Written and photographed by Bridget Williams
While there is something to be said for the adrenaline rush that can come from inserting oneself into slightly contentious situations in far-flung places, it is not the ideal experience most are looking for in a holiday. Increasingly I've heard of acquaintances who have canceled travel plans based on threats both real and purported. Language barriers, dietary restrictions, physical limitations, and a general fear of the unknown all have the potential to prompt would-be globetrotters to restrict their adventuring to more familiar places that don't require a passport.
Enter Adventures by Disney (ABD). Founded in 2005 with just a pair of US destinations, today, this luxury tour arm of the Walt Disney Company now offers full-service trips on six continents. "We're all about creating exceptional experiences for families and couples that go beyond the parks to bring the magic into the larger world," said Yolanda Cade, who directs public relations for Adventures by Disney. A growing number of partnerships, including one with National Geographic Expeditions, means that Disney's legendary customer service and attention to detail are attainable at every imaginable destination.
Curious about experiencing the Disney difference, we joined one of two adult-exclusive Seine River Cruise departures offered in 2019 as part of Adventures by Disney's growing roster of adult only vacations. For its European river cruises, ABD has partnered with luxury operator Ama Waterways—the first cruise line to be offered membership into the private and prestigious La Chaîne des Rôtisseurs gastronomic society—to ensure guests have a topnotch, ship-shape experience.
A care package arrived a few weeks before we set off for France. Along with logoed travel bags of various sizes, there was a spiral-bound, purse-sized travel guide outlining the complete itinerary, along with background information on each destination, a comprehensive packing guide, and answers to frequently asked questions. The latter is a prime example of ABD's ability to stay one step ahead in anticipating guests' needs.
During adults-only trips, don't look for Mickey and Minnie to show up at breakfast (which was a relief for me as a non-dyed in-the-wool Disney person). There is a concerted effort to make the destination the star. Still, there was a palpable Disney presence, most notably among fellow travelers. Identifiable by varying degrees of Disney garb, their enthusiasm was infectious as they gushed about their past experiences on Disney-led trips and crushed less ardent devotees during trivia and name-that-tune contests.
Amply taking the places of costumed critters are the charming, colorful characters that comprise the Disney Adventure Guides. As many as four-thousand applications culled from around the globe are screened to fi ll less than a dozen trip leader positions. Often young enough to be the children or even grandchildren of guests on board, our Adventure Guides were poised, patient, and possessed leadership, storytelling, and service skills way beyond their years. "Our goal is to make the trip worry-free so guests can immerse themselves in the culture, and Disney allows us the freedom to think outside-the-box to surprise guests," said Adventure Guide Veronika.
Our 10-day adventure commenced with an optional two-night Paris Escape before seven nights aboard the AmaLyra. Whether on ship or shore, each day's "Daily Adventurer" provided a detailed look at what to expect, along with destination information, emergency phone numbers, and the theme of the daily photo contest, an exercise many tackled with the aplomb of a pro athlete.
There are certainly plenty of tour operators that can take you to the beaches of Normandy or Monet's garden in Giverny, and this is where the Disney difference is most palpable. At Normandy, our guide for the day was none other than Dr. Jean-Pierre Benamou, OBE, founder of the D-Day Academy. His knowledge of and reverence for the sacrifices made on that hallowed ground was genuinely soul-stirring.
One of many tearful moments that day occurred when Dr. Benamou spied a WWII veteran. "I owe you my life…I may not have been here without your service," he said as he gave the man a warm embrace. Disney guests who lost a relative during D-Day were invited to participate in a solemn wreath-laying ceremony. After taking a moment to compose ourselves, we were chauffeured to the beaches in meticulously restored WWII-era military vehicles. Standing on the rocky coastline while Dr. Benamou's colleagues held up photos of fallen soldiers on the very same spot was a powerful reminder of why these brave souls are considered the Greatest Generation.
Experts in less somber subjects—from champagne to castles—greeted us at other stops, which included a mix of planned excursions and free time. In Vernon, we were first through the gates at Monet's garden, allowing us time to appreciate the beauty and serenity of the space before the packed tour buses started rolling in. Later that day, after bobbing for apples and playing traditional French lawn games at the grand Château de Bizy, we were free to enjoy the peace and quiet found in roaming the vast gardens.
In Rouen, we walked in the footsteps of Joan of Arc. Climbing a creaky staircase in Auvers-sur-Oise lead to a sparse room in the boarding house where Vincent Van Gogh took his last breath. The steep climb to the ruins of a medieval castle constructed by Richard the Lionheart didn't leave me breathless, but the sweeping views of Les Andelys did, along with the steep drops along the cliff line in the seaside town of Étretat.
Back on the boat each day by the late afternoon, we were enticed by a cocktail du jour, to attend a pre-dinner briefing in the lounge. Our troop of six perennially perky Adventure Guides doled out accolades and coveted collectible pins to repeat guests and those celebrating milestones and accomplishments before sharing information about the next day's adventures. A hub of activity, the lounge was the site of cooking demonstrations, post-dinner entertainment and dancing, and talks on culture and history.
Dining was a delight, with meals featuring both familiar and foreign specialties. Those with dietary restrictions were amply accommodated. Guests have the option of reserving a space for dinner at the Chef's Table, an intimate glass-walled dining room at the ship's stern where a six-course pre-fixed dinner is mated with elevated French wine pairings.
Most mornings, as dawn began to break, I pulled back the curtains in my stateroom to watch the boat glide past charming towns. The shoreline was a marvelous milieu of mostly modest cottages and the occasional grand château with a manicured lawn that lapped at the water's edge. It's safe to say that I wasn't the only one prompted by the idyllic scenery to wonder about what it would be like to move to the French countryside.
Disney magic extended to the final moments of our voyage, where our return to Paris was timed to coincide with the hourly evening illumination of the Eiffel Tower. Getting us as close to the iconic monument as possible prompted everyone on the top deck to duck as we passed beneath Pont Mirabeau. Th e boat paused in a picturesque spot just before the quarter-scale replica of the Statue of Liberty that resides on the Île aux Cygnes. It was a special moment where the lights from the Eiffel Tower seemed to meld into the effervescent bubbles raised high in unison to toast the conclusion of a memorable adventure.
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