THE incredible buzz around next year’s deployment of Disney Wonder in Australia and New Zealand is a welcome good news story for the cruise sector, and augurs well for the overall industry’s prospects after enduring two particularly torrid years of border closures and slanted negative media coverage. As the particularly apt saying goes, “a rising tide lifts all boats” and if the rhetoric this week from Disney is any indication, the voyages could mark a new milestone for the wider industry, bringing holidays at sea into consideration for a new audience of those cherished “new-to-cruise” clients. On top of that, a strong response to the groundbreaking initiative is also likely to see the eyes of global cruise executives even more firmly focused on the potential of the Australasian market, which pre-pandemic was already showing the strongest global penetration for the sector.
Sales for the 2023/24 Disney season will open at 8am AEST on Thursday 29th September 2022, and I will not be at all surprised if it’s a sellout within 24 hours, as long as booking systems can keep up! The 2,400-passenger Wonder will operate a total of 32 two- to six-night voyages ex Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Auckland as well as two repositioning cruises across the Pacific. At a launch event earlier this week travel agents and wholesalers told travelBulletin they were sitting on thousands of pre-registrations, with Flight Centre alone having locked in more than 30,000 pre-qualified expressions of interest. Doing some basic mathematics, there will be about 75,000 berths available across the season, meaning that based on dual occupancy just that demand from Flight Centre will come close to filling the ship, and with similar levels of interest seen across other parts of the industry – let alone direct bookings – we can probably expect a meltdown as reservations systems run white hot the instant the programs go live tomorrow.
Thomas Mazloum, President of Disney Signature Experiences, told attendees at a preview gathering at the Sydney Opera House, he had high expectations for the local season which he believes will be almost completely booked by cruisers from Australia and New Zealand. “We always dream about new ways of introducing Disney around the world…as we were going through our plans of how to deploy these ships, we were really looking all around the world, and I hands down have to tell you everyone within our organisation said it’s got to be Australia and New Zealand,” he said. Disney evaluates potential expansion based on a range of factors, with the strong affinity of the local market for all things Disney such as theme park visits, the popularity of Disney movies and musicals and even subscription levels for the Disney Plus streaming service playing into the decision process.
Mazloum told travelBulletin that Disney’s unique offering meant it attracts a very strong proportion of people who had never considered a cruise before. “While we’re offering a cruise, the overall product is actually a complete Disney experience which happens to be at sea, and we believe many of our Disney Cruise Line customers end up discovering how great cruising can be,” he said.
“The people that come on are predominantly people that have never cruised before. So we are attracting people like no other cruise line, because so many people tell us the only reaons they came on a cruise was because of the Disney product, so what that means is we’re attracting a lot of people that never even considered a cruise before,” Mazloum added.
The launch event highlighted the wide array of activities on board, which offer something for people of all ages – including dedicated adults-only programs, “rotational dining” in which guests eat at a different restaurant each night but with the same staff looking after them, character interactions, entertainment, activities, fireworks at sea and more. Unlike many other cruise brands, “the ship is the destination” Mazloum said, with even the longer itineraries featuring minimal port calls, and the 14-night repositioning cruise from Sydney to Hawaii at the end of the season including an unprecedented nine days at sea.
The Australasian deployment has been enabled by the current expansion of Disney’s fleet, which recently added Disney Wish and has two more newbuilds in the pipeline. Previously there was such strong US domestic demand for the product that very few people in the local market have experienced the Disney cruise product, Mazloum confirmed, estimating that Aussies and Kiwis comprise only a minuscule percentage of past guests. However that’s all set to change this year – and perhaps for years to come, although Mazloum wasn’t committing to Australasian deployments in 2024 and onward at this stage. A look at the Sydney Ports booking schedule for October 2024 indicates there are still a few vacancies at the Overseas Passenger Terminal, and none of the current bookings are for those “unnamed vessels” which had previously provided a hint about the 2023 Disney deployment. Fingers will be tightly crossed for this week’s launch, but based on the interest so far the Disney team has high expectations, and “I really think eventually the sky is the limit,” Mazloum told travelBulletin.
The only sticking point may be pricing, with the itineraries being marketed in US$ and the exchange rate for the Australian currency currently at historic lows. Nevertheless, the cruise sellers at the launch event told travelBulletin they had worked hard to pre-qualify all those thousands of enquiries, while the key role played by travel advisors in clarifying value, rather than just the bottom line price, is also likely to come to the fore in getting the season across the line.
“I’m very bullish, very bullish.. I never want to take things for granted, but I just feel like the sentiment when we announced, and the feedback on social media and so forth, it’s so positive, and so positive for the industry,” Mazloum said, adding “I think it’s about time, everybody needs a little bit of magic”.