First of all, welcome. You are about to embark on a wonderful journey, one that 96.4% of first-timers repeat again and again. We want you to feel that you will have a trusted advisor leading you on this journey. If we get you on the right ship, you will discover a new kind of vacation experience that will take you to new worlds with very little hassle in unsurpassed comfort.
Perhaps no portion of travel is as prone to exaggeration and misleading pricing information as the cruise industry. Look around the Internet and you will find scores of sites claiming to offer the “best deals”, “deepest discounts”, and “fantastic savings”. The cruise lines own advertising often features an incomplete price offered on the lowest possible category of accommodation.
Our cruise section is designed to help you steer a straight course through all of the phony hyperbole and come-on-pricing.
For all but a handful of niche lines, all cruise lines offer discounts based on projected yield per sailing. For instance, repositioning sailing’s at the beginning or end of a season carry far higher discounts than prime season space.
Any smart marketer who wants to assume that the public is naive can play the Internet price game, promising a one-week cruise for $699. Or less.
The fact is that all of the top quality lines try to assure that all of their top agents receive the same pricing benefits.
Where travel firms tend to differ is in the quality of their consulting and the benefits and amenities they provide.
We hope that the information that follows will help you make an informed decision when it comes to the planning of your first, or next cruise vacation.
Some Important Things You Should Know About
Making Cruise Reservations
Last year, 11.3 million North Americans took a cruise vacation, a 6% increase over the previous year. Despite unparalleled growth, only about 9% of adult Americans have sailed on a cruise ship. Today, we would like to talk to those of you who are considering your first cruise, and, perhaps, to a few of you who have cruised once or twice before but would like to know more about the industry.
The reservations process can be daunting. How do you pick a ship, a cabin, or an insurance policy? This brief guide is intended to help you navigate the cruise-selection process. Whatever process you use to select your cruise, be content with the knowledge that there is a 96.4% chance that once you return from your first cruise, you will sail again within thirty-six months. This represents the highest satisfaction level, by a wide margin, of any type of vacation experience and it is the core reason for the growth of the industry. But lets make certain that you get it right the first time. Here are some of the questions we are asked most often by consumers considering their first cruise:
How Do I Start?
Some of the best and least subjective information about cruising can be found in books such as The Berlitz Guide to Cruising and Fielding’s Guide to Cruising. We find the information in these books to be far more accurate than information gathered from the Internet. Friends may offer opinions based on their own experiences, but it is doubtful that they have the range of cruise experience sufficient to guide you toward exactly the right vessel. And there is only one best cruise line and vessel for you – the ships really are that different. All of your friends likely to insist that their doctor is “tops” in his or her field. It is much the same with cruises. Unless you have sampled dozens of ships and are aware of the striking differences between products, it will be difficult to make a decision on your own. Marketing departments at the largest lines aim to keep you confused. Every ship is described in glowing terms.
How Do I Select An Agent?
There are a number of cruise specialized travel firms in the United States that enjoy excellent reputations. But ultimately, it is the relationship you will share with your particular consultant that will have the most influence on your overall cruise vacation experience. Quite often, firms that sell the most cruises get preferred rates. As a general rule, you are best off working with a member of the “By-Invitation-Only” Virtuoso Network. These are the top-producing agencies in the nation. Last year the network members sold $5.1 billion worth of leisure travel. They are the top-producing agency group for virtually every one of the top-ten rated cruise lines. Conde Nast Traveler Magazine rates the best cruise consultants in the nation on a yearly basis. The ratings are published every August.
(For the complete ratings of the top ten lines, click on Cruise Line Ratings on our home page).
Planning a cruise ought to be a three-step process. First, contact a knowledgeable cruise expert to discuss possible options. It is important that your consultant tries to learn about your likes and dislikes. Do not give in to sales pressure during this first discussion. Take the time to study the brochures you will be given, looking carefully at accommodation choices and itineraries. During the second discussion with your consultant you will make the actual reservation. The third and final step in the process is a comprehensive trip review, which is usually done two or three weeks prior to your departure.
It is the first, consultive meeting/discussion that is critical. A great consultant will try to get to learn as much as possible about you and your goals for your upcoming cruise vacation. You will not be pressured to purchase. In fact, if you try to purchase, you will be asked to take the time to do some research to check the validity of the advice you are being given, you just need to make sure to pick the best option for you, try to pick an option that offers port canaveral transportation, this way you don’t have to worry about it later.
Will I get a better rate if I book with one of those 800 numbers or the Internet?
