A Second Trip to Antarctica with Kids
Nine years ago I took my 8-year-old daughter to Antarctica. It was an amazing trip, and it was the reason I started this website. I wasn’t a travel writer at the time; I simply wanted to tell the world to take their kids to Antarctica!
I hadn’t planned on returning to Antarctica, but two months ago I got a call from Adventures By Disney inviting me on their New Years Antarctica & Patagonia Expedition Cruise. My other daughter, 12, jumped at the chance to go, and December 29th we flew from Colorado Springs (where we had celebrated Christmas) to Buenos Aires.
I documented our Adventures By Disney Antarctica trip in real-time on Instagram, and I received over 1,500 DMs with comments and questions. In this post I’ll recap the trip, I’ll compare it to my first Antarctica trip, and I’ll answer the questions I received. As always, if you’re curious about something that’s not included here, just comment below.
Why Travel to Antarctica?
First, why go to Antarctica at all? There are a number of reasons. A lot of people go simply to check off their seventh continent. Then there are the adventurers, wanting to go somewhere that 99% of people will never get to see, and the serious photographers, wanting to document the scenery and animals.
No matter why people book a trip, once they arrive they witness the magic. Antarctica is stunningly beautiful, and unlike anywhere else on earth – with towering mountains covered in snow and ice, volcanos, and glaciers and icebergs in every shade of blue – along with several species of penguins, whales and seals. Visiting Antarctica is adventurous, but it’s easy adventure. It’s not scaling Mount Everest or free soloing El Capitan. You travel there on a (very nice) ship, and then go onshore in a safe, organized fashion. It’s exotic but not difficult.
And every trip is different. No two ships will have identical itineraries, since everything is contingent on the weather and sea ice, and those change from hour to hour. You could return a dozen times and have a dozen very different experiences, even if you travel on the same ship every time.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Most Antarctica trips start and end in Buenos Aires. For this trip we arrived into Buenos Aires at 9am, quickly went through immigration and got our luggage, and we met up with an Adventures By Disney representative in the arrivals hall. We then joined one other family in a van for our transfer to the Sofitel Buenos Aires Recoleta – the same hotel where my daughter and I stayed nine years ago. It’s a perfect base for exploring the city.
The Adventures By Disney itinerary had us in Buenos Aires for one night before flying down to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, with the rest of the group. During our day there we went to lunch, walked around a little and spent some time at El Ateneo, one of the world’s most beautiful bookstores. At 3pm we returned to the hotel for a Covid test. I was nervous about the test, since I really didn’t want anything to prevent us from going to Antarctica at the last minute, but we tested negative, as did the other passengers. After the test we relaxed at the hotel and we had an excellent dinner at nearby El Mirasol. Back at the hotel we repacked and placed our bags outside our room before 10pm for transfer to the airport. We then went to sleep since the next day was starting early!
Note: this was my fourth time in Buenos Aires. I had explored a lot more with my other two kids, and neither one had loved the city so I assumed my 12-year-old wouldn’t either, and I didn’t plan on more time there. If I hadn’t been to Buenos Aires before I would have arrived a day or two earlier to see more.
Buenos Aires to Ushuaia
Breakfast at the hotel started at 5am, and by 6:30am everyone was on buses heading to the airport for the charter flight to Ushuaia. At the airport we got our bags and checked them in ourselves and then met back up at the gate for our 9:40am departure. (I’m making it sound like we did that independently, but Adventures By Disney representatives and Adventure Guides were always around to make sure everything went smoothly).
The flight was 3.5 hours and was fun – as it should be when Disney rents out an entire plane! And flying into Patagonia is always stunning.
Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego National Park and the Beagle Channel
I’ll compare my previous trip (with National Geographic Expeditions) with this one below, but one major difference: nine years ago we flew into Ushuaia, did a fairly short catamaran trip on the Beagle Channel, boarded our expedition ship and set off for Antarctica – all in the same day. This trip we had two leisurely half-days in Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego National Park, spending the night in-between on the ship in port. That allowed us to go into the park, have lunch with a great view, take the End of the World Train, explore Ushuaia, and have a 5.5-hour catamaran trip on the Beagle Channel. This extended the trip by a day, but I was great with that. It was nice to have more time in this spectacular part of the world, and from a practical perspective, it gave us a full extra day to reach Ushuaia if we had had flight issues.
