River cruises a big hit, so Disney adds sailings

Adventures by Disney river cruises will be operated by AmaWaterways.

After announcing last month that it is launching river cruises through a partnership with AmaWaterways, Adventures by Disney has already added two more departures “due to popularity and mass interest in the program.”

Originally, Disney’s tour operator arm said it would offer four sailings along the Danube River during summer 2016, and one holiday-themed sailing in December 2016. There will now be five sailings in the summer, as well as two sailings in December of 2016. The itineraries will travel through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary.

Adventures by Disney will charter the 170-passenger AmaViola, a ship that is launching in 2016 and is being custom-built to cater to families. Family-friendly features on the AmaViola will be six sets of connecting staterooms, as well as some rooms and suites that can accommodate families of three or four people.

There will be wine tastings, fine dining, music, dancing and an onboard fitness center geared toward adults, and movies, karaoke, relay games, chess lessons on an oversized board, video games and themed nights for young children and teens.

There will be eight Adventures by Disney guides on each sailing in addition to the AmaWaterways crew.

The Adventures by Disney sailings will take place July 7, 14, 21, 28, Aug. 4, Dec. 15 and 22.

Adventures by Disney, which launched in 2005, offers 30 guided vacations on six continents.

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Another season, another water level gamble

River Rhine

It seems almost inevitable. The river cruise season gets underway and then either high or low water levels due to heavy rains or lack thereof cause some disruptions. And this season is no exception.

Since the start of the month, river cruise lines have been dealing with higher than normal water levels on Europe’s Rhine, Danube, Rhone and Seine rivers, which forced several river cruise lines to alter some of their itineraries.

Michelle Baran
Michelle Baran

The challenge is that there is no telling when or how severely these highs and lows will happen. But river cruise passengers should perhaps be made aware of the possibility and of the ways in which high or low water levels could impact their trip, because as we have seen year in and year out, some disruptions, however minor, almost always occur at some point in the season.

“So far, it doesn’t seem to have deterred clients from river cruising but if these dramatic rain or drought weather patterns continue with more and more sailings affected, it may start to have an impact in the future,” said Linda Dinsmore, a river and small ship specialist who runs the website The River Cruise Lady.

Dinsmore admitted that she doesn’t talk to clients about water levels before they take a river cruise, and that so far clients haven’t been asking about water levels, “so I think it’s a situation that you hope doesn’t happen.”

That said, she had clients that ran into some issues last week on the Rhine River, where they were driven further up the river to board their ship due to the higher waters, an adjustment that “was not too disruptive,” she noted.

When water levels are higher than normal, river cruise vessels can’t squeeze under the low bridges they need to bypass to complete their sailings, and when water levels are low they can’t sail through shallower waters where there isn’t enough clearance for the ships’ drafts. So, each river cruise line undertakes a variety of contingency plans when this happens, including (but not limited to) busing passengers to ports and destinations they can’t reach by ship, having them stay in a hotel for an extra night or two if the ship cannot get to them, or having passengers swap ships, which entails boarding another ship on the other side of an impassable bridge or stretch of water, a strategy Viking River Cruises employed for this most recent water rise.

Viking said on its website that it has contacted guests whose cruises need to be adjusted due to this month’s higher water levels, including those on the May 13 Passage to Eastern Europe cruise aboard Viking Lif, which is now taking place on sister ship, Viking Aegir; and those on the May 13 Grand European Tour aboard Viking Aegir, which is now taking place on sister ship, Viking Lif. (Viking said it does not anticipate any further itinerary changes beyond these sailings.)

While this season’s disruptions are nowhere near the mayhem caused by the historic floods in Europe two years back, they serve as a reminder that river cruising, despite all its potential and success, still has some notable vulnerabilities. And while river cruise companies have grown very accustomed to working around water-level issues, for customers the required itinerary changes can still serve as a disappointment if they weren’t made aware of the possibility in advance.“The mainstream cruise lines are getting better at handling these conditions and it’s not something that occurs too often or for too long when it does,” said Pete Larson, owner of River Cruise Guru. But, he added, “I always advise my clients about fluctuating river levels and how it could affect their cruise … Many new river cruisers come from the ocean cruise market where this isn’t something they may have experienced or thought about.”

Extending a river cruise at sea

By Tom Stieghorst

Many of the passengers I shared a voyage with recently on the new Viking Star ocean cruise ship were past passengers on Viking’s river cruise vessels.

I was surprised to hear from more than one of them that river cruises in general are too short.

Unlike on the ocean, where one can find world cruises of more than 100 days, river cruises are limited by the length of the river they sail on and rarely span more than two weeks.

Tom Stieghorst
Tom Stieghorst

One woman said that to justify the trouble of packing, taking an overseas flight with all of the security and customs procedures that involves, and adjusting to jet lag in Europe, she wanted to vacation for longer than a typical river cruise allows.

This woman had enjoyed a 15-day river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest, and said she wouldn’t mind doing the reverse cruise back-to-back in order to get more mileage from her overseas trip.

Mind you, nearly one third of the passengers on my cruise from Istanbul had signed on for a full 50-night, 33-port grand ocean tour of Europe that will finish in Stockholm at the end of May.

So clearly, while there is some overlap between ocean and river cruise customers, there’s a certain contingent that prefers a longer voyage than is possible on the average river itinerary.

One solution is to combine the two, a concept that first launched last fall when Celebrity Cruises linked up with river operator Amras Cruises to create ocean-and-river cruise packages.

Viking could take that idea to the next level by being one company that offers both types of cruises.

There is already a lot of conversation about the topic at Viking’s headquarters in Los Angeles, according to Sara Conley, Viking’s director of public relations and social media, who added that it is logistically more difficult than it might appear.

Ocean and river cruises do not share many homeports, so there might be land transfers involved between one ship and the other. And the schedules of the two sides of the cruise business were not designed with coordination in mind, so they don’t necessarily match up in convenient ways.

At this point, Viking has just one ocean ship, the 930-passenger Star. Next year it expects to have another delivered, with a third to follow either late in 2016 or early 2017.

By that time Viking may have figured out a solution to offering the combo cruise that would give some passengers both a river cruise and a more extended cruise vacation in Europe.