“So, what do you think so far?” whispered my fellow travel writer.
It was a perfect spring day with Adventures by Disney and the two of us were exploring Dunnottar Castle, a ruined medieval fortress on Scotland’s Aberdeenshire coast. Our children were playing a rowdy game of tag on the lawn, as if they’d known each other all their lives. They hadn’t.
“I really like it,” I whispered back. “I thought it would be more… rah rah.”
“Exactly,” she replied. “And the access is…”
“Incredible,” I finished.
We peered down into the vault, which has seen its share of dark plot twists over the centuries, and decided to explore the sunnier stables instead.
We were on a media preview trip for Adventures by Disney’s newest itinerary, Scotland: A Brave Adventure. It’s not the kind of family vacation we would have chosen on our own. As experienced travelers, we don’t normally go in for luxury group touring. Here’s how Adventures by Disney won us over.
It’s a little-discussed fact that the typical family vacation is an uphill slog for mom. For every hour I’ve spent relaxing on a tropical beach, I’ve spent 16 organizing the trip, renting a car, finding the right hotel, and feeding my family.
On our Scotland family vacation, Disney took out all the hard parts. They handled all the transportation. They carried my luggage to and from my room. They picked restaurants I would have chosen myself. They provided water and snacks on board our luxury coach.
When we rolled up to a hotel at the end of a long day, they handed us envelopes with our hotel key cards inside. No waiting in line to check in on an Adventures by Disney trip.
To save money, you could try to duplicate their itineraries on a do-it-yourself family vacation, but many of the best experiences are exclusive. As Adventures by Disney regional manager Bruce Austin puts it, “The Disney name opens doors.”
That’s putting it mildly.
We took archery lessons at Glamis Castle, the childhood home of the late Queen Mother. We also launched canoes from the grounds of Urquart Castle on Loch Ness. You know who else gets to do those things? No one.
On the last night of the trip, we were led by a bagpipe player through the gates of Edinburgh Castle at twilight. After the portcullis clanked down behind us, we were all alone on the castle grounds, where we enjoyed a private viewing of the crown jewels at our own pace and a banquet dinner by candle light.
Good luck booking that on your own.
Adventures by Disney usually spends 18 months figuring out the best hotels, restaurants, guides, and activities on their trips, and it shows.
Where available, you’ll always stay in four and five-star hotels. The food is first-rate too, as well as local and sustainable. Since these trips are family-centric, children are well taken care at mealtimes (though it’s not all french fries and pizza).
Food safety obviously isn’t an issue in Britain, but it can be in other parts of the world, like in China or Egypt. For all destinations, Disney does unprecedented and ongoing due diligence, evaluating every restaurant not just from the point of view of a diner, but as a health inspector too.
Speaking of safety, it comes first for all activities, with fun right behind. How good were our mountain bikes and helmets? Brand new. What about our Highland Ponies? Let me put it this way: not only were they healthy and sure-footed, my daughter’s pony was sired by a stallion that belongs to Queen Elizabeth II.
Not much mouse
Whether we admitted it or not, everyone on our trip was nervous that we’d be greeted at Edinburgh International Airport by Donald Duck. Or forced to wear mouse ears on the bus. None of these things happened.
In order to keep the trips as authentic as possible, the Disney angle is downplayed. You’ll get Disney pins every day — which many people collect and love — and the kids will get Disney on movie night, and that’s pretty much it.
(Scotland: A Brave Adventure is the exception, since it’s based on the making of the movie Brave. You learn about the places, people, and animals that inspired the filmmakers, as well as more technical animation topics. It sounds weird, but it’s fascinating and unobtrusive.)
The bottom line
Okay, here’s the bad news: this is a premium product. Disney doesn’t even try to compete on price. You get two amazing guides. How good are they? Of 1,200 yearly applicants, 12 are chosen for their intelligence, temperament, and personality. Also, they’re unbelievably good with kids. Once hired, they undergo extensive and ongoing training. In countries with language barriers, there are local guides too.
For the price, you also get well-located 4 and 5-star hotels. Almost all your meals included, though on a typical itinerary, you’ll have a few free nights. There are also adult-only events (like whiskey tasting) and kid-only events (baking scones).
It’s not a cheap family vacation, but it’s an easy and high quality one. You show up, turn off your brain, and have a good time. And there’s nothing wrong with that.
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.