It’s been a decade since Disney has expanded its cruise fleet. Its newest addition, set to launch in a couple weeks, is a 1,119-foot floating theme park.
The Disney Wish is one of more than 30 ships from a variety of leaders in the cruise space expected to debut before the end of 2022, and dozens more are slated to join the seas through 2027.
The fifth addition to the company’s fleet of cruise liners, The Wish is scheduled to make its maiden voyage from Port Canaveral, Florida, to Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island in the Bahamas, on July 14.
The Wish sets sail at a time of transition and recovery for the cruise industry, which was battered by the pandemic and health restrictions. In addition to headwinds from guests, who have been slow to return to on-sea vacationing, the industry now faces economic pressures from rising fuel costs and inflation.
Disney is betting that franchises like Marvel and “Frozen,” as well as innovative spins on classic cruise experiences, will entice travelers back to the high seas.
Beyond typical Disney flourishes on cupcakes and candy apples, the Wish’s Star Wars-inspired Hyperspace Lounge boasts a $5,000 Kaiburr Crystal drink served in a camtono, a container often used by bounty hunters in the space opera franchise. It’s unclear what is in the drink, but it has become one of the most talked-about facets of the Wish after members of the media were given a test cruise of the ship this week.
Other, less expensive experiences include a “Frozen” sing-along dinner and a Marvel dining experience. The ship also has the first ever Disney attraction on board, the AquaMouse.
While overall passenger numbers are set to exceed pre-pandemic levels by the end of 2023, the cruise industry has never had the same pricing power as other travel and hospitality sectors, leading some analysts to raise concerns about short-term recoverability of the overall business. Especially, as rival brands like Carnival are saddled with three-times as much a debt as they had before the pandemic.
“Getting back to that financial position where you can play offense rather and playing defense or being in survival mode, it’s just a longer climb,” said David Katz, an analyst at Jefferies.
Royal Caribbean’s stock is down around 61% compared to the same time last year and Carnival is down around 68%.
Disney has a little more wiggle room because its overall business is much more diverse. The company operates a media empire as well as hotels, theme parks and cruises.
Disney does not separate out its cruise business when reporting earnings. Instead, it is wrapped up in its parks, experiences and products segment, which saw revenues more than double to $6.7 billion during the fiscal second quarter, compared to the prior-year period. For comparison, this segment generated $6.2 billion during the same quarter in 2019.
Shares of Disney are down around 66% compared to the same time last year.
Cruising the high seas
Katz, who only covers Carnival, said cruise companies operate in opposition to the hotel business. Meaning, cruises will discount tickets the closer they get to the ship’s launch in order to reach capacity. For hotels, prices typically increase as the booking date nears.
“This recovery has been unlike any other recovery that anyone else has experienced,” he said. Price doesn’t typically drive travelers’ willingness to go on cruises, so discounting might not increase the number of customers, he added.
Still, people are cutting back the number of days they will spend on a cruise because of rising costs.
Disney’s Wish has three-night cruises starting at $1,750 for two guest and four-night cruises starting at $2,250. These prices increase if travelers select cruises tied to Halloween or Christmas. Disney is considered slightly more expensive than Carnival and Royal Caribbean for base pricing, but if guests choose to upgrade to larger cabins or add food packages or experiences to their itineraries, the prices are quite similar.
Around 80% of travelers who have cruised before say they will cruise again, the same percentage as before the pandemic, according to data from the Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA), a global cruise industry trade group.
CLIA forecasts that 2022 will be a transition year for the cruise industry and 2023 will be when a full recovery will take place. It also predicts that passenger volume recover in excess of 12% above 2019 levels by the end of 2026.
For Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney parks, experiences and products, there is “zero worry” that the cruise industry will bounce back.
“Could the road be a little bumpy in the short term? Yes,” he said. “But, do I know where the destination is? Absolutely. I’m incredibly confident about that.”
The decision to add more ships to Disney’s fleet came five years ago, before D’Amaro was head of the division. The expansion includes The Wish and two other vessels that have yet to be named, but are due to premiere in 2024 and 2025.
While the average cost of producing a cruise liner is around $617 million, according to CLIA, larger vessels like Disney’s Wish are estimated to cost closer to $1 billion. Disney declined to say how much it invested in its new fleet additions.
“I think the Wish is going to be another one of those beacons that calls to the world and reminds them that cruising is a special thing to do with your family,” said D’Amaro. “We are pretty bullish about it.”
While there are traditional amenities onboard the Wish that are staples on cruise lines — upscale restaurants, pools, spas and gaming rooms for kids — Disney has integrated storytelling into these services to elevate them to the company’s standard for “magic.”
The Wish, captained by Minnie Mouse, offers a host of theatrical dining experiences, Broadway-style stage productions and the first ever Disney attraction at sea.
“With the Wish we had an opportunity to think about, ‘What are the things we can do that can be new and different and firsts?’ – and there’s a long list,” D’Amaro said.
Immersive dining experience
The 144,000 ton ship has more than 1,500 crew members on board, 75% of which have served on a cruise vessel previously, and capacity for 4,000 passengers.
“The ship is magnificent,” said Sharon Siskie, senior vice president and general manager at Disney Cruise Line.. “But it’s our crew that will bring the ship to life.”
Marvel, Star Wars and “Frozen” are ports of call aboard the Wish, acting as destination dining and themed play zones for kids and adults, alike.
While the cruise industry’s recovery has been slower than other entertainment industry’s, Siskie said offerings aboard the Wish will “help remind people why cruising is such a great experience.”
Like Disney’s newest immersive hotel, the Galactic Starcruiser in Florida, the Disney Wish offers interactive and immersive storytelling at several of its restaurants.
It’s “Frozen”-based dining experience is essentially a theater-in-the-round, with tables instead of stadium seating. The dinner is a celebration of the engagement of Anna and Kristoff and features singing and dancing from the pair alongside Elsa, Olaf and Oaken. The menu is inspired by Nordic cuisine.
Its Worlds of Marvel cinematic dining adventure brings guests along on an Avengers mission centered around Ant-Man and the Wasp, who offer to show diners the latest Pym technology. The Quantum Core enabled the shrinking and growing of things, but the demonstration doesn’t go according to plan and an unexpected villain arrives to steal the technology.
Ant-Man and the Wasp team up with other Avengers like Captain American and Captain Marvel to stop them.
For Star Wars fans of legal age, Disney’s Wish has the Hyperspace Lounge, a high-end bar designed to replicate the luxurious yacht-class spaceship owned by Dryden Vos in “Solo.”
Here, guests are served signature beverages inspired by destinations in the Star Wars universe, including jungle planet Batuu, desert planet Tatooine and lava planet Mustafar – which is also known as the home of Darth Vader. While they sip cocktails and test out the tasting menu, ships can be seen out the viewport jumping to lightspeed.
There are two funnels on the Disney Wish, one that operates and one that is “aesthetically pleasing,” said Siskie.
In that second funnel is the Wish Tower Suite, the first suite to be situated in a cruise ship funnel. At nearly 2,000 square feet, the two-story penthouse accommodates eight guests and takes decor inspiration from “Moana.”
“The Wish Tower Suite really does provide such a great example of what makes Disney different in this space,” said Siskie.
Another first for Disney is the AquaMouse, which at first appears to be just another waterslide, but is actually a fully fledged water attraction.
The 760-foot ride has lighting, audio and water effects, including video screens showcasing new Mickey Mouse shorts, before turning into traditional waterslide. The attraction wraps around the top deck and takes about two minutes to travel.
In addition to the AquaMouse, there are six pools staggered among several tiered decks.
“We know we have got something very powerful here,” said D’Amaro.