Setting Sail With the S.S. Disney

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Writer's Note: This article was written before Hurricane Dorian impacted the Bahamas.

At the D23 Expo, the Walt Disney Company announced that the newest Disney Cruise Line ship would be named the Disney Wish and would launch January 2022.

It will be the first of three new ships joining the already existing four ship fleet of the DCL. All three of the new ships will be 140,000 gross tons, feature 1,250 cabins and be fueled by liquefied natural gas.

Disney's first ship, Disney Magic, debuted in 1998, with the Disney Wonder following in 1999, and the larger Disney Dream in 2011 and Disney Fantasy in 2012. One of the things that makes a cruise on these ships unique, besides all the Disney show elements, is a stop at Disney's private island, Castaway Cay.

With three new ships joining the fleet, Disney also announced at the Expo that it would be adding a new destination, a new private stop at Lighthouse Point on the island of Eleuthera in the Bahamas as a "seaside adventure camp".

Under the direction of Imagineer Joe Rohde, the cruise line will develop less than 20 percent of the property and employ sustainable practices for building as well as pay homage and work with the many local Bahamian artists to allow art and nature to "combine with Disney magic" and create a destination "that can only exist in one place."

The Bahamas government must still review and accept an Environmental Impact Assessment and Environmental Management Plan. Disney said construction could begin on the island as early as 2020.

While Walt Disney was alive, getting anywhere outside of the continental United States really could only be accomplished by going on a cruise ship.

Walt and his wife Lillian took the Italian luxury ship, The Rex, on a 1934 vacation. Walt and Lilly went on their first Hawaiian trip from August 10 to September 1, 1934 and sailed on the Matson liner, Lurline, and it was approximately a six-day cruise. It was their first of their several visits to the Hawaiian Islands.

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.

As Walt's 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."

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 with admission to all the Disney theme parks paired with a three-or four-night cruise out of nearby Port Canaveral.

Premier licensed to provide Disney costume characters on its ships and featured them prominently in all their advertising. However, Disney became concerned after awhile that the public was identifying the experience as a Disney-sponsored experience and Premier Cruise Line was not offering the same standards or amenities that guests would expect from Disney.

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. 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 and oversight, but both of those negotiations failed.

On May 3, 1994, Disney announced that they intended to start their own cruise line with operations starting as early as 1998 which was the year the Disney Magic launched.

The S.S. Disney ship, which would bring Disney to parts of the world that didn't have a Disney theme park, was imagined with an Orbitron, Casey Jr. Train, a large Ferris Wheel and more.

However, briefly before starting their own cruise line, Disney considered a floating theme park on a ship to be christened the S.S. Disney. Some ships generally have a prefix before their names and "S.S." traditionally stood for a generic civilian "steam-powered ship".

Jim Cora of Disneyland International (first as vice president and then later chairman) had been involved with the opening of Tokyo Disneyland and later Euro Disney (Disneyland Paris) Resort. He was attending a fundraising dinner as a representative of the Disney Company in 1992 and was seated next to a U.S. Navy admiral, who, during the general good spirits of the evening and the abundant cocktails jokingly, proposed an unusual offer to Cora.

He mentioned that he had a spare aircraft carrier that Disney was more than welcome to build a theme park on. Cora realized it was a joke and laughed appropriately, but later that night gave the idea some further thought as a possibility of tapping into a wider international audience that might never be able to travel to a Disney theme park.

In addition, from his experience, it was expensive to build a Disney theme park in a foreign country and there were many challenges dealing with another country's regulations, culture and populations.

The next morning he pitched the idea of a floating Disney theme park that would travel for short periods to different countries to his staff who all loved the idea. Cora then decided to investigate if there was anyone at Disney who might know enough about ships to determine whether the idea was actually feasible.

Larry Fink, who worked with Imagineer Mark Hickson on Disneyland's Splash Mountain, knew about Hickson's 13 years of shipbuilding experience and told Cora that Hickson would be his man for the job.

Hickson started his career at WDI working on the Splash Mountain project for Disneyland, and then became part of the Tokyo Disneyland project as well as contributing to that park's future master planning.

