A Family Vacation in Scotland with Adventures by Disney

Expert answers to family travel questions about Adventures by Disney and Scotland: A Brave Adventure:

Have fun storming the castle!
Have fun storming the castle!

Last month, my kids and I were invited to sample Adventures by Disney’s newest itinerary, Scotland: A Brave Adventure – a 9-day ramble around Edinburgh, Loch Ness, a couple of islands, and the Highlands.

When planning a family vacation, I don’t normally do luxury group touring.  I was shocked by how much I liked it.   In fact, I’m a total Adventures by Disney convert.

If you’re considering a family vacation in Scotland (or anywhere else) with Adventures by Disney, here are answers to all your questions as well as a slideshow.

>>See the Scotland: A Brave Adventure slideshow

GENERAL ADVENTURES BY DISNEY QUESTIONS

What are the trips like?

Practically perfect.  Disney researches and plans for 18 months before launching a new trip, and the hands-on experiences are just right for families.   You take archery lessons in Scotland.   Or visit a panda breeding facility in China.  Or make papyrus in Egypt.  Or tour the grounds of a French chateau by bike.

The pace balances sightseeing with relaxation, so you almost never feel rushed.  Also — and this is big when you’re crossing time zones with kids — there aren’t many really early starts.

What else?  Two adventure guides, luxury accommodations, local experts, all internal flights and transportation, and most meals.

Aren’t they kind of expensive?

Yes and no.  These trips definitely aren’t cheap, but they offer good value when you consider the high quality of pretty much… everything.  You could almost certainly cobble together a DIY version of their itineraries for less, but you wouldn’t get front-of-line access everywhere and exclusive activities.

Also, do you know how to find the best camel rides, pasta-making classes, fishing guides, and sea turtle nesting areas.  I don’t, and I’ve tried.

The cuteness of Scottish Highland Ponies cannot be overstated.
The cuteness of Scottish Highland Ponies cannot be overstated.

Do I have to do all the activities?

No, but you’ll probably want to.  I know I did.  Usually when an activity has height, weight, or fitness restrictions, an alternative will be provided.  For example, on our trip, a few people strolled around a village in the Scottish Highlands instead of going mountain biking.

Will I have any free time?

Yes, plenty.  On a typical 10-day trip, you can expect three dinners on your own (at your own expense) and at least two afternoons to explore (these are scheduled in interesting places — usually big or medium-sized cities).  Additionally, not every morning is an early one.

Is it weird taking a family vacation with a group?

This is the biggest variable on these kinds of trips, but it’s up to you how close you get to your fellow travelers.  You can travel parallel with them (sharing excursions and transportation, but not much else) or really get to know them.

On our trip, there were at least four other families that we really hit it off with.  Our kids played together, and we explored and ate together in our free time.  There are always odd ducks, of course, but usually no jerks.

What are the hotels like?

Usually 5-star, and always well located, comfortable, and family friendly.  Families of four or more will usually be in connecting rooms, while families of three or fewer will squeeze into one room with a rollaway bed.

What are the meals like?

The gourmet picnic was just one of the many perfect meals we were served.
This gourmet picnic was just one of the many perfect meals we were served.

Delicious, varied, and local.  As with the activities, an incredible amount of research goes into finding the best places to eat.  There are plenty of kid-pleasing choices on most of the menus, as well as options for vegetarians and guests who have food allergies.

What are the guides like?

Completely perfect.  Out of 1,200 applicants a year, they hire 12.  It’s easier to get into Stanford University or the Astronaut Candidate program.  Okay, I totally made that up.  The point is, the guides are the best I’ve ever met.

What if my kid is younger than the recommended minimum age?

In my opinion, you’d be wasting your money.  A younger child can certainly tag along, but if she can’t snorkel, ride horses, drive a dog sled, or learn Tai-Chi when everyone else is doing it, she’s going to get impatient fast.  Wait a few years if possible.

What if I’m not a huge Disney fan?

