By Sarah Waffle Gavin, on May 3, 2016

San Francisco by Disney

As a proud Expedian (that’s what we Expedia employees call ourselves), travel is like oxygen—I need it to live. When I travel with my family, however, because my husband and I have four kids between the two of us, I can’t truly relax unless life is super-simple, packaged up, and ready to go for me. Of course, like all good travelers, I want a unique, memorable experience full of moments I can’t put into words, moments that no one else in the whole world has ever had. You might say I want to have my vacation cake and eat it, too.

I’ve learned this about myself the hard way. I’m a Type-A control type. It takes a lot for me to vacation on my vacations. Left to my own devices, I obsess about every little detail. We must see x, y, and z. We must be there at 9:30 a.m., no matter what. We can’t rest for more than 30 minutes or we’ll miss prime viewing time for _____. I won’t lie, this approach gets tiring after a while. Beside, I’m always on top of stuff at work; when I’m on vacation, I don’t want to worry about a thing. (ICYW, my husband is completely the same way.)

This is precisely why a vacation with Adventures by Disney appealed to us. We’d always wanted to spend some quality family time in the San Francisco Bay Area. So we booked the “San Francisco Long Weekend” trip with Adventures by Disney and left the planning to them. In response, Disney had a number of guides and handlers managing our trip, making all of the plans and decisions for us. We had two people assigned to our family and a couple of others and I lovingly referred to each of them as our very own “Mary Poppins.”  This Mary Poppins pair enabled me to kick back and enjoy my kids instead of worrying about logistics.

In the end, the three-day, three-night itinerary featured the best the Bay Area had to offer—the best hotel, the best restaurants, and the best attractions, all with that inimitable Disney spin. We weren’t the only family on the trip; there were four other families, and the dynamic was great as it enabled our kids to make friends. All told, the experience amounted to a trip we all will be talking about for years to come.


Day 1: Biking the Bay

After checking in to a posh suite at the Fairmont San Francisco, the six of us spent most of our first day in San Francisco on bikes. From the bustling Fisherman’s Wharf, we biked along the water into the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Along the way, we passed Crissy Field and the Palace of Fine Arts. Our destination: Fort Point the base of the Golden Gate Bridge.

We biked eight miles in all. All of us. Even my 7-year-old, who rode a tandem bike with my husband. For most humans, the pedal-powered part of this adventure would be no big deal. For me, however, the biking part was HUGE; I don’t think I’ve biked more than a mile or two in 20 years.

(Don’t get me wrong, I’m fit. Just not a big biker.)

And everybody had fun. The kids appreciated seeing San Francisco Bay from essentially sea level. Because almost the entire ride was flat, nobody complained too much (except for the way back, when we were pedaling into the teeth of a pretty strong wind). Also, my husband and I appreciated that our guide built a number of stops into the journey, the guide definitely had kid (or, in my case, mom) stamina in mind.

That night, after freshening up back at the hotel, our entire group took a fascinating coach tour through Chinatown and learned about the neighborhood’s rich history and influence on the city. We peered out bus windows at shops with bins overflowing with colorful vegetables and seafood. We marveled at the intricate details of the Chinatown Arch. Just when our pint-sized natives were getting restless, the coach stopped and we piled out for a delicious multi-course, family style dinner at M.Y. China.

The M.Y. in this restaurant’s name stands for Martin Yan, as in, the chef that made Chinese food famous with his 1980s television show, “Yan Can Cook.” Chef Yan wasn’t there the night we visited, but the head chef did come out to give us a theatrical noodle-pulling demonstration. The noodles looked like hair. The kids were enthralled.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t take time to note that the restaurant was incredibly accommodating. One of my kids is a super-picky eater and our guide made sure the restaurant had plain barbecue chicken skewers for him. Nobody seemed to mind this special request. I know it was a little detail, but I saw it as another way in which the team at Adventures by Disney went out of its way to guarantee all of us on the trip felt at home. This eliminated the strain from our family trip, leaving nothing but magic.


Day 2: The Great North

That magic continued on our second day in San Francisco, when we ventured north over the Golden Gate into the North Bay and Wine Country.

Our first stop: Muir Woods National Monument, one of the most famous klatches of redwoods in the world. Normally, visiting this national park can be a nightmare; parking is limited and crowds can overwhelm. On the day we visited, however, Adventures by Disney made the experience effortless. Our coach dropped us off right at the front entrance, and we were there early enough to beat the throngs.

