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Southwest Splendors is our 6th Adventures by Disney tour, and I suppose it's only natural as the experiences accumulate to compare and find that some tours stand out both in positive and negative aspects. I couldn't help but consider various components of the tour - destinations, food, accommodations, local expert tours, and logistics - with the other Adventures by Disney tours we've taken.
As I've reflected on the experience, I've come to think either one of three things was true:
That said, there were amazing moments to be had on this journey as well.. so, come with me through each day and - at the end - maybe we'll decide which of the three it was - or pick a new option
DAY 1 - Red Rock Welcome
My first comparison begins at the beginning of the tour. In all of the other tours I know first-hand (Costa Rica, Spain, Wyoming, Peru, and Ecuador), the tour had a night scheduled in the city of arrival. We'd have a chance to regroup from the air travel and a meal together before we set in the motor coach. On the Southwest Splendors tour, we left in the motor coach from the Phoenix airport. This meant we either traveled early in the morning and spent some number of hours (3 for us) in the airport waiting for everyone to arrive or come in the night before, go to a hotel or motel, and come back to the airport the next day.
We met our Adventure Guides at 1PM (though we were told to arrange our flights to leave the Phoenix airport at noon.. not sure why departure was pushed back, but we could have taken a later flight if we'd known and gotten more sleep in the wee hours. (Logistics: -1) Of course, the first thing I mentioned to them - after greetings - was that I have type 1 Diabetes, Alan and I both maintain a sugar-free diet, and I asked for vegetarian meals. Our Adventure Guides assured us it was taken care of, and I had high hopes based on how other Adventures by Disney guides took care of us (foreshadowing, here)
The shared meal and introductions is an important component in establishing group camaraderie, and the result of not having it before we climbed aboard the motorcoach resulted in feeling like we were getting on a bus with a bunch of strangers... not the best way to start a tour. If I were making the decision, the tour would include a night in Phoenix. Logistics: -1.
Once on the bus, our Adventure Guides were friendly and entertaining; water was plentiful. They did their best, I believe, to make a bunch of tired travelers feel comfortable and open to getting to know each other. However, again, I compared. On the Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Wyoming tours, we had an Adventure Guide who was knowledgeable in the history, socio-economic structure, religious, and agricultural variables of the culture in which we traveled. It filled the time on the motor coach with interesting information and dialogue. Lots of jokes and giggles from our Adventure Guides (which is still a good thing), but the depth of information was missing and missed
We stopped at Montezuma's Castle on the way to Sedona and were met by one of Adventure by Disney's "local experts" He led us through National Monument, and he was good. His knowledge of the history and local botany was very interesting. It was also very pleasant to get out and stretch our legs midway through the ride. Logistics: +1, Local Expert Tour: +1.
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We left the Phoenix airport about an hour and half later than the time given us by Adventures by Disney, and - of course - we arrived in Sedona later than anticipated. The Amara Hotel definitely met the Adventures by Disney promise of a 4 star hotel. We had minimal time to settle into our rooms before it was time to meet for a late dinner.
This was our official Welcome and Introduction meal. It's an opportunity for the Adventure Guides to explain the logistics of our tour and facilitate introductions amongst the group. Disney usually includes entertainment at this meal, and this was no exception. Unfortunately, we were running late, and all of these activities were set to occur before we ate. The later it got, the lower my bloodsugar went. I don't know if it was specific to me because of type 1 Diabetes or if others felt we were asked to wait too long to eat... I finally broke into the Adventure Guides schpiel and asked for crackers Logistics: -1
The dinner was a buffet, and - credit to the hotel - there was a vegetarian pasta option for me and the other vegetarian in the group. At the time, I wished there was cheese included for protein, and Alan mentioned that the regular buffet seemed more limited in options than other Adventures by Disney tours. The food quality was acceptable, though not stand-out like some of our other tour Welcome Dinners. The entertainment was exceptionally good (and I have a short video clip for you to get see for yourself) Entertainment: +1
We were all so tired, I'm not sure anyone could truly give this Cowboy Poet his due. I think most - if not all - of us just wanted to get to our rooms and rest. Which we did. And I'm glad I have this short video clip to remind just how good they were
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DAY 2 - Hit the Trail!