This is a huge concern for many people, including me.  It’s not that I don’t like Disney.  It’s more that I don’t want Donald Duck to meet me at the airport.  Rest easy on this front, because these trips aren’t about characters at all.

While Adventures by Disney doesn’t offer a completely authentic, local experience, it offers an enriching and high quality experience.  And anyway, do you really want a completely authentic experience when traveling in Cambodia with your young children?  Of course not.

So what is Disney about these trips?  The entertainment, the quality, and the storytelling.  Other than that, not much.  There will probably be a Disney film on the kids’ movie night, and you will be gifted with collectible Disney pins every day… and that’s it.

Why are you raving so much?  It’s making me suspicious.

Sorry!  Here are the “cons” of the luxury group touring experience.  First, as mentioned, these trips aren’t cheap.  Second, you’ll trade freedom and spontaneity for convenience.

We weren’t willing to completely sacrifice our independence, so we arrived early and toured Edinburgh on our own for four days before our trip started.  Many people on our trip did the same.  It’s a good compromise if time and money permit.

SCOTLAND: A BRAVE ADVENTURE QUESTIONS

>>See the Scotland: A Brave Adventure slideshow

What should I pack?

You will need at least two pairs of shoes per person (in case one gets wet), both comfortable.  Casual, comfortable clothing.  A rain coat for everyone.  Swim suits for hotel pools.  A comfortable day pack.   A few U.S. to U.K. converters, since you’ll probably need to charge lots of things at the same time.  A book light, so you can share a room with your kids without having to share their bedtime.

Don’t bother bringing snacks or water bottles, since your guides will keep you well supplied with plenty of both.

A white raincoat wasn't my smartest idea, but it looked good with my black boots.
A white raincoat wasn’t my smartest idea, but it looked good with my black boots.

How dressy are the dinners?

Dinners are somewhere between dressy and casual, but it will be dark inside, so you can totally get away with black jeans and a cute top.  I wouldn’t bring heels or sandals at all, but some people will.   Definitely wear good walking shoes to the dinner at Edinburgh Castle, because it’s cobblestones all the way.

What are the trip highlights?

The day at picture-perfect Rothiemurchus Estate picnicking near the fields of heather, trotting around on Highland ponies, and riding mountain bikes to one of the prettiest lochs in Scotland was everyone’s favorite day.

We also loved exploring Urquart Castle on the banks of the Loch Ness, while the kids rolled down a soft, grassy hill over and over and over.    We didn’t canoe on Loch Ness (we chose the guided boat tour instead), but other guests claimed that was their favorite.

Isn’t British food kind of… yucky?

I lived in the U.K. for two years, and no matter what Jamie Oliver says, the food isn’t usually the highlight of any vacation there.  Having said that, I have never eaten better food in Great Britain than I did on this trip.  We had delicious salmon, lots of yummy banoffee pie, and the best veggie curry I’ve ever tasted.

We also sampled haggis and venison hot dogs.  While they weren’t really up our alley, it was hugely fun to try new things.  Speaking of which, the adults-only whisky tasting was great — don’t skip it even if, like me, you’re not a fan.

What if it rains?

It often rains in Scotland, but it seldom rains hard.  Bring two pairs of shoes, so you can rotate (you can speed dry damp shoes at night by stuffing them with newspaper).  Pack long hooded raincoats and wear baseball caps.  It’s unlikely to be cold or rain unrelentingly.

Will we get time to explore on our own?

For about a week after I got home, I kept thinking car horns in the distance were bagpipes.
For about a week after I got home, I kept thinking car horns were bagpipes.

Yes.  You’ll get free time in Edinburgh, Inverness, and the Isle of Skye.  If you are a foodie, I have some important advice for you.  Ready?  Make dinner reservations as soon as you arrive in Scotland.

Your guides will be able to give you an idea what time you’ll be free on those days.  If you don’t feel like messing with international calling, ask the concierge at your first hotel (probably the Balmoral in Edinburgh) to do it for you.

