PHOTO: Adventures by Disney aboard AmaWaterways' AmaKristina. (photo by Jason Leppert)
Speaking with Heather Killingbeck, Director, Trip & Program Development for Adventures by Disney aboard AmaWaterways’ AmaKristina shed some additional light on the company’s efforts to bring the product into being.
“[It’s been] in development I’d say about four years," Killingbeck said. "So, as you know, we launched actually last year in the Danube, but we started thinking about it probably for maybe even five years ago.
“And there was a lot of head-scratching. Not necessarily amongst us, but when we cast the net a little broader because it was a market that was really dominated with experiences custom-built for seniors. And we just saw it as such a great opportunity to tell stories for families, and we couldn't really figure out what the barrier was and happily so there really was no barrier. We had to find the right partner, certainly, but we immediately chose Ama and we couldn't be happier.
“In terms of providing exemplary unparalleled guest service, they’re like number one in river cruises as far as I’m concerned. Their attention to detail, their focus on culinary stories is really quite stellar. So, we knew that once we had solid partners like Ama, the rest would be relatively easy. It took a long time but it wasn't necessarily super, super challenging. We knew we could go out and about and find excursions that really fit the Adventures by Disney model—meaning telling stories in active ways, immersive authentic ways.
“We knew that we could work with Ama to create or to use their common areas and multipurpose them, such as crafts corner over here, such as movie night like you probably saw last night. The Chef’s Table that’s only used at night, we use also during the day. So there was enough space, and also, except for this afternoon, there’s not a lot of daytime sailing hours. You know we really do try to tell the onshore stories as opposed to the water stories.”
Of course, there are many river cruise operators in Europe besides AmaWaterways, and I was curious as to what the process was like for Disney in selecting the line over any other.
As it turns out, the decision was relatively simple.
READ MORE: The Delightful AmaWaterways Family River Cruising Experience
Killingbeck explained, “We did a lot of research, and our consumer insight folks helped. Our marketing and sales partners helped with research to find out kind of who was considered the Four Seasons of river cruising if you will. And then myself, other folks from my trip development team, came out and experienced the product first hand, and it was frankly really quick that we realized that they were perfect, just absolutely perfect."
Plus, she added, “Their headquarters is actually in our neighborhood. They’re in Calabasas, so we were able to go actually – and I’m based in Glendale in Los Angeles – so that helped a lot too because we were able to sit down and have some really lovely productive meetings with them, and we continue to do so.”
With such a quick turnaround, I then wondered why it took a total of four or five years to bring the product to market and whether or not it was fleet-related.
It’s relatively easy to settle on a brand, but preparing a vessel is a whole other matter, after all.
Killingbeck answered, “Early on, Rudi said that they would build new ships for us. Now, I say 'for us', [but] I mean he uses them for himself as well, but that got us very excited. We knew that our first sailing last year on the Danube was going to be on a brand new vessel, the AmaViola, and it was going to be their first ship in their fleet to have the connectings and the triples. … But it took a long time. Our launch cycle timing sometimes doesn't fit with the climate in Europe in terms of site inspecting and vetting out, so that took some time and some planning.”
As I quickly discovered from my firsthand experience last week onboard the AmaKristina along the Rhine, the Adventures by Disney difference is primarily driven by specialty shore excursions not ordinarily offered by AmaWaterways.
Still, I wanted to be sure I understood all that was considered a premium overlay on top of the cruise line itself.
READ MORE: Adventures by Disney Is Off to a Great River Cruising Start
“So, the Adventure Guides are probably the key, and whether that’s six or eight, it depends on the number of guests onboard,” Killingbeck clarified. “But we try to keep the same ratio that we have on our land program, which is one Adventure Guide for every twenty guests, more or less. So that's a biggie, and then, of course, all the multi-purposing of the common areas.
“We usually include – this is not a specific amount, but it just happens to be that both on the Danube and on the Rhine – we include a couple of extra meals offshore. As far as I know that’s not done at all without an up-charge. … Typically all meals are taken on-ship even if it means having to drive hours to get back, or guests are on their own to buy their own lunch. So, we try to treat you to some local cuisine. …
“We include all gratuities. … The only thing that guests have to buy if they want to on an AbD with Ama sailing would be anything that you take from the bar, things like laundry service or the hair salon service, and that’s it. So, the gratuities for the Adventure Guides and all of the Ama crew are included, and I think that’s a pretty big differentiator.”
I also asked how the food programming might be an add-on, particularly the “Be Our Guest” dinner that was offered one night.
“Certainly the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ overlay was ours," she said, "and we have on every single departure, whether it’s on the Danube or the Rhine, we’ll have one special night with our own overlay. And we also can work with Ama and kind of tweak a little bit, massage the menus, but for the most part, I don’t want to detract from what they already have in place.”
To conclude, I had to ask if all of this might potentially be a pilot program for Disney’s own dedicated river cruise line, something like Disney River Cruises to go along with the Disney Cruise Line and its ocean product.
“It’s a popular question," Killingbeck said, "but we really love having it with Adventures by Disney now. And it’s working; it’s really successful. I think we’re part of Karl Holz’ organization, and so he’s thrilled with how we’re introducing our guests to river cruising, so right now we’re all happy the way it is.”