Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1

Over the next couple of weeks, I’m going to be posting about my 11 night Mediterranean cruise on the Disney Magic, and other Disney-related thoughts. I’m also (slowly) uploading photos to my Flickr.

On a Disney cruise, you never stop hearing about the fantastic time you’re having. Wasn’t last night’s Captain’s dinner just delicious? Didn’t you love Naples? The movie tonight is going to be simply stunning! Let’s give another round of applause to our cast for such an amazing show!

Most passengers on my cruise did, in fact, think that the dinner was delicious; they did love Naples; and they were more than happy to give a standing ovation to the cast for every show. It’s not as if they needed to be reminded of this, so why were the Disney cast members so insistent that everyone know they’re having a great time?

Here’s why. Try this experiment – find a pen or pencil, put it in your mouth and bite it for a minute.

How do you feel? A bit foolish or embarrassed, probably – but maybe a little happier, as well. The simple act of making yourself smile can actually improve your mood. It won’t take away a bad mood, but it can tip the balance from feeling indifferent to feeling happier. It can turn an indifferent or sulky teenager into a mildly impressed one, and of course, it can turn the average Disney fan into a devoted follower.

Docked in Malta

Disney understands the secret of great advertising. They don’t just want people to buy Disney products – they want them to be happy about what they’ve already bought, so they’ll buy more in the future. And a Disney cruise isn’t just a way to make money, it’s a brilliant opportunity to sell more Disney products – including movies, DVDs, games, toys, theme park tickets, clothes, and of course, more cruises – to a captive audience.

This may sound awful, but here’s the thing: the food on a Disney cruise isn’t bad. The ports – and the shows – range from average to amazing, the cast members are pretty good, the service and facilities are excellent, and the ship is by far the finest-looking cruise ship I’ve seen. Disney has plenty to be proud of. And so, just as Steve Jobs is fond of describing the iPad – a very good device, though not without its flaws – as ‘magical’, ‘revolutionary’, and ‘unbelieveable’, Disney wants you to believe that its cruises – very good, though far from perfect – are just as magical.

(While plenty of other brands regularly exaggerate the quality of their beers, cars, soap, underwear, etc, in their life-changing abilities, people seem to be less bothered by them than by offenders like Apple and Disney. I think there are two factors behind this: firstly, unlike most other companies, it really does seem like they mean it when they say their products are magical. Secondly, there are an awful lot of people out there how really do believe these claims. These two factors combined are enough to enrage millions of anti-fanboys around the world).

The Beginning

The cruise I went on with my girlfriend was an 11 night tour of the Mediterranean on the DCL Disney Magic, departing from Barcelona and visiting Malta, Tunisia, Naples, Civitavecchia, La Spezia, Ajaccio (in Corsica), and Villefranche.

Screen shot 2010-06-01 at 00.37.20

A basic cabin costs around $2000 per person, but thanks to a tip from HotUKDeals, we found tickets for half the price – a great bargain (probably due to the recession). We’d only been on one cruise before, with my parents to Cork (yes, in Ireland) last year. I found it to be a pretty interesting experience – after all, any ship with 4000 passengers and its own rock climbing wall, ice skating rink, and countless restaurants and pools, is bound to be interesting from at least a logistical, engineering, and cultural perspective. Plus it was pretty relaxing. So I wasn’t turned off from the idea of cruising.

I was also inspired to go because I’d been playing Assassin’s Creed 2, an adventure game set in an incredibly beautiful and accurate recreation of renaissance Italy. As it happens, other people I’ve talked to since then have told me similar things – clearly Ubisoft needs to set up a package holiday company.

Finally, Six to Start did some consulting for Disney a while back, and in the process, I learned about their cruise line, so I was a little curious about how it really worked.

Before You Board…

There’s much to admire about Disney’s communication with passengers before the cruise; their website is very detailed and attractive, and they send very nice personalised itineraries and letters in the mail (all, bizarrely, Fedexed from the US). But the best part of the pre-boarding experience has nothing to do with Disney whatsoever – it’s a forum called Disboards.