Every trip is different. There are a lot of different possible options in and around Ushuaia, and we were limited a little by being there on New Years Day. You could easily have more to choose from. I really enjoyed the End of the World Train – slow moving but beautiful – and the Beagle Channel cruise was amazing. We made it all the way to Isla Martillo near the Argentina/Chile border and its large colony of Magellanic Penguins – the first penguins of the trip, and a new species for me.
We then returned to the ship and set off for Antarctica!
The Drake Passage
The Drake Passage is the area between South America and Antarctica where the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans come together. It can be calm or it can be rough, and there’s no way to predict which version you’ll get. My first trip the seas were 22 feet (7m) on the trip down and 30 feet (10m) on the trip back. It wasn’t fun. This trip we had more or less calm waters. There were some 10-foot seas while leaving Argentina, but the biggest waves came when we were sleeping. By the time we woke up it was mostly a Drake Lake. It was the same on the way back – we had 10-15 foot seas while we were sleeping, but then a smooth sailing the rest of the way.
DO NOT WORRY ABOUT THE DRAKE PASSAGE! If it’s bad, stay in bed. If it’s not, enjoy the ship. Regardless, in a day and a half you’ll reach Antarctica. It’s all part of the adventure. It is definitely not a reason not to travel to Antarctica.
Adventures By Disney Antarctica Day One: The South Shetland Islands
You’ll reach the South Shetland Islands first – the northernmost portion of Antarctica. Because we made good time across the Drake Passage we were able to stop at Telefon Bay on Deception Island. This was an incredibly cool stop since it’s unlike anywhere else we would visit. It feels…volcanic. It is volcanic. The volcano there last erupted 54 years ago, covering the glaciers and ice with ash and lava. There are waterfalls and rivers, some Chinstrap penguins, and a lot of lava. We hiked up and explored for roughly an hour and a half before returning to the ship (in two waves, since you can never have more than 100 people on shore in Antarctica at any given time, and there were 161 people on our ship). An added bonus: it was snowing heavily! I never saw falling snow during my first trip.
Day Two: Neko Harbor by Zodiac
This was one of my daughter’s favorite stops last time, since it’s where she got to go on shore and belly slide like a penguin. This time there was too much sea ice for us to land, so we did a Zodiac cruise around the harbor instead and…it was my 12-year-old’s favorite activity of the entire trip. I loved it too. The water was still, the icebergs and scenery were stunning, and we saw a Leopard Seal.
Day Two: Danco Island
My first trip we did a Zodiac trip around Danco Island since we couldn’t land. This time we went on shore and it was my favorite excursion of the trip. My daughter and I hiked all the way to the top of the island, past several penguin colonies. It was snowing a little but wasn’t cold.
Note: every expedition is flexible. You can skip them and stay on the ship. You can hang out with penguins on the shore. Or you can walk/hike as far as you want, and return to the ship on the next Zodiac whenever you’re ready. So glad we made it to the top, but we were in the minority.
Day Three: Dorian Bay
The expedition crew had gone onshore early (like they always do) and set up stairs and two long walking paths for us at Dorian Bay. We chose to head to the right around the bay and up the hill a little, past a couple emergency huts. This was the only day with blue skies and we quickly shed layers. An absolutely stunning hike and beautiful day!
Day Three: Port Lockroy and the Penguin Post Office
My first trip we stopped at Port Lockroy to mail postcards from Antarctica’s only post office. I assumed that all expeditions stopped there, but that’s not the case. Landing slots are limited (since the post office and gift store are small) and this was the first of four Adventures By Disney Antarctica trips to have Port Lockroy on the itinerary. Always fun to visit. I purchased a patch for my older daughter and a tote bag, and adopted a penguin. I also sent a postcard back home of course.
