Disney Global Tours See a Rise in Popularity After 3 Years

By Scott Powers | Staff Writer
Orlando Sentinel

Camel riding in the Australian Outback. Dining in the Eiffel Tower. Snorkeling over a Costa Rican coral reef. Sleeping in an Irish castle. Biking around Golden Gate Park. Those are just some of the vacation experiences that Disney just can't bring to its theme parks.

So Walt Disney Co. officials decided: If they can't bring the Tuscan countryside to Disney, they can always take Disney to the Tuscan countryside -- and find ways to make it Disney, arranging everything from hotels to cooking lessons from local chefs with that Disney style. Now, with its 3-year-old "Adventures by Disney" program, the company appears to have claimed a strong position in the worldwide packaged-tour business.

"We have created Adventures by Disney to be these immersive, authentic, distinctly Disney vacation experiences, providing travel opportunities for families to go visit these places in the world, with Disney," said Ed Baklor, senior vice president of Adventures by Disney, a division of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

Disney appears to be having a swift effect on the industry. And while the business is still a small enterprise within corporate Disney, it is growing rapidly, giving Disney tourism beachheads at locations around the world and offering its loyal customers more travel options.

Disney entered the business with a pilot project, offering just two tour-group itineraries in 2005, but the program has grown every year. For 2008, the company is booking 18 itineraries in 13 countries, with a total of 370 scheduled tours throughout the year.

Each Adventures tour ranges from six to 12 days, at prices (excluding airfare) ranging from less than $2,000 for a child to more than $5,000 for an adult. The program typically shoots for groups of 30 to 40 people for each tour.

Disney does not release booking numbers or revenue projections for the program. Yet if Adventures by Disney consistently attains its stated goals, it could draw between 11,000 and 15,000 tourists next year. The published prices suggest that much business could generate revenue in the range of $30 million to $40 million.

That would make the program a small enterprise within Disney's Parks and Resorts segment, which this year had more than $10 billion in sales through Walt Disney World, the company's other four theme-park resorts, Disney Cruise Lines and the Disney Vacation Club time-share business.

And the entire international-tourism industry is a $740 billion-a-year business, with more than 840 million tourist arrivals, according to the Travel Industry Association.

But Adventures by Disney has entered a market niche so new that the company is one of the first in. Until recently, scheduled package group tours tailored for families were virtually unheard of, travel professionals say.

"I think a lot of people felt children and tours are two things that just didn't go together," said Carol Blevins, a travel consultant with the Orlando-based GoTravel travel agency.

That first began to change when Disney entered the cruise-ship business, first by partnering with Premier Cruise Lines in the mid-1980s and then by starting its own line in the late '90s, both out of Brevard County's Port Canaveral. As it developed family-oriented cruises, other cruise lines -- then other package-tour sectors -- followed suit.

Now, Blevins said, "The family market really is growing tremendously."

Tauck World Discovery, an 82-year-old, Connecticut-based package-tour wholesaler, says it pioneered the family-oriented overseas package tour nearly five years ago, in 2003. Today, 13 of Tauck's 100 tour itineraries are in its "Bridge" program, so named because they're designed to bridge generations.

Disney's emergence should actually help other companies in the market by giving the concept a higher profile, said Tom Armstrong Tauck's communications manager.

"We welcome them into the arena," Armstrong said. "They've got, certainly, incredible marketing muscle. Our position is, a rising tide lifts all boats. We've been sort of the lonely voice in the wilderness here, trying to do the business of escorted family travel."

Yet Disney's entry might not be welcomed by all.

"They should be a pain in the neck to established wholesalers, because they're big enough to be," said Jim Barker, longtime Orlando travel agent.

And Disney can leverage more than just its size, said Larry Yu, professor of tourism studies and hospitality management at George Washington University. He expects Disney to become a big player quickly, because its brand is so powerful and so trusted by consumers, which should offer comfort to those who are nervous about international travel.

"Disney very definitely leverages on its brand and, I think, on loyal customers who've been to the parks, and they'd like to take their kids to different destinations," Yu said. "I'm sure that they [Disney officials] very selectively choose their suppliers in those places, and that they have very high expectations and values."

That is what Disney is trying to achieve, Baklor said. Adventures tours have Disney-employed hosts, guides, concierges and even, here and there, actors to role play. Disney has written storybooks to provide a Disney-flavored basis for each itinerary.

"We have vetted out the whole vacation experience," he said. "The minute you get off the plane in Italy or Spain or Germany, there is someone standing there with an "Adventures by Disney" sign. Once you go through customs . . . we pick up your bags. You don't touch your suitcases again.

"We vet out all the details, the meals, where to go, when. So all of those hassles are taken out of the vacation experience."

Might so much programmed activity and controlled circumstances take the adventure out of an adventure by Disney?

For some people, maybe yes, said Ray Heckmann, owner of Orlando-based Festival Tours, which specializes in customized, private tours to Peru and Costa Rica (two destinations included in Disney's program). According to Heckmann, the majority of world travelers are still not interested in such standardized packages. They go to agents to nail down basic details and create options, but they prefer more loosely organized experiences and traveling on their own.

So he's not worried about losing those customers to Disney. Still, many people traveling with children are likely to be enticed by the security of the group tours that Disney, Tauck and others can offer, he said.

"There is a segment in the U.S. consumer market that likes that idea, and likes the idea of safety in numbers," Heckmann said.

Baklor said that Adventures by Disney are adventurous. There is plenty of free time in each trip's schedule, he said, and all of the locations -- such as the little hillside villa, surrounded by olive groves, where one Adventures tour stays in Tuscany, Italy -- are real, he noted. So are the gondolas, kayaks, double-decker buses, horse-drawn carts, boats, camels and bicycles that various Adventures tourists might ride.

Disney has already tried and dropped a couple of destinations -- the Canadian Rockies and Hawaii. Other popular spots, such as Las Vegas, might seem to be a bad fit for the Disney model. But Baklor would not rule out anything, saying: "We want to make sure we keep the trips fresh."