Like Cinderella, Adventures by Disney sometimes seems like the stepchild of the parent company's travel offerings. Its marketing budget is a fraction of that of its theme park and cruise line sisters. And as the Walt Disney Co. grows ever larger, comprising brands as diverse as Marvel and National Geographic, its tour operation, by comparison, seems like Alice after swallowing the pill that makes her smaller.
OK, enough with the character similes (at least for a while). Adventures by Disney, launched in 2005, has reached adolescence, and although it represents just a thin sliver of its parent's revenue, it has, on its own terms, blossomed.
The tour operation has been allowed a remarkable degree of independence. This is noteworthy. Disney, particularly in divisions that incorporate "Disney" into their name, requires fierce loyalty to its legacy, resulting in attractions that are highly scripted and boundlessly self-referential.
I think this conspicuous brand saturation is less a reflection of arrogance or cynicism than of the conviction that it's giving customers exactly what they want. In this regard, it's unclear who set that particular course, management or guests.
A private tour of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City is a special access feature of the "Viva Italia" tour. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
So for Disney to have ventured beyond the outlines of its theme parks, ships and resorts and into the great unscripted, spontaneous and sometimes chaotic world of tours was itself an act of bravery.
Last August, my 16-year-old son and I joined Viva Italia, an Adventures by Disney tour following a Rome-Tuscany-Florence-Venice itinerary. It was my second time traveling with the brand; my first, to Costa Rica, was 11 years ago, when the tour division was in its third year -- just a toddler. At the time, I thought Costa Rica was a bold choice, given its lack of developed-world infrastructure.
In Italy, I wondered if the company would present a more packaged, overtly Disney offering.
Yes and no.
Yes, the location of Rome's Disney Store was pointed out when we were in the vicinity, and a costumed Marco Polo showed up to interact with the group in a square in Venice. But otherwise, when off the coach and on the streets, brand touch points were not obvious.
"Marco Polo" makes a surprise visit to impart a painless history lesson in a square in Venice. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
As Disney's local guide in Rome since the company's first year in operation, Cristina Arabito has a unique perspective on Viva Italia's evolution as a tour.
Arabito, who learned English by watching Disney films, said some structural aspects of the tour evolved as times changed, particularly as regards exclusive, special-access components like private visits to the Sistine Chapel.
Adventures by Disney's local guide in Rome, Cristina Arabito, flanked by guides Gabrielle Celenza (left) and Michela Lombardis, pose for a guest. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
But she also said the company has learned to be more flexible. Initially, she said, it was hard to get management to understand that "there's not just one way, an American way, a Disney way."
In particular, she said, they had a hard time accepting that, in Italy, "rules can change quickly. All of a sudden, a new rule, and you have to keep calm. We weren't changing plans for no reason."
Now, she says, Disney trusts the local guides more than it did in the past. She paid them the ultimate compliment from a proud Roman: "They have become a little more Italian."
What I found to be consistent from Costa Rica in 2007 to Rome in 2019 is that the company hires amazing guides and educates them very well. I say "educates" rather than "trains" because training prepares you for what to expect, while an education prepares you for what you don't expect.
In Italy, Gabrielle Celenza and Michela Lombardis, both in their early 30s, kept teenagers, grandparents and young children and their parents comfortable, happy, entertained, well fed and well cared for. Like the Costa Rica guides, they were cheerful, charismatic, quick on their feet and compassionate. Their emotional intelligence must be through the roof.
On the coach and during meals, they gave diehard Disney fans their branding fix, though it sometimes confused me. Michela said she would be taking photos with a minicamera, which turned out to be a Minnie camera.
Celenza preparing to use the "Minnie camera" in Florence. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
The next morning, Gabrielle said that Mickey would be showing us a famous gelato shop. The Mouse in Florence? I was surprised. Until I found out Michela goes by Miki.
One of the most memorable moments wasn't on the itinerary. Before reaching Florence, the guides made a stop that they emphasized was not on the official itinerary. Rather, it was something they felt was special and wanted to share with the group.
Guests participate in a flag-lowering ceremony at the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, added to the itinerary by Celenza and Lombardis. Photo Credit: TW photo by Arnie Weissmann
We pulled up to the Florence American Cemetery and Memorial, a graveyard for U.S. troops who died in Italy in World War II. Our visit was timed with the playing of taps and lowering of the Stars and Stripes. Group members participated in folding the flag. It was a grown-up moment that moved even the youngest among us.
Like an adolescent character in a Disney coming-of-age film, Adventures by Disney seems to be learning by testing boundaries. Perhaps Peter Pan, not Cinderella, is the apt character comparison. Its path to growth may lie in an insistence to never grow up.