This enabled our kids—and the rest of us, really—to have a relaxed few hours to explore the park. We craned our necks to look up at the tops of the redwoods swaying in the breeze. All six of us Gavins held hands and tried to encircle a giant redwood, but we still came up a few bodies short.

At one point, deep in the forest, we turned around and a deer and fawn wandered right up next to us on the trail. We all froze and stood there watching them. They, too, froze and watched us. For a moment I felt like we were actually *in* a Disney movie. Without question that was one of my favorite moments of the entire vacation.

But that was just the start of the day. From Muir Woods, we continued north to Napa, to Silverado Vineyards. Silverado was co-founded by Diane Disney Miller, Walt Disney’s daughter. This was great as the experience was familiar (“Look, kids, Mickey heads!”) and unique at the same time. The wine made it unique—delicious wine at that.

Our group split into two subgroups here—grownups and kids. We grownups went into a private tasting salon for a VIP tasting and a class during which we got to blend our own wines. I know I’m a total nerd, but mixing different varietals and playing with the graduated cylinders was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done on vacation. Beside, my wine was GOOD. While we were making our own wines, the kids were in an adjacent room working on art projects involving cork and olive oil. Everybody met up on a private patio for a catered lunch an hour later; the sweeping views of the entire Napa Valley were intoxicating in an entirely different way. (See what I did there?)

Viewfinder Tip: Bring layers for a trip to San Francisco; weather changes quickly and can ruin a day if you’re not prepared.

Day 3: Bridge, Angel, and Lucas

Our final day in San Francisco was the longest of the bunch. On the agenda: the Golden Gate Bridge, Angel Island State Park, Tiburon, Lucasfilm, and the Walt Disney Family Museum.

The bridge was our first stop, as our coach pulled over on the south side and gave us an opportunity to get out and walk halfway across the span. I couldn’t believe how fast the wind was blowing up there—no wonder the fog comes in so quickly! When they weren’t shivering, the kids peered over the side of the International Orange railing and scanned the choppy water for whales and dolphins and tankers and anything else they could identify.

From there we continued onto Angel Island, which we reached by a small ferry. Here, on a guided tour, we learned about the island’s past as a U.S. immigration station—a colorful history that earned it the nickname of the “Ellis Island of the West.” We also marveled at the views of Alcatraz Island and the city. I’ve always been partial to the Seattle skyline, but San Francisco is pretty beautiful, too.

In one of the most magical moments of the trip, after a big picnic lunch, all of the kids started playing together in the woods. There was this big hill and the kids ran up the hill and down the hill as fast as they could. My husband stood at the bottom and caught them all as they came down, spinning them around and sending them on their way back up the hill. He loved it. They loved it. I loved watching all of them love it. It was bliss. And it was never something we would have engineered on our own.


After a quick stop in Tiburon, we crossed back over the Golden Gate and headed for the Presidio of San Francisco, a national park and the site of the newest campus of Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Our guides led us on a tour of Lucasfilm’s 23-acre campus, and took our pictures in front of the iconic Yoda Fountain. Then they led us inside the Letterman Digital Arts Center, where we were welcomed by life-sized replicas of Darth Vader and Boba Fett. This was, without question, the part of the trip that my kids loved most—I’m proud to say that I’ve raised them as HUGE Star Wars fans. After checking out a sampling of George Lucas’ extensive collection of vintage movie posters from around the world, we saw a private screening of the new Star Wars in the very same theater where George Lucas and his crew watch screeners when they’re on-site at the Presidio. Honesty I was surprised my older son was able to contain his excitement.

We were running close to empty by this point, but we rallied just long enough for a VIP tour of the Disney Family Museum, an informative look at the life of Walt Disney. Then our guides whisked us off for a farewell dinner at One Market.

Here, as we dined on some of the most critically acclaimed food in all of San Francisco, the kids gave the grownups one of our most colorful memories of the whole trip, performing for us a song they had written on the busses over the course of the three days. As the kids goofed around and sang, I felt like we all had just gone to summer camp. It hit me: In three short days, each of us had grown a bit. My kids made lifelong friends, the modern-day equivalent of pen pals; they also bonded with each other. My husband and I had a chance to reconnect, as well—a much-needed romantic break from our always-stressful lives.

Could we have done the Bay Area on our own? Absolutely. But this way, with a trusted partner like Disney leading the way, we were able to vacation and relax, too.

What are some of your favorite destinations to visit with your family and why?