Breakfast was buffet and very limited. Half of it was sweet breads which left hard scrambled eggs, potatoes, fruit salad, and sausage, leaving even less choice for vegetarian. There was ketchup on the table, but it had sugar in it, too. We did manage to get some Tabasco sauce when we asked for it, and that helped the eggs. Compared to the breakfasts on all of the other tours, this selection was sad. Food: -1
After breakfast, we headed out on an off road jeep tour to explore the areas around Red Rock. The guides were friendly, and the ride was exciting At one point, we got out of the jeeps, and one of the guides shared local history with us. Here's a video clip to give you a taste:
After the ride, we were served a picnic lunch (that had vegetarian options on the selection menu); some of the folks stayed to play Horse Shoes and see some fancy roping, but most everyone walked the short distance back to town to begin the afternoon and evening "on our own".
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Because we understood that the morning Jeep tour would be less focused on what Sedona is famous for (Vortexes) and more oriented towards a good ride with some geological information, we set up our own tour for the afternoon with the same tour company to explore a couple of Vortex sites. This turned out to be the best experience of the entire tour for us (Unfortunately, I can't give points for it because we set it up and paid for it independent of the Adventures by Disney tour). I can say kudos to our Adventure Guide, Tiffany, who went out of her way to help us make arrangements. Adventure Guide: +1
Our guide took us to two Vortex sites and shared with us the Native American perspective of them. He described them as places where the Earth is full of vitality and well-being. Then he gave us tips on how to experience them and left us on our own for some time at each location. It was AWESOME!
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DAY 3 - The Mighty Canyon
The breakfast buffet was slightly improved this morning; instead of platters of muffins and danish there were pancakes. And, though there wasn't any sugar free syrup (a bit of a surprise to me here in the US of A), we could put the stevia (a non-caloric sweetner) we brought with us and enjoy an additional option.
We climbed into our motorcoach and headed towards Red Rock State Park for a Nature hike. The weather was beautiful, and our Local Expert engaged us with interesting information about the history, current culture, geology, and botany of the area. This was the type of excursion we'd come to love on our previous Adventures by Disney tours where all of our senses - including our minds - were immersed in the experience. Local Expert and tour: +1
After a brisk, morning walk through a park what can be better than lunch and shopping? Logistically, our next stop was perfect: Tlaquepaque - a delightful shopping area with several restaurants for "lunch on our own" options. We opted for The Secret Garden where we had one of the better meals of the tour. When I first saw the itinerary that had so many meals not included in our tour (three already in the 1.5 days we spent in Sedona), I thought it compared unfavorably with other tours we'd taken where many more meals were included. It became a theme, though, that meals on our own were better than the meals provided on the tour... so, I'm not sure whether to give a point to Adventure's by Disney planners for giving us some options for good meals or take take a point away for the quality of meals provided on the tour
The Tlaquepaque was delightful, stores full of artisan craft and creative ambiance. Even getting lost in all the twists and turns was an adventure. We made it back to the coach just in time for the ride to the Grand Canyon.
The ride to Grand Canyon was pleasant. There was water and snacks, and the Adventure Guides put a Disney movie on to play for us. It was a pleasant interlude. Because we made good time, we got to sneak a quick 'pre-visit' to canyon before checking into our hotel... er, motel, actually. Yep. I'm not sure why, but Disney had us booked into the 2 star motel, Thunderbird, right next to the 4 star hotel, El Tovar. I'm pretty sure the promise for these tours is 4 star or better accomodations, and - on all the other tours we've experienced - even the less elaborate accommodations had indoor hallways. Accommodations: -1
We had a half hour or so to figure where to fit our luggage into small rooms, and then we met in the one of the banquet rooms for buffet meal and entertainment. It was a barbecue buffet, and - according to Alan - more limited than we are used to on an Adventures by Disney tour. Judging by the amount of food left on peoples' plates and Alan's comments, it wasn't a meal to write home about, but the restaurant did make me a vegetarian pasta meal, and they did have a sugar free dessert for us. Unfortunately, not everyone was given a coffee service after dinner, either, so the final tilt.. Food: -1
The entertainment was wonderful. We were given a show by some members of the Navajo Nation, and our hearts were touched. If anything, I would have liked to see them given a stage or some kind of ambiance to enhance their performance.
