Cruisin' With Korkis

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

The four ships of the Disney Cruise Line fleet took four of the top five positions (including the top three overall) in the 2014 Condé Nast Traveler Readers' Poll for best large cruise ship.

In order, the ranking was:

  1. Disney Fantasy
  2. Disney Wonder
  3. Disney Dream
  4. Celebrity Eclipse
  5. Disney Magic

In fact, Disney Cruise Line has won multiple awards and accolades since it was first launched in 1998 with the Disney Magic. The keel was laid for the Disney Magic on October 21, 1996 and the launch date was April 12, 1997, but the official Inaugural cruise was not until July 30, 1998.

The boat was christened by Roy E. Disney's wife, Patricia (also known as "Patty"), who became the godmother of the ship. Traditionally, ships were "christened"—or officially named—by "godmothers" who launched the ships from their building blocks into the sea for the very first time. To mark these occasions, bottles of champagne or sparkling wine were broken against the ship's hull.

Tinker Bell is the godmother of the Wonder, Jennifer Hudson of the Dream and Mariah Carey of the Fantasy (Disney Legend Julie Andrews is the godmother of a rival cruise ship, Crystal Serenity, and actress Angela Lansbury is the godmother of the Crystal Symphony).

While the Disney Company tries never to talk "money," it was conservatively estimated at the time that the ship cost more than $400 million dollars to build.

In January, Buena Vista University of Storm Lake City, Iowa, purchased a week of my time to accompany students aboard the Disney Magic and do a master's class lecture each day, have dinner with the students each evening, and to make myself reasonably available to individual students during the day to answer questions.

It was a wonderful experience, and I give a particular shout out to Jerry, Dianne, Henry, Claire, Callie, Kassi, Samantha, Chelsey, Skyler, and Chase, who made the voyage both memorable and magical. May all their Disney dreams come true!

By happy accident, the Disney Magic was showing the film Saving Mr. Banks and we all went to see the film together. Then we had a lively discussion for an hour or more afterward. I still contend that the film makes P.L. Travers nicer than she was in real life.

It has been about a decade since I was last on the Disney Magic. As an animation instructor at the Disney Institute, the Disney Company sent me out four times (on both the Disney Magic and the Disney Wonder) to give lectures to guests on the ships. The first time I went on the cruise I boarded as a passenger and was unloaded as cargo after the never-ending variety of food offerings.

In January 2014, the Disney Magic had just come out of drydock with some significant changes and we were all part of the third actual cruise. The ship now measures 984 feet long (originally it was 964 feet but 20 feet of metal was added on the back of the ship to support the new additions) and 84,000 tonnage. More than 50 nationalities make up the 960 crew members on board.

Major changes were made to the atrium to provide more space for activities. The starboard staircase was removed, the Chihuly chandelier replaced (with an easier to maintain and clean integrated-into-the-ceiling chandelier that represents the rays of the sun above an undersea garden) and the "Helmsman Mickey" statue was repositioned. The bronze statue, designed by Imagineer John Hench, of Walt's mouse was inspired by Leonard Craske's famous eight-foot tall 1923 (the year the Disney Studios started) statue, "Man At The Wheel," showcased at the Fisherman's Memorial in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Like the original, it serves as a monument to the bravery and dedication of sailors everywhere. There is an exact copy of the statue at Tokyo DisneySea in Japan.

Other changes included an enhanced AquaDunk water slide, a new Brazilian-themed restaurant (named after Jose Carioca of the fabled Three Caballeros), a kids' club featuring The Marvel Avengers Academy, new splash zone water play areas and rethemed adult nightclubs like the Irish pub, O'Gills, that originated on the Disney Fantasy.

The ship was originally built by a process called Jumboisation, that basically means it was made in two separate sections in Italy at the Fincantieri Maghera Shipyard (for the stern) and the Fincantieri Ancona Shipyard (for the bow). The joint of the ship is just in front of where the front of Lumiere's restaurant is located. Since the two parts had to be brought together, the forward half of the ship has put in more miles than the aft.

The anchor of the Disney Magic weighs 28,200 pounds, which is estimated as the same weight of three average elephants. Sorcerer Mickey stands 10 feet tall on the bow of the ship with Goofy hanging 20 feet tall on the stern, painting some finishing touches.

One of the changes on the ship is that there is only one walking tour, The Art of the Theme Show Tour, lasting one hour. I was disappointed that the tour seemed to concentrate on what used to be on the ship and hasn't been updated to include the new additions. It was a little disconcerting to hear "we used to have tile here that represented… " A decade ago, the Disney Magic had several tours, including one to locate Hidden Mickeys.

Just as Disney revolutionized the concepts of animation and the amusement park, Disney also reinvented the cruise ship experience with such things as rotating dining each evening, as well as its own private island in the Bahamas.

Starting in 1985, Premier Cruise Line partnered with Walt Disney World, providing seven-night land-and-sea vacations on the "Big Red Boat" (so-called because of the color scheme of three of its ships that operated out of Port Canaveral, Florida). Guests could choose three or four nights in a Walt Disney World resort paired with a three- or four-night cruise out of nearby Port Canaveral.

