A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting on a centuries-old stone bench in the Antonin thermae, rearranging my son's diaper bag while my daughter skipped ahead. "Mummy, looooook!" Lexi buzzed with a four-year-old's sense of wonder.
It was day three of our 11-night Mediterranean cruise aboard the Disney Magic, a half-hour bus ride from the busy modern port of Tunis,
Tunisia –the northernmost tip of Africa … and a long way from Epcot.
Times, and Disney, have changed since the quaint theme park tribute to distant cultures opened in 1982. Families today are more adventurous when they travel; they're seeking exotic destinations and opportunities to enrich their children's understanding of the world, notes the Adventure Travel Trade Association. And cruising is increasingly a family affair, with one-quarter of all ships reporting children aboard, according to the Cruise Lines International Association. With these trends in mind, the Mouse has begun venturing farther afield.
Disney's recent preoccupation has been to lead families beyond "the berm," insider lingo for the Magic Kingdom, which doesn't let the outside world intrude on its manufactured environment. On land, with a guided tour company created in 2005 called Adventures by Disney, families can visit endangered pandas at a research station in China, zip-line over a Costa Rican jungle, or canoe on Moraine Lake along the Valley of the Ten Peaks in Banff National Park.
By sea, Disney Cruise Line has just as swiftly evolved into a more audacious operation than it was at its launch in 1998, with the Disney Magic's first three- and four-night jaunts to the Bahamas.
Our late-April cruise kicked off a greatly expanded European schedule. We anchored in Tunisia, Malta, at Italian ports (gateways to Rome, Pisa, Florence and the Tuscan countryside), Corsica and the French Riviera. A new Northern European route, meanwhile, is taking in St. Petersburg, Berlin and several Scandinavian capitals.
As the appeal of cruising broadens, so do family-focused alternatives to Disney. Competitors are everyone from National Geographic Expeditions and Gap Adventures, which visit places such as Antarctica or the Amazon in more rugged, expedition-style ships; to posh lines such as Regent Seven Seas, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Holland America Line or the river cruiser Uniworld, which haven't traditionally catered to children but now do.
All-inclusive or food-inclusive fares, "kids sail free" discounts, abundant child care and creative, kid-driven activities are on offer, and cruise lines have begun crafting more active and culturally relevant day trips ashore, to satisfy eclectic tastes – in Disney's case, with moments of childlike whimsy woven through, says Carolyn Spencer Brown of the popular online magazine CruiseCritic.com.
"You're seeing a desire for memorable experiences," she says, "rather than the bubble-like trip where you're dropped off in a port for six hours of shopping in tourist central."
In Naples, for example, we could go ashore to learn how to make pizza in the place where pizza was invented. Or take part in a scavenger hunt through nearby Herculaneum, a city ruined by the same volcanic eruption that wiped out Pompeii.
In Corsica, we trooped through a sanctuary for endangered turtles. In Villefranche, I left Lexi at the ship's Oceaneer Club and schlepped 15-month-old Tyler sightseeing around Nice and Monaco.
As Disney goes exploring, it's bringing its world view with it. On this summer's 12-night Northern European sailings, for example, the Disney princesses will host a royal ball at Catherine Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Characters are also routinely dispatched to schools and children's hospitals.)
The approach has prompted accusations of Disneyfication. Naysayers challenge that Disney's corporate goal is to manipulate children and their parents into buying merchandise at hundreds of its stores worldwide.
True, everything was hyper-organized on our cruise; stage-managed even. True, classic characters roamed the deck, posing for pictures (available for purchase, of course) and giving out hugs. And what of the tweens Zack and Cody, and all the guest stars (from Hannah Montana and Wizards of Waverly Place) from the Family Channel's hit Disney comedy set on a cruise ship, The Suite Life on Deck (the show that has tweens everywhere asking their parents to take them on a cruise)?
Those Disney Channel idols were mercifully contained to places like the teen and tween hangout. Instead, getting the children dressed for the evening, I'd switch on Pinocchio, Snow White or Peter Pan; films that I wish could come out of the Disney vault more often.
That feeling of nostalgia was reinforced by the vintage design of the ship, too: Patterned in red, black and gleaming gold art deco from stem to stern, it was like stepping onto an old movie set.
It isn't a stretch to think that Walt Disney, an avid cruiser and traveller in his lifetime, would have applauded the more exotic course his company is charting.
That day in Tunisia, we wandered through the trinket-filled streets of the Berber village of Sidi Bou Said, where Lexi, practically in tears with pleasure, rummaged until she found a scorpion pinned under glass in a wooden box. And I thought: This beats the gift shop.
"Not only would Walt have approved" of such adventures, says Douglas Brode, a historian and author of all things Disney, "he would have come up with the idea himself."
BOOK THE DISNEY MAGIC CRUISE
Book through Air Canada Vacations, your travel agent, Disneycruise.com, or by calling 1-800-951-3532. Fares start at $1,019 for an adult on the 11-night Mediterranean cruise, and include accommodation, food and non-alcoholic beverages. Flights, some adult ship activities, shore excursions, and the Flounder's Reef Nursery for cruisers under age 3 cost extra.
ALTERNATIVES TO DISNEY
National Geographic Expeditions takes families to Alaska, the Galapagos, China, Egypt, Colorado (for a dinosaur expedition), the Amazon, and elsewhere. Nationalgeographicexpeditions.com.
Gap Adventures has a year-round family cruise to the Galapagos, polar cruises for children 10 and up, family trips to Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt and elsewhere. Gapadventures.com
Crystal Cruises accepts children at 6 months, with children's programs for kids 3 and up typically for summer and holidays. Kids 8 and up can hot-air balloon over Padua, and kids 12 and above can sea-kayak along the Croatian Adriatic coast. Crystalcruises.com
Regent Seven Seas Cruises operates Club Mariner for children 5 and up on summer and holiday sailings. Whale-watch or rock climb in Alaska, go deep-sea rafting to inspect King Crab catches in Norway, and more. Rssc.com
Uniworld debuts two multi-generational river cruises for grandparents with grandchildren 4 and up (kids sail at reduced rates) this summer: Castles Along the Rhine, and Paris and Normandy. Uniworld.com
Holland America Line has discounted fares with programming for children 3 and up, in-cabin babysitting, children's Culinary Arts Center classes, and new shore excursions. Hollandamerica.com
Special to The Globe and Mail