by Fran Golden
When Disney takes over an AmaWaterways river ship on the Danube, history is served up with a dose of fun and opportunity for family bonding
Cycling along the Danube at Durnstein, Austria - courtesy of AmaWaterways
Eleven-year-old Kate and I were a bit groggy from overseas travel when we arrived on the AmaViola for a river cruise on the Danube. Fortunately, there was a quick cure for jet lag: Dancing with a giant pretzel.
Disney guides encouraged such playfulness, making it clear from the onset of our voyage that we were going to experience a new twist on river cruising. On the coach ride from Munich to the ship we'd even heard cheesy cow jokes (Example: "What do you call a cow that is knighted? Sir Loin.")
Courtesy Fran Golden
A typical river cruise in Europe is an adult-focused vacation, a way to explore "Bucket List" destinations at a leisurely and peaceful pace, with tours included in the cruise fare. Kids are rarely a presence (and in some cases not even welcome). The crowd is often age 65-plus.
Not so on our cruise, organized by Adventures by Disney. Of the 139 guests onboard our AmaWaterways ship, one-third were under the age of 18. The ship rang with the sound of youthful laughter, adding a whole new dimension to the river experience.
"Marco, Polo" was gleefully shouted from the sun deck's small heated pool, which was taken over by the kiddie set. Disney movies and a pirate party were among nighttime activities in the ship's lounge, which morphed from what is typically a social adult drinking venue into a kids' playroom. "No running in the halls," advised the ship's captain (a reminder that he does not have to give when the senior set is onboard).
Sailing through Budapest - courtesy of AmaWaterways
Disney isn't the first line to invite the family crowd to the rivers of Europe – Tauck has a multi-generational program on select sailings called Tauck Bridges and river operator Uniworld also designates some sailings as family friendly. But the Mouse has his own special style.
Our ship was full of fun-loving Disney fans, mostly families but also including some adult couples, many of who had traveled before with Disney's tour company – to such places as Australia, South Africa and South America. The predominately North American crowd paid top dollar for the special handling Disney provided.
While local guides did the heavy lifting in each port, personalized attention came via the company's friendly Adventure Guides, eight on our sailing, hailing from Europe and North America. They brought backgrounds in teaching, corporate training, tourism and other realms, and while upping the fun factor was a focus they also showed expertise in areas such as advising a certain grandmother on how to help an 11-year-old deal with homesickness.
Romania's Bratislava Castle - courtesy of AmaWaterways
Our one-week cruise covered about 450 miles of the Danube from Germany through Austria's extraordinarily scenic Wachau Valley to Slovakia to Hungary. It's a tried-and-true route, but whether in marquee places such as Vienna and Budapest or tiny spots such as Krems, Austria, culture was presented with a kid-friendly twist.
There was opportunity for family bonding as we made apricot marmalade, tried yolk dancing and molded marzipan. At the ruins of a castle outside Bratislava, Slovakia, we played with bows and arrows and watched comical performers dressed as medieval knights as they "beheaded" water bottles with real swords. In Salzburg, Austria, we were encouraged to sing "Do Re Mi" while running through the same park where a scene from "The Sound of Music" was filmed.
In some places there was an opportunity for kids to do one activity, adults another. I have to admit I was proud of Kate when she chose to skip organized games and instead tag along with the grownups as we did a detailed tour of Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. She later used the ship's free Wi-Fi to brag about the experience with her parents.
The tours (included in the cruise fare) were offered mornings and afternoons, at a fast pace – so much so that the Disney team reminded folks it was perfectly okay to stay on the ship and chill.
Perhaps surprisingly, Disney references were few. Familiar music played subtly in the background on the ship and in the coaches and there were logo pins to collect en-route, but there were no pop-up appearances by Mickey and his pals.
Brand new last season, the AmaViola was specifically built with the family crowd in mind. There's a bright and cheery color scheme and some staterooms that interconnect or sleep three. With few public rooms, the ship worked well for the family crowd – you couldn't get lost.
The ship's mostly European crew received some special training from Disney and it showed. They were quick to smile and catered to the kids. Kate was concerned because she has food allergies, but the Croatian maître d' called her "princess" and put her at ease.
Impressive multi-course dinners, accompanied by complimentary regional wines, were the order of the day in the ship's main dining room. If kids didn't want to linger with their parents over, say, salmon served with truffle-mashed potatoes, they had the option of dining in the lounge – on a buffet with such familiar dishes as chicken nuggets and pasta. Teens could opt to dine with their peers. Adults could also indulge in the ship's not to be missed Chef's Table specialty restaurant.
Rubik's Cube experts come onboard during an overnight stop in Budapest - Courtesy Fran Golden
Togetherness reined, and during an overnight in Budapest, everyone bonded over the mysteries of the Hungarian-invented Rubik's Cube, with Disney bringing young local experts on board to teach us strategies for solving the puzzle.
Views from the river were another shared experience. There were vineyards and castles, locks and bridges, impressive to all. As we went under one bridge so low you could almost touch it, one teenager opined, "That's like the best rollercoaster ever."
Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2017 issue.