Beyond the post office and store, it’s interesting to see the quarters for the British sailers who used to be stationed here, and there are Gentoo penguins everywhere. The British originally chose Port Lockroy for a base in part because there were no penguins, but the penguins showed up soon afterwards. The workers there conduct a penguin survey every year to track populations, eggs and births.
Day Three: Jougla Point
Jougla Point is a small stop with a very easy walk, but there are 1000+ penguins, Weddell seals, and stunning views of the Seven Sisters (mountain range). So glad we visited!
Day Four: Wilhelmina Bay By Zodiac
The weather in the Antarctic Peninsula changed overnight, from blue skies to heavy snow and 40mph winds. The captain (Captain Fab) and expedition leader (John Frick) plotted a course that would get us out of the wind as much as possible, and we started the morning in mostly-sheltered Wilhelmina Bay, which we explored on Zodiacs. The highlight: an Emperor Penguin, 400km from the nearest Emperor colony. There were also Humpback and Minke whales not too far from our Zodiacs. A fun, snowy excursion!
In the afternoon we stayed on the ship, cruising through Charlotte Bay. Captain Fab and John wanted to find a spot to either land or send the Zodiacs out, but there were no good options. So we decorated cookies instead.
Day Five: Mikkelsen Harbor
Mikkelsen Harbor has whale bones, lots of Gentoo penguins and a lot of Weddell seals. This was a quick but fun excursion, and was the only time we got to step off Zodiacs into sea ice.
Day Five: Cierva Cove by Zodiac
Our final excursion was a Zodiac cruise around Cierva Cove. It was windy, there was freezing rain, and the sea was a little rough – not a trip highlight, but still adventurous and beautiful, and Adventures By Disney surprised everyone with champagne (and juice) on the Zodiacs. My daughter liked the inclement weather excursions better than the calm ones and loved this ride!
And then back on the ship, the Adventure Guides put together an Antarctiki Party at the pool. Cold but fun!
Antarctica to Ushuaia to Buenos Aires to Home
Per my section on the Drake Passage, we had relatively smooth crossings both directions. Because we made good time heading north, Captain Fab set a course for Cape Horn, the southernmost point in South America. So cool! Everyone headed outside as we neared the lighthouse. My photos aren’t great, but it was an unexpected trip highlight.
We docked in Ushuaia the morning of January 10th, headed to the airport around 8:30am (with a quick stop at the Ushuaia sign for photos), and flew back to Buenos Aires on the same charter we came down on. In Buenos Aires everyone said their good-byes. FYI, we arrived from Ushuaia and had our luggage around 4pm. We were able to check in for our 9pm Houston flight around 5pm, and we spent several hours in the very nice Star Alliance lounge – along with probably half of our ship.
National Geographic Expeditions Antarctica vs Adventures By Disney Antarctica
I received a lot of questions about the differences between my two trips. Before I get into that, there are two important points:
- As I mentioned above, every trip is different based on weather and sea ice. Whatever company you travel with will do its best to get you amazing experiences every day. You could go with the most expensive sailing and never be able to land, and you could choose the cheapest, most basic trip and have the best onshore experiences. There’s a lot of luck involved. I’m therefore not going to compare daily excursions.
- My trip with Nat Geo Expeditions was nine years ago. There may be things that they’ve changed, or Antarctic policies that have changed. All I can do is compare my experiences.
Things I Liked Better with National Geographic Expeditions Antarctica
Buenos Aires Tours
National Geographic took everyone around Buenos Aires. With Adventures By Disney, we were on our own.
On my first trip, once we were on the ship we were able to sign up for kayaking. There was no surcharge. There was no kayaking guide. When we had flat water, they would let 20 or so guests head out. It was amazing – an experience everyone should have. And there was no age limit – I went out with my 8-year-old daughter. By contrast, on the Adventures By Disney sailing there were only 60 kayaking slots, and you had to sign up far in advance and pay $420 per person. The kayaking was far more formal, with a guide, and the minimum age was 16.
With Nat Geo Expeditions, whenever we went on shore we could leave our Zodiac life vests in a pile near the landing site. With Adventures By Disney we had to keep them on for our hikes. They’re fairly lightweight, but it was still a little annoying to have to bring them with us even when we were nowhere near water.