Over a period of seven years, Hickson had been involved in over 30 Disney projects that included the TDL version of Splash Mountain; Disneyland's ToonTown; the new Spaceship Earth show at Epcot; the 3-D film Honey, I Shrunk the Audience; Epcot Interactive Fountain; and Innoventions; as well as other Disney projects, like the Broadway production of Beauty and the Beast and Disneyland's 35th Birthday celebration.

Hickson was well-versed on both ships and producing Disney attractions. Cora called and talked about the feasibility of using an aircraft carrier as the base for a floating theme park. Hickson immediately responded that it would be better to use a larger craft, like a cargo ship or an oil tanker, because of the flexibility and having a much greater capacity. Finally, a super tanker was agreed on as the base.

Cora pitched the idea to CEO Michael Eisner and Frank Wells who both loved the idea. They were working under the assumption that the upcoming opening of Euro Disney Resort in 1992 would generate an influx of capital for several new projects in what was called the Disney Decade.

Hickson was put in place as project manager and technical director for the project. He was in charge of developing the concept and doing feasibility studies. Concept architects, show designers, script writers, concept artists and model makers worked under his supervision for nine months putting together the plans for the project that also resulted in the creation of a model that could be taken apart to reveal each of the five decks.

Jan Sircus was the lead concept architect on the S.S Disney and then later moved on to developing "location based entertainment" concepts like Disney Quest for the company.

The idea was to bring the Disney experience and promote the Disney brand in countries where the company would never consider building a permanent theme park for a variety of reasons, in addition to expense and lack of potential attendance.

The WDI team looked at different locations internationally that had a port that could handle such a large super-sized vessel as well as what type of attractions might appeal to such different cultures.

As Hickson told author Alain Littaye who has done extensive documentation of the project, "Thanks to the super tanker's architecture, the cavernous volume inside the ship gave us the opportunity to put four to five decks of attractions inside plus more attractions on the top deck. We were looking at 16 to 18 attractions, about half of what would be at a Disney theme park."

In addition, they had to consider whether there was enough surrounding room and access at each port for the expected attendance that was estimated at 10,000 to 20,000 people a day, about a fourth or less of the guests that might attend a traditional Disney theme park.

Primarily, the WDI team looked at possibilities of the ship traveling to Europe, South America, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the Mediterranean. Later the focus initially narrowed to the West Pacific, which included the port cities of Seoul, Beijing, Shanghaî, and Canton, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Manila, Djakarta, and Singapore.

Other ports investigated included Australia (Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne), Dubai, Cape Town, and even Honolulu.

The plan was for the ship to stay in a port for two to three months and then travel to the next location. It would not return to a port for four to five years so that would build anticipation, as well as make the experience something more special, prompting people that they had to come and visit during the limited time or miss out for half a decade.

Actually, it would not just be just one ship but a "Disney navy" fleet of three ships. The floating theme park, another smaller vessel that would be able to shoot off night time fireworks show in the middle of the harbor (since it would have been unsafe to fire them from the main vessel) and a passenger ship for the permanent staff since there would not be facilities to house them on the main ship in addition to the concerns about safety issues.

Instead of flying the cast members to each port and then boarding them in local hotels, the decision was to purchase a used passenger ship that would accompany the main vessel.

Half of the staff for the theme park including operations cast members, maintenance, technical and more would be permanent while the other half would be temporary and hired and trained in each location and supervised during the months in port by the "senior" staff.

The "junior" staff would go through roughly two weeks of training before the arrival of the boat and needed to be conversational (not necessarily fluent) in English just like the International program at Epcot, as well as fluent in the local language. WDI did some surveys in possible ports and determined there would be a large labor pool of young people interested in temporarily working for Disney.

The entrance area on the dock would have been what was described as a "portable main gate" that could be assembled from themed containers. The containers would be shipped in advance to the dock side location and assembled to become a ticketing plaza with booths selling tickets, souvenirs and food that would be in operation before the arrival of the S.S. Disney to start to create the Disney experience and build excitement.

It was decided to divide the opening and closing of the park into two half-days at eight hours each. That would be 10,000 guests in the morning/early afternoon and another 10,000 guests in the late afternoon/evening.

The center or "Hub" of the ship that the guests entered had a big glass canopy over the top of it. In addition to gigantic elevators and escalators to help guests access the different levels, there were emergency evacuation stairways located next to them.

