Could a river cruise be the perfect grandma-and-granddaughter bonding trip? Fran Golden had her doubts – but all it took was a little Disney magic…
As I stepped out of the glass shower and grabbed a towel, there was a shout through the bathroom door from my roommate: “I have friends over!”
An annoying moment? Not really, because I was travelling with my 11-year-old granddaughter Kate. Never mind that I had to discreetly manoeuvre around our visitors (aged nine and seven) to retrieve my underwear and clothes. My granddaughter was smiling.
The above scenario is not something you’d find on a typical European river cruise. Usually these cater for a senior clientele who enjoy their sightseeing at a leisurely, even sedate pace. But we were cruising the Danube with Adventures by Disney – and there were youngsters everywhere you looked.
Of the 139 passengers aboard new ship AmaViola, most were American Disney loyalists and at least a third were under 18. While there were a few adult couples, most had brought the kids – and there was one family of 14 from Kansas.
I couldn’t have been happier. Travelling with a child can be tricky, especially when you’re not the parent (Grannie isn’t so comfortable barking orders when the need arises). On top of that, I fretted that I might be dragging Kate on a boring, adult-oriented experience. But with a cruise that puts children front and centre of every agenda, all those worries just melt away.
Escorting us on our 420-mile, tried-and-trusted route from Germany to Budapest, via Austria’s lovely Wachau Valley, were eight Disney “adventure guides”. Some American and some from Europe, their job was to make the Danube accessible to children, and they could hardly have done a better job. Upbeat and encouraging, they were willing to lend a sympathetic ear to adults and kids alike, making this a truly multigenerational experience.
Specially built for the partnership between AmaWaterways and Disney, our ship featured bright and cheery decor, and extra family accommodation including six sets of connecting cabins and a number with three beds – both rarities on Europe’s rivers.
The ship rang with the sound of youthful laughter, adding a whole new dimension to the river cruise experience. When one day the ship glided under a bridge so low that those on deck had to duck, a teenage boy declared: “That’s like the best rollercoaster ever.”
The Disney guides hosted younger kids in the lounge for a nightly buffet featuring those reliable favourites pasta and chicken nuggets (with the option of more exotic ﬂavours such as chicken satay). There were games and other activities to follow, while teens got their own private dining area.
Their offspring thus occupied, adults were free to relax in the main dining room, with a reassuringly adult four-course menu featuring such delights as salmon with trufﬂe-mashed potatoes, served with complimentary regional wine. At the Chef’s Table speciality restaurant there was even a multi-course tasting menu – nothing Mickey Mouse about that!
The ship’s crew were brilliant with children too. They had been trained by Disney to smile but to most it came naturally. Kate has a food allergy but the Croatian maître d’ made her feel special, calling her “princess” as he presented dishes prepared just for her.
Everywhere we stopped, Disney’s family-friendly approach came into play. Local guides, some costumed, had been advised to lighten up their commentary for the occasion, while hands-on activities added lots of fun.
At the ruins of the 13th century Devin Castle outside Bratislava, history came to life with the opportunity to use a bow and arrow and hold a real sword, while comical performers dressed as medieval knights demonstrated their own skills by “beheading” bottles of water.
From Linz, Austria, passengers had the option of visiting a salt mine and zipping down a mineshaft or (our choice) heading to Salzburg to sing “Do Re Mi” in the park where that scene in The Sound of Music was filmed. In Passau, Germany, we learned how to mould marzipan. In Melk, Austria, we practised traditional dance steps.
In some locations, adults could go one way and kids another. In Vienna, Kate scoffed at joining children’s activities such as playing dress-up, choosing instead to tag along with the adults as we toured the Schönbrunn Palace. She later emailed her parents to say that she’d like this to be her new abode (the ship’s complimentary wi-fi proved useful in combating the inevitable pangs of homesickness).
Despite a full schedule of morning and afternoon tours, and some full-day outings, the Disney guides always reminded us that nothing was obligatory, that it was OK to take time and chill.
I learned that my granddaughter sometimes needs 10 hours of sleep so we ended up skipping some early morning tours to sleep in (no hardship for either of us). Kate likewise learned that her grandmother is not infallible. After over-sleeping one day we set out to catch up with the group and promptly got lost, while on another day we borrowed bikes from the ship and pedalled into a thunderstorm – both experiences giving us plenty to laugh about afterwards. And we loved the time we spent together collecting souvenirs for those back home – our suitcases filling up with apricot jam, toys for Kate’s sisters and other trinkets.
During an overnight in Budapest, Disney showed off its creative approach to culture when young local experts in the Hungarian-invented Rubik’s Cube came on board after dinner and entertained the whole ship with their problem-solving prowess. Kate was enthralled by learning tricks to solve the puzzle, and everyone got their own cube to bring home.Perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip was the lack of in-your-face Disney-ness. Familiar music played subtly in the background on the ship and in the
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the trip was the lack of in-your-face Disney-ness. Familiar music played subtly in the background on the ship and in the buses, so that occasionally you might find yourself humming along, and there were logo pins to collect en-route, but there were no pop-up appearances by Mickey and his pals.
And that’s just as well. With so many wonderful things to see and do, and all the children so happily occupied, they’d have had no one to play with.
WHAT KATE DID NEXT…
“I WAS SO HAPPY [writes 11-year-old Kate] when my grandmother asked me if I would join her on a river cruise from Germany to Hungary. I used to live in Germany when I was a very little girl but we left when I was five years old so I wondered whether the sights would bring back some memories.
When we got there I was tired from the flight but I was so excited to explore everything!
One of the first things I noticed was that the Germans wore more colourful and brighter clothes than we did. In Munich we were met by one of the Adventure Guides, who gave us special Disney lanyards and badges. When we got to the AmaViola, I was so happy and the crew made everything perfect for us – especially the head waiter who helped me with special food orders, which I needed because I have a milk allergy.
The first night included an Oktoberfest where I danced in a giant blow-up pretzel and was even offered a sip of beer! The ship always felt like a happy place and everyone was lovely. The Adventure Guides were quite helpful when I missed home, as this was my first time away from my family.
My favourite parts of the cruise were the excursions. All of them were fun, though there were a lot of them and it was a little overwhelming. Sometimes we took a long bus ride but we often had time to explore by ourselves.
My favorite tour was Mondsee, Austria – a tiny town but amazingly beautiful, and it’s where they filmed the wedding scene in The Sound of Music. I also enjoyed a bike ride in the rain from Krems, Austria, which I did with my grandmother and my new friends. I am glad I made new friends and I will keep in touch with them.
One of the really cool things was watching the ship go into a lock. My friends and I stood on the deck and watched as two other boats joined us, and then the water dropped and we went down.
There were all kinds of different things to do in the evenings – there would be a kids’ dinner in the ship’s lounge and also a dinner in the dining room with the adults. They would do special things for kids like showing the movie Zootopia, and a pirate party complete with balloon swords and eye patches, and some nights there would be a show.
At the farewell dinner we said goodbye and we clapped for the entire crew, including the Adventure Guides. The trip was an experience of a lifetime – seeing fantastic sights, meeting new people and experiencing Disney in a whole new way.”
Adventures by Disney is offering 15 family cruises aboard AmaWaterways ships on the Danube and Rhine (between Amsterdam and Basel) in summer and pre-Christmas 2017. Fares from $4,719 for adults and $4,489 for under-12s (ﬂights not included). See adventuresbydisney.com
Book this holiday through Disney Cruise LIne in the USA – call 001 800 543 0865 or visit Disneycruise.disney.go.com