How the Disney Cruise Line began

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Like some of you, I have had the pleasure of going on a Disney cruise vacation several times, sometimes as a guest speaker. While it is an expensive option (but what isn't at Disney these days?), I felt I got good value for the money but like a rich dessert, I can only afford to have it infrequently.

With cruise line restrictions being lifted and the upcoming arrival of the newest cruise ship, the Disney Wish, I felt it might be a good time to look back at how this division of the Walt Disney Company began even though we now seem to accept that it was always there.

Getting into the cruise line business was not just some out-of-the-blue decision for the Walt Disney Company but the logical extension of decades of flirting with similar ideas.

CEO Michael Eisner had a concept of a "Disney Decade" that would diversify the Walt Disney Company into other business initiatives so that it would not be so dependent on its theme parks that represented nearly 75 percent of its earnings at the time or the company's then underperforming movie division that was slowly being revitalized but would later unexpectedly become a major source of income with the acquisition of the Star Wars and Marvel franchises.

This business situation was part of the impetus to explore the possibly of a Disney cruise ship and it was not as unusual as might be assumed judging by the history of the company.

Walt Disney himself was a frequent cruise ship passenger. The Disney Studio had already produced many cartoons and live-action films that spotlighted ships including the very first theatrically released Mickey Mouse short cartoon, Steamboat Willie (1928).

Imagineers had proposed a floating theme park, the S.S. Disney, on a converted oil tanker that would sail to different ports and designed plans for a possible huge cruise ship port to be built in Long Beach, California.

One of the early Disney seagoing proposals was the S.S. Disney, an oil tanker converted to house a floating theme park.

Disney had already licensed its characters to appear on Premier Cruises' Big Red Boat and it proved so successful that it resulted in passengers extending their vacation for several days to visit Walt Disney World and stay in its resort hotels.

With the acquisition of the Wrather Company in 1988 in order to get ownership of the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, the Walt Disney Company also ended up with ownership of the Queen Mary docked in Long Beach. In order to make that icon more profitable, the Walt Disney Company announced in 1990 that it would expand the area around it by building Port Disney Sea in the location.

That entertainment venue would have included a theme park, hotels and in order to justify the need for 250 acres of landfill to accommodate building everything, Disney would have built a massive cruise ship port that would have competed with the Port of Los Angeles.

As that project was meeting opposition from the local community and finally fell through, Imagineers created a proposal for using a super oil tanker with each deck themed to a series of different attractions, food and beverage locations and shops.

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 like expense, political instability and lack of potential continual attendance.

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 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.

Work of the project was only cancelled when losses at the newly opened Euro Disneyland (now Disneyland Paris) caused the Walt Disney Company to tighten its belt and eliminate many proposals in the works.

From 1985 to 1992, Disney partnered with Premier Cruise Line and its primary cruise ship, The 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.

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.

After twenty 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".

Disney partnered with Premier Cruise Lines in their first cruise venture.

Many of the innovations introduced by Premier were later adopted by Disney Cruise Line. While other cruise lines allowed children on board, The Big Red Boat was the first to actively welcome them with youth programs and youth counselors, include interactions with costumed Disney characters, and designed immersive experiences for the guests not just an onboard experience.

It offered nightclubs, theaters, informal piano bars and lounges, health clubs, swimming pools, whirlpools, exclusive boutiques, and duty-free shops among other things like the SeaSport fitness program supervised by trained instructors.

At the stop at Treasure Cay, Captain Hook and Mr. Smee inducted guests into their pirate crew for a "Buccaneer Bash" that includes fire-eaters, limbo dancers and Junkanoo musicians. This was all followed by a special midnight buffet on the beach.

While DCL incorporated some of the aspects of the Big Red Boat, just as Disney revolutionized the concepts of animation and the amusement park, Disney also reinvented the cruise ship experience with rotating dining each evening to different restaurants but with the same servers, an extensively dedicated area for children, its own cruise terminal as well as having its own private island in the Bahamas among many other things.

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 Walt Disney Company's expansion into new business arenas.

