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Antarctica may not be the first destination parents think of when planning a family vacation, but you might want to move Antarctica up your list because, in 2021, Adventures by Disney added expedition cruising to its portfolio of family-focused – and kid-friendly – guided vacations.
“A large part of Disney’s history is connecting people to nature,” said Hunter Robertson, Adventures by Disney Senior Marketing and Sales Strategy Manager, “like Walt’s original nature films and Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. Adventures by Disney expedition cruises builds on that history by taking families to see amazing natural places and wildlife and connecting them to what they see through storytelling.”
My 21-year-old son, Jacob, and I rang in 2023 on an Antarctica & Patagonia Expedition Cruise with Adventures by Disney and 160 other passengers (including 12 “Junior Adventurers” under age 13), and we discovered it’s a lot more family-friendly than we expected.
Now, just because it has Disney in the name, don’t think an Adventures by Disney expedition cruise to Antarctica is a “walk in the [theme] park” vacation. You absolutely need to have kids who can manage the challenges of one of Disney’s most adventurous adventures – but if you do, they’ll certainly get a jump start on crossing things off their bucket list.
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Adventures by Disney Antarctica & Patagonia Expedition Cruise
Before The Cruise
There’s no doubt this cruise involves a lot of travel, as the only way to get to Antarctica is from Ushuaia, in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. We flew to Buenos Aires (with a one-night hotel stay, which is included) before traveling the following morning to Ushuaia (about 3 hours). Our flight to Ushuaia was chartered, meaning all passengers on the plane were from our cruise, but I was told some passengers might have to fly commercial if there are too many people for one chartered plane. Either way, flights to and from Ushuaia are included in the cruise price (as are all airport transfers).
Once in Ushuaia, we rode The End of the World Train, which was an unexpected highlight. The old-timey train was very “Harry Potter-ish,” and the narration was extremely interesting. We were also given pre-stamped postcards to mail home halfway through the ride (even though the “Southernmost Post Office in the World” was closed for the New Year’s holiday) – our first bit of Disney magic.
After that, it was straight to the ship, where we were greeted with champagne (and juice for the kids), which is never a bad way to start a cruise. Adventures by Disney partners with French cruise line Ponant for its Antarctica expedition cruises on L’Austral or her sister ship, Le Boreal. The ship is very elegant and very French, but because we were a Disney group, some things were more relaxed, including (and most importantly for families) the dress code, which I’ll discuss in more detail later.
Since our second day in Ushuaia was New Year’s Eve Day, we all took a leisurely catamaran cruise together along the Beagle Channel, where we saw tons of wildlife (including Magellanic Penguins), but ordinarily, there are several activities to choose from, including the cruise, a tour of Harberton Settlement, or a visit to a husky dog kennel.
The Drake Passage and Beyond
Once the ship departs Ushuaia, you’re at the mercy of the elements for the rest of the trip, so if you’re an obsessive planner, you’ll have to leave that at the dock because the weather, wind, ice, and ocean are in charge.
The first challenge? The infamous Drake Passage, can be calm (known as “The Drake Lake”) or rough (“The Drake Shake” or sometimes “The Drake Quake”).
If you get the Shake/Quake, the waves can be very large, and the two-day crossing can be very rough, but we were lucky, and while we didn’t get a true “Lake” crossing, the waves were only 10-15 feet, and very few people were seasick. I did notice nearly everyone wore patches and/or seasick bands, took meds, or did a combination of all of the above. We packed patches and bands for the possibility of a Quake/Shake situation but were able to manage with over-the-counter Dramamine and ginger pills. Once we were across, we didn’t need anything at all.
We had a quicker-than-expected Drake crossing (1.5 days vs. 2), so we could do our first landing expedition a day early, but sometimes the crossing takes more than two days, so again, pack your patience and flexibility.
Where Does An Antarctica Disney Cruise Go?
Similar to the Drake Passage, where you go after arriving in Antarctica, and what you see and do is entirely up to Mother Nature.
The itinerary lists four days in Antarctica, and that’s pretty much all the info you’re going to get. The specifics are up to the captain and the head Expedition Guide – on our cruise, that was Captain Fabien Roché, aka “Captain Fab,” and John Frick, who was marking his 130th expedition to Antarctica.
Families should also note that just because you saw a social media post about an Adventures by Disney expedition cruise visiting a specific place, that does not guarantee you will too.
“I never make any promises,” Captain Fab said on our first day. “As you know things change – and in Antarctica, things change very quickly – so we may have planned to take you somewhere…and have to make alternative plans. But we’ll always try to get you to somewhere where we can have you do something or see something.”
