Would you travel with Disney? More and more people are doing just that. Disney's tour-outfitter arm, Adventures by Disney, which began a mere three years ago with six tours, focused mostly in the American West, has expanded to 17 separate itineraries, including China and Australia. Senior editor Norie Quintos, the magazine's resident tour expert, recently returned from an Adventures by Disney trip to Italy with these thoughts.
"Authentic, immersive, and experiential," are how Ed Baklor, senior vice president of the Burbank-based company, describes the trips. These are all buzzwords I (and our magazine) love. And in truth, everyone on my tour—young and old—enjoyed themselves (including me and my kids, by the way). But it did get me thinking, can a Disney trip truly be authentic? And what is authenticity anyway?
Is it hitting the expected high spots (Colosseum, Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo's David, and a gondola ride) with minimum waits in line because Disney had pre-booked admission? Is it the appearance of no, not Mickey, but another costumed character playing Venetian Marco Polo edu-taining the kids with tales of his voyages? Is it the hands-on pasta making lesson at a Renaissance castle in Tuscany? Or the appointment to create your own Carnevale mask in Venice? What about the opportunities to stop and shop at The Disney Stores in Florence, Rome, and Venice? Or the liberal gifting of Disney-logo pins and baseball caps and canvas tote bags to the guests?
I have no real answers. I do know that the mask-making and pasta-making experiences felt real – as if we were momentarily touching on a truth about Italian culture. But some of it, while enjoyable, felt to me a little manufactured, if not downright fake. However, I realized that all tour companies to a certain extent orchestrate experiences, hand out logo T-shirts, and otherwise try to banish the annoyances and inconveniences of a foreign culture. Disney just does it with more gusto. Tours themselves are an artificial construct. Perhaps the point is not whether it is authentic, but whether it feels authentic to you. As a seasoned traveler, I could have done with a lot less American-style coddling, but if that's what some people need to get out and explore their world, isn't the point to engage in a different culture, whatever the level?
The most genuine moments of our trip were during our "free afternoons," away from the group, engaging with the country in an unfiltered, unguided way: a stilted but illuminating conversation with a Roman retiree; an attempt to cross a busy Italian street filled with zooming motorbikes and speeding cars. A taste of squid-ink pasta at a Venetian trattoria. A lick of dense zabaglione gelato in Florence.
Your best bet is to look for tour operators that will maximize and facilitate these serendipitous interactions.
How do you define an authentic tour? Let us know in the comments below.
Photos: Above, A tour guide leads visitors through the Hall of Maps; below, Carnevale masks in Venice. By Norie Quintos