I kept looking for mouse ears, but they weren't there. I also expected Snow White or Donald Duck to pop up unannounced during our meals. But despite frequent glances over my shoulder, I saw only our happy tour group. "When Adventures by Disney first started, Mickey and other characters would show up out of nowhere on our trips," one of the guides confided to me. "But the guests didn't really appreciate it. It was too out of context to have Mary Poppins greeting you in Italy."
I noticed a related issue when I told friends I was taking my 12-year-old niece to Austria and the Czech Republic on a two-week Adventures by Disney trip. "But isn't Euro Disneyland in France?" was a question I frequently got.
Despite the fact that Disney has been running family holiday tours since 2005, Adventures by Disney still flies under the radar compared with the company's higher-profile ventures. Guides take groups of no more than 38 parents and children to one of 19 scenic locales far from any theme park, from the remote beaches of the Galápagos Islands to the glacial lakes of the Canadian Rockies to the Great Wall of China.
Sure, times may be tough for tourism, but Disney has been sweetening the deal lately. A three-night Bahamian cruise is currently being thrown in for free for those who book selected packages by Jan. 15.
And yes, that kind of freebie is one sign that these trips ain't cheap. Prices for the one- to two-week tours range from $2,289 to $6,529 per adult and $2,069 to $5,869 per child. That breaks down to $381 to $544 a day, including hotel, some meals, transportation, tours and activities, but not airfare. On average, Disney packages cost roughly 10% more than other similarly posh family tours. "I am a Disney fan, but I must say, I was shocked by their pricing," says travel-guidebook writer (and mother of two) Pauline Frommer. "They don't seem to be doing anything extraordinary to justify these additional costs."
I had a very different reaction. When I went on my European trip, I felt that the famous Disney attention to detail justified the price tag of the flawlessly organized tour. Our two professional guides often wore tasteful costumes representing the local cultures, had genuine-looking smiles firmly planted on their faces and acted like perfect nannies: patient, kind and a little magical (not unlike Ms. Poppins herself). At certain points, the itinerary carefully separated the age groups: the adults enjoyed wine-tasting while the kids played dress-up with 18th century garb. Disney is obviously well versed in keeping each family member happy.
And Disney can pull strings that individual travelers can't, like obtaining backstage passes to The Lion King in London, after-hours use of the Vienna zoo and reserved entry to the gallery in Florence that houses Michelangelo's David. Anything but cheesy, the tours emphasize culture and environment, with activities like architectural tours of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and expert-led hikes to track wolves in Alaska. The itineraries are an educational way to show kids the globe--beyond another lap on It's a Small World.