Disney river cruise starts with a party in a beer tent

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Disney Adventure Guides were resplendent in traditional German outfits and happily got many of the kids up and moving. Photo Credit: Paul Heney
 

This summer, Adventures by Disney is offering river cruises for the first time. Paul Heney and his son are on the AmaViola, experiencing the new product. 

VILSHOFEN, GERMANY — Adventures by Disney’s inaugural season of European river cruising is proceeding with the start of the company’s fourth river cruise today aboard the AmaViola.

The company, in partnership with AmaWaterways, is offering five cruises on the Danube between Vilshofen and Budapest, Hungary, this summer, plus a sixth holiday-themed cruise in December.

My son, Matthew, 9 and I spent a day in Prague on our own, adjusting to the time zone, before taking a luxury coach to this tiny southwestern German town this morning, along with 34 other adventurers. Most of the 140 passengers aboard the ship are from the U.S., with just a handful of Canadian guests and a couple from the U.K.

The cruise started off interestingly, with everyone getting OFF of the ship (after the mandatory safety drill) and enjoying what Disney called “Vilshofenfest,” an Oktoberfest-type celebration held in a small dockside tent.

The writer's son wearing a lederhosen apron. Photo Credit: Paul Heney
The writer’s son wearing a lederhosen apron.Photo Credit: Paul Heney

While a five-piece German band played, we snacked on beer, sodas and German pretzels. Four male dancers treated us to traditional dances, as well as a fascinating synchronized performance with whips. A young woman who was introduced as the local “beer queen” explained the cultural aspects of the evening.

Disney Adventure Guides were resplendent in traditional German outfits and happily got many of the kids up and moving. Children were given aprons to wear that made them appear to be dressed in similar German outfits — my son needed some convincing to keep his on!

Afterward, the Adventure Guides encouraged the children — there are roughly a couple dozen on board — to eat a more casual kids-only dinner upstairs in the lounge area, leaving us adults time to chat about destinations, politics, and other less-interesting-than-Pokemon topics. My son gladly complied, as did most of the kids I noticed.

While the ship, which I found bright and cheery, does not have “Disney” plastered on it literally or figuratively, there were touches to be found. Our welcome snacks included sandwiches in the familiar shape of Mickey Mouse’s head. I noticed “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” from the Lion King playing in the hallway. One young traveler who ventured to the adults’ dinner was referred to as “princess.”

Tomorrow, the ship docks in picturesque Passau, Germany, and excursions include a walking tour, a tree top adventure and a hike to a castle overlooking the city.

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The Danube, in style

The Avalon Expression on the Danube in Austria’s Wachau, a valley that boasts sights such as Schloss Schonbuhel castle.
When Avalon Waterways asked me in 2013 to be the godmother of its then-new Expression Suite Ship, I was both honored and perplexed.

I had been following the burgeoning popularity of river cruising in Europe but considered myself neither authority nor godmother material. Avalon Managing Director Patrick Clark explained the company’s reasoning, pointing out my love for the sites that line Europe’s great rivers and featured in my book “1,000 Places to See Before You Die.”

“Avalon’s mission is to connect those dots and bring our guests there with the utmost in comfort,” Clark said. “We’re a good match.”

He was right, of course, and I jumped onboard — and that festive May ceremony in the Rhine town of Koblenz will forever remain a special moment for me.

My first real immersion in the comfort and enveloping charms of the Expression, however, didn’t happen until last month, when I hosted a one-week cruise on the legendary Danube, Europe’s longest river; we would visit four of the 10 countries through which its not-so-blue waters flow. (No other river passes through so many countries.)

Traveling east to west, we began in Budapest and were scheduled to disembark in Nuremberg, Germany, but not before having explored stops in Austria and with a sail-by visit of Bratislava in Slovakia. A rich itinerary like this deserves to close on a high note, and it did, with a post-cruise transfer to Prague, Czech Republic.

Avalon taps the destination knowledge and logistical backup of its Globus Family of Brands sister companies to create an impressive roster of included land programs to cities large (Vienna; Regensburg, Germany) and small (Durnstein and Melk, Austria). Extra-cost options, ranging from Strauss concerts and horse shows to wine tastings, fleshed out each day’s possibilities.

Budapest is one of four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube.
Budapest is one of four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube.