It is true that there are cruise agencies that work out of large rooms in out-of- state booking centers. And it is true that they may have a lower price than you will find in your own community. This usually has more to do with the fact that they are rebating a portion of their commission than with any special deal they have with the cruise lines. In fact, cruise lines frown on rebaters, much as the medical or legal professions frown on practitioners who would kick back a portion of their fees to attract business. A travel firm that sells on price rather than service, runs the risk of loosing the right to sell a cruise line’s product. Cruise lines cannot set the price but they can set standards and they can refuse to pay commission to those who rebate a percentage of the cost of their product.
How Should I Go About Selecting The Best Cruise for Me?
That will be determined by the skill and knowledge of your consultant combined with the research that you have been willing to do on your own. Here are some questions you will need to answer to get pointed in the right direction:
What is your budget? Be candid with your consultant. Any of the top-ten cruise lines are going to cost from $500-$800 Per Person Per Day. There will, however, be special sailings and promotions that could lower the cost by as much as $200 Per Person Per Day. Always discuss cruise costs on a per person, per day basis. Do not include airfare or insurance but do include all port charges and taxes. This will enable you and your consultant to discuss apples-to-apples without confusion.
How long can you get away? Ten to twelve days is the ideal length of time to cruise. Are you really locked into seven? One of the biggest mistakes made by first-time cruisers is the selection of a cruise that is shorter than what they need or can afford. Never book a three or four night cruise. They are not at all typical of the overall cruise experience nor are your fellow guests.
What do you expect to get from your cruise experience? Your agent will want to know this so you can be matched with the perfect ship.
How important is the age of the ship? Booking you on a new, glitzy mega-ship with two or three thousand fellow guests is no problem – but is that what you really want? Would you consider an older, more mature cruise ship? Be cautious. Wine and people seem to get better with age but we feel that does not apply to cruise ships?
Do you like the Mirage and Caesar’s Palace? We ask that question, because some of the new ships being launched closely resemble floating Vegas resorts with huge casinos, several dining options, and numerous onboard options. But there are alternatives for those of you who don’t want a glamorous, high-energy cruise experience. One cruise line employs Oxford and Cambridge lecturers on voyages that concentrate on the antiquities. There are small, comfortable ships where you never have to don a tie, sailing ships that cruise the French Riviera, 100-passenger ships that ply the rivers of the Colonial South with visits to antebellum mansions along the way, and small ships that sail with just six couples to Alaska. The point is that there are numerous options for those who want to do other than mainstream cruising. The top-three rated cruise lines are all ships with fewer then 700 guests with an “inclusive” policy, meaning gratuities and drinks are included. Most of the larger, mass market ships, feature long lines and institutional cooking.
How Do I Find the Best Cruise Line for Kids? That one is easy. Most cruise lines offer rather superficial children’s programs led by part-time instructors. The best current children’s programs will be found aboard Royal Caribbean, Disney Cruise Line and Princess Cruises. The highest-rated children’s programs overall and by a wide margin, are offered by Disney. These are the only three lines we would consider if you are looking for the very best onboard kids programs. Holland America and Celebrity Cruises also have good onboard children’s programs.
What Will My Fellow Passengers Be Like? This is the least-asked, most critical question to consider. When you are traveling you are relatively careful about the hotel and the restaurants you select. You are concerned with health and your personal safety. But you are also concerned with something we call, for want of a better term, “the jerk factor.” A deal on a ship with a group of rampaging drinkers who are going to keep you up till the wee hours is not a deal. It’s money down the drain. Your vacation is an expression of who and what you are.
The fact is that the more expensive the cruise product the more refined an audience it will tend to attract. Of course, refinement is not for everyone. Comfort is also important. But the “jerk factor” on various cruise lines is definitely worth discussing with your agent. Cruise line brochures do not, unfortunately, offer “jerk factor” ratings
The Ten Leading Myths About Cruising
For most of the 91% of the population that has never cruised before, the purchase of a cruise can be a confusing experience. How do you pick the best ship, the best itinerary, the best cabin? Most importantly, how do you get the best price? Here are ten cruise myths that need some debunking:
# 1 – The Best way to choose a cruise is to consider the cruise line’s overall reputation.
Helpful, but not always the best way. A number of major First Class cruise lines, for instance, have ships in their fleet that simply are substandard. New ships and ships built in the early 1970’s have little in common.
