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Published: Saturday, 8/31/2013

Disney tour in Scotland offered experiences, access not usually available to travelers

Kids in local garb are 'piped in’ before an after-hours tour of Edinburgh Castle. Kids in local garb are 'piped in’ before an after-hours tour of Edinburgh Castle.

ANGUS, Scotland — It’s not that hard to shoot an arrow using a longbow, but actually hitting a target is another matter entirely.

Disney adventure guides Zoe, left and Hanneke don 'Nessie hats' to mark the group’s visit to Loch Ness. Disney adventure guides Zoe, left and Hanneke don 'Nessie hats' to mark the group’s visit to Loch Ness.

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 anyone gets the chance to shoot arrows on the grounds.

An archery lesson on the grounds of Glamis Castle is among the activities on the Adventures by Disney tour of Scotland. An archery lesson on the grounds of Glamis Castle is among the activities on the Adventures by Disney tour of Scotland.

So how come we got to do it? One word: 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, Adventures 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.

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

“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, said Bruce Austin, the man who comes up with most of the trips.

Our tour, called “Scotland: A Brave Adventure,” is the first Adventures itinerary to be linked to a Disney/​Pixar movie — last year’s animated 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.

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

We visited the famous Edinburgh Castle, a 12th-century fortress that sits atop an extinct volcano overlooking the city. During our 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 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 zip lining, 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 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.

A major reason that 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.

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 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 terrific. Of course, we had to try a bit of Haggis, the country’s national dish. For those who might not know, it’s basically sheep intestines cooked in a sheep’s stomach, and I’ve got to say it’s … well, interesting.

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, and you have front-of-the-line or exclusive access to attractions and the full-time services of well-trained guides.

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