A New Kind of Riverboat for Disney

by Kristen Szymonik, contributing writer

Disney park visitors are familiar with the iconic riverboats that grace both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, but now there's a new kind of riverboat on the horizon: a cruise ship. In 2016, Adventures By Disney will begin offering Danube river cruises, giving Disney fans a new way to explore Europe.

Disney is partnering with AmaWaterways to offer river cruises between Budapest, Hungary and Vilshofen, Germany for a seven-night trip along the famed Danube River. The first cruise departs July 7, 2016, with three additional sailings in July 2016, followed by a special Christmas cruise departing December 22, 2016.

Interestingly, these trips are not offered by Disney Cruise Line, but rather Adventures by Disney, a travel division of the Walt Disney Company. Adventures by Disney offers family-oriented guided group tours across six continents. The key selling points of these all-inclusive trips are smaller group sizes, family-friendly destinations, and Disney-trained "Adventure Guides" who act as both tour guide and concierge during the trip.

The Disney company got its start in cruising in the 1980s, when it partnered with Premier Cruise Line to offer land-and-sea Walt Disney World travel packages on Premier's "Big Red Boat." That partnership ended in 1993, and Disney Cruise Line debuted in 1998 with a single ship that offered Caribbean cruises. The line has since expanded to four ships, and has ventured beyond the Caribbean into new destinations such as Europe, the Mexican Riviera, Alaska, and Hawaii.

Now that Disney has set its sights on river cruising, the company is again partnering with an established player in the market for its initial offering. Industry giant AmaWaterways has offered luxury river cruises since 2002, and the deal with Disney appears to be its own debut in the family cruising market.

Unlike ocean cruises, river cruises offer a different way to explore a destination. The ships sail mostly at night, stopping in a new port city each day. On these Adventures by Disney cruises, passengers will generally wake up in a new city, eat breakfast on the ship, then step right off the ship and onto the local dock.

Passengers have a choice of up to three different excursions at each port of call. Highlights include bicycling from Melk to Krems while passing by the grounds of the beautiful local wineries. Some guests may choose to channel their inner Maria by visiting scenes from The Sound of Music throughout Salzburg, Austria. And for the Renaissance fair fans in the family, Slovakia offers a medieval experience with candle making, archery, and a visit to the Maiden Tower prison.

For those used to ocean cruises, the smaller river cruise vessels will be a completely new experience. The new AmaWaterways ship, the AmaViola, has just 80 staterooms, with fewer than 200 passengers onboard. There is just one main dining room, one tiny gift shop, and an equally small massage room and salon. The ship also boasts a heated pool, fitness center, lounge, jogging track, and free WiFi.

Onboard activities include live dance shows, movie nights, and magic shows. Many on-board activities are family-oriented, with Disney trivia games for the whole family, and special "Junior Adventure Nights" for the younger cruisers. And for those guests graced with a lovely singing voice, the ship's karaoke scene will be the place to be.

AmaWaterways designed the AmaViola with an eye towards the needs of family groups. The AmaViola cabins range from the 160-square-foot category D and E rooms, which sleep two people each, to the 350-square-foot suite, which sleeps four. Families can book adjoining staterooms to accommodate up to five people. This cabin setup is unique in the river cruising industry; most river cruise cabins are built with only two guests in mind.

While the staterooms are larger than river cruising standard, they are smaller than Disney Cruise Line regulars may expect. The smallest Disney Cruise Line stateroom is 184 square feet and sleeps three people, and the newest ship, the Disney Fantasy, boasts a 1781-square-foot suite, which sleeps five.

River cruising is generally more expensive than ocean cruises, and the Adventures by Disney offerings command a premium price.

Cruises start at at $4,699 per person for adults, and $4,439 for children. A similar non-Disney cruise at AmaWaterways starts at $4,319 for adults as listed on their website.

As a comparison, the standard Adventures by Disney Danube river cruise starts at $18,276 for a family of four (two adults and two children); while a seven-night Northern Europe trip with Disney Cruise Line would start at about $12,316 for a comparable verandah stateroom.

Note, however, that the Adventures by Disney river cruises are truly all-inclusive. Not only are onboard meals and entertainment included in your fare as it would be on a Disney Cruise Line trip, but also beverages (including wine), shore excursions, meals during select shore excursions, gratuities, and even ground transfers are included.

Guests may also choose to add two additional nights to their trip, and take a tour of Prague with the Adventures by Disney guides. This type of add-on may be familiar to Disney Cruise Line passengers, since Adventures by Disney currently offers pre- or post-stay packages for many Disney Cruise itineraries in Europe. This extension can add up to $1,309 per passenger, depending on travel dates.

Like all AmaWaterways trips, the Disney river cruises are recommended for guests aged 8 years old and up, with a minimum sailing age of 4 years old. This age is higher than that of Disney Cruise Line's trips, so families will want to be sure that all children in their group fit the required age profile prior to booking their cruise.

River cruising is uncharted territory for Disney, but as the offering becomes more popular both abroad and within the United States, it's not a surprise to see Disney dipping its corporate toes into the water. Success in these trial cruises may chart the way for the next Disney Cruise Line expansion.