Late last year, I took my sons (now ages 9 and 15) on their first cruise, a weeklong Carnival Caribbean adventure that included stops in three countries. I was surprised afterward to learn that my younger son, Matthew, said his favorite parts were the days at sea. He loved sleeping in, playing on the waterslides and goofing around with his friends at the pool, all on his own schedule.
On our way back to the ship one day, some teenage girls on our excursion regaled us with tales about how amazing Disney cruises were.
I wasn't sure what to expect in July when Matthew and I left for a seven-night river cruise across Central Europe with Adventures by Disney on the Danube. I made sure to explain to Matthew that this wasn't going to be like the Disney cruises he'd seen on commercials or heard about. There were no waterslides onboard, no hot tub and no Disney characters roaming the ship. Disney or not, with river cruises, the destinations are the focus, not the ships.
We started with an overnight in Prague before taking a four-hour shuttle to Vilshofen, Germany, where we boarded the AmaViola, a ship built by AmaWaterways and used for eight sailings by Disney in 2016 (six during the summer months and two holiday cruises in December). Our ports included Melk, Austria; Vienna; Bratislava, Slovakia; and Budapest, where the cruise finished.
Our stateroom (one of the smaller ones on the ship) slept two, and both Matthew and I were comfortable in our single beds. I'm 6-foot-1 but slept surprisingly well. The bathroom was smartly designed and modern, and both showerhead options were refreshing and featured great water pressure. Matthew had no problems reaching things or figuring out the controls for anything, from the TV/internet/music system to the room safe.
One of the things that Adventures by Disney realized early on, according to Ken Potrock, senior vice president and general manager of Adventures by Disney and Disney Vacation Club, was that some guests were leaving the weeklong cruise exhausted.
At one shore excursion on Adventures by Disney’s Danube cruise, the author’s son Matthew learned archery at the Devin Castle ruins near Bratislava, Slovakia. Photo Credit: Paul J. Heney
Adventures by Disney stepped up its efforts to make it clear to guests that the multiple daily excursions (most days there were separate morning and afternoon outings) were not required, and travelers should feel free to explore on their own.
Matthew and I struggled with this early on. Some of the city tours were of less interest to him, and more than once I'd hear, "Can we go back to the boat?" I had to remind him that there was very little to do on the boat, there'd be no kids in the pool, no 24-hour buffet to peruse and probably not a lot on television. And he complained about the days we had lunch early (11:30 a.m.) and dinner late, so I made sure to keep some candy and chips on hand in our stateroom.
Eventually, we figured out a happy medium, where we agreed to skip some afternoon tours, do a little bit of exploring on our own, and spend some time on the ship just being lazy. We did some biking and even visited an authentic Hungarian bathhouse with some other cruisers. I think that gave Matthew more of a sense of control as well as giving him the flexibility to tell me when he was close to being "done."
Tricia Shivas of New Jersey, her husband, Jim, and their son, Braden (15), and daughter, Madeline (13), loved the cruise. And she noted that "it was not on the radar" to do a river cruise before Adventures by Disney launched theirs. But the family had done a tour of Rome, Florence and Venice five years ago with the company and they were hooked.
"Everything that we have done has been very well planned out, and it's been a lot of fun," she said, "and it's been great to see different cities."
The cruise was a hit with their children, too, and, just like us, they enjoyed the flexibility of doing some touring and some relaxing.
"They've liked it, they're having a good time," she said. "Actually, their favorite experience was when we went to the apricot farm and we did the excursion to the cultural center. They tried the [Austrian] dancing … and then having some free time on the boat, that was their favorite day."
During the seven-night cruise, we experienced a lot, including strudel-making, archery, a classical music concert, visits to castle ruins and a treetop hiking adventure. But at the end of the trip, Matthew's highlights turned out to be:
• Exploring the Abbey in Melk. Disney Adventure Guides took the junior adventurers on a separate, youth-oriented tour. The Abbey is more than 900 years old, and Matthew couldn't get over its size, how fascinating the library was and the detail on the ceiling and in the cathedral. I had to agree, and we talked afterward about how parts of it reminded us of Hogwarts of "Harry Potter" fame.
• Touring a salt mine in Salzburg, Austria. In addition to learning some fascinating history on how the salt mines brought so much wealth to this part of Europe, he loved trying out the long, wooden slides that miners used to get further into the mines. He was also impressed with the boat ride across a saltwater lake deep under the Earth's surface.
• Biking in Krems, Austria. We joined several families who opted to ride along the Danube without guides to the picturesque town of Durnstein. The ride was less than an hour each way, and when it rained, we simply parked our bikes and ducked into a tavern, where we drank wine and ate ice cream. Everyone was happy, and we talked and laughed, ignoring the showers outside.
• Dining with his friends. Each night, the children could either eat dinner with their parents in the main dining room or head upstairs to the lounge. There, the Adventure Guides supervised the kids' buffet and also played games and organized activities. To a 9-year-old, this freedom was liberating, and it gave him time to just be a kid with his friends.
I was pleasantly surprised when he told me after our trip that he enjoyed the river cruise even more than the ocean cruise. He's now talking about all the other places he wants to explore by river ship. I think he's truly caught travel fever at a young age, and I couldn't be happier.