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Exploring Montana and Wyoming with the Mouse

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“Hey look! It’s Disney,” exclaimed a little girl as my family and I made our way along the Fountain Pot Trail in Yellowstone National Park. We were part of an Adventures by Disney tour group, and the girl was referring to the distinctive logo imprinted on the sign that one of our guides was carrying.

Rather than offering fanciful lands and attractions at theme parks that are based on real places, Adventures by Disney takes guests to actual places across the globe. Why, you might wonder, would Disney have branched off into the guided group tour business? The reaction of the little girl speaks volumes.

The Disney brand is widely recognized and the company’s knack for storytelling makes it ideally suited to bring real-world adventures to life. And the special connection it has with children allows it to carve a niche in the underserved family tours market.

After spending a week exploring Yellowstone and the Big Sky area of Montana with the Mouse, it’s clear that Disney can deliver eTicket adventures without storybook castles, costumed characters or animatronic pirates.

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The otherworldly vistas of Yellowstone

The initial part of the trip focused on Yellowstone, the first national park in the U.S. and the world, as well as one of the most popular. The tour included visits to most of the park’s highlights, such as the otherworldly Grand Prismatic Spring with its stunning rainbow of vibrant colors, a hike overlooking the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (who knew there was a Grand Canyon in northern Wyoming?) that included views of its mineral-infused, multi-hued waterfalls, and, of course, a stop at Old Faithful to see the celebrated geyser do its thing.

An early morning ride on the tour group’s motorcoach through the Lamar Valley afforded many sightings of free-roaming bison, elk, antelope and other animals. We boarded horse-drawn, replica stagecoaches to help get a sense of the way visitors first traveled through Yellowstone in the late 1800s and early 1900s (and for the sheer fun of it). Accompanying us throughout the three days we visited the park was a local naturalist who provided expert insight and context.

As we were making our way just before dusk through the Mammoth Hot Springs terraces, a ghostly fog crept in that mixed with the sulfur-tinged plumes of steam from the springs. An unexpected thunderstorm then followed. What could have been a disappointing washout turned into a lively game of “Wordles” thanks to Doug Littell, one of the tour’s leaders. He quickly produced a homemade stash of cards with word puzzles on them and kept us engaged as we huddled in the eerie, fading light under the shelter of a large tree.

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The Disney distinction

Tour leaders can make all the difference, and in Littell’s case, he was key in making the trip wonderful. He was able to pivot and present an alternate activity that was suitable for and enjoyed by the participants, whether they were children, teens or parents. But Littell wasn’t alone in making the trip hum along. He was joined by Lauren Milligan.

A central Adventures by Disney distinction: It includes two tour leaders, dubbed “adventure guides,” for its trips. While it’s not unprecedented for companies to assign two people to lead their tours, it is rare. With their winning personalities and other traits, Littell and Milligan were both ideally suited for the position.

“One of us can be focused on the logistics of the tour, while the other guide is able to pay attention to things that other [companies’] tour guides wouldn’t notice,” Littell says, explaining the benefits of two leaders. Thanks to the guides, plans for the trip unfolded seamlessly. But more critically, the doting attention they lavished on our group of about 30 participants made every family and each person feel welcome.

Other Disney touches were subtler. Each day, participants received a pin custom-made for the trip and bearing the likeness of Mickey Mouse, Pluto or another animated character. Music from Disney movies or the parks, often reinterpreted with a country western arrangement befitting the Montana setting, played quietly during the bus rides.

As with any group travel, the Adventures by Disney trip offered pros and cons. On the one hand, nearly everything was arranged by the company and handled by the guides, which made the experience stress-free. But the trade-off was that participants didn’t have much say in the arrangements. For example, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call, as we had for one of our days.

Glamping and ranching

Left to our own travel-planning devices, my family probably never would have gone glamping either. But I’m glad we did. Two nights in a large, safari-style tent under a gloriously starlit sky at Yellowstone Under Canvas in West Yellowstone, Montana, provided a great introduction to the burgeoning concept of “glamorous” camping.

With a comfortable, king-sized bed, a partitioned bathroom in the tent that had running water and hot showers, and a wood-burning stove, I suppose the accommodations were glamorous compared to standard camping. But with no electricity, king-sized mosquitoes, and – gasp! – no Wi-Fi signal, it wasn’t glamorous by most standards. Still, staying at Yellowstone Under Canvas was a wonderful way to commune with the area’s rugged beauty and was in keeping with the trip’s ethos.

Transitioning to the Big Sky area in Montana for the second half of the trip, the accommodations at the 320 Guest Ranch in Gallatin Gateway were more upscale, but there wasn’t a fancy bathrobe to be found in the nicely appointed, but rustic, two-bedroom log cabin in which we stayed. There were, however, plenty of horses roaming the ranch.

320’s wranglers hosted a two-hour group horseback ride through mountain meadows that took us some 800 feet above the rambling ranch. The trails offered spectacular views of the valley and mountain peaks in the distance.

Other activities included fly-fishing on the Gallatin River, a contemplative – and, it turns out, delightful – way to chill out that allowed me and my family members, novice anglers all, to each catch (and release) a fish. The action was zippier as we navigated the rapids of the Gallatin during a whitewater rafting expedition. The experience was surprisingly similar to river raft rides found at theme parks, such as Kali River Rapids at Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom. The interactivity as well as the stakes were higher on Montana’s “real” raft ride.

Our group also participated in a thrilling zip line tour down Lone Mountain at the Big Sky Resort, a bike tour through a wooded trail, and a hike along the lovely Ousel Falls Park Trail. We were kept on the go with engaging activities, but none of them were especially strenuous or required much skill.

At the beginning of the trip, we were asked to make choices for some of the activities and meals. When I saw that one of the lunch options was a pre-made hoagie with a packet of Italian dressing, I had the sense that the tour would not be a gourmand’s delight. Some of the food, in fact, was delicious, such as charcoal-grilled elk and huckleberry cobbler (the regional fruit is a popular ingredient in Montana) at the Mammoth Hotel Dining Room and the grilled vegetable salad with smoked chicken at the Bar N Ranch, which is adjacent to Yellowstone Under Canvas. For the most part, the meals were fine, if not especially memorable.

As with the accommodations, though, the trip was less about the food and more about experiencing the majesty of one of the country’s most beautiful places. On that count, Disney succeeded wildly. “It’s adventures by Disney, not vacations by Disney,” says Littell, explaining the mission for the Montana tour.

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