There are two 1- to 2-hour expeditions each day: One in the morning (approximately 10 a.m. to noon, and one in the afternoon (approximately 2-4 p.m.), but it’s important to remember that no expeditions are required, and anyone can opt out of anything.
Our Antarctica Expeditions During Adventures By Disney Cruise
Landing at Deception Island, Telefon Bay (a volcanic caldera)
The black sand and volcanic rock landscape was not what we were expecting in Antarctica, and although it was steadily snowing the entire time, there was no snow on the ground. Everyone took a walk to the edge of the caldera, and then there was an optional, more strenuous hike to the top of the ridge. We also were lucky to see two Chinstrap Penguins on the shore who aren’t normally in this area.
Zodiac Cruise in Andvord Bay
The expedition team took us through spectacular arctic blue icebergs and past faces of massive glaciers. We also saw Gentoo Penguins and a Leopard Seal sunning himself on the ice.
Landing at Danco Island
This was our first landing that really felt like Antarctica with hundreds of Gentoo Penguins on the beach and – after a bit of a hike through the snow – even more in colonies above. We also saw our first “penguin highways,” paths in the snow that penguins use to travel back and forth between their nests and the sea. Again, the optional hike to additional colonies was rewarded with a spectacular view.
Landing at Dorian Bay
We landed near Damoy Hut, a former British transit station designated as a historic site under the Antarctic Treaty. Here, another optional hike offered a view of Port Lockroy (which we visited later that day), as well as a mountain known as Big Momma and the Seven Sisters or, because we were on a Disney trip, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Those who didn’t want to trek through the snow could watch Gentoo Penguins at the shore.
Landing at Port Lockroy
This was the one and only shopping opportunity of the entire trip, so needless to say, we were extremely excited to visit (as I mentioned, Ushuaia was pretty much closed for New Year’s when we were there).
Managed by the U.K. Heritage Trust, Port Lockroy was set up as a British Antarctic Base and now houses a shop, museum, and post office – the actual southernmost post office in the world (yes, we were again given pre-stamped postcards to mail). The four women who live and work at Port Lockroy for four months at a time (three of whom are scientists) also conduct a penguin survey that counts the penguins as well as tracks their migration and reproduction.
Landing at Wiencke Island, Jougla Point
From Port Lockroy, it was just a quick jaunt by zodiac to Jougla Point to see more Gentoo Penguins – and we were also lucky to see several Weddell Seals here too.
Zodiac Cruise in Wilhelmina Bay, Plata Passage
The day we arrived in Wilhelmina Bay, it was very windy and snowy, but those who braved the elements to embark on zodiac expeditions were rewarded with close encounters with Humpback and Minke whales plus one lone Emperor Penguin, who was miles from home, so it was an extremely rare sighting. Others opted to enjoy the snow day onboard.
Landing at Trinity Island, Mikkelsen Harbor
Our final landing was definitely the most challenging as we had to make our way through large chunks of floating ice (known as brush) that unexpectedly washed onto shore just as we arrived. In addition to Gentoo Penguins and Weddell Seals, we could also see whale bones left here from whaling.
Zodiac Cruise in Cierva Cove
A very rainy (and somewhat rough) zodiac cruise ended our adventures, complete with a champagne/juice toast to celebrate.
The Drake Passage was kind for our return crossing, so much so that we were able to swing by Cape Horn on our way back to Ushuaia, and once back in Argentina, we took another 3-hour charter flight back to Buenos Aires, at which point, we all went our separate ways – though truth be told, a large number of us ended up at the Hard Rock Café in the Buenos Aires airport (it’s on the second level above the check-in gates… just sayin’.)
What to Pack For An Antarctica Cruise
Adventures By Disney provides a fairly comprehensive packing list, but these are things I wish I had known before packing:
1. Everyone receives a bright red Ponant parka, which must be worn when off the ship. The good news is you get to keep them, but since you have to wear the Ponant parkas, there’s no need to bring heavy parkas from home. The only caveat is it can be chilly in Ushuaia, so a warm-ish jacket that only takes up a little space in your suitcase is a good idea (like a packable puffer or something similar).
2. Ponant loans knee-high rubber boots that are required for all expeditions, so don’t pack any (no, you’re not allowed to wear your own snow/hiking boots, and yes, they have kid’s sizes).