Pay attention to the individual ships ratings, as well as the line’s general reputation. Unlike 747’s that all come out of the same factory at Boeing, ships vary in almost every detail. One line is still sailing two ships that suffer from structural designs that cause constant rattling of dishes in the dining room. Another line with mid-ship engines produces low-level engine hum audible throughout every cabin on every ship in the fleet. Another well-known ship was prevented from sailing by public health officials because of unsanitary conditions.
# 2 – If you can wait until a few weeks before the cruise, you will get the best price.
Not at all. The practice of last-minute discounting has dramatically changed in recent years. Passengers who book the first 20-40% of the cabins almost always get the best price. Most lines now have policies that would require them to go back and issue any new discounts to all passengers previously booked.
Booking at the last minute generally means you will get the worst available cabins and the worst airline schedule. Late bookers are also the last to be upgraded.
# 3 – Cabins in the center of the ship are the most desirable.
Often true – but not always. A number of modern cruise liners have mid-ship mounted engines. On some ships, the mid-ship cabins above these engines create significant vibration.
# 4 – The “Norwegian Line” has the best ships.
There is, in fact, no cruise line that is named The Norwegian Line. There is a Caribbean cruise line called Norwegian Cruise Line. NCL is very mainstream and certainly can’t be considered a top-rated line. Royal Caribbean has Norwegian officers and is often confused with NCL. Crystal and Seabourn, two lines that are rated at or near the top in the large and small deluxe ship categories respectively, have Norwegian officers on the deck.
# 5 – Late seating in the dining room is more popular than Main seating because it gives you more time in port.
On many itineraries such as Alaska, Panama Canal, and some European cruises, Main seating fills up much more quickly than late seating. In fact, the vast majority of cruise lines schedule shore excursions to return to the ship in time to enable guests on the first seating to have time to get ready for dinner.
# 6 – Certain travel agents can get you upgraded to a higher category of cabin.
In fact, many lines offer automatic upgrade programs available at the time of booking.. Other lines do not upgrade but, instead, offer deeper discounts. Most cruise lines will offer full fare passengers who booked months in advance, first priority on upgrades. Other upgrades are offered to passengers who have had a biographical profile sent to the cruise line by their travel agent. Upgrades occur most often because of circumstances. Although agents like to get credit for upgrades, the fact is that they are almost always initiated by the cruise line.
On a number of ships, upgrades are available for a minimum fee of $15- $20. The consumer would be better advised to concentrate on securing the best cruise pricing. Look for an agency that guarantees its rates in writing and has a built-in price protection clause.
# 7 – You get the best prices if you buy your cruise from a cruise agency in Florida.
This was true for a very long time. Florida agencies received an extra 5% commission on their sales, more than agencies in other states. They would take this extra commission and “rebate” it to customers using their 800 number. All of the major lines ended the practice of paying the extra 5%. There is no longer a price advantage in dealing with Florida agencies. Some of the budget lines do offer special drive-up rates to those who can prove Florida residence.
# 8 – Because they sail into U.S. Ports, all cruise ships have to meet the same safety requirements.
They are subject to some of the same inspections but don’t confuse that with safety conformity. Different types of crews have different kinds of safety records and training. Fire protection equipment and the handling of life boat drills are not standardized. The training and background of ships doctors varies from line to line. Ask your agent to make you aware of differences.Your consultant should discuss health and safety issues as part of the cruise briefing.
# 9 – All cruise ships basically offer the same shore excursions.
As a matter of fact, they don’t. One line, for instance, offers literally twice the number of shore excursions as it’s largest competitor in the Eastern and Western Caribbean. Another line is tied in with the Professional Golf Association and offers far more golfing options than its competitors. Certain lines have onboard certified dive programs. ON some ship shore excursions are included in the fare. Currently, about 35% of the upscale travelers on the Top Ten rated lines have their consultant arrange at least one private shore excursion during their cruise.This is a growing trend.
# 10 – Cruising is strictly for retired travelers who are not active. Men are going to be bored.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Several major cruise ships sail with an average passenger age of 35-40. Other ships are more formal, elegant, and far dressier than average. The average age on these ships is 60-65. There are ships that do not require coats and ties in the dining room, have no bingo, and allow guests to dine when and with whom they want. Other ships are more structured.
Some lines have absolutely wonderful onboard children’s programs developed by educators and doctors with a full-time, dedicated staff. But there are ships that are adults only where children are clearly not welcome.
