Disney opens doors in Scotland

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ANGUS, Scotland -- It's not that hard to shoot an arrow with a longbow -- but actually hitting a target is another matter entirely.

I found that out, much to my chagrin, during a private archery lesson in the shadow of Glamis Castle, the 14th-century setting of Shakespeare's "Macbeth," where we'd stopped during a group tour of Scotland late this spring. The historic castle is open regularly to visitors, but it's rare that any get the chance to shoot arrows on the grounds.

So how come we got to do it? Disney.

Our little tour of about 25 people was organized and run by Adventures by Disney, a travel unit of the Walt Disney Co. Launched in 2005, AbD offers guided family vacations to dozens of destinations on six continents, from America's national parks to Australia's Outback, the Great Wall of China, and the plains of South Africa. Scotland is one of two new itineraries for 2013, the other being Southeast Asia.

PG Map: Scotland
(Click image for larger version)

And like every AbD tour, the Scotland trip benefits mightily from its association with the Big Mouse's iconic brand.

"Just the Disney name is enough to open doors for us wherever we go," said Bruce Austin, the man who comes up with most of AbD's trips. "That lets us do lots of things that most tour operators can't do" -- like take after-hours tours, attend private receptions and, of course, send arrows zinging across historic castle grounds.

Our tour, called "Scotland: A Brave Adventure," is the first AbD itinerary to be linked to a Disney/Pixar movie -- last year's animated film "Brave," which centers on a young princess named Merida in medieval Scotland. Many of the activities on the nine-day tour include elements central to the movie; the archery, for instance, echoes one of Merida's favorite pastimes.

Mr. Austin said it normally takes 18 months to put together an AbD trip, but to take advantage of last year's "Brave" release, the Scotland itinerary was completed in just three months. "It was a real quickie," he said.

Following 'Brave' storyline

The tour, which began and ended in Edinburgh, included stops at Inverness, the Isle of Skye, the Isle of Lewis and more. Mr. Austin said the itinerary was designed to let families experience the Scottish history, culture and legends that inspired the storyline of "Brave."

In Edinburgh, we visited the famous Edinburgh Castle, a 12th-century fortress that sits atop a dormant volcano overlooking the city. Our group entered as the castle was closing for the day, and one departing visitor asked why he had to leave while we were being allowed admittance.

"They're with Disney," a costumed guard explained simply.

During our private tour, we got to view the Scottish Crown Jewels, used in the coronation of Mary Queen of Scots, and the Stone of Destiny, rumored to be Jacob's pillow from the Book of Genesis.

Another stop in Edinburgh was Dovecot Studios, the oldest working tapestry-maker in Scotland. The 100-year-old Dovecot isn't normally open to visitors, but once again, the Disney magic unlocked a door for us. We got to watch weavers at work and even gave it a try ourselves, adding a tiny bit to a special tapestry featuring characters from "Brave."

While traveling through the Scottish Highlands, we spent a day at the sprawling Rothiemurchus Estate near Aviemore. Located in the middle of an ancient Caledonian forest, the privately owned 25,000-acre estate offers plenty of outdoor activities, from hiking to fishing, rafting to ziplining, wildlife photography to clay-pigeon shooting.

We rode Highland ponies -- which looked kind of like mini-Clydesdales -- through fields of heather; then, following a picnic lunch, we boarded mountain bikes for a spin through the surrounding pine forest, passing old battle sites and other landmarks along the way.

A pretty little lake (or "loch") in the forest called Loch an Eilen has a tiny island in the center with the ruins of a 13th-century castle where the evil Wolf of Badenoch once lived.

We moved from town to town on a big tour bus, and between stops, we were shown a series of short behind-the-scenes videos on the making of "Brave." Narrated playfully by Mark Andrews, the film's director, the videos show how his crews visited Scotland on research trips and how they used computers and their imagination to meet the challenges of creating real-looking hair, trees, moss and more.

One funny segment showed animators tossing mud in each other's faces just to study how it would slide off, one little blob at a time.

Well-versed guides

A major reason the tour went so smoothly was the two young "adventure guides," Zoe and Hanneke, who gently steered the group from one place to the next. Both were relentlessly upbeat, resourceful and full of stories, suggestions and surprises.

It's no accident that our guides were top-notch. According to Mr. Austin, Disney hires just a dozen guides from more than 1,200 resumes submitted each year.

No tour of Scotland would be complete without a visit to Loch Ness, home of the famous monster, Nessie. During a lunch with author and researcher Adrian Shine, the bearded biologist discussed the eyewitness reports, hoaxes, misleading photos and genuine mysteries that have swirled around Loch Ness since the 19th century.

"Is there a monster here?" asked Mr. Shine. He paused, as if contemplating the monster-sized tourism impact of the legendary creature on the area, then offered this non-answer: "That's for you to decide."

After lunch, we took to rental canoes and paddled across the loch's dark, peat-stained waters -- no Nessie sightings en route, which was OK by me -- to the jagged ruins of Urquhart Castle. There's not much left of the old stronghold, but it does offer breathtaking views of Loch Ness.

I honestly wasn't expecting much in the way of fine dining in Scotland, but the food turned out to be, almost without exception, terrific. Of course, we had to try a bit of haggis, the country's national dish-- sheep intestines cooked in a sheep's stomach, and it's ... well, interesting.

One aspect of the trip did come as a mild surprise: Even though it was a Disney tour, we weren't overwhelmed by Mickey and his friends. In fact, just about the only trace of Disney characters to be seen was the collectible trading pins that were handed out to everyone after each day's adventures.

Adventures by Disney tours aren't cheap. The Scotland itinerary is more than $5,000 per person. But most meals are included, you stay at luxury accommodations, have front-of-the-line or exclusive access to attractions, and are led full time by well-trained guides. For a family traveling in a foreign land, it's hard to imagine a more seamless way to do it.

(Note: The minimum age for the trip is listed as 4, but a more realistic minimum would probably be 7 or 8.)

For more information: 1-800-543-0865, www.adventuresbydisney.com, or a travel agent.


Mike Kelly, a former reporter at the Toledo Blade, is a travel writer and editor. You can reach him at kelly.writer@yahoo.com.


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