Broadside! Disney is entering the battle on the high seas for families. Will there be treasure to go around?

Shannon Stevens

Bernie, the cruise director on the Big Red Boat, is handling out free drinks to passengers who meet the ship’s lenient criteria–longest married, most recently married and most times on Big Red. “This is my third time,” shouts Mary from England with the enthusiasm of a Price Is Right contestant. The most frequent cruiser in the group, Mary wins a pina colada. But this spring, Bernie and the Premier Cruise Lines are going to have to start offering consumers a lot more incentive than that, as the master of destination marketing, Disney, weighs anchor in the category and begins to crowd the high seas. The Disney Magic sets sail next month on its maiden voyage, its mission to expand on and cross-pollinate Michael Eisner’s may lures of family vacation dollars.

In spite of the Titanic phenomenon in movie theaters, families are taking to sea more and more, but, with Disney already thick into its launch, it’s becoming clear that the ante has been upped in terms of wooing cruisers, like Mary from England, and keeping them coming back for pina coladas.

In the face of the Disney incursion, established cruise companies, such as Carnival and Premier, claim they are happy to have such a big player enter their business, hoping the infusion of marketing dollars will buoy the category across the board, spurring first-time cruisers to stick more than their toes into the water. But, none of the existing players, long-term, can match Disney’s brand recognition, marketing muscles and ability to cross-promote within its entertainment empire as well as across its sterling roster of promotional partners, as former Disney partner Premier well knows. And, if the cruising market doesn’t expand as expected, these established vessels could be facing some empty berths.

It is ironic that, while Disney doesn’t need any instruction on entertaining families, it has learned the ropes about running a cruise line from Premier. Until recently, Premier cruises were tied in with trips to Disney World and offered a plethora of kid activities aboard, all overseen by a legion of “fun counselors,” freeing parents and grandparents for adult games such as bar hopping and gambling.

Aside from the category being a neat fit in Disney’s leisure empire, the key to its entry into the cruise business, and to the best hopes of its gracious competitors, lies in demographics. According to the Cruise Line Industry Association, cruising is no longer dominated by the 55-year-old plus and retirement crowd. Instead, the average passenger on a liner is 49 years old, three years younger than the average a decade ago. And well over half of those passenger are families who are more likely than not to bring their kids along for the ride.

With the oldest boomers turning 52 this year, and with many boomer couples having children later in life than their parents did, the market outlook for cruise companies is as rosey as Big Red’s hull. Record numbers of people are signing on to cruise, both first-time floaters and repeaters. Bookings in 1996 were up 6% over year earlier numbers and many of the largest suppliers are reporting the highest bookings ever for 1997, according to a recent report in the magazine Travel Agent.

Most customers who have cruised on the established lines, including Premier, Carnival and Royal Caribbean, have average household incomes of about $50,000 and are looking for hassle-free vacations that are packed full of optional activities, industry experts say. A family of four will spend between $2,500 and $3,500 for a 7-day cruise, with many activities and all meals included. Disney will come in on the high end of that range, but feels that shouldn’t limit its appeal because of its brand strength.

One cruise line that admits no fear of Disney cutting into sales–family or otherwise–is No. 1 player Carnival. Carnival has a 28% share of the cruise market as a whole already and may increase that number as it adds more big ships to its fleet in coming years, according to the CLIA. Travel & Tourism Analyst calls Carnival the “main carrier of the $25 billion-valued family cruise market,” pegging the number of children on board Carnival annually at close to 100,000.

In the past, other cruise lines, including Premier when it was under different ownership, have tried to step up their appeal and marketing to families. Carnival, though, has always acted quickly to stay on top. The cruise line dubs its kids program, “Camp Carnival” and offers year-round activities to four age groups: 2-4, 5-8, 9-12 and teens.

Carnival offers free babysitting from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. with a small charge for later than that. State rooms can sleep up to five. Dinner is casual six out of seven nights, and counselors–kid-experts with degrees in education or child care–are often teachers on summer vacation making a little extra money on the high seas. There is also Family Fun Day, which includes parents, in an activity-packed day. “Lots of parents want to do things with their kids,” said Vicki Freed, senior vice president of sales and marketing for Carnival. “Not just park them.”

To make sure consumers and travel agents know Carnival is focused on kids, between 10-15% of the cruise line’s $35 million plus ad budget goes toward family marketing. And all Carnival ads feature pics of happy kids. While Royal Caribbean, the second-most popular cruise line, according to CLIA, has an ad budget of about $28 million, per Competitive Media Reporting, its programs and marketing skew older with the majority of those who choose RC for cruising being more interested in romantic getaways or partying.