Disboards holds many forums about Disney’s theme parks, resorts, and restaurants, and with 3.1 million posts, the cruise line forum is among the most popular. There, you can ask any question about the cruise – any question – and someone will answer it within hours. Want to know how much a cocktail costs? They’ll point you to a photo from last week. Not sure which characters will be on board? You can find out from a live trip report. Interested in a port’s excursions? You’ll get dozens of posts suggesting different trains, buses and excursions to take.

What’s even more interesting is that each individual cruise has its own thread. Our cruise thread, May Med Magic – May 15 2010 racked up over 4000 posts before the cruise set sail. 104 people (including me), representing over 300 passengers, posted on that thread. There were only 2400 passengers on the cruise in total – that means that an eighth of them took the trouble to find the forum (not easy), then find the specific cruise thread (even harder), and then register to post (tedious).

What this tells me is that cruise passengers are incredibly motivated to meet each other and share their excitement before the cruise; 4000 posts means an average of 40 posts per person, all arranging meetups or wine tastings or dinner arrangements. I don’t know of a single company that wouldn’t kill for that level of customer enthusiasm and engagement, which makes it all the weirder that this is all happening off the Disney website, and without any kind of official (or even semi-official) Disney community presence. Quite apart from the opportunity to pre-sell passengers more excursions and upgrades, one might have thought Disney would work just as hard at convincing them that they’re about to have fun as they do on the cruise. I’m also confident that were there an official Disney cruise community, they’d have uptake rates of well over 50% of all passengers.

Day 1: Boarding at Barcelona

Between the ash clouds and British Airways strikes, I was worried that our flight – landing a whole two hours before boarding officially closed – was at risk. As it happened, it was only delayed a little, but getting into the centre of Barcelona took longer than we expected (pro tip: just take the taxi, it’s not that more expensive than public transport and it’s an awful lot faster), so we got to the cruise terminal at 5pm, one hour late.


As a result, we missed the much-vaunted welcoming ceremony in which passengers get their names proclaimed and cheered by the crew as they board; to be honest I was looking forward to this, out of sheer novelty*. We also evidently missed Disney’s porters, since we had to take our luggage on ourselves; not that this was a burden at all, but it was surprising.

(*When I bought an iPad on launch day at the Regent Street Apple Store in London, the same thing happened, with people shouting out your name and clapping. Clearly Steve Jobs has been taking notes.)

Anyway, we easily settled into our art-deco Disney cabin, which had been upgraded a few weeks earlier to one with a large porthole. Aside from the pretty disturbing pair of old boxer shorts that we discovered hiding under the bed (come on guys, is it that hard to look there?), everything was spotless. I was particularly impressed by the size of the cabin, which was bigger than a number of decent hotels I’ve been in, and the huge quantities of storage space. There was also a very neat split bathroom (one room with a sink and toilet, another with a sink and shower) which made life easier.

It goes without saying that Disney is everywhere on a Disney ship; the art is all from Disney cartoons and movies, the TV channels show Disney 24/7, all the food and rooms and entertainments and shows are about Disney (oddly, this came as an unpleasant surprise to some grumpy British families I saw on board). There are usually Disney cast members – that is, staff members who are ‘in character’ – dressed up as Disney characters like Snow White or Mickey Mouse roving around. It’s the naval arm of the Mickey Empire.

Strange meta-show

Every evening, there’s a show in a massive 1000+ seat theatre. Big shows are a tradition on cruises, which typically have two dinner seatings so they can fit everyone in the restaurants; when people aren’t eating, they’re encouraged to go to the show. The first night had a very strange meta-show experience, a musical about a boy who was going on a Disney cruise. I can’t say that it really worked for me or the rest of the audience, but then again, most of them were completely jetlagged from having flown across the Atlantic, so perhaps it didn’t matter.