3. Waterproof pants are also required for all expeditions (and must fit over the boots), but you do have to bring these. We packed insulated snow/ski pants and thin rain pants, but the rain pants were perfect over fleece-lined leggings for me and thermals + sweats for my son, so we would have skipped the ski pants if we’d known it wasn’t going to be super cold (it was mainly in the 40s).
4. Walking sticks are a personal choice. Many people used them, but we didn’t think they were necessary (even though we brought them). That being said, people with mobility concerns and/or younger kids might be happy for extra help in the snow (just keep in mind you’ll need to manage them when getting in and out of the zodiac).
5. Four days of our 12-day trip were officially designated as “Pajama Day” – yes, we wore pajamas on a fancy French ship (as did some of the crew and the captain). Passengers who were “in the know” packed cute holiday-, penguin-, or Disney-themed PJs, something I 100% would have done if I’d known. Also, many people wore pajamas (or leggings/sweats/etc.) with slippers even on non-pajama days, so basically, the trip is super casual, so there’s no need to bring anything even remotely dressy. I also wish I had packed flip-flops to wear around the ship but managed with Ugg-style scuffs.
6. Plugs – There are no USB plugs in the staterooms (and only one U.S. electrical outlet + one E.U. outlet). Since everyone has multiple devices these days, you’ll definitely want to bring a USB charging station for the U.S. outlet (and possibly also an E.U. adaptor for the other, depending on how many things you need to charge at once).
So, now for the big question: Is your kid the right kid for Antarctica?
Also on our cruise was Heather Straight, Co-President & CEO of Key to the World Travel in Grand Rapids, MI (who was on her second Adventures by Disney expedition cruise to Antarctica).
Heather explained that she always trusts parents to know whether their kids will be okay if they don’t see the kind of penguin they really wanted to see or if they expected to do a landing and can only do a zodiac cruise. However, if kids are active and adventurous – and the answer is yes to those kinds of changes – she thinks the “sweet spot” is around 12 (the minimum age for the trip is 10, but Disney also recommends 12).
On our cruise, there were two 10-year-olds and two 12-year-olds (along with a fairly large number of teens), and while I did see the two youngest boys playing board games together (and unsurprisingly, the teens quickly formed a posse), families who definitely want to travel with a lot of kids should consider the Fall departure (Dec 17 – Dec 28 in 2023) because the 2022 Fall cruise had 40+ kids onboard, while our New Year’s sailing had only 12.
Parents should also remember that it’s definitely not a Disney cruise. There’s no water slide, no kids club, and no characters. Even the food options may be a challenge if your kids are excessively picky eaters, though there was always the option to order a burger, fried chicken sandwich, club sandwich, plain grilled chicken or steak, and pasta (I also heard a rumor about a “secret menu” grilled cheese). There were also vegetarian, gluten-free, and dairy-free options available.
Disney Adventure Guides
All that being said, there are also the Adventure Guides, a team of Disney cast members who are both camp counselors and concierges, handling logistics while creating memorable, magical moments – and TONS of fun. During our trip, they organized games, trivia, and crafts; celebrated birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations; and hosted dance parties, including a New Year’s Eve bash, a “We Survived the Drake Passage” dance, and an Antar-Tiki pool party.
But that’s not all. The Adventure Guides also created special Disney-themed iron-on decals to personalize our parkas and provided stickers to decorate our Ponant water bottles (which we also got to keep).
Heather told me it’s sometimes hard for people to understand that Adventures by Disney isn’t Mickey Mouse on a ship or Mickey Mouse on a tour, but, she says, it’s the Adventure Guides that add the magic to it.
“We as Adventure Guides can’t do anything to make your experience out in nature any better because it’s so incredible already, said Adventure Guide Veronika. “So [our goal] is to make it just as joyful and just as exciting onboard.”
Disney Expedition Team
While the Adventure Guides were entertaining us on the ship, the expedition team was making sure we were safe on land and in the zodiacs. They also shared their incredible experience and knowledge about penguins, whales, seals, and even ice, so kids will learn some really cool things (always a win for parents).
We took a cruise to Antarctica with Adventures by Disney. Here’s everything you need to know to plan your own family trip!
Bottom Line: They call it a bucket list destination for a reason. It’s absolutely worth doing if you have kids who can manage the elements and are okay with things not going as expected. After all, sometimes, the unexpected creates the best family vacation memories.
“When we started this trip, it was like a storybook with all these empty pages,” said Adventure Guide Byron. “And over the course of this vacation, we filled in those empty pages with the most unique and unforgettable experiences.”
Click here to check out all the details and start planning your own Antarctica adventure with Adventures by Disney!
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