river cruise more appealing than the set itinerary of the standard AbD trips.
How was the quality of the excursions compared to standard AbD trips?
I found the excursions to be of generally good quality. There were a few instances with hiccups. For example, at a marzipan crafting class, there were not enough chairs available for our group and the instructor’s audio equipment malfunctioned. However, I’d say this was more a factor of the river cruise being brand new rather than an indication of anything more dire. I’m sure the minor glitches I encountered (and they really were minor), will easily be resolved as they find their footing. The river excursions showed the usual balance of active/calm days, cultural/outdoor days, and so on.
I felt as cared for and safe on the AbD river excursions as I felt on my other AbD excursions. The guides are constantly offering snacks and hand sanitizer. They ALWAYS counted the number of guests in their group to make sure everyone was where they were supposed to be.
Another difference between the river AbD excursions and the standard AbD excursions is that it’s relatively more easy to skip them entirely if you’re in the mood to just relax. On a standard AbD trip, the excursion may be a waypoint during lengthy travel from one part of a country to another. Or in a small standard AbD group, the absence of just one or two people will be conspicuous. Neither of these things are concerns with the river cruise.
How was the quality of the excursions compared to general, non-AbD, Disney Cruise Line excursions?
In this regard, the river cruise is superior in almost every way. Left to my own devices, I’ve selected some truly subpar DCL excursions: overpriced, poorly supervised, or just plain boring. On one DCL excursion in Iceland last year, our guide neglected to count the number of guests on our bus and ended up leaving a family with two small children at a site more than an hour away from the ship. I cannot even conceive of this happening with an AbD excursion of any sort.
The AbD river excursions were uniformly entertaining, engaging, and well constructed. I have not always found this to be the case on regular DCL excursions. (Thus the reason why we’ve twice added the AbD supplement to our DCL cruises.)
If you always select the same excursions as another guest, does that mean you’ll always be touring with them?
Not necessarily. On a traditional Adventures by Disney trip, you’re with the same group of 40 guests for everything. On the river cruise, the groups are fluid. You and the Smith family might both go to the Salt Mine on Day 3 and to an Apricot Farm on Day 4. But if on Day 3 you’re randomly assigned to the Blue Group and the Smiths are assigned to the Pink Group and on Day 4 you’re in the Orange Group and the Smiths are in the Purple Group, you might have minimal contact with them. However, if you’ve made a fast bond with the Smith family, you can certainly request to be in the same group with them.
How does the shifting of excursion groups impact your ability to bond with other guests?
There are pros and cons.
Before I went on my first Adventures by Disney trip, my greatest fear was the group aspect of travel. I was afraid that I wouldn’t get along with members of the group, our interactions would feel forced, or it would just plain be weird hanging out so much with strangers. Those fears have not borne out. The intense, focused, time and shared experience served to break down barriers and facilitate relationship building. In a strange way it feels like becoming fast friends with the people you meet at summer camp or in your freshman college dorm. While I can’t say I became besties with everyone on all my trips, most of the other guests I’ve encountered have been lovely, or at least interesting, and some have become friends that I’ve kept in contact with long after our travels.
Honestly, it was much more difficult to create real bonds with other guests on the river cruise. The shifting groups meant that you’d start to get to know someone, and then you might never spend real time with them again. I feel like I only really started creating and discovering substantial commonalities with other guests on days 5 and 6 of our 7-day cruise.
My observation was that the families with younger kids had an easier time bonding than did some of the other guests. The kids served as a good bridge for conversation and reinforced relationships.
On the other hand, with the smaller group on a traditional AbD trip, there’s always the possibility that you’ll have few areas of overlap with your fellow travelers. Having a larger group means that it’s more likely you’ll find other guests similar to yourself, and that you’ll be better able to hide if there’s a guest with whom you have real antipathy. If you are traveling with children, having a large guest pool means it’s much more likely that they’ll have fellow guests of similar age.
Is there anything else different about the relationship-building aspect of the trip?
All of my past Adventures by Disney experiences began with a group introductory meeting, about an hour long. During the meeting, the guides would introduce themselves, giving lots of fun, personal details. They then would give an in-depth overview of the trip. Similarly, each guest family would introduce themselves, saying where they were from, how old any kids were, and what they were looking forward to on the trip. I had previously thought this was a bit hokey and superfluous, but now see that it serves an important role in facilitating small talk. When you know that the Jones family is from Boston and their kids are 9 and 11, you have easy ways to start a conversation.