Are the bus rides long?  Is motion sickness an issue?

Do bring motion sickness meds if anyone in your family is susceptible to carsickness.  Also, be first to the bus every day so you can grab a seat near the front.

The guides have lollypops, which really help, but not an unlimited supply.  I say bring your own.  I also like to bring ginger chews, which are available at Trader Joe’s.

Will my kid get bored with all the castles and museums?

Surprisingly no!  The guide at Glamis Castle told our kids age-appropriate ghost stories, showed them suits of armor, and told them interesting tidbits about the royal family.  The other castles we visited (Dunnottar and Urquart) were self-guided tours, so the kids were free to run around and follow their interests.  Their primary interests were hide and seek and tag, but hey, they loved it.

Isn’t the whole “Scotland: A Brave Adventure” movie theme kind of weird?

Yes, but in a good way.  It’s less of an exploration of the film itself, and more of an immersion into the making of the film.  Every day (on the bus, where you are a captive audience), you watch a short documentary feature on some aspect of the making of Brave.

These are all narrated by the academy award-winning director Mark Andrews, who is both funny and easy on the eyes.  The videos follow the crew as they travel around Scotland (on the same itinerary you are on, more or less), and they discuss the challenges of animating hair, tapestry, and moss.

We all ate it up — this is Disney after all, so they know how to tell a good story.  At the end of the trip, we had a whole bus full of aspiring filmmakers.

>>See the Scotland: A Brave Adventure slideshow

Disclosure:  Adventures by Disney paid for most of our expenses on this trip, including accommodations, meals, and airfare.  They did not request that I express any particular point of view, and all opinions are my own.

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Comments

  1. says

    What an incredible adventure for you and your kids! I’d love to explore Scotland one day and honestly, never really considered a luxury group tour either but I do enjoy being spoiled.

  2. says

    Great article! I give a hearty second to the ginger chews idea. If, like me, your town is lacking a Trader Joe’s you can usually find them at a health food coop.

  3. Sally Black says

    Adventures by Disney are excellent, especially for exploring a destination like Scotland. I’ve visited there many times. Unless you’re fearless about driving in the highlands, you will need a guide to get to the most historic and scenic areas (which are breath taking!) Having Disney guides will definitely enhance this experience. Worth every penny!

  4. Carrie says

    Wow! It looks like you had a great trip! My little girl loves brave and Collects Brave Disney pins. She has every Disney Brave pin except the ones from this trip. I was wondering if you or anyone would know how I can get them for her without going on this trip? any help would be appreciated! Thanks!!!

  5. caitlin says

    Hello, we are going on this trip in mid June. I am struggling with what to pack for the city portions of the tour. I have the cute “outdoor adventure” attire figured out. I see your cute boots and jeans attire, but wondering about summer time clothing. Any advice would be appreciated.
    Thanks in advance

  6. says

    Caitlin: I struggle with this too. If I were you, I’d pack skinny jeans or ankle pants and (reasonably comfortable) ballet flats. That way, if it does get hot, you won’t feel like you just stepped out of an LLBean catalog…in Europe. A cotton skirt wouldn’t take up much room either.

  7. Michael Schweitzer says

    Expensive? The answer should be, heck yes, borderline ripoff. A week in Germany for one adult and two kids, on the Disney plan, is about $15,000 and it doesn’t include guide gratuities or all meals. So, let’s figure $16, 500 to be safe. No, it doesn’t include airfare.

    If you google their “special experiences” you’ll find that most, not all, can be purchased on your own by the same good folks who sell to Disney. Rent a bike in Lucerne? No problem. Marionette making in Prague, just google it. Want to take THE RIDE tour in NYC, book it online.

    Many of the meals are buffet style with Disney, so it’s not like you are receiving three course meals when you book with Disney.

    I priced the Germany trip, and using the same hotels, planning even better meals, booking the same excursions, and including local guides and paying them for private tours, it was $6,100 vs Disney’s $15,000 +.

