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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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.
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
"It's similar to
what the [Disney] cruise line did; it's not like other cruise
lines. And we're not like other tours."
contact Editor in Chief Arnie Weissmann, send e-mail to [email protected].