Premier licensed to provide Disney costume characters on its ships, until the relationship ended by 1992. Premier then licensed Warner Brothers cartoon characters for its ships to keep its family friendly image, but continued to offer Walt Disney World/cruise packages.

Some readers may remember the television commericals for the Big Red Boat with Disney characters, especially during the telecasts of the Walt Disney World Christmas parade. However, there were concerns that the general public was seeing these ships as "Disney's ships" but Disney was not controlling any part of the experience, including accomodations, food or entertainment.

In addition, Premier was an older cruise line with ships designed before the current disability acts. By the way, all those original Big Red Boats are all long gone now. Premier Cruise Lines collapsed into bankruptcy in September 2000.

From January to November 1992, The Disney Company tried to partner with either Carnival Cruise Line or Royal Caribbean Cruise Line for a more upscale package with greater Disney participation.

Eventually, CEO Michael Eisner saw that there was a boom in the cruise ship business in the 1990s and that Disney could transform that experience.

In so doing, Disney could keep all the money "in house" rather than sharing it with an outside partner. The initial goal was to have Walt Disney World visitors extend their vacations by combining a cruise with a resort stay.

Just as Eisner envisioned Pleasure Island overshadowing Church Street Station, Disney Animal Kingdom trouncing Busch Gardens, Disney MGM Studios undercutting Universal Studios Orlando and Typhoon Lagoon wiping out guests going to Wet'n'Wild (In fact in 1999, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach surpassed attendance and profits of Wet'n'Wild and continue to do so.), Eisner felt that a Disney Cruise Line could corner the family market for cruises from any competititor.

Officially, much of the credit for the Disney Cruise Line belongs to then Executive Vice President and Chief Strategic Officer of the Walt Disney Company, Lawrence P. Murphy, whose role was to guide the Disney Company's expansion into new business arenas.

Judson Green, former president of Walt Disney Attractions, told writer John Heminway, "We woke up and realized we knew how to cruise from a functional point of view in respect to hotel, food and beverage, merchandise, entertainment and world wide sales. If you think about all the disciplines reflected onboard a ship, we had them all except one… the ability to 'drive the ship'… and that we could acquire. Our core competency is guest satisfaction. It's something we realized could easily be transferred to the high seas."

Basically, the Disney Company had three options: partner with a distinguished existing cruise line, steer clear of the cruise line business completely or have Disney form a cruise line of its own. The final decision after an impassioned presentation by Murphy was to go into the cruise line business.

The Disney executives were completely innocent about cruising. Some had gone on a cruise or two and Wing Chao, executive vice president of Master Planning for Imagineering, admitted that his knowledge was based on two short cruise vacations he had taken, as well as watching The Love Boat television show on a regular basis.

A team was formed that included interviewing executives at other cruise companies to come on board with Disney. Designs flowed in, including a re-imagined version of Captain Nemo's submarine from the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, one that resembled a citrus plantation grown in an aquarium with a row of leaping fish painted along the hull, another than used the ship's funnel as a version of the Magic Kingdom, one where its profile was like a floating swan, and one called The Fantasia that looked like a massive spacecraft.

Eisner told the three final architects in contention that "I wanted our ship to bring back a feeling of the great times. I can remember seeing my grandparents off on the Queen Mary to Europe… That image of the classic ship and the great ocean passage has stayed with me. It is the romance I feel people are seeking."

Njal Eide came up with a design that had the hallmarks of the great traditional ships of the past but with a contemporary feel. He included two funnels in his design, even though the ship only needed one (and that one is often concealed on modern ships).

In the classic ships of the past, lifeboats were placed high at the top. For safety reasons, lifeboats are now located at the promenade deck. To solve that design issue, Eide recalls, "How could I create that classic look within the letter of the law? I, therefore, chose to place huge bay windows on those top decks and I divided those windows into modules, each about 12 meters long, cantilevered, each suggesting life boats."

And, they do suggest that image when the boat is viewed at a distance.

Yes, it is true that the ship's 20 bright yellow lifeboats required special permission form the International Maritime Organization to use that color. Disney was able to demonstrate that the particular yellow color was 11 percent brighter than a red color while being less than 1 percent as bright as orange (the regulation color of the U.S. Coast Guard). The design intent was that the exterior of the ship would suggest the colors of Mickey Mouse: black, white, red and yellow.

Dr. Harmut Esslinger of "frogdesign" made some design changes that Eide approved of completely.

"I recognized that traditional colors of classic ship hulls were black. I think that black is too sinister, too depressing, especially on a Disney ship," recalled Esslinger. "I selected a color that was 87 percent black, the rest blue." As a result, that color changes subtly depending upon the time of day, weather and position. (The gold filigree on both the bow and stern were unique at the time, as well.)

In 1995, Disney commissioned two ships, Disney Magic and Disney Wonder, to be "purpose built" from the keel up to capture the Golden Era of Ocean Cruising as well as a family-friendly atmosphere and where operational areas were kept hidden from the guests.

