QUEPOS, Costa Rica -- Before being flung from a narrow platform 600 feet above a Costa Rican rainforest, Mary Gold calmed herself by silently repeating her new mantra: "Disney wouldn't hurt me, Disney wouldn't hurt me, Disney wouldn't hurt me ..."

Gold would soon be zooming 45 miles per hour along a half-mile zipline, and though she was helmeted and securely strapped into a harness, for her it was a leap of faith.

Earlier this summer, she and a group of 32 otherwise cautious Americans entrusted tour operator Adventures by Disney to safely guide them along ziplines, through whitewater rapids and across the cultural and linguistic dips and bumps that corrugate the landscape for Americans traveling in Central America.

The mantra "Disney wouldn't hurt me" had first surfaced for Gold a day earlier, when her tour bus approached what Costa Ricans call a "Catholic bridge," a wooden bridge so narrow and rickety that if you weren't religious before crossing it, you would nonetheless find yourself praying before reaching the other end.

Gold, a mother of two and marketing consultant from Pleasanton, Calif., was willing to leave her comfortable suburban environment this summer and venture into the Central American rain forest because she "feels very secure with Disney. I've come to expect a certain level of deliverable."

And to some extent, Disney itself has made a leap of faith, straying from its hyper-controlled and brand-saturated environments to venture into the real world.

Thinking outside the berm

When Walt Disney built Disneyland, he created a 50-foot-high perimeter of trees and physical structures, called "the berm," to surround the park and keep the real world out of sight and out of mind.

Within the berm, everyone is either a cast member or guest. Park management works hard to control what guests see, hear, taste, touch and, to the extent possible, feel emotionally. Should something go amiss, every resource to resolve a problem is close at hand.

But the power of Disney magic weakens considerably as it nears Anaheim's Harbor Boulevard. If a guest has a problem with a non-Disney property, with a rental car or a flight home, there are limits to what help a Disney employee can offer. The company's tour operation, Adventures by Disney, ventures far beyond the berm.

Disney operates tours domestically in the Southwest, Mid-Atlantic and Wyoming. In Europe, it operates tours in Ireland, the U.K., Italy, France, Spain, Austria and the Czech Republic. But it strays farthest from the familiar with its Costa Rica itinerary.

Guide Michael Rodriguez, staring out the window of a Disney motorcoach at the lush, mountainous Costa Rican rain forest, put it this way: "This is definitely not the Jungle Cruise," a reference to the old-school Disneyland attraction that features attacks by robotic animals and scripted rescues by wisecracking guides.

Not that Disney's tour guests will be exposed to much in the way of danger while in Costa Rica, aside from an occasional purse-snatching on the beach by a white-faced capuchin monkey. The most exotic jungle animal they're likely to encounter is a three-toed sloth, which a toddler could outrun.

Rodriguez, an 11-year veteran of Disney, splits his time between Disneyland, where he caters to the needs of visiting VIPs, and Costa Rica, where he tries his best to keep less-celebrated families happy.

He has discovered along the way that it can be much simpler to arrange for a custom-prepared feast to please a Middle East sheik and his family in Anaheim than to procure a simple bowl of hot oatmeal for a Midwestern mother of three in a resort near La Fortuna, Costa Rica.

(Rodriguez thought the latter problem was resolved when oatmeal was finally procured, but learned otherwise the next morning when the guest was brought a bowl of dry, uncooked oat flakes. Rodriguez took the bowl back to the kitchen and gave the hotel cooks a quick lesson in porridge preparation.)

"There are limits to what I can do," Rodriguez said. "I can't get the clouds to lift off the cone of a volcano."

And, like all tour operators, Adventures by Disney relies on partners that don't always get it right. The Costa Rica tour stays at properties that are among the best locally available, but that doesn't guarantee the Costa Rica Marriott in San Jose won't stock the breakfast buffet with yogurts  labeled with "best before" dates that had long since lapsed, as happened recently.

Although Disney is a public company, its executives are not required to break out numbers for its young tour division -- and they won't.

"We're on target," was all that Adventures by Disney senior vice president Ed Baklor would say when asked about passenger volume, profit and growth.

But one can infer from the freshly released and significantly expanded itineraries for 2008 that Adventures by Disney, which started in 2005 with two tours, is at least showing encouraging results to upper management.

Six destinations were offered in 2006, but two of them, Hawaii and the Canadian Rockies, didn't return to the lineup in '07. Although Baklor said that itinerary changes were determined in part by "guest feedback," he denied that the axed destinations had less appeal or more destination-specific problems than the others, saying only that he wanted to "offer something fresh, something different" the following year.

Wyoming, Paris-London, Italy and Costa Rica itineraries did return, and Ireland, Austria-Czech Republic and Spain were added, for a total of 12 itineraries, including multiple itineraries for Italy and Spain.