If you purchase a package to St. Thomas that includes a charter flight from O’Hare on an airline you’ve never heard of, a van transfer to a hotel, and a room, it’s going to cost you from $1200-$1800 unless you use a budget motel. For $1200-$1400, you can set sail on your choice of Caribbean itineraries on a brand-new luxury cruise ship with lavish entertainment, fine dining, a room with a King-size bed and amenities such as in-room television, as well as port lectures, an onboard casino, and the ability to relax without having to ask your mate where are we going to have dinner tonight?
Best of all, the price includes your flights on a well known airline as well as meet and greet service when you arrive. Best of all, your glamorous resort does something highly unusual. It floats from place to place. You can go to bed off Aruba, and wake up in St. Thomas. No, you won’t be bored.
CRUISE PRICING UNMASKED:
SIDE-BY-SIDE COST COMPARISONS
When it comes to cruise pricing, what you see in an ad isn’t always what you get. How much more expensive is a cruise on one of the world’s top-rated ships, compared to the same itinerary on a mass market ship? The comparison below may surprise you:HOLLAND AMERICA NOORDAM REGENT SEVEN SEAS MARINER
Ports Visited 6 7
# Guests 1918 700
Suite Size 389 301
Category Superior Veranda Deluxe Balcony H
Cruise Fare $1999 $5,550
Holland America is the better deal – right? But we’re not finished.
Port Charges $48 Included
Air + Taxes $2,010 Included
Transfers $178 Included
Shore Excur. $695 (est.) Included
Tips $77 Included
Beer/Wine $201 (est.) Included
Water/Coke $81 Included
Dining/Res. $60 Included
TOTAL COST $5,253 $5,550
REAL COST $750 $793
Let’s compare two more of the so-called “premium” lines with this Regent Mariner sailing.
The Celebrity Equinox sailing on 9.2.10 from Barcelona to Rome (7 nights) comes in at a total cost of $6,292 or $899 per day when using a sky suite for comparison. That is more than $100 per day, per person, more then Regent.
The Ocean Princess sailing on 9.1.10 from Rome to Athens (7 nights) comes in at a total cost of $5,142 or $735 per day when using a Balcony cabin of 216 sq. ft. for comparison.
Conclusion: These figures were initially compiled by Regent Seven Seas. In one or two cases they could have done a comparison using a lower category on a competitor’s ship. But the research and the facts are clear. The Five-Star Ultra-deluxe Regent Seven Seas ships are the better value given their inclusions versus the endless onboard charges assessed by the mass market and premium lines.
This was not always the case. This pricing analysis takes in account the unprecedented offers including free airfare now being offered in the luxury ship category. We expect these cost comparisons to carry well into 2011.
Our research shows that a similar case could be made for the better value of these Five-Star lines in head-on comparisons with larger, mass market ships:
Crystal – Seabourn – Silverseas
The Most Important Cruise Vacation Decisions
Selecting The Right Cruise Line
It is important to begin the process of making your reservation by keeping an open mind. Some of what you have heard from friends or, perhaps, read on the Internet is tainted information. The information you receive from your travel agent may be tainted as well. Look for signs that you are being steered toward a particular line with little regard for your personal profile or input. Certain cruise lines pay agents far more commission than others.
If you want to sail on the very best ships, with the very best itineraries, you may be dealing with names that are unfamiliar to you. Seabourn, Cunard, Silversea, and Radisson Diamond are four of the top lines in the deluxe category. Most of the highest-rated cruise lines operate small ships with fewer than 400 guests. The top-rated large-ship cruise line is Crystal. If you are looking for a less expensive cruise with more than 1,000 fellow passengers, then think of the first class lines such as Celebrity, Holland America, Princess, and Royal Caribbean. If you are thinking about saving as much money as possible, then moderately priced lines such as Carnival, Costa, or Norwegian Cruise Line might suit your needs. The least expensive cruise ships belong to Premier Cruise line.
But before you decide on any cruise line, make certain that you and your cruise consultant have discussed cost and the type of clientele the various lines attract. The Jerk Factor can be relatively high on the budget lines.
The Caribbean Cruise Season runs from mid-November through the second week in April. But prices go up for sailing’s that operating from the 15 th of January through early April. That’s when the ships generally sell out.
Getting the Best Price
Price is difficult to talk about – so let us be direct. Since our inception, ten years ago, our underlying philosophy has been that “Providing the Best Service Requires Providing the Lowest Price”. We will match or beat the published discount price on any cruise line worldwide. In addition, members of our Royal Cruising Society receive exclusive benefits such as complimentary limousine service to the airport, gift certificates from nationally known restaurants and specialty stores, and prepaid gratuities. Members of The Royal Cruising Society receive these benefits in addition to, not in place of, our Lowest Price Guarantee. You are well advised to take advantage of Royal Cruising Society membership (Currently priced at $35 per couple).