    As I reviewed most of their tours I found the same ration of rip off to value. The shorter tours were $3000, U book it yourself, $8000 Disney (NYC).

    And I checked Italy and Austria and Switzerland…

    The tours are very well planned, with hotels and excursions I’d enjoy (or have done and enjoyed), and it is clearly a first rate experience, but it is not five star (not sure I’d want that on a family vacation). For example, normally one of the three hotels will be over the top nice, one nice, and one okay. Go to Disney Adventures and look yourself.

    For me, renting a nice Mercedes for a week and booking the hotels and tours myself would not only be about 1/3 the Disney cost, but you’d be able to go when you wanted, not when the tour bus was leaving.

    Now, if you are rich, and spending $16,000-$20,000 for the land only portion of a ONE WEEK tour with your family of 3 or 4 is not an issue, then I would do it. I’m not sure a week in Europe is enough time given the long flight to get there, we don’t all live in NYC, some of us fly from the middle of the US to a city like NYC or Atlanta to get to Europe, and you are beat for two days upon arrival.

    Anyway, IF I was wealthily I would book the tour because it would be so much easier to have someone else do the planning, driving, etc. I have been with my kids to Europe and we really enjoyed it, but it’s a lot of work.

    And I’m not rich. I am comfortable. I have a nice income, but I don’t make $1,000,000 a year or have three million sitting in the bank. I can’t see how, if you’re like me financially, the Disney tour would EVER make sense.

    I would research their tours, book must of the hotels and excursions yourself, but follow their planning. Since a week is not realistic, I’d do my own planning and book the Germany Disney tour and the Italy Switzerland tour myself, following Disney’s own itinerary. You can do almost everything Disney has in their itinerary for about $10,000 for a family of three for two weeks. You might even find an excision or two that Disney didn’t think of.

    In such a two week family trip the choice is: $10,000 if you plan and book it yourself, or $30,000 or more if you let Disney do it.

    It’s an easy decision for me.

    (BTW, a family of 3 (and probably 4) can spend a LOT less than $10,000 to spend two weeks in Europe, but I’m including the same or similar first rate hotels, excellent meals, VIP tours and guides, first class rail and car rental, etc.)

  8. says

    Michael: Thank you so much for your thoughtful and well-researched reply. It’s probably my favorite comment ever, because it so exactly captures my own travel conundrum: can a parent relax AND have fun on a family vacation?

    Having done Europe both ways, I can tell you I was never more relaxed than when I took our ABD trip (then again, I wasn’t paying…). As I type this, I am traveling alone in Europe with my two kids. I am doing everything:

    Figuring out where to stay. Figuring out how to get from the tram to the train to the bus and which ones to take. Figuring out how to buy tickets. Figuring out where and when to eat. Getting my kids ready on time. Keeping an eye on the weather. Deciding which attraction to visit when. Making sure it’s open that day. And so on.

    I can tell you this: if I was a single parent of means wanting to take my kids on a big trip for the first time, but I was nervous, ABD would make a ton of sense.

    In real life, I end up coming to the same conclusion as you most of the time. I lust after the ABD trip (or Backroads!), copy some of the highlights from their itineraries, and go independent.

    Anyway, thanks for the interesting discussion. Off now to wrap my head around the Dutch train schedule!

  9. Brittany says

    This seems like a silly question, but did you get the pins with your trip? I love disney and collect disney pins, and have been searching for them. I want to do this trip eventually, but I am a recent college grad and can’t afford it. If you have any extras of the pins, I would love to maybe buy them. I understand if not because you may want them as a keepsake, but I figured I might as well ask. Thanks!

  10. says

    I’ve been to Scotland four times, grandson in tow, and love living with and like the locals. This trip engages the children in activities they can experience at home. While I’m sure they had a great time, they missed a lot of the history of the country. Return on your own. You will be amazed what richness awaits.

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