This blog was guest written by our friend Kristen MacWilliams following her Adventures By Disney Costa Rica tour this summer. Thanks Kristen!
“Mom, can we skip Disney next year?” asked one of my daughters last summer?
My first thought was – Where have I gone wrong?? But my second thought was –Hmmmm, maybe it might be a good time to take an Adventures by Disney trip with them!
If you’re not familiar with Adventures by Disney, and I’ve sure run into a ton of people who’ve never heard of it, it’s basically the division of Disney that does group tours all around the word: North America, Central/South America, Europe, Australia, Africa, Asia. There are lots of companies who do this sort of work, but none who do it quite like Disney.
I knew this first hand, because I had gone on an ABD trip in 2010, without the kids, to visit Hollywood and Disneyland. It was a fantastic experience, and while my kids were young then, I knew one day I would want to take them on a trip like this: where every detail is taken care of for you and you get to do things the average visitor just does not get to do.
So we pulled up the Adventures by Disney web site and started investigating trips. My girls would be 10 and 13 at trip time, and I knew it had to be something that would be active and have a “cool” factor. I narrowed down the nearly overwhelming list of choices ABD offers using a few other simple criteria important to me: cost, time of year we could travel, and my perceived appeal to kids the same age as mine. I knew we would all be miserable if they had no one to bond with (aside: another reason ABD is great for families!). I ended up showing the kids two sets of itineraries: Costa Rica and Wyoming (my oldest had just done a big project on Yellowstone and had expressed an interest in visiting). Their choice was unanimous, and for the same reason – Costa Rica for the ziplining!
Tracy suggested the July 12th trip, which was billed as Teen Centric, and this turned out to be perfect for us!
We decided to arrive a day earlier than the tour started to get our feel for the place before the official start of the trip. I chose to arrive early rather than extend the trip at the end for a few reasons, and knowing what I know now, I would make the opposite choice. But it’s really a personal decision, and certainly a lot of people just follow the plan of the trip without adding any extra nights before or after.
We had a layover in Orlando on our way from Boston to San Jose, Costa Rica, and it was very strange to be in Orlando and not get off and visit the parks!
We arrived in San Jose, in the rain, mid-afternoon on Friday, and ABD greeted us and ferried us directly off to our hotel. The hotel was beautiful and we spent some time wandering around, exploring it, and taking a nap. We had had a very early morning and traveling always exhausts me!
Saturday was a day on our own too – we spent it shopping (I picked up a local SIM card for use in my phone so I’d have access to data while in country), and a taxi driver took us to a restaurant in the city that was a big hit with us. Great food and an even better atmosphere.
We also walked through a pedestrian mall nearby where the cacophony of the people was the prime attraction. We even saw a taste of Disney.
Then we found another taxi to take us back to the hotel (that is actually a story in itself, but I won’t side track now).
Meanwhile we had also come across our guides, Ronald and Frankie, who were busy greeting fellow adventurers as they arrived, and giving us instructions for the next morning. They seemed almost apologetic to tell us we’d need to meet just after breakfast at 7:30 in a conference room before boarding a bus for our first adventure. No need for an apology – we were thrilled to be on our way!
The next morning in the conference room each family introduced themselves to the group. We had 10 families, for a total of 36 people. I believe this is about the largest group ABD accommodates (my trip in 2010 had 22 people). All of the interested teens, ages 13-18, were whisked out of the room to be issued Nikon cameras for the duration of the trip to capture Costa Rica through their eyes. Completely unexpected and a very cool bit of magic to start the trip! We had 4 kids from 9-12, and the rest were teens, with the bulk of them in the 13-15 range. They were all fantastically behaved and formed quick friendships. I don’t think the cameras hurt in that regard! David was the photography guy, and as we learned later, he is head of photography at Disney. He was amazing to talk to, and having him on the trip was a HUGE part of the magic for all of us.
Our first adventure was to board two small planes, each of which carried about 20 passengers. We all had to be weighed before boarding – yeah, that kind of plane! It’s a pretty one, don’t you think?
Plus, the scenery during the 30 minute flight was amazing.
We were headed to Tortuguero, which can only be reached by plane or by boat. Even a bus ride to get us to a boat would have been 4-5 hours, we were told, so we were happy to take the flight!
