Adventures by Disney on AmaViola

(2 p.m. EDT) -- Wait -- Disney's doing what? Taking over a river cruise ship? And filling it full of kids? Huh? River cruising + kids = how's that going to work?

These were my thoughts when I first heard that Adventures by Disney (ABD) -- an offshoot brand of the Disney empire set up in 2005 to provide high-end tours to off the beaten track destinations -- was pairing up with AmaWaterways to offer family river cruises this year.

I'm currently on the fourth-ever ABD river cruise, onboard AmaWaterways newest ship AmaViola, traveling the Danube from Vilshofen in Germany to Budapest. The cruise then goes back the other way with another bunch of Adventurers onboard. ABD has chartered the ship, which has family cabins, for seven Danube sailings this year (including two Christmas Markets ones in December); and 14 next year, including itineraries on the Rhine.

Disney is well-established in the ocean cruise sector, with four ships, so I was intrigued to see how the Disney branding and atmosphere would translate to river cruising, which has traditionally been a mostly adult enterprise. Would there be character breakfasts? Would the team be dressing up as Mickey and appearing unexpectedly on a shore excursion or as part of a tiny parade on the sundeck in the evening? Would "It's a Small World" be piped incessantly through the onboard PA system?

Joking aside, I did expect to see an over-branded ship, with the Disney name, merchandise and music seen repeatedly throughout this week-long cruise. I was wrong. What branding there is can be counted on one hand -- a welcome mat, a welcome sign, your personal lanyard (and pins) and of course the Adventure Guides. You can't even buy Disney merchandise onboard, due to various tax reasons.

But that's it. The rest is -- for all intents and purposes, an Ama ship -- and this is deliberate: "The only characters we're going to bring onboard are local characters," said Terry Brinkoetter, ABD's PR Director. 

The big difference is the clientele. ABD charters these ships and sells the cruises, so everyone onboard has signed up through Disney; most of the people onboard are part of a family group. They also, according to Terry, have all had a Disney experience pre-trip -- i.e. they have been to the parks or on an ocean cruise or are a member of Disney Vacation Club.

It's also worth noting that the ship, which carries 170 passengers, only takes 140 on an ABD trip. The remaining rooms are given over to the ABD team, which is larger than on a comparable AmaWaterways trip.

Our sailing counts 20 under-11s (including my son, Findlay, aged 9); and 26 teens/tweens. There are also a number of grandparents onboard and multi-generational groups.

Here are my first impressions of an Adventures by Disney cruise.

Shore excursion with Adventures by Disney on AmaViola

Shore Excursions.

On an Adventures by Disney river cruises, all excursions are especially designed for families. So beer tasting at a brewery will include a soft drink tasting for the kids and commentaries will be centered around stories rather than lots of facts and figures. At some locales, kids will have their own activities, separate from the adults; at Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, for example, children headed to the maze while parents took the tour.

Another thoughtful piece of programming is that family excursions are usually in the morning, while the exclusively adult ones -- a long bike ride or hike -- will be in the afternoons. This is ideal, as it allows a free afternoon of splashing in the pool for the kids while mom or dad (or both if grandparents are onboard) relax or go on the bike ride/hike.

The only criticism I'd make is that ABD could be accused of over-programming. There are an awful lot of excursions, with most requiring long transfers. The trip to the Salt Mines, for example, took 2.5 hours, and that's tiring for kids.

Cookies from the buffet

Dining.

Every night at 7:30 p.m., kids  -- aka Junior Adventurers -- head to the bar area on the upper deck where they get their own supervised dinner with a special menu of hot dogs, mashed potato, spaghetti and plain grilled chicken while the adults dine either in the restaurant or the Chef's Table at the back. Meanwhile, teens eat in the wine rooms, separated from the main dining room. On a regular cruise, this swanky area is where a large group would choose to sit, or perhaps a couple wanting an intimate dinner a deux. Instead, it's given over for teens as their own private sanctuary.

Another thoughtful touch is the kids dinner is followed by movie night, timed to end at the same point as the adult dinner (it's a particularly good set-up if the adults are eating at the Chef's Table which takes about three hours). Breakfast and lunch are eaten together, but both are buffet-style and informal, which suits younger diners. There is also a kids' menu on offer every lunchtime. And when you're on an all-day trip, you can pre-order a kid's meal.

Adventures by Disney Guides.

Anyone who has ever been to a Disney park will know exactly the type of person the company hires: upbeat, positive, kind and encouraging -- and awesome with the kids. The guides tailor their commentaries for the children, they are full of interesting stories aimed at kids and they are adept at making even the grumpiest child smile. At meal times and periods when the kids congregate, the guides help keep an eye on the smaller cruisers, serving them food, helping them reach for the higher-placed board games and locating their mommy and daddy if they are feeling a bit lost (which may have happened to my child on one occasion. Oops.)

Giant chess on AmaViloa

Atmosphere Onboard.

As I sat in the onboard pool, watching about 10 kids leaping in and screaming "fish outta water!" as they played a game of Marco Polo, I glanced over at the empty pool on the other Ama ship moored to us. That's when I realized how different this sailing is. While kids are not running wild - in fact, the young passengers on this sailing are remarkably well behaved and polite -- they are being allowed to have fun without any adults admonishing them. That extends to dinner time, when there's light-touch supervision during the meal and afterwards, when children play board games, giant chess or chase Pokemon. Kids are rarely left unattended, as an Adventure Guide is never far away,  but there is a nice balance struck onboard between giving them independence and over-organizing them. And the children have really embraced that, on this sailing at least.

Adult vs. child time.

There's a nice balance struck here too, with ABD doing a great job of ensuring that adults and kids get their own time and space, together and apart. Daytime is geared toward family excursions, and in the evening, everyone gets a break from each other -- and is all the better for it. Minimum sail age for an Adventures by Disney cruise is four years old (this is being upped to six next year), though eight and above is recommended. I think that's wise: the slightly older kids are getting a lot more out of the experience, hanging out, making memories and getting a taste of independence -- which is both good for the kids and great for the parents.

The company still has a few things to work out such as the length of  shore excursions; personally I'd like to see a dedicated kids room. Overall, ABD's maiden efforts are a well thought out venture that is rewarding for both kids and adults alike, and marks a step forward for family river cruising.

-- By Adam Coulter, U.K. Editor