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.

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A challenging start to a promising year

By Michelle Baran
As European river cruise vessels file into winter dry-dock this week, closing up the 2015 season, there is bound to be some nervousness for an industry waiting to see how the 2016 season will play out once it gets underway in the spring.

The dormant winter season offers an opportunity to spruce up older vessels and make final arrangements for the launch of new ones, investments that will hopefully pay off throughout the season. And this coming year has a lot to offer; Both Crystal Cruises and Adventures by Disney (through a partnership with AmaWaterways) will introduce new river cruise products in Europe, and all the major river cruise lines are adding new vessels to their fleets.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

There’s a lot to look forward to, and yet 2015 ended with a bit of a question mark in the aftermath of the Nov. 13 Paris attacks in terms of how much the attacks will impact travel in Europe (and consequently river cruising) this year. Surely the hope is that a quiet couple months  – fingers crossed – prior to the start of the 2016 season will help keep pre-existing bookings on the books and reinvigorate the flow of new ones to get 2016 back on track to being as robust as it promised before the attacks.

Meanwhile, there are a lot of exciting developments elsewhere in the world to distract from the situation in Europe. Uniworld is starting its first cruises on India’s Ganges River this month, a new product the company has said has exceeded its expectations in terms of how successful the bookings have been.

And back in the US, it will be interesting to see if we hear anything more from Viking about its plans to launch modern-style Mississippi River vessels in 2017 and from the Delta Queen Steamboat Company about whether the fabled 89-year-old Delta Queen will receive the Congressional exemption it needs to sail again.

Indeed, despite some uncertainty as we start off the year, 2016 still promises to be an exciting and interesting one in river cruising, both in terms of the announcements we already know about and in terms of the surprises we’re always counting on the industry to provide us.

Low water levels plague Europe river cruises

With a low water level, a large stretch of the Elbe’s riverbed was exposed in August near Magdeburg, Germany. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
 

A hot and dry summer in Europe has led to lower-than-normal water levels on portions of the Danube and Elbe rivers throughout the summer, and has forced river cruise lines to alter their itineraries during July, August and now into September.

“Water levels on the Elbe and Danube rivers are currently lower than normal and Viking has had to make adjustments to the cruise schedules of several ships sailing these rivers,” Viking River Cruises wrote on its website this week.

Five Viking cruises have been altered this week, four of which include a ship swap. Passengers will be transferred in order to avoid a low-water area of the Elbe River that ships cannot bypass.

Additionally, Viking’s Sept. 2 “Grand European Tour” from Budapest to Amsterdam, scheduled to depart on the Viking Aegir, will begin in Komarom, Hungary, on the Viking Embla. Viking will provide transfers from Budapest to Komarom.

“These are currently the only sailings we expect to be altered by the low water on the rivers,” Viking stated.

But low water levels have been a problem all summer. The low levels on the Elbe came during a year when Viking launched two new vessels on the river in eastern Germany. Other river cruise lines have avoided the Elbe in part because of the challenges presented when the water level is low.

The Danube River is one that all the major river cruise lines sail. The area on the Danube where the low waters have posed a problem is the 75-mile stretch between Regensburg and Passau in Germany.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection had to alter eight Danube River sailings in July and August, which included having guests swap ships from one side of the low waters to the other. The company canceled its Aug. 9 “European Jewels” cruise on the Maria Theresa, deciding that there wouldn’t be enough actual cruising in the trip to justify the departure.

“We sincerely appreciate the understanding and support our guests and travel industry partners have shown during this challenging time,” Uniworld wrote on its website.

Avalon Waterways wrote on its Facebook page last week that the river levels on the Danube had again begun to recede.

“Danube River waters receded over the weekend and early this week. Once again, the waters between Regensburg and Passau are beginning to delay and/or stall ship passage. We are fervently working to keep cruise itinerary disruptions to a minimum. If or when cruise itineraries are altered, however, we will provide affected travelers with alternate opportunities to see and explore the best Europe has to offer,” Avalon wrote on Facebook.

The post elicited a string of comments from passengers, some concerned about current and upcoming sailings, others with positive messages of support and kudos for how Avalon handled past sailings that were disrupted due to low water levels.

The forecast is calling for rain in the coming days, according to Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways, which has not had to alter any of its Danube itineraries yet this summer. Schreiner is hoping that some much-needed precipitation along the Danube will help bring the river’s water levels back up.