Of course, at the time, neither ship was named. Eisner wanted the Disney Magic (then only known by its number "5989") to be named after Walt Disney. However, when that suggestion was rejected, Eisner reportedly told his executives that if it couldn't be named after Walt then it needed to be named after what he had created. Magic.

In 1997, The Disney Cruise Terminal at Port Canaveral opened. Designed by Imagineering, it was meant to balance form and function. In form, it captures an airy, friendly interior reminiscent of a classic passenger terminal with a terrazzo floor that is a map of the Caribbean Sea, a large scale model of the Disney Magic cruise ship and other details capturing both a nautical feel as well as a Disney feel. In function, it was designed to streamline both the embarkation and disembarking experience.

Walt Disney would have felt quite at home on the Disney cruise ships. While in later years Walt traveled in his private company airplane, his early travels were usually by train or ship.

There are photos of Walt holding a Mickey Mouse doll and strolling with his wife along the deck of the Italian luxury ship, The Rex, on a 1934 vacation. There are photos of Walt and his wife accompanied by their two daughters aboard the Queen Elizabeth on a 1949 cruise to Europe.

At the end of Walt's South American trip in August 1941, he, along with some of his top staff, took a leisurely 17-day sea voyage from Valparaiso to New York City aboard the Santa Clara.

In fact, the summer before his death, Walt gathered his entire family together for a cruise up the coast of British Columbia, where the family celebrated not only one of his granddaughter's birthdays, but his wedding anniversary.

While his sons-in-law would go salmon fishing in a little dinghy, Walt spent quiet time on the deck reading books about city planning in preparation for Epcot and about colleges in preparation for California Institute of the Arts.

Ron Miller, Diane Disney's husband, described Walt as "serene" during the cruise, even though it rained during much of the time.

Being serene on a cruise was atypical for Walt because, as his daughter, Diane Disney Miller remembered, "on a ship in the middle of the ocean, [Walt] would go out of his mind. He couldn't find enough to do. On one trip, he got in a shuffleboard tournament with Catholic priests who were returning from a pilgrimage."

I have always felt that the Disney Magic was a floating art gallery boasting hundreds of pieces of original artwork ranging from carefully selected prints to elaborate sculptures from stem to stern. Much of that artwork directly honors the career of Walt Disney.

Throughout the ship, Walt's contribution to the art of animation is represented by rarely seen, authentic reproductions of artwork from the Disney vaults of story sketches, film stills and posters from the many classic Disney cartoons that had a nautical theme from King Neptune (1932) to How To Be a Sailor (1944) to Alice's Day at Sea (1923) (the very first Disney Studio animated short ever made).

I have never seen a listing and identification of these artistic treasures on the walls of the ship so those of you wanting to be a Disney historian, here is your chance to record this information before any more changes happen on the Disney Magic.

Why aren't these Disney maritime classic cartoons playing on at least one of the channels on the television in the staterooms?One reference that is missing is to the 1962 live-action comedy Bon Voyage starring Fred MacMurray as the head of an average American family taking a European vacation. Exteriors for the cruise ship sequence were shot over five days on the S.S. United States while it steamed to Europe (Walt used the filming as an opportunity to take his family to Europe for a vacation aboard the ship).

"I see the interior as an emotional storyline," stated architect Mike Reininger, who was hired as vice president of Production Development, meaning he had responsibility for the ship's design. "It must be approached not just as an 'interior' but as a stage set. Our guests will walk onboard and then pass through spaces, from one story to another, all using a similar vocabulary that integrates them to the sea, legendary ocean liners and Disney. We intend the story to have impact at every level. For that to occur, we have adopted a central vision."

The Disney Magic harks back to the era of classic great ships when they were reflections of that time's best architects, artists, designers and artisans.

It truly evokes the glamor of the Golden Age with its beautiful Art Deco design still evident even after its changes, as well as its sense of Disney whimsy blended with a nautical theme. (How many notice that the shower curtain has the faint imprint of a ship's rope that occasionally twists into the silhouette of Mickey's head?)

It is a tribute not only to Walt's love of art but to his fascination with innovation. For instance, Disney Cruise Line was the first to use an innovative, non-toxic hull coating that increases fuel efficiency by reducing surface resistance in open water.

For the students at Buena Vista University, consider this your final master class from me that I decided to share with all the MousePlanet readers, as well. I hope you all do well on your final exams and Jerry and Henry need to send me more chocolate Bing cherries.



  1. By Jimbo996

    Good report. I went on a Disney cruise for the first time last year. It was the best cruise for me so far. It was significantly better than Carnival. The food and entertainment was spectacular. I would love to return.

  2. By Cory Gross

    Designs flowed in, including a re-imagined version of Captain Nemo's submarine from the film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea

    WHAT?!? I need to see this concept art!! Has it ever been published?

    Besides that, thanks for the great article! I have little interest in going on a cruise for its own sake. I'm a little like Walt in that I would go stir-crazy. However I have considered a short Disney cruise, mostly to see how Disney tries to recapture that Golden Age of Travel sensibility (and see the old WDW Nautilus sunken in Castaway Cay's lagoon). Some day, perhaps.

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