If you are going to be sailing during prime season, try to book at least six to eight months out in order to be quoted the lowest rates. Most lines now gradually raise their prices as the date of sailing approaches. The last-Minute Deal is pretty much a creature of the past. Those who book first get the best rates, particularly those who are among the first forty percent to reserve a cabin. The vast majority of lines currently have a policy that requires them to go back and offer lower rates to passengers previously booked if there is any last-minute discounting on a weak sailing.
You should be aware that Churchill & Turen Ltd. is the only Cruise firm in the Midwest to “Guarantee” its cruise prices in writing. If the price comes down, we will always protect your price, without exception.
Choosing Your Cabin
If you are cruising for the very first time, it is probably not wise to select an inside cabin without any windows. Who knows what your reaction will be to a week without any natural light? Instead, try to reserve one of the less expensive outside cabins. You can save money by not insisting on one of the upper decks. Aside from snob appeal and the fact that it is easier to get to the top deck swimming pool, being on an upper deck has few advantages. In fact, one could argue that lower decks give you more riding stability.
There are certain itineraries where having an outside balcony makes a lot of sense. Cruising within Europe, the Orient and through the Panama Canal are examples of places where having a balcony for daytime relaxation has to be considered a wise investment?
Generally speaking, we are less enthusiastic about recommending balcony or veranda cabins on Caribbean sailing’s, particularly those out of San Juan. Other itineraries where you might want to think about saving money on your cabin are Alaska, the Panama Canal, Bermuda, Mexico and Transatlantic crossings.
Try to pay particular attention to what is directly above your cabin. Sometimes the more expensive decks are under public lounges where people gather late at night. Always avoid staying in a cabin directly under a jogging track. Aft cabins are usually a better choice than those that are far forward and over the anchor. It’s ok to be near the elevator but never book a cabin that adjoins an elevator shaft.
Don’t be concerned about being on the bottom deck. Remember – there are many decks below that where the crew sleeps and supplies are stored. All passenger decks are always above the water line.
Will You Be Upgraded?
This is an area of consumer confusion. There is the feeling that some travel consultants can get you an upgrade while others just can’t. In fact, most cruise upgrades are automatically offered at the time the initial reservation is made. They are offered to all travel agents by certain lines. Carnival is one line that markets cabins in this manner.
Travel agents have almost nothing to do with most upgrades. An upgrade is usually just another way to describe a discount.
There are, of course, genuine upgrades that are sometimes offered to clients of firms that give a particular cruise line a lot of business. But this happens far less often than you might imagine because the cruise lines are very concerned about offending the majority of their passengers.
The very best way to assure yourself of an upgrade is to have your agent prepare a VIP Advisory. This is a short biographical introduction. Your agent will send it to the sales department of the cruise line requesting special treatment on a VIP basis. Top Executives of Fortune 500 firms are often accorded this treatment and it often results in a legitimate upgrade. If you qualify, you might consider having a brief biography prepared at the time of booking.
The most frequent complimentary upgrades are offered to those in the entertainment and communications fields, and executives who can demonstrate that they are in a position to develop a large group or sustained revenue for the line.
Should You Purchase the Cruise Line’s Insurance?
It depends. Most cruise line insurance policies give you protection from their own heavy cancellation fees which normally kick in within sixty days of sailing. But these policies often do not allow you to cancel for any reason. You must have a valid medical reason and you must not have a “preexisting” medical condition.
There are a number of private insurance companies that sell comprehensive travel insurance. By “comprehensive” we mean cancellation protection as well as medical coverage while you are traveling. These policies are constantly being upgraded and some now waive the preexisting condition clause if you sign up for the insurance within fourteen days of making your cruise deposit.
When examining a travel insurance policy, there is one quick way to judge the coverage. Look up the amount of emergency medical/evacuation coverage. If it’s not in the $50,000 range, you might want to look elsewhere. We wouldn’t let our own family go on an extended trip outside the United States without comprehensive travel insurance. Yes, it is expensive, rates now approach 5% of the total trip cost, but it is necessary. You are gambling against some rather poor odds if you decline medical insurance.
