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Adventures by Disney (Photo: Piotr Redlinski)

Iceland with a Twist: What It’s Like to Explore the Land of Fire and Ice with Adventures by Disney

SmarterTravel

If there’s one thing Disney knows how to do, it’s build anticipation for a coming attraction. Whether it’s a Marvel movie trailer or the opening of a new theme park, the Mouse is no slouch at generating buzz. So maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised when an Adventures by Disney package arrived at my home a month before my family trip to Iceland with Disney’s high-end group vacation company.

Inside the box were a few sturdy daypacks for our trip, luggage tags for our checked bags, and a couple of full-color “Adventure Handbooks” for our eight-day exploration of the Land of Fire and Ice. My kids, ages nine and 12, scooped up the handbooks and quickly began to read aloud the things they were most excited to do. Whale watching near the Arctic Circle! Horse riding on the Golden Circle! Whitewater rafting! Fishing! A glacier walk—with pickaxes!

Yup, it’s safe to say that Adventures by Disney brings the same crowd-pleasing sensibilities to its vacation packages as Disney movies and Disney theme parks do to superheroes and thrill rides. As for the trip itself? This is one example of the experience being even better than the anticipation. After all, we didn’t know quite what to expect when we decided to bring our kids to another country with Adventures by Disney. We are generally a family of very independent, non-group-tour kind of travelers, and we’d never done a family trip like this before.

Curious about taking a vacation with Adventures by Disney? Here’s what you need to know.

Disney’s Iceland Itinerary

 

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Arrived!

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Iceland is a small country—at 39,769 square miles, it’s about the same size as Ohio—but there’s a lot to explore on this tiny landmass. So much so, in fact, that this was my third trip to Iceland in the past 13 years. Naturally I was interested to see not just more of this country (despite my travels, I’d never visited the north of Iceland), but also what it would be like to let someone else do all the planning and driving.

We arrived on an early morning flight and were met at the airport by our driver for the week, who delivered us and our luggage to our centrally located downtown Reykjavik hotel for a restful day of self-directed time—light napping, a little exploration, and then a welcome meeting and orientation with our guides and fellow travelers late in the afternoon.

With five other families on the trip, the group size was typical of an Adventures by Disney vacation, as was the mix of ages: several grade school-age kids, a couple of tweens, and a handful of teenagers who (and I know this may sound shocking for those of you with teens at home) actually wanted to be there. It was a great group, and the kids especially found it easy to form friendships and grow quickly attached to one another.

We spent our first evening enjoying the Blue Lagoon with our group before finishing with dinner at the lagoon’s upscale Lava Restaurant. It was a nice sort of icebreaking day—chatting together on the bus, and more getting-to-know-you talk at dinner—with a good bit of family time at the Blue Lagoon. It’s a routine that became fairly consistent through the next few days: enough time to get to know one another, but not so much that we weren’t able to focus on enjoying our own families, too.

Disney’s Iceland trips, which will run from May through October in 2020, visit both the north and south of the country. We spent the first several days in the south, which my wife and I had explored on our previous trips, then hopped on a short flight to Akureyri, the northern capitol. Early on, it became apparent that our self-planned vacations were strictly amateur compared to the itinerary assembled by Adventures by Disney.

Consider: In our three days exploring the south of Iceland with Disney, we took in the vistas from Thingvellir National Park, explored both the Gullfoss and Seljalandsfoss waterfalls up close, dodged the steaming eruptions at the Strokkur geyser, hiked around the Kerid Crater on foot and up a glacier in Skaftafell National Park with crampons and pickaxes, sailed through an iceberg-filled glacial lagoon, and went horseback riding over rocky terrain in the Golden Circle.

 

Just reading that list, it probably sounds exhausting. But it really wasn’t. I think that’s because of Disney’s other trademark skill, at theme parks and elsewhere: everything runs like a well-oiled machine. When we arrived at our glacier hike, our private glacier guides were already waiting and ready to go—no sitting around for the next scheduled tour to begin. At the lagoon, our boats were fired up the moment we arrived. When we stopped for lunch at the spectacular Fridheimar greenhouse restaurant, our tables were waiting for us. It’s remarkable how much you can pack into a couple of days when every experience is tailored to your schedule.