Eisner told author John Hemingway: "(The modern ships) didn't look like ships to me. Hotels, yes. All glass and see-through elevators. Those ships were more about Vegas than about the sea. I know they are hugely popular and I could see why people loved going on them, but it simply wasn't for me. Every fiber in my body revolted against building such a ship.

"There was another concern I had at the time about forming a partnership with an existing cruise line. We at Disney overspend on 'guest experience'. We deliver to our guests more than they expect. I didn't believe a partner – any partner – would understand. They would consider our spending over the top. I wanted our ship to bring back a feeling of the Golden Age of Cruising."

Judson Green, former president of Walt Disney Attractions, told writer Hemingway, "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."

A button from Disney Cruise Line's maiden voyage.

Basically, the Disney Company had three options at the time: 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 at a substantial financial investment and be distinctly Disney.

Imagineer Wing Chao remembered, "After Michael and Frank decided to get into the cruise business, Michael basically said, 'We want the best naval architects to design the ship to create the most magical floating resort'. Joe Wood, Chris Crary and I investigated and identified thereof the most talented naval architects in Europe.

"After the first round of interviews, we floated the idea to them that we wanted a design competition, a process that we've used before with some of our hotel designs. Michael said, 'A Disney ship should be unique, different from any other ship floating today'.

"Michael challenged us to 'design a ship that would capture the classic elegance of the legendary ocean liners but the ship should also look modern with all the latest technologies aboard'."

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 floating citrus plantation grown in an aquarium with a row of leaping cartoon fish painted along the hull, another that used the ship's funnel as a version of the Magic Kingdom centerpiece, one where the ship's profile was like a floating swan, and one called Disney Fantasia that looked like a massive futuristic, sleek, silver spacecraft.

Eisner told the three final architects in contention that "I want you to out-tradition tradition. Go home and make a modern classic."

Those three architect firms were Robert Tillberg of Viken, Sweden, Njal Eide from Oslo, Norway and also from Oslo the partnership of Peter Yran and Bjorn Storbaaten. They were invited to tour Walt Disney World and observe hotels, restaurants and attractions to see how Disney committed to craftsmanship, theming, guest service and attention to detail.

Surprisingly, it was Eide who had expressed that he did not care to design "nostalgic" ships who was the one who 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 modern ships only needed one and that one is often concealed. The stacks were purposefully angled to give an aerodynamic look as well as separating the three pool areas.

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 when viewed at a distance."

The 875 staterooms were made twenty-five percent larger than those on other cruise ships with seventy-three percent outside staterooms (forty-four with verandahs while the others had larger than usual portholes). The staterooms had more storage space and many had two bathrooms.

"We had one of the best furniture makers in the world, Molteni and C in Italy, for the staterooms," said Ralph Ireland who was assistant development manager on the Disney Magic. "They brought over their best craftsmen to work on the suites. The one thing that makes me happier than anything else is to hear people talking about the staterooms and how great they are."

Challenges faced by the Imagineers including finding materials to conform to heightened fire regulations as well as taking into consideration the fact that all systems and services would have to be contained within the ship's deck and be as eco-sensitive as possible. Not to mention having to constantly check on product quality during construction to make sure that design elements were not suffering from foreign-language translation issues.

At the same time, in WDI's facility in Tujunga, California, durability tests were being conducted.

Project engineer Eric Merz recalled, "The items we built for the cruise line needed to be able to survive a harsh marine environment including high winds, corrosion and the listing and tilting of the ship itself. The paint finish needed to be able to withstand years, not months, at sea."

In addition, all the elements from props, murals, fixtures and sculptures that were produced at the Tujunga location had to be transported to Italy for installation on the ship.

The Mickey Pool slide was eighteen feet wide. The crate was so big that it couldn't be trucked during normal operating hours because it required special permits.

The solution was to have the trucking company show up at the facility at four o'clock in the morning to begin loading but clearances to drive it on service streets to the Long Beach Harbor were not approved until three o'clock the next morning. When it finally arrived at the harbor, it was too large to fit in the cargo hold so it had to be strapped to the deck for its voyage to Italy.

