Getaway: Disney leads the way West

Fran Golden

The buffalo was crossing the road, to get to the other side, right in front of our bus. The adults and kids onboard let out collective sighs of delight as we clicked away with our cameras. More of the beasts were on view from the side windows.

The experience was brought to us by Disney, but Mickey Mouse was nowhere in sight.

Welcome to Adventures by Disney, the tour company formed by The Walt Disney Co. to bring the real world to adults and kids alike, in our case a Quest for the West trek in Wyoming. The family-oriented tours offer easy planning and the fine-tuned customer service you'd expect. They are designed to be the perfect option for busy parents looking for easy family vacation.

And so Disney is conquering places as diverse as China and Peru, Spain and California, South Africa and Australia and the United States. The 2009 brochure boasts nearly two dozen tour options.

Cynics might say the tours amount to Disney's attempt to take over the world of travel, but on the Wyoming trip I got a sample of just how hassle-free and innovative the company can be in offering family oriented exploration. Two Adventure Guides led our group on a high-end vacation experience with the kind of unexpected moments you'd expect Disney to deliver. And despite Disney collectible pins handed out at several sites, the experience was surprisingly sans Mouse; sans commercial (our tour bus was purposely not marked with any Disney logos so as not to draw attention from other tourists).

Our western adventure began in Jackson, Wyo., where my accomplices - my brother, Ben, and 8-year-old niece, Sasha - met up with our companions for the week. We were nine families including an adult couple without kids and one Boston-area family with an au pair, 18 adults and 13 kids, ages 4 to 16, in total. Most were from the East Coast.

Our itinerary included Jackson, a visit to the amazingly scenic Grand Teton National Park, an exploration of Yellowstone National Park with its geysers, and time at an elegant dude ranch.

At an introductory dinner at the fancy, western-themed Wort Hotel in Jackson, our home for two nights, niece Sasha was thrilled to discover other girls her age in the group (and less thrilled by the boys). Brother Ben and I were happy to find adults we could relate to, too - key when you'll be spending an entire week as a tour group.

Old West was very much a part of our itinerary. By the second day we had sampled buffalo and sarsaparilla and bought Sasha a cowboy hat and boots at one of Jackson's numerous souvenir shops.

Our first taste of adventure was outside of Jackson, whitewater rafting on Class 2 and 3 rapids on the Snake River. We paddled. We got wet. And it was so much better even than Splash Mountain at Walt Disney World. A bald eagle even flew overhead at one point.

At Grand Teton National Park we saw a bear - a sizable black bear waiting for us as if on cue as we approached Jenny Lake. It was about 20 yards away and apparently searching for blueberries. We crossed the lake by boat and hiked to Inspiration Point for views that included the park's 10 million-year-old peaks and glaciers and tumbleweed-covered plains. The guides carefully herded the kids, giving the adults time to take in the impressive scenery.

Later, we had our introduction to Yellowstone at West Thumb, where we watched the earth bubble before our eyes - hot springs and algae creating amazing colors and patterns, with Yellowstone Lake as the backdrop.

We checked into the Old Faithful Snow Lodge and, after a meal that included more buffalo, we headed over to see the famous geyser erupt. Waiting for Old Faithful requires patience. The geyser goes off approximately every 90 minutes but Mother Nature is not really on a time clock.

Fortunately, Sasha was well-occupied with her newfound Disney tour friends - a group of the kids improvised a geyser rain dance and chants. Eventually we were all rewarded with a magnificent show of spray just as the sun was setting.

Our exploration of some of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres included visiting mud pots and geysers, hot springs and fumaroles (openings in the Earth's crust). The sights were amazing.

And in two days we saw at least 200 bison (there are some 3,000 in the park), in herds, lounging near the hot springs, and yes, crossing the road.

We did a fair share of hiking, and I was impressed by how all the kids managed to keep up.

Guides Aimee and Chris were fun to be with. They proved well-versed in the science and history of the region and well-accustomed to dealing with kids (there were stories and snacks and treats at appropriate moments). And they were also expert at keeping us adults on track (including subtle parenting reminders when kids misbehaved) and on our time schedule.

From Yellowstone we headed to the place horse-loving Sasha was most anxious to visit, a dude ranch in the Shoshone National Forest. The drive was a few hours and for entertainment Disney's "High School Musical" was shown on the bus's video screens - the one blatant Disney moment of our weeklong tour.

Those not watching the singing and dancing on screen kept our eyes out for wildlife, and were rewarded with a passing glimpse of a female moose and, later, a very large grizzly bear lounging in a stream.

Brooks Lake Lodge dude ranch was an impressively classy, historic log lodge on a lake with magnificent mountain views and surrounded by forest; the motif Western down to the buffalo tiles in the bathrooms. Leave it to Disney to save the best for last.

We explored on horseback, much to the kids' delight. Our cowgirl guide looked the part - in hat, boots and chaps - even if she was from Wrentham, working at the ranch as a summer job before heading back to Providence College. She took us up and down hills, across meadows and into the forest on well-trained horses. We spotted some long-ear mule deers along the route.

Later, while Ben escaped for an adult hike, Sasha and I tried our hand at fly-fishing at the lodge's trout-stocked pond. I caught nothing. Sasha, a first-timer, after a little instruction from the fishing staff, caught a nice-sized trout (which was then released).

Two days at the ranch gave us a chance to relax and share memories about what we'd experienced, with parents especially enjoying some down time (adults could even book massages). Yee-ha, Disney had certainly delivered.

If you go...

Quest for the West is offered June to September, and priced from $2,849 to $3,369 for adults, $2,559 to $3,029 for kids (under 12). Save $300 with early booking rates. Minimum age is 4, though some activities including horseback riding restricted to 7 and up. The rates include airport pickup, guides, bus transport, accommodations for six nights, activities, hotels, admissions, entertainment and most meals. Airfare is extra.

For details on tour offerings and reservations, visit www.adventuresbydisney.com or call 877-728-7282.

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