The Story of The Big Red Boatby Jim Korkis, contributing writer
I think many Disney fans have heard about The Big Red Boat even if, like me, they never sailed on it. For a little over seven years, it featured Disney costumed characters and was promoted as a Disney family experience.
As I researched today's article, I was struck by how many things on those cruises were later incorporated into the Disney Cruise Line experience.
From 1985 to 1992, Disney partnered with Premier Cruise Line and its "Big Red Boat" (so-called because of the bright red color on its hull) that operated out of Cape Canaveral, Florida, to provide Disney costumed characters for the short cruises to the Bahamas in connection with a multi-day vacation stay at Walt Disney World.
When Michael Eisner came on board in 1984 as CEO, he saw that the cruise line industry was growing, especially in Florida where Walt Disney World was located.
However, the Disney Company was coming out of a period where its finances were at its lowest ebb, due to having had to pay out a huge sum to avoid a hostile takeover, as well as producing low-performing films. It could not afford the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to build its own ship and get into the business.
Just as Eisner partnered with an outside company to build the Swan and Dolphin hotels on Disney property to better understand how it was done and what it would take so that he could then build his own, Eisner also decided to partner with a cruise line.
Disney partnered with Norwegian Caribbean Lines for a November 3-10, 1984 FantaSea Cruise out of Miami to St. Thomas, the Virgin Islands, Nassau and the Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas.
Disney costumed characters, like Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Donald Duck and Goofy were on board to interact with passengers, even at breakfast dining. All of the S.S. Norway's regular entertainment and shows were replaced by Disney's entertainers in their own productions, including a live-action version of Pirates of the Caribbean, a Goofy-themed Olympics on deck, an Epcot International Night and a Fantasy in the Sky evening fireworks display.
During the cruise, Disney film classics were shown as well as a special hook-up with the new Disney Channel available on the on-board televisions in every cabin. Rates for the cruise ranged from $1,095 to $2,710 per person, double occupancy.
Also in 1984, Premier Cruise Line teamed with Eastern Airlines, "The Official Airline of Walt Disney World," to provide airfare to Central Florida and to offer the "Premier Cruise and Disney Week" on the S.S. Royale out of Cape Canaveral.
The experiment was so much of a success that the following year Premier became the Official Cruise Line of Walt Disney World offering special vacation packages. 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.
The package included round trip airfare; free seven-day rental car with unlimited mileage; admission to all the WDW theme parks; accommodations at a Walt Disney World resort or one of the nearby less expensive Good Neighbor resort hotels; and admission, with a free guided tour, of NASA Kennedy Space Center's Spaceport USA.
Print and television ads and even material supplied by the Walt Disney Travel Company prominently featured Disney costume characters on the ships with many images of them interacting at different times with the guests from dining to recreational activities. In actuality, the characters did not appear as often as guests expected. Think of them as a condiment that was sparingly added occasionally to the main entree.
S.S. Oceanic built in 1965 by Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico in Monfalcone Italy was part of the Home Lines cruise ships and originally meant for transatlantic cruises. At 39,241 gross registered tons, it could accommodate over 1,200 passengers and was 782 feet long with a beam of 97 feet.
However, transatlantic flights severely crippled the transatlantic cruise business at the time, so the ship instead sailed at 95 percent capacity doing seven-day cruises from New York to the Bahamas and extended Caribbean cruises in the winter.
In 1982, Oceanic lost her position as the flagship of the Home Lines when the line received the newer S.S. Atlantic and had an order for another ship that was slated to arrive in 1985 and take over Oceanic's itineraries. So, after 20 years of service, it was sold to Premier Cruise Line that had been formed in 1983 and wanted to establish itself as a short cruise experience for the entire family.
The ship underwent an extensive refit where much of the interior was transformed from ocean liner elegant to more of a mass market style. Premier's research showed that many of those who went on cruises out of Miami came from the Central Florida area, so leaving from Cape Canaveral would make more sense, as well as offer the opportunity to experience the many local Central Florida amusements.
By repainting the Oceanic's hull a bright red, it distinguished the ship as different and more fun especially for young families. It advertised itself as an "incredible floating family resort". Premier marketed the ship as The Big Red Boat.
While other cruise lines allowed children on board, The Big Red Boat was the first to actively embrace them as part of the experience.
Bruce Nierenberg began his career with Norwegian Cruise Lines in 1973 but had bigger dreams. As he recalled in 2007:
"By 1983 the urge to start my own cruise line had a hold on me. My personal challenge was to figure out how to create a new line that could survive without having to compete with the others head to head.