There is only the briefest of “getting to know you” meeting on the river cruise. Our guides introduced themselves in quickie two-sentence fashion. And the guests were identified only with a show of hands, “Who’s from the east coast?” “Who’s from the MidWest?” which went too fast to really process. Similarly, the river cruise had no end-of-trip recap meeting or slideshow that is typical of standard AbD trips.
How does the large group situation change your relationship with the guides?
I am in absolute awe of AbD guides. They are uniformly the best representations of Disney that I have ever seen. Their work ethic, friendliness, professionalism, and attention to guest needs are stellar, bar none. I love getting to know the guides and learning their stories.
But as with the other guests, bonding with the guides was more challenging on the river cruise than on a traditional AbD trip. You might not have the same guide pair twice, making it hard to create a more than superficial relationship. I know there were a few of the eight guides that never learned my name, something that would inconceivable on a standard AdD vacation.
However, I am cognizant that my previous AbD travel has made me biased. If I had only been on Disney Cruise Line cruises, I would have been thought that the river cruise guide experience was deep and personal, it only felt somewhat lacking in comparison to the intense gelling of a regular AbD group.
Do you have to do every excursion with the other members of your own family?
Nope. If your family members have different interests, or if you need some sanity-saving separation, you’re welcome to split up for any or all excursions.
Are there still local guides working with the AbD team?
Yes. Whenever appropriate, Disney hires local guides to assist the AbD guides with details about local culture. For example, at most museums, you’ll have your two AbD guides, plus at least one local guide who’s an expert on the specific site you’re visiting.
Are the AbD “special touches” the same on the river cruise as on a regular AbD trip?
Sort of. There is still a welcome gift at the beginning of the trip (it’s been a zippered tote bag for ages). There are special pins commemorating each day of the trip. However, there are were no-mid trip photo gifts or other unexpected surprises.
I found the photography situation to be quite different on the river cruise from a regular AbD trip. On standard trips, the guides function as personal PhotoPass photographers. They make a real effort to photograph every family at each significant landmark and at candid moments. As my family’s de facto photographer, I truly appreciate the guides’ photography contribution to my AdD vacations; it means that I get to actually be in pictures with my family rather than always lurking behind the lens. Guides are still taking photos on the river cruise, but the shifting excursion groups means that it’s nearly impossible for the guides to make sure that each guest is evenly represented in the photo pool. They’ll happily take your picture, but you have to take more responsibility to ask at each tour highlight area.
By way of comparison, I was on the AbD supplement to the DCL Baltic cruise just one week before my AbD river cruise. On the Baltic cruise, our guides took approximately 1,100 photos of the 40 guests. On the Danube river cruise, our guides took approximately 1,600 photos of 140 guests. In addition to the reduced number of pictures of each family, I found the overall quality of the photos to be poorer on the river cruise.
Adventures by Disney runs several regular trips in Central Europe. Would you recommend starting with those or with the River Cruise?
It’s really a matter of preference. I will say that a major advantage of the river cruise over a traditional AbD trip is that you’re only unpacking once; your hotel goes with you. On a standard AbD trip, you often have several hotel moves and associated luggage work related to each of them. It’s much easier to feel physically settled on the river cruise. It’s also nice to have a choice of activities as with the river cruise. There have been a few excursions on the standard AbD trips that I would have switched out if I could.
If you have “Junior Adventurers” ages 6-12, they will likely be quite happy on the river cruise. There are dedicated Junior Adventurer activities almost every day on the river cruise, while this typically happens just once on a traditional AbD trip. The larger number of guides allows them to set aside a team to meet kid needs in the evening or at an excursion site while others guides serve the adult population.
Again, if you haven’t had any group travel before, or if you’ve only cruised on a large ocean ship, you’ll likely be wowed from the start on the AbD river cruise. If you’re a veteran of traditional AbD trips, you’ll likely need a day or two to process the different procedures and the somewhat less intense relationships with your guides and fellow guests.
Given that both types of experiences are good, choosing a trip based on factors like itinerary and price makes the most sense.