We were on the bridge (the navigational room) all the time on our first trip, talking with the captain and crew, and overlooking Antarctica from that perspective. By contrast, the bridge on L’Austral was never open to guests.
The Onboard Gift Store
The National Geographic Explorer had a great gift store, with a lot of Nat Geo Antarctica co-branded Patagonia items, including jackets and backpacks. I still wear my Nat Geo Patagonia parka all the time. By contrast, there was very little interesting in the Ponant gift store – nothing cobranded with Adventures By Disney, very little specific to Antarctica, and not even many Ponant items.
Things I Liked Better with Adventures By Disney Antarctica
The National Geographic Explorer is an expedition ship. I don’t remember a theater. I don’t remember entertainment at all actually. There wasn’t a pool or gym. Our cabin didn’t have a balcony. By contrast, the Ponant L’Austral has a theater, gym and a pool, and we had a balcony. It also had two restaurants. It’s a far nicer ship, with far more places to relax. I’d travel on that ship anywhere!
Disney Adventure Guides
A normal Antarctica trip may have some onboard activities, but it’s going to be limited. The five Disney Adventure Guides went all in with entertainment. There were game shows, bingo, karaoke, trivia contests, cookie decorating, crafts, constant movies, funny announcements, birthday/anniversary celebrations, themed dress days, dance parties and a lot of kid events. They made the cruise fun. The Nat Geo Explorer was far more serious.
There was a five-person French dance crew onboard that performed almost nightly. They were excellent and added a fun, cultural element to the cruise.
On the Explorer we had to bring our own excursion boots. On the L’Austral they had boots for everyone to borrow. Made it easier to pack light.
The day after we returned home, Adventures By Disney sent us a link to 2,346 photos that the Adventure Guides had taken during the trip. They captured everything and everyone, and I love a lot of the photos they took of me and my daughter. Such a nice touch for them to document everything – at no charge.
All the Little Things
Adventures By Disney thought of everything in advance. They delivered Chapstick to everyone’s rooms the first night. They had sunscreen out by the expedition deck. They gave out stamped postcards in both Tierra del Fuego National Park and Antarctica so everyone could mail them home with zero difficulties. They delivered gifts to our rooms several nights, including chocolates and jars of dulce de leche. They brought dozens of board games on board.
They also sent out large boxes to all passengers in advance, including water bottles, a backpack, hats, luggage straps and Disney pins.
Overall Family Friendliness
I mentioned kid events above, but family-friendliness went farther than that. This was a younger crowd than on my first trip, with a lot of couples in their 30s, 40s and 50s, and a dozen kids (there were 44 kids on the Christmas Antarctica sailing before ours). I realized towards the end of the cruise that I hadn’t heard a single curse word in 10 days – crazy in any group of adults. And the nightly recaps were perfect for all ages – entertaining and educational without diving too deep (there were lectures at other times for that).
Food: National Geographic Explorer vs Ponant L’Austral
The food on both trips was good. There’s one restaurant on the Explorer and two on L’Austral. On the Explorer there were different menu options daily (usually with a Scandinavian theme, since the head chef was Scandinavian), along with off-menu options like steak, potatoes and pasta for anyone not excited by the specials. I remember eating well, and my daughter always being able to find things that she liked.
L’Austral had more choices. All three meals were served in both restaurants. Breakfast was a buffet: eggs, sausage, bacon, yogurts, smoothies, fruit, pastries and breads at both restaurants. If you went to Deck 2 you could also order pancakes. Lunch and dinner were buffets up on Deck 6 and table service on Deck 2. The food changed every day – always meats, veggies and fish with specials like hamburgers, pasta, pizza, dim sum, casseroles, Indian and Thai. You could get the same thing at both restaurants, but on Dec 2 there was a fixed menu as well, with steaks, hamburgers and chicken sandwiches. There was also an extensive salad bar. For picky kids there were always chicken nuggets and french fries.
In the main lounge on L’Austral you could get coffee and drinks from the bar all day long. My daughter got an iced coffee latte there every day. They also had pastries in the morning and snacks in the afternoon – things like crepes, sandwiches and macarons.