Though you might assume otherwise, Disney doesn’t always take itself too seriously; the mega-Disney overload was addressed by one performer, who said of the crew, “These guys will stuff you so full of Disney that you when you get home, when you sneeze, you’ll – achoo!” Red glitter flew everywhere, and everyone laughed heartily – ah, how fun Disney can be when it’s poking fun at itself!

On the Disney Magic, there are three main restaurants: Luminere’s (French cuisine, named after the candlestick dude from Beauty and the Beast), Parrot Cay (Caribbean seafood, I think), and Animator’s Palette (couldn’t really tell). Each night, your table rotates between the three, which at least gives you a change of scenery. Our table had three other nice couples, and we soon discovered that we’d been matched based on our ages and lack of children; it also emerged that we were all Apple users and videogame fans. However, Margaret and I were by far the least Disney of the table (but we had been to the weirdest/worst Disney theme parks, i.e. Hong Kong Disneyland and Disneyland Paris).

Day 2: At Sea

On hearing that I was going on a Disney cruise, my friends responded in one of two ways: incredulity mixed with a degree of pity, and sheer envy. Regarding the first reaction, there’s a real prejudice against cruises amongst most young people, for whom backpacking across India or climbing up Kilimanjaro ranks far higher than any artificial, packaged, stress-free, superficial, etc etc, cruise (let alone Disney cruise).

Well, I’ve done that stuff, and it was plenty of fun, but let me tell you: there’s something very cool about waking up, looking out the window, and seeing endless water. For one thing, it means you can walk around without any clothes on and the curtains open, without any risk of jail.

Things done today:

  • Brunch at Lumiere’s. Not bad, but they got our order wrong. We went to the buffet restaurant for breakfast from then on.
  • 45 minutes at the gym. Yes, I appreciate the perversity of going to the gym on a cruise, but I’ve had enough of putting on weight while on holiday, plus it was a very nice and mostly-empty gym. However, it was unsettling to be running on a treadmill while the ship was rocking (mildly, to be fair) with the waves.
  • Lunch at Topsider’s Buffet. Surprisingly busy and not much choice; in general I don’t think food is a strength of Disney cruises.
  • Lay around reading The New Yorker, and being jealous of everyone’s Kindles and iPads.
  • Played boardgames with two guys we’d met through Disboards. These fellas were proper Euro-boardgamers and taught us how to play the Reiner Knizia auction classic, Modern Art (which we enjoyed enough to put on the shopping list).
  • Watched Toy Story 2 in 3D. Now, this is something Disney cruise ships can boast about – they have proper 3D theatres showing very recent Disney movies. We’d planned on seeing this movie and it was a treat to see it for ‘free’ among Disney fans.
  • Went for dinner; tonight was formal night, meaning you had to at least wear a shirt. Of course, plenty of people opted for ties, jackets, black tie, etc., which was nice; I did that on my first cruise but figured it wasn’t worth the effort here (plus, wearing black tie loses its novelty if you’ve been to Cambridge and Oxford). Enjoyed the free cocktails and lovely sunset, and finally started to feel like we were on holiday.
  • Looked at the stars with some binoculars. I was hoping to see the Milky Way, but there were just too many lights on the ship.
  • Saw some comedy in one of the bars. Not bad.
  • Watched a movie (it might have been High School Musical) while baking in a jacuzzi.

Sunset liner

Game-related thought of the day: To what extent can a Disney theme park or similar controlled entertainment experience be replicated without the hardware? In other words, can you have a Disney theme park experience without having to build a entire theme park? With augmented reality devices, could you do it? Or is it harder than that?

My hunch is that it’s much, much harder than anyone thinks. Just look at how many amusement parks there are like Alton Towers, which attempt to approach Disney-levels of devotion but can’t hack it. It’s not enough to have the pretty buildings and exciting rides, you need a theme – a general consensus reality (c.f. Vernor Vinge) – and for that, you need a story.

In Part 2:  Malta, a lack of videogames, the platonic ideal of an Italian restaurant, Carthage, and worshipping Walt.