Complete details regarding the cruise line’s insurance is available in the individual brochures. Some, like Holland America and Windstar, offer “for any reason” cancellation coverage. Most make you deal with a third party insurance carrier. When it comes to insurance, or a lack of it, expect that all rules, as stated in the cruise line brochure, will be strictly enforced regarding penalties. Cruise lines show zero sympathy for passengers who have not taken out insurance.
Pre-Cruise Hotel Programs
This one is easy. If you are sailing on a Caribbean cruise between Thanksgiving and Easter, we urge you to strongly consider a one or two-night pre-cruise hotel package. Legions of Chicago area travelers have been stranded at O’Hare as a result of weather-related cancellations or delays. When this happens, the cruise line will do little to help you. You will be left on your own to try to arrange alternative flights from the airport. If your flight is delayed, the cruise line is under no obligation to hold the ship for you. That decision, and it is a business decision, lies solely in the hands of the ship’s captain.
The peace of mind you will achieve by flying down to Miami or San Juan a day or two early is well worth the minimum additional cost. In all cases, the free airfare provided by the cruise line will still apply and you will receive complimentary round-trip transfers between the airport and your hotel and then between the hotel and the pier. This is a win-win situation.
We trust that this information has been helpful. We look forward to the privilege of assisting you with your cruise arrangements.
Choosing The Cruise Line’s Air/Sea Program
The vast majority of cruise lines offer an air/sea program that includes round-trip airfare to and from the ship as well as transfers. Cruise lines wait until approximately thirty days before a cruise to turn over the names of their paid-in-full passengers from each gateway city to the airline with whom they have a contract on that date. You should accept the fact that you may not get a nonstop flight if you simply accept the air/sea assignment. One of the downsides of airline air programs is that seats are often not bookable within thirty days of a flight. The aisle seat you prefer may not be available. On busy weekends, your agent may not even be able to secure two seats together.
There are two ways around this. First, you can always purchase your own air ticket. This usually costs more and the airline will not generally include transfers if you do your own air. Should your flight be delayed causing you to miss the ship, the cruise line will not take any responsibility.
One of the best ways to avoid these problems is to ask for an air deviation. This allows your agent to request a preferred flight assignment immediately in writing. The air deviation request is usually returned to the agent within two weeks. The cruise line will either grant the request, in which case there is a $35-$50 per person extra charge, or reject the request. If the request is rejected you have lost nothing.
Unfortunately, air deviations are usually not permitted during busy holiday periods such as Spring break, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.
The chances are good, in fact well over 90%, that you will thoroughly enjoy your cruise experience and decide to repeat it. But do make note of the fact that cruise lines report that fully 90%+ of all complaints they receive from angry guests have to do with transportation to or from the ship – not the cruise experience itself. That’s why we recommend that you carefully consider an “air strategy” with your consultant.
Disney Cruise Line Strategies
Disney Cruise Line is not like other cruise lines. It is a part of a $25 billion, read that billion, dollar empire that sees profit from virtually every American citizen. The money pours in from holdings such as Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone, Miramax and Hollywood Pictures. Disney owns the ABC television network and ESPN, as well as trinkets like the History channel and, Lifetime, the Disney Channel and A&E. Regis is owned by Disney, Monday Night Football is theirs, as is Peter Jennings. But there are also radio and television stations, video and music publishing companies, seven daily newspapers, an increasing number of worldwide theme parks. Dolly parton family theme park in tn one of them, including the newest to be built in China’s Hong Kong, Disney owns computer software companies, toy and merchandising firms, as well as a handful of baseball and hockey franchises. No slouch in real estate, the Rodent also owns large numbers of hotels and housing developments.
And, now, Disney owns a cruise line.
We were amused when, soon after the line’s ill-fated launch of the Disney Magic in 1998, an executive from a competing line asked us if we thought Disney would “make it”. There has never been any question in our minds that Disney would make it. In fact, we think it is more likely that they will purchase anything or anyone who stands in their way.
The point, of course, is that Disney has a base of loyal customers and the determination to succeed. When there were service problems aboard the Magic months after launch, including rumors that the Maitre’D had to be tipped to secure a place in the better of the on-board restaurants, changes were quickly made. Soon afterward, the President of the line and some of his top marketing aides left the company. The top guns from Disneyworld were brought on-board to shape up the ship. This was quickly accomplished.
The Empire’s potential as a cruise colossus is not difficult to envision. Disney has an incredible base of loyal customers and it is worth mentioning that there are ten Americans who have visited a Disney Theme Park for every American who has ever taken a cruise.