We arrived in Budapest even before Avalon’s predeparture package began, wanting extra time to explore one of the four capital cities sitting directly on the banks of the Danube. Budapest is a magnificent city; with eight illuminated bridges and outdoor restaurants with strolling violinists, it exudes a festive air. Walkways line the banks of the Danube, popular with locals and tourists out for nocturnal strolls.

Avalon’s base at the waterfront InterContinental Budapest was peerless for its location, steps from the famous 19th century Chain Bridge (the first to connect Buda and Pest). It is within sight of the city’s (and country’s) finest hotel, the exquisitely restored Four Seasons Gresham Palace. We lingered there over a palinka (fruit brandy) in the hotel’s theatrical bar-lounge, imagining life in the Belle Epoque.

We had just returned from an excellent Context Walking Tour, an insightful three-hour stroll through the city’s golden age, the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries when the Hungarian capital flourished as a center of art and learning, and intellectuals throughout Europe gravitated here; that tour was not part of Avalon’s precruise package. Keeping the historical theme alive, we dressed up for a quintessentially Hungarian evening at the Gundel restaurant, in business since the late 1800s. A four-piece gypsy orchestra and a rich menu of classic Hungarian specialties sealed the deal with our new love affair with the city.

Avalon’s coach tour the next day covered the capital city’s many highlights and filled in the holes with a crash course on the country’s rich and complex history.

But the Expression called, and soon we were boarding the 166-passenger vessel, one of Avalon’s 10 Suite Ships. (Its Europe fleet currently numbers 15, with two 36-guest All-Suite Ships sailing Asia’s Irrawaddy and Mekong debuting this year.)

The beauty of river cruising is that you only unpack once, so it might as well be in one of Avalon’s spacious 200-square-foot accommodations. They are 30% larger than the industry standard on Europe’s waterways and make up 80% of the rooms. (The balance are marginally smaller at 172 square feet, while just two 300-square-foot Royal Suites await a lucky few.) The unquestionable standout feature goes to the “floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall panoramic windows that open 7 feet wide to create an open-air balcony,” Clark said. Add to that Comfort Collection beds that are positioned to face the windows — not a wall — to watch European vignettes of steep, terraced vineyards and hilltop castles drift by.

The ship’s layout was explained to us the first evening by our personable cruise director, Nancy Paredes. River vessels, she said, are limited by the size of the river locks through which they will travel, so adding a conventional balcony would compromise room space. Hence that remarkable wall of windows. “Comfort,” Clark reminded me, “is king.”

The mix of excited passengers was predominantly from the U.S., with a good number from Canada and a handful from New Zealand, Australia and the U.K. By the end of the cruise, if we didn’t know each other by name, we certainly recognized everyone.

The casually elegant dining room was a fun spot to sit with fellow guests, sharing culinary experiences that ranged from very good to excellent and were often influenced by our host country and the local markets’ (and vineyards’) offerings.

With the record-breaking numbers of river ships that are exiting the boatyards every year, it still seemed like there was plenty of Danube to go around for all of us. Some days we saw more vessels docked at the ports along the way than we did sailing the river itself. It often felt like we had the Danube to ourselves.

Scenic creates new itineraries for 2016

Scenic is introducing several new river cruise itineraries for 2016, including a new route on the Danube, a longer combined France cruise and an extended 21-day Christmas Markets cruise bookended by Paris and Prague. 

Starting next year, Scenic will begin sailing an 8-day Iconic Danube river cruise from Passau, Germany to Budapest, Hungary, which will begin with a pre-cruise stay in Munich. The cruise will go from Passau to the Austrian cities of Salzburg and Vienna and will finish in Budapest. 

The 21-day Christmas Markets cruise will begin with three nights in Paris at the Marriott Opera Ambassador, and will include guided excursions of the Louvre and Eiffel Tower. Other highlights include the German cities of Wurzburg, Freudenberg and Nuremberg, as well as Vienna. The itinerary concludes with three nights at the Prague Marriott hotel.

Additionally, Scenic has combined its Gems of the Seine and Breathtaking Bordeaux cruises to create a 21-day itinerary that combines Paris and the Seine with France’s Bordeaux region. 

With the launch of two new vessels this year, the 169-passenger Scenic Opal and Scenic Jasper, Scenic’s European fleet consists of 12 vessels.