SOME people mistakenly have the impression that Disney resorts are “just another theme park” – usually those who haven’t visited these imaginative playgrounds which are billed as The Happiest Place on Earth. Watching the delight of guests as they walk through the front gates of Disneyland Resort in California can melt the hardest of hearts, and I have to admit that on one of my first trips there – for a Qantas Holidays Global Achievers awards dinner in those heady industry days of the mid-2000s – I became quite emotional while watching a High School Musical 2 street show! It’s about so much more than just the rides and roller coasters – there really is something special about Disney’s dedication to the guest experience, which seems to run deep through everything this entertainment giant does.
In a similar vein, the highly anticipated arrival of Disney Wonder in Australian waters last week showed that Disney is definitely not “just another cruise line”. The incredible interest across the industry and indeed the wider community around the season launch last year demonstrated the incredible power of the Disney brand – and hopefully will also lead to a longer-term halo effect on the entire cruise sector. Now that the ship has finally arrived, it looks to me as though Disney Cruise Line will certainly live up to the massive hype.
I was fortunate enough to catch up with President of Disney Signature Experiences, Thomas Mazloum, on board Wonder during a special industry event last Friday, which saw trade guests and cruise sector stakeholders become the first Aussies and Kiwis to sail during the ship’s maiden season – albeit a brief relocation from Sydney’s White Bay Cruise Terminal to the Overseas Passenger Terminal as Disney showed off the vessel to its new home for the summer. Mazloum had arrived in Sydney a few days prior before flying to New Caledonia where he joined the ship for the final few days of its trans-Pacific repositioning voyage.
That led to a magical experience in itself, with the Disney executive on the ship’s bridge for its dawn passage between the Sydney heads and into the harbour. “It was a terrific moment, it was a great moment for the Walt Disney Company, for Disney Cruise Line coming in, we’re really grateful to be here,” he said.
“It’s just such a historic moment for us,” Mazloum added, very much energised by “the happiness that I encounter in the city with the people of having Disney in their back yard”.
Bringing Disney Cruise Line to new audiences is the key rationale for the bold move to sail Disney Wonder half way around the world – because of course, those audiences aren’t new at all, Mazloum explained. “Disney Cruise Line is one of the the highest rated vacation products within the Disney portfolo, and we have now embarked on an expansion. And that expansion enables us to now serve families, friends and our fans around the globe that we previously simply couldn’t serve, because we didn’t have the capacity,” he said.
“We looked at all of our audiences around the world…what we are really grateful for is that we know Australians and people in New Zealand love to watch our movies. Yes, many aspire to go to our parks, but it’s often a logistical long way to go. So as we started expanding our cruise line, we were saying, OK, we need to start serving audiences that previously didn’t have an opportunity to not just experience a Disney cruise, but also have a tough time getting to a Disney theme park,” Mazloum said. “Australia and New Zealand were a logical choice.”
And while it’s certainly not a cheap product, the Disney executive stressed that it’s all about the experience. “The price is what you pay, but the value is what you get,” he said, with Disney Cruise Line actually ramping up the content on board during the Australian and NZ deployment to include additional characters and more theatrical performances. “We want to make sure that every day they’re engaged in our stories, that they see characters at every corner, and they really have the opportunity to experience everything to the full,” Mazloum said.
“You will experience more characters, more stories than anywhere else, in the most comfortable environment. You get theatrical experiences that are the exact level, the way we perform them in London and the West End. So what we are putting together is a product of great value, and a value that reflects our cost base,” he added.
“I can tell you that when people walk off our ships, they all believe they got great value for what they receive.”
The industry guests on board last week’s special event were treated to just a taste of those onboard experiences, with a hugely impressive and very high quality stage show bringing a host of familiar Disney stories to life. The spectacular live performance was acclaimed in a standing ovation (and I’m sure a bit of furtive tear-wiping, particularly after a moving anthem from The Lion King). That was followed by a special dinner in the onboard Animator’s Palette restaurant, an incredibly immersive experience that any passenger will surely remember as a highlight of their cruise. It was all topped off with a farewell character meet-and-greet, where the inner children of some very senior industry figures were well and truly on display as they lined up for photos with their favourites.
Disney has already announced a second Down Under season in 2024/25, while port schedules indicate Wonder will return again the following year, although Mazloum was only able to say “watch this space” when quizzed about the potential for a third season. With the ship having been slightly modified to fit under the Sydney Harbour Bridge, Disney certainly seems to have a strong commitment to a long term future in local waters.
In the end it’s all about Disney’s prime directive – to entertain. Asked to compare Disney with other cruise products, Mazloum said “Look, we’re a media company, we’re in the business of telling stories. We just happen to have a cruise line as well, it’s just another platform. But that platform allows us to bring the stories to where people live now”.