Disney successfully adds its character to river cruise market

Adventures by Disney’s cruises on the AmaViola sail by Budapest’s Parliament building.

ABOARD THE AMAVIOLA — Adventures by Disney’s first river cruising season is nearly halfway over, and so far, it has proved a successful move into a market generally overlooked by family travelers.

On this seven-day Danube sailing on the 170-passenger AmaViola from Vilshofen to Budapest, Ken Potrock, senior vice president of Adventures by Disney (ABD), said the company was already looking forward to its expansion to a second river, the Rhine, next summer, and that Disney was broadening river cruising’s demographic.

“[We’re] bringing new people into the river cruise category,” Potrock said. “They’re kind of locked into a segment of the population, and we can expand that segment by bringing families into the equation.”

ABD made its foray into river cruising in partnership with AmaWaterways, which purpose-built the AmaViola with family-friendly design details, including connecting staterooms and suites suitable for three- and four-member families, a rare feature on river cruise ships.

As you would expect with Disney, cruisers will find a family-friendly experience onboard, with movie nights and dance parties for kids. Disney Cruise Line fans will recognize the pirate party with face painting.

Kid-friendly excursions include a walking tour of Bratislava, Slovakia, where kids can complete a puzzle of landmarks; a salt mine tour in Salzburg, Austria, with train rides and wooden slides going into the mine; an Austrian park where kids can walk above the treetops on wooden ledges; and a marionette show offering children a chance to go backstage and try manipulating the dolls themselves.

Parents will appreciate touches such as the tour of Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna, where Adventure Guides take the kids through garden mazes and to an onsite children’s museum, enabling adults to explore on their own.

Launching the first of this kind of product has been a learning process, and Disney said it would continue to tweak the programming and dining to make it better for both adults and children.

The biggest change so far is the minimum age for its cruises: next year, Disney raised it from 4 to 6, but it still recommends 8, based on feedback and “seeing how the different aged kids were dealing with the river cruise experience,” said Terry Brinkoetter, public relations director for Disney Destinations.

The line also adjusted its dining options. Previously, everyone ate dinner together in the dining room. Now, kids can choose to eat in the lounge, supervised by Adventure Guides who hang out and play games, giving parents a chance to dine alone. Teens may eat together in the wine cellar, and many on my cruise chose to do so. The main dining room has a kids menu for when families wish to dine together.

Disney also learned on the go with its bicycling excursions, increasing the minimum age from 12 to 14 years after seeing how challenging the tour was, with rough roads (think cobblestone streets) and non-English street signs. An example of the high level of onboard service is that with no bikes suitable for younger kids such as my 9-year-old for the “ride on your own” option, the cruise director had local bikes delivered to use.

Future plans

Potrock, who was also onboard with his family, said over dinner at the ship’s Chef’s Table Restaurant that next year’s expansion to the Rhine on the upcoming 170-passenger AmaKristina made a lot of sense.

“There’s a lot of culture and character in that region of the world,” he said. “And we think there’s a lot of connection to classic Disney lore and stories there. … We think it’s going to play really wonderfully.”

With ABD expanding to two rivers for summer 2017, the next area of growth might be cruise timing, Potrock said, possibly expanding into May or September. Disney currently only offers the cruises from June through August, which works well for ABD and AmaWaterways, he said, because summer is not the strongest market for older couples, the mainstay clients for river cruises, due to the heat and crowds in Europe, but is perfect for Disney’s family-oriented approach.

Beyond that, he said he sees an opportunity to focus on the adult-only market and get “creative in terms of thematics.” With the popularity of wine cruises, he said, Disney could possibly find a tie-in with the Epcot Food and Wine Festival to create a new river cruise product.

ABD’s Danube river cruise fares include daily shore excursions; WiFi; gratuities; all onboard and some off-ship meals; unlimited wine, beer and soft drinks with every lunch and dinner; and onboard entertainment, including classes for the kids.

Ports include Vilshofen and Passau in Germany and Linz, Melk, Krems and Vienna in Austria, as well as Bratislava and Budapest.

The basic cruise price starts at $4,719 for adults and $4,489 for children. A three-day Prague extension package bumps the total to $6,008 for adults and $5,708 for children.

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.