Which Trip Was Better?
There’s no way to pick a favorite trip. They were both magical, and the above points are meant to be feedback for Disney – which now owns both National Geographic and Adventures By Disney, and which could make each expedition even better by incorporating some elements from the other. As it stands now, each trip is great for a specific type of traveler. If you’re a hardcore expedition photographer, and want to learn from National Geographic experts, go with Nat Geo Expeditions. If you have kids and want to have fun on the ship, opt for Adventures By Disney.
I said above it’s not fair to compare daily excursions, since every trip is different. For the record, with virtually identical itineraries (on paper at least), our Nat Geo Expeditions trip had six landings, one sailing into a frozen fjord (fast ice), and one Zodiac cruise. This Adventures By Disney Antarctica trip had six landings and three Zodiac cruises. There was no fast ice this year to sail into.
Packing For Antarctica
I created a separate post for my Antarctica Packing List. Click through to see what we needed and what we didn’t. It’s actually possible to pack light for Antarctica!
The Minimum Age for Antarctica
I’ve received a lot of questions about what age I recommend for Antarctica. I’ve now traveled to the 7th continent with an 8-year-old and a 12-year-old and both girls did amazingly. There was nothing they had problems with. If anything, it’s an advantage to be young and lightweight since you don’t fall through the snow as much as adults do on the penguin hikes. My 8-year-old seemed mesmerized by the penguins more than my 12-year-old.
Adventures By Disney’s minimum age for this Antarctica cruise is 10, and they recommend 12+. That’s a reasonable minimum given that all kids are different in terms of their confidence and love of adventure. The wet landings (stepping off the Zodiacs into water and then walking ashore) are usually thought to be problematic for shorter legs, but my kids haven’t had issues. The water’s never more than a foot deep, and several landings were directly onto the beach or rocks. Take your kids to Antarctica! There’s likely nothing they won’t be able to handle.
Adventures By Disney Antarctica: Healthcare, Insurance and Safety
As I mentioned in my trip recap, everyone needed to test negative for Covid before leaving Buenos Aires for Ushuaia. So not only were we fairly confident that no one on the trip had Covid, but also, no one on the ship seemed to be sick at all. Maybe people were extra paranoid about their health before the trip? We didn’t wear masks (except for the Port Lockroy post office visit) and felt 100% healthy the entire expedition.
Adventures By Disney highly recommended that everyone on the Antarctica expedition purchase travel insurance. It would be terrible to test positive for Covid in Buenos Aires and not be able to go! We have an annual travel health insurance policy (through G1G) that covers virtually everything that could have gone wrong, from Covid to flight delays to injuries. Luckily we didn’t need it. And per my packing list, we took along a medical kit full of antibiotics and didn’t need that either.
We never felt unsafe anywhere. The Buenos Aires hotel is in a good area of town, and Antarctica shore and Zodiac excursions are always safe – or as safe as they can be given that the weather and sea conditions can change rapidly. It’s why you want to have an experienced expedition team.
Adventures By Disney Antarctica: Finance
Adventure By Disney’s Antarctica & Patagonia Expedition Cruise starts at $12,399 for adults and $11,099 for kids (2023/2024). That’s competitive with other Antarctica cruise operators. It includes the hotel in Buenos Aires, transfers, tips, Buenos Aires-Ushuaia round trip flights, all meals except two in Buenos Aires, an expedition jacket to keep, boots to use in Antarctica, the Tierra del Fuego excursions and, well, pretty much everything else. Off-peak dates are less expensive than holiday sailings, and it’s always cheapest to book far in advance. If you’ve traveled with Adventures By Disney at least once before you can save $750 per person (there’s some fine print there).
A note on pricing: Antarctica trips are expensive since it’s expensive for cruise lines to operate there. Our sailing had 161 passengers and 169 crew members, and the crew were very experienced and capable. This is a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list trip. I feel extremely fortunate to have been twice.
If you have questions about Adventures By Disney Antarctica, National Geographic Expeditions (I’ve traveled with them seven times), or Antarctica, please submit them below!