Grand Canyon/Thunderbird Pictures
Here is a short clip to give you an idea:
DAY 4 - Grand Discovery
Buffet breakfast to start the day. Choices were more plentiful than Sedona; food quality perhaps slightly worse. So far, food compares the least well to other adventures: -1 for breakfast I'm sorry to say
The day had one Adventures by Disney tour in it, and then we were free for lunch, the afternoon, dinner, and through the evening. For the tour, we climbed on the motorcoach with a Local Expert, and he took us to three locations around the canyon and let us explore on our own. I really enjoyed the ability to roam and explore independently! +1 for whoever determined the logistics of the tour On the other hand, the Local Expert wasn't very good. He told lots of stories about accidents and injuries and had a boatload of silly jokes (but we already had that covered with our Adventure Guides), so I have to give the Local Expert a -1 for the absence of any depth to the information he shared. Hopefully, he isn't the only Local Expert Disney uses for this tour.
We had lunch at the Bright Angel Cafe. It was moderately priced, and - while the food was simple diner fare - it was - so far - better than our tour meals. We relaxed and explored through the afternoon and had dinner at the fine dining option, El Tovar. Several of the group went together on the motorcoach to a local bar where they served pizza, and - from what I heard - they had a great time. We enjoyed the ambiance and food at El Tovar; not your most economical option but - for us - the perfect way to end the day
Grand Canyon Pictures
DAY 5 - Western Monuments
Had I known where this day was headed, I might have stayed in bed. Foreshadowing
We started early with the same breakfast buffet as the day before and climbed onto the motorcoach for a very long bus ride to Moab, UT. The exciting part of this day, I thought, was going to be a visit to the Navajo Nation. What Disney did extremely well on all of the other tours was give us immersion experiences into the cultures we visited that we couldn't create on our own. In Ecuador, we learned flute making and were given cooking and weaving demonstrations, for example. I was hoping for something like that.
What was set up for us was a horse of a different color. First, a group lunch in a diner run by a local tour company. They weren't really set up to deal with a group as large as ours so it was quite chaotic, but we did enjoy samplying a Fry Bread Taco. Fry Bread is now on my favorite foods list. Because it took so long to get served at lunch, we didn't have any time to check out the local Trading Post and see the Navajo products before we were whisked onto 'open air' pick-up trucks (seats placed in the open back end for us tourists) for a tour of Monuments Valley.
"Open air" is the operative phrase here. The wind was blowing so hard that none of us could look at the sights around us; we had to keep our faces as sheltered as possible to keep sand grit from getting into our noses and mouths We stopped at one point for a 7 minute shopping spree at some tables set with Navajo-made products, and the young woman told me there was a wind-advisory; that the winds were extremely high for the area. On the way back into the back of our pickup, I asked the Local Expert to please lower the plastic flaps on the sides of the pick up to protect us from the wind. He told me he'd see how it went, and left the flaps rolled up. At the next stop - another Navajo jewelry shopping opportunity - I asked our Adventure Guide to lower the flaps when I saw that the Local Expert wasn't going to do it. She told me there wasn't enough time and if I'd asked earlier, they could have done it. I told her I did ask earlier, but it made no difference. The flaps stayed up, and we suffered through the ride back to the Trading Post (I think maybe she would have been more interested in bringing the flaps down if she'd been back in the open air with us instead of riding in the cab with the Local Expert) Add to this that the Local Expert forgot to turn his PA system on for the first half of the tour so we heard nothing but wind and sand beating against our eardrums, and the result for this experience is not a happy one. Local Expert: -2 Adventure Guide: -2 Tour -2
Back on the motorcoach, I made a point of letting the Adventure Guide know that the experience was horrible for me on all three counts. Her response to me was that the wind was always high on this tour and I was the first person she'd ever heard complain, implying I guess that I'm just crotchety. I suppose that may be the case, because I'm docking her another -1 for a dismissive response to feedback
We still had three hours to go on the bus. I had sand in my bronchials and throat, in my ears, in my nose, in my hair, and I felt grumpy with the experience in general. My all time cure for this kind of a situation: take a nap. So, I did, hoping for a fresh start in Moab.
