When Adventures by Disney entered the river cruise market through a partnership with AmaWaterways last week, the family-oriented tour brand upended the stereotype that river cruising is a product for retirees.

River cruise specialists cheered the announcement, saying the market was ripe for just such a demographic shake-up.

“While the news about Disney entering the river cruise market just broke, I’ve already gotten requests from families for more information about it,” said Pete Larson, owner of River Cruise Guru in Grand Forks, N.D.

He said requests for the new product were already coming in from families that are fans of Disney, past ocean cruisers and regular visitors to Disney theme parks.

“Booking children on river cruises in the past has been a rarity for me,” Larson said. But, he added, “River cruising can be great for many families, and river cruise lines are starting to see the potential. …  Add Adventures by Disney to the mix along with some family-friendly accommodations and we are going to see a much bigger draw than over the past few years.”

Starting in 2016, Adventures by Disney will offer four Danube River sailings on AmaWaterways’ 170-passenger AmaViola during the summer months and one holiday-themed sailing in December 2016.

The AmaViola, launching in 2016, is being custom-built to cater to families. Family-friendly features will include six sets of connecting staterooms as well as 12 staterooms that can accommodate three people, with an armchair that converts into a single sleeper and four suites that can accommodate four people with a pullout sofa bed.

Adventures by Disney sailings will feature movies, karaoke, relay games, chess lessons on an oversize board, video games and themed nights for children and teens as well as wine tastings, fine dining, music, dancing and an onboard fitness center geared to adults.

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

The Adventures by Disney sailings will cruise the Danube through Germany, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary. Family-friendly excursions include a horse show at the Lazar Equestrian Park in Hungary, a private marionette performance and strudel-making demonstration at the Schonbrunn Palace in Austria and an Oktoberfest event at a German brewery, among other activities.

A biking option will be offered in every port.

The Adventures by Disney sailings are priced slightly higher than a regular AmaWaterways departure but have more inclusions, including all gratuities, additional excursions and port charges. Bookings on the five cruises — which must be made through Adventures by Disney, not through AmaWaterways — opened last week, and river cruise sellers were champing at the bit to sell the new products.

“Agents have been asking [the river cruise lines] for a while to do something with families,” said Susan Wolfson of Allentown, Pa.-based Go Astro Travel, a river cruise specialist.

“With the popularity of river cruising, you know families are going to get into it,” she said, adding that following last week’s news she had already reached out to several family clients to tell them about the new products, clients she has had to turn away from river cruising in the past because there wasn’t a product to suit their needs.

While last week’s Disney river cruise news certainly made a splash, it by no means marks the first or only time a company has attempted to market and sell river cruises to families.

Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection has been offering a handful of family-friendly river cruise departures for several years now. Uniworld’s family-friendly itineraries feature a youth counselor, a children’s menu and both onboard and on-shore family activities and amenities.

Tauck, too, has for the past several years offered family-friendly departures, complete with kid-friendly activities and adventures, on its river cruises through its family travel brand, Tauck Bridges.

But despite the fact that putting families on river cruises isn’t a new concept, there is still ample debate about whether river cruises are actually suited to families traveling with children.

“You have to know your child’s tolerance for exploring a destination and ability to keep themselves entertained onboard, as there are no facilities or kids clubs for children [on river cruise vessels],” said Theresa Mullen, owner of the Quincy, Mass.-based river cruise concierge service Enchanted Waterways.

“I would still advise clients that a river cruise, even with Adventures by Disney, may not be suitable for younger children,” Mullen said. “There are no plans to have Disney characters onboard, and the activities and tours will spend more time on land and will be immersive into the destinations visited and better suited to older, mature children and young adults who are eager to participate in the activities. I wouldn’t advise it for children under 8 years old.”

Indeed, Adventures by Disney recommends the cruises for children ages 8 and older, and the minimum age allowed onboard is 4 years old.

Both Disney and Ama are attempting to tackle potential drawbacks to river cruising for families — such as smaller staterooms and fewer onboard amenities compared with ocean ships — with a combination of hardware and itinerary adjustments. The adjoining rooms that Ama will be placing on the AmaViola, for instance, combine a three-person stateroom with a two-person one, which means families of up to five can travel together.

Keeping in mind the limited amenities and activities onboard smaller river cruise vessels, the Danube itinerary that Adventures by Disney is offering is one where most of the actual sailing takes place at night, with most days spent in port. Ama and Disney have worked together to create even more time in port than usual so that families can get off the vessel and explore by foot or by bike. 

“The ship is only a luxury means of getting from point A to point B,” said Rudi Schreiner, president of AmaWaterways. Ultimately, he said, it will be the onshore experiences that will determine if family river cruises survive and thrive.


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