Adventures by Disney (ABD) charters AmaViola, part of the AmaWaterways' European river fleet, for a series of sailings (seven in 2016, including two Christmas Markets cruises) along the Danube River.
AmaViola offers one-week sailings from Vilshofen in southern Germany via Passau, Linz (for Salzburg), Melk, Vienna, Bratislava (Slovakia) and ending up in Budapest overnight, before making the return journey.
The 158-passenger ship has been specifically designed for the growing family river market, as it has a number of connecting cabins as well as cabins that can accommodate three passengers.
ABD does not overbrand the ship; for all intents and purposes, you are on an AmaWaterways ship with an Ama crew. So, don't expect Disney decor, merchandise or characters wandering around; only select branding, including a welcome mat, a welcome sign, a lanyard and daily pins, as well as the ever-present Adventure Guides give an indication this is a Disney sailing. And the presence of kids, of course.
The boat is elegant, with clean lines and unfussy decor. In keeping with modern river ships, it's just big enough to fit through the smallest lock along the Danube. It's four decks and has space for 158 passengers (though on ABD sailings you'll find passenger numbers deliberately hover around the 140 mark as the other cabins are taken up by the Disney team).
AmaViola has a small swimming pool (more of a spa pool), which has a few powerful below-water jets (good for massage), and a swim-up bar. Except during excursions, it's pretty full of kids all day until around 10 p.m.
There is no dedicated kids' area, but all Junior Adventurers enjoy separate dining every evening at the same time as their parents head to the Dining Room (usually 7:30 p.m.), followed by organized activities. Teens also get their own evening dining space, in the wine rooms adjacent to the Dining Room.
Note there is no self-service launderette, which is also a challenge when traveling with kids, and you'll likely have to put your clothes in for a service wash once or twice per sailing, but the good news is it's very reasonably priced.
Adventures by Disney charters AmaViola and sells the cruises exclusively to the North American market so your fellow passengers will be Americans and Canadians. The passenger mix is almost exclusively families, including multigenerational, although there are some couples on every sailing.
The minimum age is 6 years old (though 8 is recommended), and you're likely to find more teens and tweens onboard than young kids.
Cruise fares on AmaViola include all shore excursions; beer, wine and soft drinks at lunch and dinner, as well as bottled water, coffee and tea all day; all meals, including one at The Chef's Table specialty restaurant; Wi-Fi; and bicycles for exploring in port. On Adventures by Disney sailings, all tips, including those for Adventure Guides, are included.
Kids, or Junior Adventurers as they are called, enjoy separate dining every night in the bar where they enjoy a supervised dinner with a menu that might include hotdogs, mashed potatoes, spaghetti, grilled chicken and burgers, while adults eat in the main dining room below, or at The Chef's Table at the rear of the ship. Teens get to eat in the swanky wine rooms, two areas separate from the dining room.
Kids' dinners are supervised by the Adventure Guides and will include a dress-up evening -- think pirate party. Kids are kept occupied long after they have finished eating, and you're likely to be undisturbed (except for the sound of feet above), during your meal.
The other meals are eaten together, and both are buffet-style and informal, which suits younger diners. There is also a kids' menu at lunch.
A vast number of shore excursions are offered -- often two or three per day, plus one or two in the evening -- and every one is included in your cruise fare. Most of the day excursions are geared toward kids, with one or two exceptions; the evening options are more for adults and teens.
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.
ABD also ensures that if a family is on an excursion that is adult-oriented -- walking around a palace for example -- the Adventure Guides will be sure to find an alternative activity for the younger kids.
Note, though, that unlike on many cruise ships, you can't leave your child onboard alone while you go off on an excursion: They have to be under the care of an adult (not an Adventure Guide).
There is no "typical" excursion -- they are many and varied -- but here is a sample, with our recommended minimum age.
Treetop Path Climb (Passau, Germany): This is fantastic for kids and pretty exciting for adults too. It's the longest walkway in Europe, with 41 connected towers through the rooftops of the Kopfing Forest near Passau. There are obstacles and climbing courses, as well as two separate adventure playgrounds for the kids -- not to mention stunning views of the Alps. All ages.
Hallein Salt Mine (Linz, Germany): We're torn on this one because of the excessive transfer time from the boat (at least two and a half hours), but if your child is occupied, then it's definitely worth it. The Hallein Salt Mine made Salzburg very rich and a key trading town along the Danube. ("Salz" means salt in German.) Salt might not be the most exciting mineral in the world, but the mine owners have certainly done a good job of turning it into a tourist attraction. First you take a "train" nearly 2,300 feet into the mine; then you follow your guides through tunnels that contract at an alarming rate, due to the pressure of the mountain above before watching a series of films explaining the mine's history. The highlights are two original wooden slides used by the miners (you'll go down them) and a boat ride across an underground lake. The kids absolutely loved both. You even get a free gift of salt at the end. Best for ages 7 and older.
Schonbrunn Palace (Vienna): The breathtaking size and beauty of the Hapsburg's palace in Vienna includes a number of smaller excursions in one. Younger kids are taken off by the Adventure Guides and get to run around a maze and visit the Children's Museum, while adults visit the palace. Families are reunited at a strudel-making session and get to watch an enchanting marionette show. All ages.
Classical Music Concert (Vienna): This takes place in the evening, in the Orangery in the grounds of the palace and is a truly wonderful experience. It's a real treat for adults, but it's not ideal for kids. The concert is split in two 45-minute sections with a 15-minute intermission, and it's perfectly feasible to attend the first half, then head off in the intermission via cab or metro. Best for ages 12 and older.
Devin Castle (Slovakia): A real highlight for kids (and adults), with a chance to shoot a bow and arrow, watch a cannon being fired, participate in a Medieval battle, learn calligraphy, make your own candle and mint a coin. This two-hour excursion is just a 20-minute transfer. All ages.
Lazar Equestrian Park (Hungary): This four-hour excursion to the rolling Lazar family estate a short ride out of Budapest combines a fabulous cowboy show, horse-drawn carriages, goulash-making, a petting zoo and a huge lunch. All ages.
The only criticisms that could be leveled at ABD is over-programming and a few long transfers. Our advice: Don't try to do it all. If the ship is docked in the city (Bratislava and Budapest, for example), go out on your own instead of an organized city tour (there are maps at the front desk). It's also OK to sometimes opt out completely and spend time on the ship. Your over-tired child might appreciate the downtime.
ABD is all about family, and this informs almost everything onboard. Although there are no structural changes to AmaViola (it was built with interconnecting cabins and cabins for three people), all the programming is geared toward families.
Note there is no dedicated kids' club, but during the summer sailings children tend to spend most of their free time on the Sun Deck playing giant chess or splashing in the pool. During the winter sailings, ABD might have to reconsider whether they take over The Chef's Table, for example, as a kids' room during the day.
There's nothing in the way of daytime programing for children (or adults) as everyone is off the ship for shore excursions, but come evening there are a wealth of fun-filled activities. These might include a welcome Oktoberfest-style party (soft drinks for kids); traditional folk dancing with a local band; karaoke night; pretzel-making and a breathtaking Illuminations Cruise along the Budapest section of the Danube.
A standout piece of onboard entertainment is Rubik's Cube Magic Show night when the ship is in Budapest. The '80s phenomenon was invented by Hungarian Erno Rubik originally as a teaching tool and has since gone on to become the biggest selling puzzle of all time, shifting 350 million units to date. When the ship is in Budapest, ABD organizes a group of Cube experts to come onboard and demonstrate their skills and -- in typically thoughtful ABD fashion -- gives one away to every passenger at the end of the demo.