When we first booked this trip Tracy called me back to tell me that our hotel for the second night of the trip would be “rustic”, with no air conditioning, no TV, but a private bathroom. It sounded a bit, well, sketchy, but I figured, I can handle anything for one night, right? Well, I needn’t have worried – the Laguna Lodge was rustic, but in a gorgeous sort of way. The rooms were all wood paneling (walls, floor, ceiling) and the 3 low beds filled the room. No air conditioning, but a ceiling fan and another portable fan were plenty to keep us cool, and the bathroom was modern, and yes, private! We had a beautiful front porch with rockers that we never had time to really use!
We toured the canals of the Tortuguero National Park where local guides helped point our wildlife, and the teens with cameras tried out their new equipment and skills.
We learned about the massive sea turtle conservation efforts going on there, and how it has totally transformed the area. And we visited the village of Tortuguero, where about 1200 people live.
It was our official Welcome Dinner that night! We’d had a full day of interacting with one another and some really cool sights and experiences, but no chance to actually celebrate! We played games, ate food, and generally had a fantastic time.
After dinner we had the opportunity to do a sea turtle walk to see the turtles coming in from the ocean to lay their eggs. It gets dark early in Costa Rica – pitch dark by 6:30 pm!
We started out about 8 pm from the restaurant and no sooner had we headed into the woods towards the beach than the skies opened up and dumped on us. Most of us were not prepared with rain gear – the night had seemed to be clearing. They had us waiting in a holding area while their spotters roamed the beach for a turtle coming in. Then it started to thunder and lightning. And the already heavy rain got even heavier. To say we were drenched is the understatement of the trip. After about 45 minutes of waiting, my youngest had had enough. She was shivering and had lost all desire to see a turtle, and begged to go back. I was incredibly disappointed, since seeing the sea turtles was something I had really been looking forward to, but sometimes the kids’ needs have to come first. Our guide led us back to the hotel grounds before dashing back to be with the group. My oldest stayed and she said they eventually got a quick glimpse of a turtle heading back into the ocean after abandoning her effort to dig and lay, something they call a “half moon”. Unfortunately we were not permitted to take photos during this experience since any flash or light from a phone screen would have been distracting to the turtles.
The next day was a long travel day for us – a short boat ride from the hotel to a waiting area where our bus was, and then a few hours on the bus to a restaurant for lunch. During the ride we passed lots and lots of private homes on rural roads, some quite upscale, and others quite not. Several of our kids on the bus started playing some games that would become a theme throughout.
Based on the towns we were driving through towards lunch time I started to have some doubts about what kind of restaurant we were in for. Frankie and Ronald both commented how fantastic it was and while I trusted them, I just was not sure. About an hour out, they came around asking us for a choice of appetizer (ceviche or salad) and entrée (fish, chicken or beef). I think 90% of us chose the ceviche, which is supposed to be a specialty of the restaurant.
When we finally pulled up to the restaurant my doubts fell away. The restaurant was actually one that could have fit into my own city. The ceviche was in fact superb, and was a large portion. I could have walked away full after that.
But we still had our entrees (beef for me) and then dessert – probably the most delicious cake I have ever had! Strangely enough most of the kids thought it was “soggy”, but most of the adults could not get enough. As full as I was, I had to tear myself away. There’s always next time!
From the restaurant we drove to a pineapple plantation. Do you know how pineapples grow? I thought I did, but I was wrong! We hopped on the back of a tractor and got a tour through the fields. Our plantation guide, Michael “Dole Rockefeller” quizzed us and regaled us with pineapple facts. He was in fact, hilarious (some of the adults were in tears from laughing so hard), and this is made even more amazing when I think how hard it must be to be funny in a language not your native.
We also toured the packing plant – those pineapples come down the belt pretty fast! Afterwards we got to drink and eat some pineapple snacks!
Late afternoon we arrived at our next hotel in the Arenal area. It was dark by the time we got there, so we couldn’t get a feel for the layout of the place that night – it was a sprawling resort with separate buildings and roads. We had the evening to ourselves, and the next morning it was time to go – ziplining!!!
The morning dawned rainy, so the three of us donned ponchos. We were not smart enough to actually bring our own raincoats which hung on hooks at home, so we had to use the ponchos ABD gave us as a welcome gift upon arrival. We got suited up with our harnessed and helmets, then took the sky tram to the top of the forest!
We had two short “practice” zips before we had to commit. Those two short ones were still near the infrastructure, and if you wanted to opt out there was still a way to get back to the base building. If you went on the third one, the only way to get back was to keep on zipping!
Some of the kids were small (light) enough that they had what they called a “taxi” where one of the ziplining guys would ride with them, to give enough weight to get them all the way across. My youngest was offered this and she was happy to have a buddy. She had been getting nervous about this the last few days. She went ahead of me, and by the time I got to that landing, she had already moved on with her taxi. I was thrilled to hear she had a huge smile on her face when she landed!