8 Replies to “Meaning and Magic on a Disney Cruise: Part 1”

  1. Looking forward to the rest of this!

    I’m mentally comparing it to (one of the essays from) A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (link to large .pdf), the late David Foster Wallace’s rather acidic take on the cruise line experience. Seems that the penchant for aggressively reinforcing the idea that passengers must be having an insanely great time, whether they like it or not, is endemic across the cruise industry rather than being restricted to Disney.

  2. Yes, that’s one of my favourite DFW essays 🙂 The Royal Caribbean cruise I went on had its fair share of boosterism as well, but nothing approaching Disney levels…

  3. Nice piece, far more engaging than I expected from the title, being a Disney skeptic. 🙂

    I’m confused by your math:

    “104 people (including me), representing over 300 passengers, posted on that thread. There were only 2400 passengers on the cruise in total – that means that an eighth of them…”

    I assume you’re saying that for each poster to the board, there were an additional 2 passengers, spouses and children or what not. If so, 104 people out of 2400 isn’t an eighth. It’s an impressive amount of energy for those who did join, but doesn’t seem astonishing.

  4. I mean that 104 people, each representing 3 people in total (i.e. around 312 altogether) posted; a lot of the time it was the parent of a family, or one person in a couple, posting. So I do count it as an eighth, because everyone I spoke to seemed to be aware of their partner/parent posting to Disboards 🙂

    Certainly I don’t think you could ever get it to 100% given that there wouldn’t be much point in all the members of a family posting.

  5. One problem with theme parks I’ve been thinking about for a long time is that the ones that often have the most emotional resonance (e.g Disneyland, Universal or Legoland) all rely upon characters, shows and IP that audiences already know and love before they arrive. This means that much of the experience is about ‘recognition’ and seeing things/people in the flesh that you’ve only previously seen on screen.

    For parks like Alton Towers, which isn’t connected to a studio or franchise, matching this kind of experience is hard – and often they fallback onto licensing deals (eg Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Sonic Spinball at Alton Towers).

    What would be much more interesting would be if a theme park could introduce you to a brand new world and characters (if a film can do it in 90 mins, surely it’s possible in a day out). The world can then be extended after your visit via other media.

  6. Precisely – I think this is why parks like Six Flags licensed the Marvel characters, and I think Alton Towers has tried it as well. The problem is that simply branding a rollercoaster is not enough; you need to provide a theme that imbues the entire park.

    Very interesting idea about a theme park introducing you to a world and characters; I suspect the issue there would be about control. In a film, we can show you everything in a precise order and environment, not so in a theme park where things can go wrong (unless we added in some super-cool tech…)

  7. I agree that simply theming a rollercoaster isn’t enough, but I’m not sure you need to go as far as extending a single theme to the whole park – the traditional theme park set up has themed ‘lands’ which work pretty well, and gives people a bit of variety, although having some kind of narrative device to time them all (pirates, space, cowboys, etc) together might be fun (although difficult to do without invoking time travel).

    Overall control is an issue, given that people wander around randomly, but the rides themselves are usually highly controlled (and linear) environments. Even the queues are sometimes.

    There are some good examples of original narrative-driven rides (not as in depth as a movie, but still). Chessington World of Adventures used to be the UK leader in this, with rides like Forbidden Tomb (now sadly converted into a laser blaster ride) and Prof Burp’s Bubbleworks (now rebranded with Imperial Leather). Both of which came from the genius masterplanning of John Wardley. (I spent many happy days at this park as a kid).

    Elsewhere, the Disney parks traditionally did some original-IP based rides (as well as the obvious Pirates of the Carribbean, there’s things like the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Haunted Mansion).

    The trend though is towards licensed themes (Harry Potter, Hello Kitty, Lego, etc).

    One of the big problems with creating new worlds, I suspect, is with characters. On film, you have trained actors and lots of closeups to convey emotion and drama. In theme parks, even the best anamatronic is pretty static, hiring good actors is difficult, and video screens are lame.

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