The planned attractions would primarily be from Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. It was felt that Main Street USA, Frontierland and Adventureland were generally more "American-centric" and would not be interesting to a wide cultural audience.

One of the factors in determining which attractions to use also depended upon limited wait time so that it was possible for most guests to experience most attractions within the eight hour time limit.

On the top deck there was the Orbitron, a Fantasyland Carrousel under a glass dome, Casey Jr. Train (that would loop around the carrousel), a large Ferris Wheel (that would have exterior armatures that would collapse toward the deck when the ship sailed to another port so it was not sticking up high in the air), Alice in Wonderland's spinning Tea Cups and Dumbo the Flying Elephant.

At the stern end of the top deck, there would be the "it's a small world" ride, but this attraction would not have used a water flume but omnimover vehicles on a bus-bar track similar to the ones in attractions like The Haunted Mansion, because it was decided that using water would have been a challenge.

Under the Orbitron would have been a futuristic multistory themed sit down restaurant. There was only one restaurant as such, because the Imagineers did not want guests to spend too much time sitting down and eating during their limited eight-hour stay.

There would also be six themed fast food locations near retail shops that sold primarily Fantasyland- and Tomorrowland-themed merchandise. Most of the food and beverage, as well as most of the retail locations, were initially located around the entrance hub area for efficiency in service as well as being easier to locate.

In addition, there would be a Disney Store and an Art of Disney gallery store.

Other decks included an Aladdin dark ride with a faux rock work entrance reminiscent of the Cave of Wonders and nearby the flying carpet Dumbo-style spinner attraction. The area also had a Little Mermaid dark ride with the entrance being Prince Eric's village. It was a suspended gondola attraction like Peter Pan's Flight mimicking floating underneath the ocean.

One deck had a small ToonTown area with Mickey Mouse's house primarily to facilitate meet and greet opportunities with Mickey, as well as some interactive play areas including a treehouse.

Also in the area was Roger Rabbit's Car Toon Spin (with a small fountain in front) and a 3-D movie theatre with a balcony that would show either Muppet*Vision 3-D or a new show featuring The Lion King characters, among other show possibilities proposed.

Simulator attractions included Star Tours and a 20,000 Leagues under the Sea experience.

An oil tanker ship was so big and deep that there were plans for an iron roller coaster like Space Mountain inside down below the decks. However, since there was no actual mountain structure, the attraction would have been renamed.

Eisner pushed for the roller coaster to be themed to Indiana Jones and based on the scene from the film Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom with the runaway ore car. It would have been done like a traditional "wild mouse" ride similar in structure to the Primeval Whirl attraction at Disney's Animal Kingdom.

Additional plans included a large pipe organ that would play music, a giant retro-telescope and a mini-castle, among other ideas that were never finalized.

Besides the attractions, the ship also had maintenance shops, a large central kitchen to supply food to the guest locations, waste treatment plants, storage areas and more. There was also an entertainment staging area for the singers, dancers, musicians and costumed characters who would roam the ship and perform.

While both Michael Eisner and Frank Wells loved the project, Disney company losses on Euro Disneyland—which resulted in the cancellation of several Disney Decade projects—and the death of Wells put a damper on the project.

The strategic planning group at corporate convinced Eisner that just concentrating on doing a Disney themed cruise ship would be easier, less maintenance, less expensive and more profitable.

Among the arguments were that that salt air would cause damage to the exposed attractions on the upper deck. Different countries had different safety standards as well as requirements for entertainment venues so legal issues could result. Sufficient sewage transfer access might not be available in some ports, at least for something the size of a floating theme park. Constant maintenance not just on the attractions but on the ship itself would increase the costs. The area was limited so it was not expandable should demand increase beyond expectations. How expensive would it be to replace existing attractions inside the ship? Would medical facilities be necessary? Would enough profit be generated without the Disney resort hotels that funnel so much additional money to support the theme parks? Would there be enough parking available at each location that would be dedicated to Disney for the three month docking?

All of these challenges and more made it an easy decision at the time to shelve the project and shift the focus to creating the Disney Cruise Line. So the S.S. Disney quietly sunk out of sight to join so many other proposed Disney projects.