We arrived on the late side at our resort, and headed inside for a Welcome snack and orientation. The snack was punch and cookies. I asked the waitperson if we could have unsweetened iced tea or diet soda and maybe some fresh fruit, and she said no. The only subsitute was water... so, Alan and I sat and watched the others have a snack. As the Adventure Guides were handing out our room keys, I mentioned to her what had happened regarding the snack, thinking the hotel might not be set up for our special meal needs and asked her to check into it. She seemed to think it was already handled. She was busy with the keys so I let it go and hoped....
The room was spacious and much aligned with my previous Adventures by Disney experiences
After a quick bath to wash the grit (and memories) away, we headed to the hotel banquet room for what turned out to be a Taco Bar buffet. I got up to the bar, and the Adventure Guide informed me that the only things on the bar that didn't have meat in them were the taco shells and the refried beans. I told her this was unacceptable to me - I needed more than just carbs with type 1 Diabetes. She asked me what I wanted, and I suggested cheese for protein would be good, and she pointed to the grated cheese on the condiment bar. I was thinking more along the lines of an amount that would be equal to the size of a protein serving, but I could see that she didn't intend to do anything more than point out what was available on the buffet presented, so I did what I could to make a complete meal for myself. Adventure Guide: -1 Food: -1
Like I said, if I'd known how this day was going to go, I would have stayed in bed.
Monument Valley, Red Cliffs Lodge Pictures
Day 6 - Nature's Fault
Breakfast at the Red Cliffs Lodge was the best spread yet, and much more in alignment with what I'd come to expect on an Adventures by Disney tour. There were both unsweet and sweet breads, cold and hot cereal, an array of juices, and the standard eggs/bacon/potatoes/pancakes hot buffet. They even had sugar free syrup here
Our morning tour was to the Arches National Park. We were given a choice to go on a moderately difficult hike to one of the most famous arches or ride with the Local Expert to see more of the park and do a less strenous walk. The Adventure Guides listed the difficulties of the hike (distance, incline, and a few cliff-like edges), and promised they would make sure everyone who did the hike made it. Typically, Alan and I always go for the exercise, but I was feeling somewhat hesitant to put myself in the hands of the Adventure Guides. I am sure it would have ultimately been ok, but I am delighted that we opted to go with the Local Expert. His tour was the BEST of the Adventures by Disney tours. I would gladly have spent the full day with him learning about the Native American culture and the geology of the area.. not to mention his very cool anecdotes about the movie industry in Moab. Local Expert: +1 The park was pretty magnificent, too
Afterward, we drove to town for lunch and a little shopping on our own. There were lots of restaurant options, and we thoroughly enjoyed our meal. Moab is a great little town, full of artists and nature enthusiasts. I hope someday to return.
Back at the hotel, it would have been Disney Movie night, but the powers that be decided to change out the movie for a Wine Tasting event because we were an adult's only group. Alan and I don't partake of alcohol - and we're just a couple of big kids anyway - so we would have preferred the movie. Just sayin. I think, though, that several others were very happy for the change out.
Dinner was in the hotel restaurant. We were given options (shared appetizer, entree, and ice cream for dessert) that Disney would cover, and if we wanted more or something different, it would be our expense. I asked the hostess about a sugar free dessert for us, and she told us there wasn't one - just the ice cream on the menu. I asked her if we could each have an appetizer then, and she said no. I asked her to please go back to the kitchen and ask again about sugar free desserts; my understanding was that arrangements had been made. She was huffy about it and came back to grudgingly let me know we could have fruit. Whatever Other than that, dinner was pretty good.
