The first guided tour I took was 24 years ago. It offered incredible adventure over the course of three months. We camped in Masai Mara National Park in Kenya, tracked the wildebeest migration through the Serengeti in Tanzania, hiked to see mountain gorillas in Rwanda, hunted with Twa pygmies in the Ituri rain forest (in what was then Zaire) and watched the sun rise over a landscape of volcanic stumps in the Haggar Mountains in the Algerian Sahara.
Even so, the overall experience was such that I wasn't tempted to take another escorted tour for 20 years.
It wasn't the tsetse flies, the malaria, the scorpions under the mattress or the desert adder that put me off.
It was the guides.
We traveled in an overland truck through 10 countries in Africa. It became clear early on that to the lead guide/driver, we might as well have been gravel that he had to haul from Kenya to Morocco. From day one, he just wanted to be done with it.
The other driver/guide, for reasons that baffled the rest of us, was deeply in love with him. He responded by humiliating her at every opportunity. Despairing over her situation, she withdrew, spending most days in grumpy silence.
And there were incidents. I saw the lead guide kick awake a passenger who had annoyed him the day before. He once took off from Tangier with only half the group aboard the truck. He spied on the women as they showered.
When the trip was over, I wrote to the tour operator to complain.
The company not only defended him in its response, it praised him as one of their best. (They might have been right. I met one of their other guides in Nairobi at the beginning of the trip and, given a choice, I would have kept the one I had.)
In terms of adventure, on a scale of 1 to 10, I would rate the Africa trip an 8, and I would rate the Adventures by Disney escorted tour to Costa Rica I took earlier this summer a 3. But on a scale rating satisfaction with the tour operator, the Africa trip would get a 1, and Disney a 10.
With Disney, it wasn't just the ziplining, the whitewater rafting, the luxurious Arenal Kioro Resort or the wildlife in Costa Rica.
It was the guides.
Tour operators may "discover" an attraction, restaurant or hotel before their competitors do. They may lease luxurious coaches and secure rooms in only the best properties. But it's all for naught without the right guides.
Michael Rodriguez and Federico "Fico" Chacon, the guides on the Adventures by Disney tour, were exemplary. Chacon, incidentally, is not a Disney employee, but is contracted through a local ground operator, Horizontes Nature Tours.
Training is ingrained in Disney culture, and Chacon spent two weeks in Anaheim learning Disney traditions. But one gets the sense that good guides are born, not simply trained. Chacon's range of knowledge about Costa Rica was impressive, and I asked him what he had studied.
"I thought I wanted to be a psychologist, but then switched to journalism," he said. "Then sociology. Then drama. Then natural resources management. I'm thinking of going back to study geography."
It's not that Chacon can't focus; he's just hungry to learn. Even so, it isn't just knowledge and leadership that make him and Rodriguez great guides. They truly seem to enjoy spending time with clients. In their free time, they were in the pool, playing with the kids. There was no discernible split between who they are and what they do.
Disney certainly has no monopoly on good guides, but they do understand the crucial role that guides play. Ed Baklor, Adventures by Disney's senior vice president, said that getting the right guides was, to some extent, limiting how quickly his division could grow. "We've got to make sure we have the right people in place before we add a tour," he said.
To that, all I can add is this: Ed, should you ever consider hiring an applicant who says he once led overland tours through Africa 24 years ago, call me first.