It was raining during our first few runs and as completely incredible as the experience was, you could only go so long before the rain started to hurt your eyeballs and you just had to close your eyes. So it felt like an extra special treat when on the first really long zipline, the rain let up and the mist lifted as I started my run, and I got an astonishing view of Lake Arenal with the volcano behind it. I only wish I had photos, but I had nowhere to keep my camera. I’ll never forget it though – I’m just sad I can’t share with you! Everyone in our group absolutely loved this activity – ziplining in a rainforest with a volcano as your backdrop – so, so cool!
By the time we all finished we were starving, and next on the agenda was a trip into the town of LaFortuna for lunch on our own. Ronald pointed out a few restaurants he recommended as we pulled into a parking spot, and many of us headed for one of them. We had about an hour and a half before we needed to be back. My kids and I sat down at a table, took a quick look at the menu, and the time, and decided we didn’t want to spend our brief time here in a restaurant – we wanted to shop! So we got up and went to the grocery store for coffee and candy. Then we wandered up and down the streets. My 13 year old bought a Pura Vida tank top and we all got some ice cream and some snacks for “lunch”.
Back at the hotel we were treated to an activity with the Maleku, the native people of Costa Rica. We painted tiny gourds they had already drawn toucans, butterflies, humming birds or frogs on while they talked about some of their history and traditions. This was a low key activity but really fascinating to hear about their culture.
An Adventures by Disney trip is never boring – once this activity was over it was time to grab our bathing suits and head to the Hot Springs! There was a light rain which almost made the hot water feel even more special.
We had a lovely time soaking in the waters, and enjoyed dinner at a restaurant right there at the springs. It was late when we got back, and we had no trouble falling asleep!
Late nights somehow lead to early mornings, and practically as soon as we woke up it was time to leave for our next destination, with just a quick stop to do some white water rafting on the way!
We rode almost 5 miles of Class III rapids, with 3 or 4 to a raft, plus a guide. We had a blast!
At some point during the day, we passed from the Caribbean side to the Pacific side of Costa Rica, which means a major climate change. Instead of rain, we had hot sunshine in Guanacaste. The hotel we stayed at on this side is brand new. It was again late when we arrived (though still light!) and we got our rooms and a few minutes to change clothes. It was adult/junior adventurer dinner night! The kids went one way, and the adults went another. Frankie drew the kid straw, while Ronald got to be with the adults. We ate on the beach, with our own personal grill chefs. Fantastic food! The kids also watched “Frozen” during dinner, and afterwards joined us on the beach for s’mores, and David took the teen photographers to the water to do some light work. I think they did a really cool job!
The next day was our final full day – such an amazing week and we can’t believe it’s nearing the end! But what an end! We boarded a huge catamaran and sailed for about 40 minutes to a private beach. But on the way, guess what? Sea turtles! We saw 4 sea turtles swimming in the water! I saw my sea turtles after all!!
We anchored just off a private beach and we had the opportunity to snorkel, paddle board, or just float in the water. Some of us swam over to the beach and explored a cave over there. We did some snorkeling too, and the kids tried to see how many of them they could get on a paddle board!
We had an open bar on the catamaran, and lunch was served too. Their guacamole was almost as good as mine!
It was about noon when we got back, and the kids had swimming on their brains. A few of us lounged by the pool while the kids swam.
That night was our Farewell Dinner. The food was out of this world, and after we ate, we each were asked to share our favorite memory of the trip with the group. The most common answers were ziplining and white water rafting, but one teenage boy said the all you can eat buffets were the best part and some mentioned the guides.
It was a very emotional evening. So many memories made, so many friendships made, wondering when and how we can be together again. And the hardest thing of all – which Adventures by Disney trip to do next??
A few notes:
Adventures by Disney trips are not cheap. However, in my opinion, they are totally worth the money. The tour price includes all your hotels, most meals (varies by trip), all published activities (without waiting in lines!), gratuities for covered meals, local tour guides, and luggage handling from stop to stop (this alone is priceless!) (Gratuities for your ABD guides are not covered, but if yours are like mine, you will not be able to give them enough money to show your appreciation for all they have done). I challenge you to put together the same trip for less money, and even if you could save a few dollars, you would have the stress of figuring out where to be each step of the way.
We love meeting new friends on ABD trips. Thanks to Facebook (for me) and Instragram (for my kids), we can easily keep in touch with our new adventurer friends!