"The key was differentiation. For example, I opted for Port Canaveral as our home port. My colleagues thought I was crazy, but I saw the potential to reach a much larger drive-to audience than Miami could attract, and I liked being the only cruise line in town. We also had proximity to Orlando with Walt Disney World. When we purchased the Oceanic, she was christened by Minnie Mouse. It made the cover of the New York Times.
"Premier Cruise Lines became the most successful tour operator in Florida, selling the most Disney tickets, using the most hotel rooms and renting the most cars. For a while, Premier was the leading three- and four-day cruise line. We were the first cruise line to commit to family cruising year-round, with a staff of 30+ youth counselors onboard and programs for kids divided by age groups.
"We developed the first children's menus and provided free onboard babysitting. And the big draw: We had Disney characters in costume on board. We created experiences for the passengers, not just an onboard environment. With our beach parties and emphasis on onboard personalities, we provided a total immersion in the cruise experience that is missing from many cruise ships today. Kids were really welcome for the first time."
The success of The Big Red Boat did indeed lead the major cruise lines to position ships to Port Canaveral. In the first year of its partnership with Disney, over 60,000 passengers embarked on the cruises and the partnership was also having a significant increase on Premier's non-Disney cruises as well.
After the contract with Disney was not renewed, Premier then licensed Warner Brothers cartoon characters, like Bugs Bunny and Pepe le Pew, for its ships to keep its family friendly image, but continued to offer Walt Disney World and cruise packages.
The Premier line introduced two new Big Red Boats (also older refitted ships) in 1998, but the company went bankrupt in September 2000. All the ships were sold to other companies with the Oceanic sailing until 2012 when it was scrapped. The two other Big Red Boats had been sold for scrap in 2005.
There is some speculation why the contract was not renewed. Some have suggested that Disney increased the fee of the licensing to the point that it was no longer financially viable for Premier and may have wanted to control other aspects.
Others suggest Disney was having concerns that the general public was seeing these ships as "Disney's ships" but other than the handful of character appearances, Disney was not involved in any part of the experience, including accommodations, food and entertainment, that might not match the expected Disney quality and attention to detail.
From January to November 1992, The Disney Company tried to partner unsuccessfully with both Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line for a more upscale package with greater Disney participation.
Eisner had now seen how it all operated and, with the Disney Company now on a strong financial foundation, it could keep all the money "in house" rather than sharing it with an outside partner, and be in complete control if it went into the cruise line business. After all, Eisner reasoned, Disney was already providing hotel accommodations, entertainment, food service, guest service and more. The only thing missing was the ship, so Disney announced the launching of the Disney Cruise Line.
Advertising during the Premier years declared:
"The Big Red Boat. She'll bring you closer and closer…to each other. The Official Cruise Line of Walt Disney World is America's premier family vacation experience. It's the Bahamas, the Sea, and Walt Disney World, in seven wonderful days that last a lifetime. If you miss being a family, don't miss The Big Red Boat.
"Through the eyes of a child, The Big Red Boat is a fairy tale come to life – a shiny red boat of wondrous proportions and endless surprises."
For adults, the ship featured cabarets, casinos (something that was originally considered for the Disney Cruise Line but vetoed by Eisner), nightclubs, theaters, informal piano bars and lounges, health clubs, swimming pools, whirlpools, exclusive boutiques, and duty-free shops among other things.
The Big Red Boat offered the SeaSport fitness program supervised by trained instructors. The gyms featured equipment from Nautilus, Universal and Lifecycle. Offered were aerobic classes, exercise sessions, open-air jogging track on deck, pools, massage rooms and more.
For kids, they had their own kids' recreation center, Teen Nite Club, state-of-the-art video arcade, supervised activities, special programs, their own pools, ice-cream parlors and "friends their own age to share in the excitement".
There were four separate programs of kids' activities divided by age group so that younger children played with their peers and bigger kids were offered different agendas.
Each child received their own daily activities sheet for making individual choices, like making a visit to the Captain's bridge. The schedule lasted until 10 p.m. each day. A group babysitting was available for a nominal fee in the evenings for kids 2 years old and older.
- "First Mates" were children aged 2-4 years old and they had their own club, Pluto's Playhouse with a kiddie pool, slides and play equipment. Youth counselors read stories, led sing-a-longs and helped with "artistic expression" activities.
- "Kids Call" was for children 5-7 years old and some of the same First Mates activities overlapped, like a treasure hunt on the deserted island, as well as sharing Pluto's Playhouse. However, Kids Call had some of its own things to do like the Guppies program teaching about the wonders of the sea and the special dance party with the Disney characters, as well as toys and games.
- "Star Cruisers" were for children 8 – 12 years old. Their schedule included a shipboard Scavenger Quest and Shipmates Signature Search as well as the Nintendo Sports Challenge.