Based on several recent inspections, Disney has done a masterful job. The line now has service levels that, we believe, often exceed those found on five-star ships with per diems twice that being charged by Disney. Briefly stated, Disney surprises even the most hardened cruise enthusiast with its willingness to improve upon and surpass traditional ship designs and programs. The following are some observations/notes/recommendations that we hope will help you plan your Disney Cruise Vacation:
The Image Problem: This is not the Big Red Boat. Another line, with a fleet of aging matrons, named Premier owns the Big Red Boat name. For several years they did joint marketing with Disney. But do not confuse Disney Cruise Line with Premier. DCL is a wholly owned Disney company with two new ships designed from the bottom up. In fact, it is widely believed that one of the major reasons for the shipyard delays involved in the delivery of the Disney Magic had to do with the micro-managing of every minor operations and design detail by the DCL construction team.
The Arrival: Guests are met in Orlando by the “smiling corps.” New Yorkers may find this pervasive Disney attitude cloying, but Midwesterners seem to appreciate being with people who at least pretend to like what they’re doing. From the airport or the Disneyworld on-site property, guests are driven to the ship on Disney’s own fleet of painted busses complete with canned patter from the driver and a video that clearly explains the check-in procedure and a little bit about life aboard ship. It is a well thought out way to spend the ride, the first of many DCL wrinkles that makes the experienced cruiser continually ask “I wonder why other cruise lines haven’t thought of doing this”?
The Ships: The Magic was launched in July of 1998, the nearly identical Wonder set sail in the summer of 1999. These are 2400 passenger, 85,000-Ton ships with a crew 0f 945. There are European officers, many from Norway and Germany, and an international crew. But there is a large component of American staff on-board serving as entertainers, cruise directors, and children’s program staff. Space ratios are quite high leading many guests to imagine that the ship is half-empty when it is actually full. At first sight of the ship, with its black bow and red and gold trim one notices not so subtle differences between this and the rest of the Caribbean fleet. Mickey is embedded in the prow and aft, a fifteen-foot replica of Goofy swings from a Boatswain’s chair seemingly touching up the stern with paintbrush in hand. Interior design details are virtually flawless.
Public Space: Frequent cruisers will be surprised at the level of elegance these ships display. The art deco themes are well executed including a grand three-story atrium with a sweeping staircase. It is down this staircase that we watched the German Captain make his entrance to the Captain’s Cocktail reception one evening. But even here, in a ritual that can be observed on any ship, the Disney “Magic” was evident. On the Captain’s arm was Minnie Mouse, attired in a sparkling white evening gown. If your family will find this sort of entertainment engaging, if you are a Disney “believer” then this is the ship for you. But cynics should beware. The Walt Disney Theater holds 1000 guests with excellent audio and sightlines. But the entertainment here, while professional and engaging, is clearly aimed at children. The Buena Vista Theater provides realistic theater seating for a selection of Disney films of the family-rated variety. Beat Street is an “adults-only” nightclub area that worked surprisingly well. The Improv Café seemed even more popular than the Rockin D Bar. We loved the smooth, intimate jazz and blues nightclub.
Dining: On cruises of less than a week, Disney rotates guests on a set schedule to one of three separate-menu dining rooms. The waiter follows along. Skeptical at first, our experience has been entirely positive. The wait-staff is unusually upbeat and everyone in the dining room seemed to be connecting to guests. Again, the question is asked, “how does Disney do it”. After all, getting a waiter to work well in several different dining environments, each with its own menu, can’t be easy. The secret is that Disney has something other cruise lines don’t have, an international cache. Disney treats its staff better than many lines. It can’t afford to do otherwise. The perception is that Disney provides better pay and benefits than many other lines. Many waiters long to world at Disneyworld, perhaps someday getting to reside permanently in Orlando. This provides the line with a rich source of staff eager to “earn their ears”. That helps explain the unusually friendly service. A lackadaisical attitude, so common among crewmembers on the mainstream ships, is simply difficult to find aboard Disney Cruise Line ships. That, more than anything, elevates the dining experience. Clearly no one is claiming that the food is gourmet, although some of our experiences at Palo’s, the reservations-only restaurant for adults, with the best dinner cruise. The indoor/outdoor restaurant was, we felt, a Disneyesque recreation of a mediocre cafeteria, stuffed parrots hanging from the ceiling notwithstanding.