Imagine, for a moment, the unspeakable luxury of taking your kids on vacation to another country—and there’s no whining. None. Not from your children, and not from the other kids on the trip, either. Everyone’s having fun, the kids are making friends—and you’re making friends, too. This is the Holy Grail of family vacation experiences: everything you love about family travel with none of the stuff that makes you feel like you need another vacation the minute you get home.

It was the same way when we reached Iceland’s northern capitol, Akureyri. A whale watch voyage just miles from the Arctic Circle. A hike through the lava labyrinth of Dimmuborgir. A bread-baking demonstration. A relaxing trip to Myvatn nature baths. And on the drive back to Reykjavik on the last full day of the trip, a few hours of family-friendly whitewater rafting through a glacial river canyon. Smiles everywhere. A good time had by all.

 

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Hiking Skaftafellskokull Glacier. #glacierguidesiceland

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The Real Value of Adventures by Disney

If you’re not already familiar with Adventures by Disney, the tour company probably isn’t what you think it is. It’s not all Mickey Mouse or Star Wars, for example. No princesses or talking animals. It’s Disney quality—top-notch service, people-pleasing experiences, worldwide reach—without all the cartoon extras.

Adventures by Disney is a vacation company that was created with families in mind. It offers trips to more than 35 destinations around the world, including Australia, Japan, Italy, Iceland, Peru, South Africa, and Costa Rica, with new trips added every year; in 2020, the big excitement is Disney’s first-ever Egypt adventure.

And Adventures by Disney is, by design, about as low-stress as a family vacation can get: the company’s Adventure Guides are chosen not just for their expertise, but also because they love kids—and it shows in their interactions with them. There’s built-in family time, and there’s built-in alone time when the Adventure Guides host kid-only “Junior Adventure” movie nights or kids-only dining tables. The vacations are active and immersive, and because every trip includes at least one guide from the host destination, they’re authentic in a way that many vacations are not.

 

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We got so close to this whale in the fjord!

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Nearly everything is included in the cost of an Adventures by Disney vacation: transportation within the trip, including airport transfers; upscale hotels; admission prices; luggage and concierge services; taxes and most gratuities; and most meals, including—and this is true—a seemingly bottomless, self-refilling basket of free snacks and candy on the tour bus.

Most of all, Adventures by Disney stands out for its service. You get VIP privileges at every attraction and restaurant you visit. No lines, no waiting, no fuss. You get behind-the-scenes access to people and experiences you would never achieve on your own. Your guides provide local knowledge and a deep connection to the area, capped off with an uncanny ability to attend to every detail. I imagine they only make it look effortless.

 

Life on an Adventures by Disney Trip

Life becomes a pleasant routine on an Adventures by Disney vacation. Wake up, enjoy breakfast, go someplace spectacular, do something incredible, eat, eat some more, chat with new friends, watch your children have once-in-a-lifetime experiences, return to your hotel. Rinse and repeat.

The days are long and full, but never wearying. Every other day or so, you get a nice block of free time to explore, or rest, or shop—sometimes as a family, and sometimes, because it just happens naturally, with the new friends you’re making along the way. My daughter, who turned 10 on our last night in Iceland, got a cake and special pin to add to her Disney pin collection, just one more extra perk on a trip full of them.

The goodbyes are hard. You spend a lot of time together exploring astonishing places, and the friendships—especially among the kids—feel more substantial than you’d think when you only met your fellow travelers a week ago.

And when you get home? Well, if you’re anything like my family, you immediately start talking about where you’ll go next time.

 

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Back to the office today. Farewell, Iceland!

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Outfit Ideas for the Whole Family

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Josh Roberts received a complimentary trip from Adventures by Disney. Follow him on Twitter (@joshwhowrites) and Instagram (@joshwhowrites), and visit his website (joshrobertsbooks.com) or Goodreads pageto learn more about his forthcoming novel.

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