“What’s a cow’s favorite drink? A Cos-moo-politan.”
The whole bus groaned, and I quietly laughed. We were having cosmopolitans for the “drink of the day,” and the joke, perhaps the tenth bad cow joke our Disney Adventure Guide Veronika had regaled us with that afternoon, was just terrible enough to be funny.
“What did the mother cow say to the baby cow? It’s pasture bedtime,” she continued, her delivery almost monotone, making me wonder how long it took to come up with these jokes.
The puns followed as we bumped along the rural roads of Normandy, a steady Autumn drizzle falling on the green pastures and charming French farmhouses outside the bus. That morning we had climbed to the top of the cliffs of Etretat, staring out at the brilliant turquoise water and trying not to get too close to the edge, before heading to the town of Honfleur where I couldn’t help but hum the opening tune to Beauty and the Beast as I walked through what surely felt like a Disney movie brought to life.
This was day six of our 10-day river cruise through France, and I had started to look forward to the puns. I looked over at my mom and noticed she was smiling too — maybe reluctantly, but smiling nonetheless. We were on the Adventures by Disney Seine River Cruise, and while there weren’t many overt signs of Mickey Mouse, you couldn’t help but embrace the infectious perky attitudes of our Adventure Guides.
There’s a misconception that river cruising tends to cater almost exclusively to an older crowd. That couldn’t have been further from the truth — in fact, our adults-only sailing of about 100 people had passengers ranging from twenty-somethings to retirees, and Disney often welcomes kids as young as 4.
My family has been to Paris more times than we can count, but we rarely venture past the arrondissements. Sailing up the winding Seine was a stark contrast from the city: we saw wide open spaces dotted with centuries-old stone churches, chateaus peeking out from behind lush trees, and families of white swans slowly floating by, begging you to say hello.
“I’ll challenge you to an apple bobbing contest,” Veronika dared one afternoon, a glimmer of competitive edge in her eyes. Our group had taken over the manicured lawns and ornate living rooms of Chateau de Bizy, tucked away in the town of Vernon. We had the place to ourselves, and I had spent the earlier part of my visit cuddling Marcel the pig and trying in vain to pick him up.
I agreed to the apple challenge and then swiftly lost, which was really no surprise since she was clearly very practiced. But it didn’t matter, there was something magical about just being at the expansive castle, the history of which can be traced back all the way to the 17th century.
Days earlier, as we arrived at the rocky sand beaches of Normandy, it became clear that we were in for an extraordinary trip. Following a moving visit to the Normandy American Cemetery with its stark white and nearly uniform rows of grave markers, we climbed into refurbished WWII trucks that still smelled heavily of gasoline and drove the winding path down to the beach, an immersive perk provided by the D-Day Academy.
The Academy, whose mission is to preserve the war’s history, was founded by Jean-Pierre Benamou in 2004. Benamou has been collecting WWII artifacts for decades, fascinated by D-Day and war history in general every since he was a young boy. It’s understandable, since, like many people in France, the war touched his family directly: Benamou’s father fought with the local resistance during wartime, and his 5-year-old brother was killed by an American bomb on D-Day before Benamou was even born. He made it his mission to preserve the living history of the war, and he has been working with the Academy full-time since retiring from his career as an oral surgeon in 2015.
“It’s important to preserve all of these artifacts from the garbage or scraps,” Benamou explained, standing atop a cliff overlooking the sea below, his speech slow and measured as if he was weighing his words. “It is a mission to share my knowledge and my impressions and my feelings being on site where it happened with this wonderful landscape around us.”
In our 10 days in France, we walked in the footsteps of history, tasted caramels and white truffle macarons in Paris, hiked to a crumbling medieval castle up on a hill in Les Andelys, and wandered around Claude Monet’s gardens in Giverny, the flowers verdant and blooming after an overnight rain.
When it was finally time to leave, it hit me that I would miss the joyous spirit that I had come to rely on throughout the trip. And on our last night, following a decadent crème brûlée (I mean, “when in France”), we floated by the Eiffel Tower. The iconic structure was lit up and sparkling, almost as if it too was celebrating our time on board the Adventures by Disney Seine River Cruise.