Now, here are some specific recommendations that may help you get more out of your Disney experience:
01 – We feel that it is best to arrive at the pier by 1:30 pm in order to be aboard by 2:00 pm. We suggest making reservations at Palo, the excellent adult restaurant. If the sittings are fully booked by the time you arrive, do place your name on the wait-list. There’s a good chance it will clear.
02 – On a four-night cruise, you will be assigned one restaurant twice. On Junkaroo night, the 3rd evening, all of the restaurants serve the same menu, theoretically Bahamian. This is the night to go to Palo’s. But the night you definitely want to miss is the night you’re scheduled to eat at Parrot Cay, the weakest link in the Disney dining chain.
03 – The buffet lunch served at Parrot Cay or the embarkation day buffet served at Beach Blanket Buffet from 12:30-3:30 are quite good. We suggest skipping lunch on the plane and waiting until you board ship (assuming you are flying on one of the airlines that still serves a meal to passengers flying from the Midwest.
04 – The bus ride from the airport to the ship will take about one hour and fifteen minutes. Don’t worry – it goes quickly as the Disney Propag- we mean “information” begins as soon as the bus door whooshes shut. There is a washroom on the bus.
05 – Guests on the land/cruise package will receive their passport/key at check-in. This includes the hotel door key, which will also open your cruise cabin door. The key also serves as your admission to the park. It is considered proper form to sigh in unison at check-in “gosh, Disney thinks of everything”.
06 – The interior of the ship is absolutely lovely. Guests boarding for the first time will be personally greeted and characters will be in the atrium boarding area. The characters are wonderful – it almost makes you forget that they are Teamsters!
07 – The actions of the characters aboard ship are interesting to follow. We noticed Captain Hook walking through the lobby one day. He walked up to Chip, the Chipmunk, and clipped him, or her we never did determine gender, on the top of the head. Chip then called out after Hook and began chasing him through the gift shops. That simply doesn’t happen aboard the QE 2.
08 – The lovely and pristine Castaway’s Cay has both adult and children’s areas. If your children have been enrolled in the on-board programs their activities will continue on the island supervised by Disney staff. That means that parents can enjoy a private island day to themselves.
09 – We thought that snorkel equipment rental was expensive on Castaway Cay at $27 per person. We recommend that guests interested in snorkeling be fitted properly with a facemask at home. We will be pleased to recommend stores that offer this service.
10 – The children’s facilities aboard ship are unparalleled. We have never seen children so turned on by a vacation experience. Disney got the most important part of its cruise operation exactly right. The Oceaneers Club is for ages 3-8. The Oceaneers Lab for 9-12 year olds includes comprehensive computer/high tech facilities. Adults are constantly trying to crash this party. Common Ground is the teen club for 13-17 year olds. It is essentially a free Starbucks like coffeehouse, a great meeting place with headphones for music and video viewing. Even “to cool to participate in anything organized by anyone” seem to like the place and its staff.
11 – Disney actually provides nursery facilities at Flounders Reef for infant’s 3 months to 3 years. There is a babysitting charge of $6.00 per hour. This means that on a one-week cruise, parents can go ashore and enjoy as cruise with constant supervision and access to their young child. This is an industry first.
12 – There are no charges for children’s facilities or programs other than the above. Programs run from 9:00 am to Midnight. Parents are given beepers for keeping in touch.
13 – There are no clocks in the cabin. You may want to bring one. If not, the Disney gift shop will be pleased to sell you one.
14 –The Disney characters are in abundance but they can be found most often around the Goofy’s Family and kid’s pool area.
15 – Expect to see three production shows in the lovely Walt Disney Theater. Currently the offerings include Disney Dreams, wherein Disney salutes itself, the Voyage of the Ghost Ship, a sort of Gilbert and Sullivan played at double speed, and Hercules, a story the kids really seem to enjoy. The special effects are best in Disney Dreams – don’t miss it.
16 – Disembarkation is unusually smooth. Breakfast is at 7:00 am. For first seating guests, and at 8:00 for those on late dining. Lots of porters are available, baggage is color coded. If you use the preferred Disney air carrier, currently Delta, U.S Air, Northwest, American, or Continental, you can check your bags at the Cruise Terminal and be unencumbered for the Disney bus ride to the airport.
17 – Insiders refer to the ride back to the airport at the conclusion of the cruise the “deprogramming phase”.
But, based on our inspections, the vast majority of guests will simply not want to be deprogrammed. Disney at Sea is just as professional, elegant, and genuinely family friendly as Disney on land. For the majority of guests, as always, Disney will exceed expectations. It clearly exceeded ours.