Arches National Park Pictures
Day 7 - Gather 'Round the Campfire
Breakfast at Red Cliffs Lodge continued as a high point meal, and this morning we had the added luxury of taking our time. It was a morning "on our own". ATV rides could be arranged, and a large number of our group went horseback riding and reported back having an excellent time. We took advantage of the high speed wifi in our rooms and got some work done (Where ever we go, there we are)
The group rejoined for a barbecue picnic lunch with hamburgers, hotdogs, and vegetarian chili (YAY!) The dots seemed to have connected for the Adventure Guides and hotel; they went to a local store and got sugar free cookies and sugar free ice cream for us to have at lunch and dinner, respectively. While it might have made more of a difference if the connection was made that stores have lots of sugar free options on day 1 or 2 for us, I have high hopes for folks with sugar free dietary needs on future tours.
After lunch was the final Adventures by Disney tour, a raft ride down the Colorado river. We've enjoyed the raft rides on several of the other tours; they are generally a wonderful bonding experience for the group. For whatever reason, today I just wasn't 'feeling' it, and we chose to stay 'at the ranch' and enjoy a quiet afternoon with each other. It's nice to have choices We strolled the grounds, visited the horses at the barn, took some more pictures for y'all, and generally relaxed until it was time for the Finale dinner.
Finale dinners are a big deal on the Adventures by Disney tours. On all of the other tours, the meal was tuned up a notch with entertainment and lots of reminiscing of the shared moments we enjoyed. Everyone had a great time. And on this tour, I think these statements might have also been true for most.
For me? I'll tell you how the dinner went for me, and you decide... It was designed to be a special Steak barbecue. I went to the buffet looking to find what was sans added sugar and vegetarian that I could eat. I found potatoes and corn. So... I went to the Adventure Guide and asked where I could find a vegetarian option. She seemed miffed to see me AGAIN, and told me brusquely that there were portobello mushrooms as the vegetarian option. I replied, "Cool. Where are they?" She got up to go find out. I sat with my table mates while they ate. 10 minutes later, she returned and told me they were out of Portobello Mushrooms and I could have either Pasta or Lasagna from the menu. I chose the Lasagna, hoping it would have cheese for protein in it. I sat for another 15 minutes while my table mates finished their dinner before my entree arrived. Adventure Guide: -1 Food: -1
It sort of set the tone for the rest of the Finale experience for me, and - when it was time for the group to go out to the Campfire, we opted to go back to our room. I didn't know what else could go wrong, and I didn't want to find out.
Red Cliffs Lodge & Barn Pictures
Day 8 - Happy Trails!
We spent a leisurely breakfast chatting with our newly made friends and enjoying our last plate of food together before boarding the motorcoach one final time for the hour ride to the airport. One last bus ride
The Grand Junction airport is very small (ie no restaurant). Some of our group purchased 'take away' lunches from the hotel, and many - like us - grabbed snacks at the airport store to tide us over until we got to larger airports. Either way, my tip of the review is: be prepared for it.
In conclusion, for me the best part of this tour were the places we visited. And, while I probably would have gone to Sedona and the Grand Canyon on my own, I don't think I'd have seen Arches National Park (a very special place) if I hadn't done this tour. So, for that reason at least, I have to be glad ultimately that I went.
Who would I recommend this tour for?
- People who like barbecues and meat as the mainstay of their diet.
- People who don't consider themselves "foodies" (ie aren't concerned about food preparation and presentation).
- People who don't care how much time they spend in a bus as long as someone else is driving.
- People who love Nature.
- People who don't have a strong interest in understanding Native American culture in depth.
And, if I might make a suggestion... If you are interested in an Adventures by Disney tour in the US that focuses on the outdoors and Nature, check out our Wyoming tour review: Quest for the West It was wonderful!
Will I ever do another Adventures by Disney tour.. or am I soured forever? We have reservations for the London/Paris (with a side trip to Disneyland Paris) in May, 2010. I have to believe that - with an experience of 5 excellent tours and only 1 that left me wanting to get off the bus - this was a fluke of a variety of variables. So, we will go again (with just a couple trips to Disney World in the meantime to get back the Disney Magic) Who knows, maybe I'll see some of y'all there.. that would be FUN!