Dr. Hartmut Essliner of "frogdesign" who had been brought in to tweak the design said, "An object this large – a ship – should be like a person you want to be with. It should have human qualities. The more an object responds to the body, the more we like it. The bridge and the ship should harken you to move on into a new world. Such a feel is badly missing on most cruise ships today."

Disney approached the design based on the age group that would utilize a particular space. Project Coordinator Paolo Simoniti marveled, "Other ships have only fifth the space dedicated to children as does Disney and including having rounded corners."

A button from Disney Cruise Line's fifth anniversary.

Eisner was extremely hands-on going to a minimum of five different meetings for every room on the ship: "I went to see life-size mock-ups of the ship's staterooms in Italy before we committed to any design detail. We change everything three to four times at least."

The United States no longer had a shipyard that could build such a ship although such places did still exist in Japan, Finland, Germany and Italy. On May 20, 1995 the Fincantieri Shipyards in Italy with over two hundred years experience in building ships was awarded the contract. The shipyard aggressively sought the contract because having a relationship with Disney was a matter of enormous prestige.

The ship had to be comfortable for passengers while sailing at 21 knots, "supremely seaworthy" and other requirements that surpassed all current quality standards as well as being capable of going through the Panama Canal which determined its maximum length.

Because of the shipyard capacity and a tight schedule to get the work done, it was decided to build the ship in two parts. The bow was done in the Ancona shipyard and the stern in the shipyard one hundred miles to the north in Marghera (just outside Venice). Joining the two parts together was technologically possible but it had never ever been done before in the cruise ship industry and is a process called Jumboisation.

Coordinating construction between both Fincantieri yards so that the hulls would be ready at the same time and match once they were brought together was a challenge. Another challenge was one frustrating delay after another because of different cultural attitudes.

President of Imagineering Ken Wong stated, "With a ship, you place an order. You do not have control of the process, the way we control everything down to the tiniest detail in the construction process of, say, Disney's Animal Kingdom.

"You can have review and acceptance approval at the very end, but along the way, the shipyard is in charge. Instead of driving the car, you're in the back seat. They may listen to you – and they may not."

The Italian attitude was to have no sense of urgency. They did not work on holidays or have a firm schedule. In fact, they did not have tools to track the schedule.

Finally, Wong took a team to Italy for four months to try to address the challenges. The team was compromised of senior vice president of Worldwide Production Matthew Priddy (to diagnose problems in technical matters), vice president of Human Resources Ronni Fridman and vice president of Facilities Engineering at Disneyland T. Irby.

The bow was pulled out to sea by ocean going tugboats at a speed of three knots for over forty-two hours. In mid-April 1997, the two sections were put together during a four day process where a series of match points with interlocking plates were joined with a variance of never more than one millimeter. Most other ships have overlapping sheets but the Disney Magic was joined edge-to-edge for a seamless outer hull surface.

It was completed by Friday, April 18, 1997 with additions over the next few weeks including craning one of the funnels into place and installing the communication mast.

The two separate sections from Fincantieri Maghera Shipyard (for the stern) and the Fincantieri Ancona Shipyard (for the bow) were joined approximately where the entrance of Lumiere's restaurant is located. Since the two parts had to be brought together, the forward half of the ship technically has put in more miles at sea than the aft section.

On May 13, 1997 at 10:30am, the Disney Magic floated for the first time and shortly after noon, blasts of horns, the flight of fifty doves, salutes from Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Goofy, spirited cheers from the press, shipyard workers and other onlookers as well as the obligatory speeches signaled that the Disney Magic was now docked at a quay in deep water.

This event was followed by several sea trials pushing the ship to its limits to check things that could only be examined under operating conditions. After passing all tests with flying colors, the remaining interior spaces were finished.

Ownership was transferred from the shipyard to Disney and the vessel headed out to sea for its transatlantic crossing from Venice to its new home port at Port Canaveral in Florida on July 1, 1998. It arrived July 15, 1998.