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Disney’s cultured cruises for kids, in Europe

Posted by Anita Dunham-Potter On October - 27 - 2009

For families with children, travel to Europe can be daunting. Packing and unpacking and deciding where to go and eat is more difficult with kids in tow. However, Disney Cruise Line is setting out to make it easy for families to visit Europe.

In April, the Disney Magic will return to Europe, where it first sailed in 2007, only this time with a few new itineraries. The Magic will offer 10,11, and-12-day cruises to Scandinavia, Germany and Russia, in addition to a lineup of Mediterranean itineraries that include calls at three new ports. And in each port Disney will add its magic touch to enhance the touring experience.

Keys to culture

Each year cruise lines keep upping the ante on shore excursions, as passengers express more enthusiasm to spend money on experiences. Disney sees its return and expansion into the European market as an evolutionary step firmly based on a core Disney activity — storytelling.

Unlike other cruise lines where the hotel department handles the shore excursions, Disney places their tours in the hands of the entertainment department. David Duffy, Disney Cruise Line’s creative director for entertainment and shore excursions, summed it up this way: “We’re using our storytelling expertise to tell the great and fascinating stories of the places we’re visiting at each destination.” He added that the true objective is to provide fact-based narrative rather than fairy tales.

Indeed, the line’s return to Europe offers a treasure trove of culturally rich Italian ports such Naples, Civitavecchia (Rome) and La Spezia (Florence, Pisa, Lucca), as well as Barcelona, Oslo, Copenhagen and Stockholm. However, it’s the ones not normally considered children’s destinations, such as St. Petersburg, Russia and Tunis, Tunisia that are the most intriguing.

Disney realizes that for a lot of passengers it will be their first time in Europe and well-designed shore excursions are the key to a great cruise vacation. “We make our shore excursions very kid-friendly,” said Jason Lasecki, Disney Cruise Line’s public relations director.

“That’s what we do so well. If they know their children are well taken care of, parents have a good time.” Lasecki acknowledged the challenge for Disney is to keep the children engaged in the cultural significance of each port of call. “We’re looking for the sweet spot in each destination,” he added.

Sweet spot or not one thing Disney insists upon for shore excursion participants is comfort. The line goes the extra mile with comfortable transportation along with adding little touches like plentiful bottled water and cool towels. They even make gelato stops during long tours to keep the kids happy. Another nice option that Disney provides at each stop is a “Port Adventure” where youth counselors from the ship whisk the kids off for an activity allowing parents and grandparents to explore a site in more detail.

Onboard the Magic, there will be activities geared toward preparing kids for the ports, such as painting frescoes, mosaics, and Russian stacking dolls. There will also be a food tastings to familiarize the kids with what they’ll find in each port such as gelato for Italy or crepes for France.

Tunisian mystique

For the majority of passengers onboard the Magic, visiting Tunis, Tunisia will be the first time experiencing a Muslim country. Disney realizes this and will offer family-friendly lectures that will discuss Tunisian society and traditions.

Once ashore, tours and activities are clearly aimed at experiencing Tunisian culture. For example, a “Treasure Hunt” shore excursion in the white-washed village of Sidi Bou Said allows families high-octane fun while at the same time discovering the ancient history of the village. Tour participants are given a map booklet with clues for a successful treasure hunt. Along the way guests visit former palaces, receive a temporary Arabic henna tattoo, fetch water from a famous communal fountain, haggle with shop owners using local currency to buy trinkets, take a pit stop in a café where the locals smoke their hookah pipes, and have their name written in Arabic by a Wiseman.

Other tours of the area include tour of Tunis with a visit to a souk, and the Bardo Museum famous for its Roman mosaics. Also available is a visit to Carthage, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a jaunt to a Berber village, which offers a similar atmosphere to Colonial Williamsburg except it has Arabic touches of snake charmers, camel rides, and belly dancing.

Ciao Tuscany

Florence is one of the most intriguing cultural centers in Western history, in which religion, philosophy, and politics played an important part in the development of the arts. So, how do you get an 8-year-old interested in all this?

Disney developed a tour to take kids beyond just talking about history — they will actually experience it. The line is offering an exclusive “Disney Experience” at the 14th century palace — Palazzo Vecchio. “This tour is something no other cruise line has ever done in Florence,” says Duffy. The tour is actually part of a program developed for Italian school children, but Disney was able to work with the museum to come up with an English-speaking version. The tour will allow kids to enjoy works of art Michelangelo, wander through secret palace passageways, talk with actors portraying Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici or his Spanish wife Duchess Eleonora di Toledo, try on medieval clothing, and paint a fresco.

Another exclusive tour that is only offered by Disney is a medieval parade experience in Lucca complete with drummers, troubadours, dancers, flag throwers, and a cross bow contest. For those that have always dreamed of going to cooking school in Tuscany you can do that as well. The line is offering the experience at the Torre A Cenaia winery just outside Pisa. While this excursion is more adult-oriented, kids are welcomed too. The best part about cooking school in Tuscany – eating what you’ve created and (for adults anyway) washing it down with the local vintages.

Russian intrigue

When the Magic heads north to the Baltics the grandeur of St. Petersburg, Russia will be the highlight for most onboard. For the first time in Disney Cruise Line history a ship will spend an overnight in port. With the added time guests will be able to delve deep into the city’s bloody 300-year history, admire the beautiful architecture of the Winter Palace and the Peterhof, or stroll along the rivers and canals.

“The shore excursions in St. Petersburg have been two years in the making,” said Duffy. A tour of Catherine’s Palace in Pushkin is the highlight where Disney will offer an exclusive Prince and Princess Ball in the palace’s grand ballroom. Imagine all the little girls dressed up in their Belle, Cinderella, and Snow White costumes being driven to the palace’s doors in horse-drawn carriages and then dancing with Disney princess characters. “This is a very exciting time for us,” added Lasecki.

Disney will also offer guests the opportunity to experience an evening performance of Swan Lake at the St. Petersburg Ballet Theatre. Another Disney exclusive tour will allow guests to experience a private performance at the Jacobsen Ballet School, where young dancers, ages 5 to 15, train for a career in the ballet.

Also, no visit to St. Petersburg would be complete without a visit to one of the world’s greatest art museums- the Hermitage. The museum’s collection includes more than three million works of art and artifacts. Disney offers a chance for kids to visit and also create their own masterpieces in the museum’s Roman sculpture section giving parents more time to explore.

The idea of heading on a family cruise often conjures up thoughts of sitting back on deck, soaking up the sunshine and splashing in the pool, but a European cruise offers something different. Cruising in this part of the world means seeing amazing sites and experiencing ancient cultures and customs. And for kids lucky enough to sail on the Disney Magic with all its family-friendly tours full of cultural enlightenment they’ll get to see that it’s a small world after all.

If you go:

In the Mediterranean, the Disney Magic will be based in Barcelona and offer four 10-day and four 11-day cruises in April, May, August and September 2010. Fares start at $1964 per person, based on double occupancy. Kids ages 17 and under traveling with 2 full-fare guests in the same cabin sail free on select Mediterranean sailings from April 24 through May 26, 2010 (taxes and fees not included).

In June, July and part of August the Magic will be based out of Dover, England and offer 12-day cruises to the Baltics. Fares start at $3,649 per person, based on double occupancy. Visit Disney Cruise Line’s Web site for more details.

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