- "Teen Cruisers" were for children 13 and older. They had a roster of special daily activities as well as access to the Teen Nite Club and water sports, like windsurfing and the Splashdown snorkeling program on Salt Cay.
Premier was the first cruise line to create accommodations designed especially for families with four and five berth staterooms, so families could cruise together economically and offered a "Kids' Quarters" second stateroom just for the kids at far less than the regular rate. Premier even offered the first single-parent plan in the cruise travel industry.
There were two exclusive Bahamas itineraries: Nassau and uninhabited Salt Cay or Abacos Out Islands, with its glorious beaches and quaint fishing villages.
The ship anchored at Nassau for a day's adventure and then moved on, according to the travel brochure, to the powdery-white sands of the "uninhabited Salt Cay, which you may just recognize as the setting for Gilligan's Island and more recently, the Touchstone movie Splash. Rumor has it that Salt Cay once harbored a band of pirates!"
Passengers were given big beach towels and indulged in pedal boating, sun canoeing, shell hunting, tubing, basketball and beach volleyball games, swimming, relaxing in hammocks strung between palm trees, enjoying a calypso band and more on the five beaches that ringed the island. There was a traditional Bahamas barbecue with char-grilled chicken, burgers, tropical fruit and more.
One of the kids' activities was to locate under the direction of the counselors the missing cruise director who's been kidnapped by "angry" pirates.
The Abacos Out Islands cruise took guests to the Green Turtle Cay (once one of the largest settlements in the Bahamas) with the typical museum and shops; Man-O-War Cay to see local craftsmen build the Abaco Dinghy as they had for five generations; Great Guana Cay to greet the dolphins Bahama Mama and Princess along with the activities of sailing, windsurfing, swimming, pedal boating, snorkeling, tubing and more. This location had the Bahamas barbecue and live music.
The final stop was Treasure Cay for a round of golf or sets of tennis at a nominal additional fee. After dinner, Captain Hook and Mr. Smee appear to induct passengers into their pirate crew for a "Buccaneer Bash" that includes fire-eaters, limbo dancers and Junkanoo musicians. This is all followed by a special midnight buffet on the beach.
The Big Red Boat promoted that it offered "Cruisine", the finest in cruise cuisine with all fruits, vegetables and produce market-fresh and all breads and pastries homemade daily. There were both elegant and casual dining options and all food was inclusive in the price for the cruise. Each night was a themed dinner: French Night, Italian Night, America the Beautiful Night and Caribbean Night.
Special low-fat, low-cholesterol entrees were available as was a special children's menu. Every night was a Midnight Buffet with delicacies from around the world. Besides the usual chocolate mints on the pillow each night, kids were given a bag of The Big Red Boat's exclusive "Chocolate Ship Cookies".
Nighttime entertainment included shows by the Las Vegas Legends in Concert show, with performers imitating Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, Tina Turner and more, as well as the standard comedians and magicians.
By 1991, the cruise line had won the Grand Prix Mondial du Voyage for five consecutive years with the World Travel Award Committee, naming it the Cruise Line of the Year for excellence in shipboard service and innovative family programs. The youth counselors earned the On Board Service Award for providing outstanding activities and services for every kid on board.
For a three day cruise, the Oceanic would depart every Friday from Port Canaveral at 4:30 p.m. and return to port Monday at 9 a.m. For a four day cruise, it departed Monday at 4:30 p.m. and returned Friday at 8 a.m. It was staffed by a crew of 530 and its cruise speed was roughly 27 knots.
According to cabin selection and season, there were nine pricing tiers per person based on double occupancy ranging from roughly $700-$1,400 for the seven days. Super Value off season was less, and Premier offered the three- and four-day cruises without adding the WDW part of the vacation package at less, as well as offering the option to add additional days to the hotel and theme parks.
The Big Red Boat included the upper Sun Deck (with jogging track), Pool Deck, Premier Deck (with Pluto's Playhouse and children recreation center), Lounge Deck (with the Lucky Star Casino with slot machines, the Broadway Showroom, the Starlight Cabaret, Milky Way Shops, Astro Meeting Room), Continental Deck (with Beauty Salon and Massage Room), Restaurant Deck (Seven Continents Restaurant, Ship's Infirmary), Atlantic Deck, and the Bahamas Deck (Hollywood Theater).
The travel brochure proclaimed:
"The Big Red Boat is America's premier family vacation but it's also one of America's best Honeymoon values, and a great place for singles to meet new friends.
"A cruise aboard The Big Red Boat isn't for families only. Kids have their own activities and play centers so you have plenty of time to relax and enjoy. We also offer packages for a family reunion vacation."
"With The Big Red Boat, the way you spend your vacation is up to you!"