A week in Italy is truly at the top of most traveler's bucket lists (it's the number one searched for destination on Trip Advisor), but a trip with kids to the land of pizza and gelato, or quite honestly anywhere that you don't know your way around or can't speak the language, seemed totally intimidating to me.
That's when I discovered Adventures by Disney.
Adventures by Disney offers luxury group tours to destination around the globe. None of these trips include theme parks and costumed characters, but instead the company focuses on what makes a trip to Disney so unforgettable: Great entertainment, attention to detail, hospitality, and memorable moments. In Italy that translates to a trip filled with surprises, seamless travels, luxurious meals and hotels, and kid-friendly activities that are advertised to appeal to the entire family.
For me, the idea of taking a real vacation where someone else does all the planning sounded like a dream come true. But with a teenager in tow and a family who doesn't usually do group travel, would we truly witness magic on an Adventures by Disney trip to Italy? It was time to find out.
"Bongiorno familia!" bubbles our tour guide Michaela. "I'm calling you a family because that what we call our friends in Italy. And even though today you don't know each other, by the end our adventure, we'll all be family. So andiamo, let's go, family, to explore Rome!"
First things first: Trips do not include a costumed Mickey Mouse, but we did have our own Miki (short for Michaela) a bilingual local expert from Rome who assuaged our transition into Italian culture. Need a dinner recommendation? She's on it, and will make the reservation. Directions? Here's an annotated map. Kid has a toothache? She even accompanied a teenager with a wonky wisdom tooth to the pharmacy.
Rounding out our adventure guide duo is Gabi, a management whiz whose sunny disposition is as grand as the coliseum and has the ability to keep dozens of people on schedule and smiling. Together, they set out to lead my family of three and our new "family" of 40+ through Rome, to Tuscany, around Florence, and on to Venice.
First stop: Rome
At every city, a hand-selected, hyper-local guide joins us. In Rome, it's Christina, who has been accompanying Adventures by Disney tours for nearly a dozen years. We wiggle through the dense tourist crowds at the Coliseum entering through a private door; stop for a morning gelato (to keep our energy up, this is vacation after all!) by the Trevi Fountain; and pose for a group photo at the Spanish Steps before enjoying a prearranged pizza lunch away from the crowds.
The highlight comes later that night though: A private entrance to the Vatican Museum (Disney has reserved these after hours tours through 2021 already). We cross the threshold into the Sistine Chapel and have it all to ourselves. The kids can gaze up in awe without being bumped; we sit, we stand, we gape in awe, and then Christina whispers to the guard in Italian — she beams: We can take two photos; a priceless privilege since photos are always forbidden here.
Second stop: Tuscany
On our way to Tuscany our luxury bus is stocked with snacks, bottled water, and fairy dust that transports luggage straight from our swanky Gran Melia Rome hotel room door to our perch in a Tuscan farmhouse (other nice Disney touches include collector's pins every day, so you always have a souvenir). The next day we relax in the countryside with a pasta making experience on a farm, a visit with resident livestock, and an abundant farmhouse fresh pasta lunch with views across the gorgeous countryside to the medieval towers of San Gimignano.
While the parents sip wine, the Junior Adventurers (in our group, this was kids roughly 7 to 12 years old, about nine in all) infuse olive oil with farmhouse herbs under the watchful eye of the guides; it's one of several special activities just for them during the week that lets parents relax and kids bond. That night at the hotel, parents have a date night dinner with more wine and pasta (oh my!), while the juniors have an Italian soda tasting and relaxed dinner and a movie. The teens, which number about nine as well, choose to stay with their parents in the beginning; however, I notice my son slowly starting to sit with other kids his age as our time in the countryside progresses.
A guided morning tour of Florence with plenty of free time, including the opportunity to either eat dinner in the Renaissance city or back in the hotel (we chose the latter, it was a wonderful way to relax), wraps up our time in Tuscany.
Third stop: Venice
The next morning it's time to head to Venice. It's also a point where you can see families melding together like melting gelato; kids are now traveling in a cohesive group while their parents chat and sit together on the bus. There's lots of private jokes in our "family" and a trivia challenge on the bus on our way to the train station turns into a rousing contest of Disney knowledge (you don't have to be a Disney savant to come on an Adventures by Disney, but there is a general appreciation of Disney that bonds everyone in the group).
We arrive to find pixie dust has followed us everywhere. We take a fast train from Florence to Venice and then float off on waiting gondolas. We walk through the city and discover a costumed storyteller waiting to present our pins for the day. Later, we arrive at the hotel to find our luggage, last seen in Tuscany, waiting for us in our rooms. True magic!
The trip wraps up with what may just be the greatest farewell dinner of any vacation: Sailing around Venice's islands on a tall-masted pirate ship. The junior adventurers are trying out their pirate swagger, the teens are dancing to the DJ, the parents are toasting with Bellinis as we sail, and there's more than a few tears as we all say goodbye.
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The Verdict? The Magic of Disney Is Very Real
It's true, our group has become a family this week of amazing adventures. I'm as relaxed as I've ever been coming home from a vacation since I haven't had to make a decision or plan anything more taxing than what flavor ice cream to order, and my husband and son can't stop talking about all the amazing things we've seen, and eaten, on our adventure.
And the first thing my family does when we get home? Start researching some of the 35 other Adventures by Disney destinations across six continents for our next adventure!
Need to Know
Adventures by Disney's Viva Italia trip starts at $5,800 per person. Trips are 7 nights and are inclusive—all admissions, hotels, tips, included meals, even water and snacks on the bus. The only additional costs are international airfare, meals on your own time, souvenirs, and tips for the two adventure guides (about $10 per person per day per guide).
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