Also returning in 2007, Baklor said, were 30% of 2006's tour guests. "We were very pleased with that number," he stated.

Disnoids and cynics

Compared to the theme parks, resorts and Disney Cruise Line, character and logo branding is minimal in the tour division. Guides wear Disney cast member badges with their names and where they're from, and guests are provided with lanyard name tags. Disney animated films are shown on the coaches during long rides, and a trading pin -- custom designed to relate to that day's "theme" -- is distributed each afternoon. The tour coach has a modest sign in its windshield with the logo of Adventures by Disney. That's it.

But there is some unofficial branding. On the Costa Rica tour that Travel Weekly joined this summer, Disney brand and character T-shirts and hats were worn by guests, some of whom were unabashed "Disnoids," the appellation used backstage by some cast members to describe dedicated Disney fans.

"My wife's a Disney freak," Steve Vanburen, a fleet manager for Hertz in Green Bay, Wis., freely admitted during the Costa Rica tour.

"We went on our honeymoon to Disney World. In fact, we've been to Disney World about 10 times -- actually, I've lost count. We'll be going again for Christmas."

"And we've been on the [Disney] cruise three times," his wife, Dawn, added, her eyes tracking children Samantha, 12, and Nathan, 9, as the family waited to board the Twin Otter aircraft that would fly their group to Antonio Manuel National Park.

"We're a very structured family, and this is ideal for us," she added. "I wanted an adventure away from the Disney parks, and this hits the spot. We're glad Disney stepped up to do this."

John Burke, a cardiologist from Darien, Ill., and his wife, Vicky Sroczynski, who once worked in social services, had their children, Lauren, 11, and Josh, 9, in tow on the Costa Rica tour.

"We're total Disney geeks," Vicky confessed, adding that they had joined Disney Vacation Club in 2001. "We'll do one Disney vacation each year."

Though wearing a Disney-branded T-shirt himself, Burke said, "We don't really need the [Disney animated] characters to have a presence. The kids are getting older."

"Actually, it's nice to get away from it," Sroczynksi said.

Bill Martin, a television writer and producer from Los Angeles, was initially uneasy about the thought of prominent Disney branding in Costa Rica.

"I was afraid it might be Goofy and Mickey in safari outfits, hugging the kids and leading us into the rain forest," Martin said. "I was afraid they were going to over-theme the trip."

And there were other unknowns for Martin. He had never been on a tour, and his three young sons had never been out of the country.

"We didn't know what to expect, but it was reassuring to think that places had been vetted as kid-friendly, that we could go to a foreign country and the kids weren't going to jump off a cliff."

"I love it," added his wife, Emily. "They make it easy to put aside the cynicism, in part because they do things for adults, too. They hit the midline. I've become a fan, I really have."

Not all the families on the Costa Rica tour were inexperienced tour members. The Larsons, a family of four from Goldsboro, N.C., had been on Tauck Bridges tours, and father Robert, a radiologist, felt the Adventures by Disney experience was "pretty comparable" to Tauck. They had, in fact, compared the Costa Rica offerings of the two operators, and chose Disney primarily because they preferred the itinerary.

For Tiffany Forrest, a human resources manager from Frisco, Texas, and single mother of two, "being with other families was important" and a strong part of the appeal.

She also echoed sentiments that had been voiced by other guests:

"We'd never have done this on our own, the whitewater rafting, the ziplining through the rain forest. But we're already talking about where we'll go with them next year."

Farther afield, closer to home

Costa Rica, a fairly well-developed and tourist-friendly country, is far and away the most exotic destination in the 2007 brochure. Next year, Disney will be moving in multiple directions at once, pushing farther afield -- to China, Peru and Australia -- as well as nearer the berm, with one new tour going from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and a Backstage Magic tour that will focus on Disneyland, Hollywood landmarks and Disney Studios.

The San Francisco/L.A. tour ends with a day in Disneyland; the China adventure ends with two days at Hong Kong Disneyland.

Germany is being added to the roster, as is an additional France itinerary; the two Spain routes are being collapsed into one, longer tour. In all, there will be 18 itineraries for 2008.

Sources within Disney and among other tour operators said that Adventures by Disney had sent reconnaissance scouts on Tauck, Backroads and Contiki tours, but Baklor maintained that his team worked without a template when they contemplated what their product would be like.

The decision to have muted branding was consistent with key decisions about positioning, he said.

"When we talk about Adventures by Disney, we talk about level of service, dining and attractions rather than Disney branding," Baklor said. "We work at taking all the hassles out. Many of our guests have not been on an escorted tour before, and we're creating an experience for them.

"It's similar to what the [Disney] cruise line did; it's not like other cruise lines. And we're not like other tours."

To contact Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].


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