Disney Cruise’s ad budget for the launch of the line is in the $130 million range, dwarfing all comers. The cruise industry as a whole recently announced plans to launch an image building campaign with pooled money from various lines; the total budget: $8 million. The potential of $130 million in noise around the industry has other cruise line marketers seeing their own glass half-full, at least publicly, and Disney Cruise Lines itself claims it is likely to expand the cruise audience as a whole.

Soon enough they may think twice about the benefits of Mickey and Goofy sailing the high seas. Disney has begun its new business by analyzing and addressing, upfront, problem areas in the industry. There are three reasons people who want to take a cruise don’t, said Howard Pickett, vice president of marketing at Disney Cruise; They don’t feel safe, they’re afraid they’ll be bored, and they fear confinement in a small stateroom.

Pickett thinks the image of Disney as the most family friendly vacation brand will dispel those fears. But it has also made substantive changes to the ship, such as increasing the size of cabins 25% above the industry norm. At the same time, after spending years working with the Big Red Boat, Disney Cruise Lines has designed a ship that takes all the best of not only that ship but also those of competitor Carnival and Royal Caribbean.

Disney Cruise is launching the Disney Magic out of Port Canaveral, Fla., the Big Red Boat’s home port. Ads are already on the air, boasting of a port of call at Disney’s “private island” in the Caribbean. And as for the worst blow to the competition, Disney not only has a storehouse full of add-ons and incentives to reach first timers and win repeaters, it has come up with creative solutions to eliminate the distasteful elements of a cruise, such as being herded in and out of the same huge dining room night after night at a pre-assigned meal time.

The Disney ship, as of late January, was nearly full for its first trip, which will include a boatload of Mousketeers. Travel agents were given brochures a year ago to sell the vacations and for more than two years have been meeting with Disney sales people to discuss cruise features and selling tactics. What are they pitching that old salts like Norwegian and Carnival can’t?

“Disney is the point of differentiation,” said Pickett.

It’s been a classic Disney image sell. No product-specific pitches in the initial national advertising campaign, via Leo Burnett, Chicago, which hit airwaves last June and in recent weeks has bombarded television watchers. The 30-second “Clouds” spot shows puffy white clouds gathering in a bright blue sky, soon merging to form an image of Mickey who pats together a ship-like cloud with his hands. A flock of sea gulls tickles cloud-Goofy’s nose making him sneeze, which blows the ship cloud out of Mickey’s hands and onto the water. On the way from sky to sea, the ship has magically transformed into the Disney Magic, the real ship Disney Cruise has crafted from the bottom up. Those ads will run until the ship’s launch next month.

Further image work has come from various promotions, including a “Win the Vacation of Your Dreams” promo with Sears. In its top nine markets, including New York, Boston, Philadephia, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle. Disney Cruise is developing local promotions with TV, radio and print partners for cruise giveaways. Soon, Disney Cruise Lines will be a presence at the Magic Kingdom Welcome Center, will be on POP displays at Disney Stores (with a promotion in the works), and in trailers and print ads in Disney videos.

If Disney pulls off all the improvements it touts in its upcoming launch, it will be well positioned to win back plenty of repeat business for itself. At its disposal, for instance, is offering first time cruisers or repeaters substantial added-value package deals on travel to Disney parks and hotels, as well as air travel with its marketing partners; Disney merchandise rewards; and the list goes on.

While the cruise industry has been built, first and foremost, on adult fun, the trick to wooing this new, coveted family crowd is to provide an adequate environment for kids. Parents today with kids 6-16 must put a lot of thought into a family vacation that will be good for everyone, a tough nut to crack when kids get bored so easily; travel agents even report some families taking a child’s friend along on a cruise just to ensure they have a playmate on board.

As soon as kids go aboard Disney Magic they’re registered and handed their own individual itinerary. The ship is designed with 15,000 square feet (created by Disney’s “Imagineers”) designated for kid-use only with programs running from 9 in the morning until 1 the next morning. Parents can drop off their kids for as much or as little of the day as they like and will be given a beeper in exchange so they know they’re always within reach. Fifty certified counselors will be on board. There will be an Oceaneers Lab, an Oceaneers Club, some 200 activities for kids in four age groups. Little kids will have tea with Wendy from Peter Pan, dress up and take part in an island excavation. Teens will be able to hang out in a coffee shop styled after Central Perk on NBC’s Friends, and, once on land, can learn to build rafts.

Still, while Disney is synonymous with kid entertaining, the scheme only works if the parents have a good time too. While the adult activities are still in the works, some likely programs include wine tasting, a lecture series and the “grownups only” beach (Disney is careful not to call it an “adult beach”) where massage huts will be available. Some on-board definites include different clubs offering country & western music, rock or jazz, plus a comedy club and enormous spa. And for families who actually want to spend some of their time together, why not stop by the movie theater to see New Disney films?

At the end of the day, the consumer that all the cruise marketers have th spyglass on is the repeat cruiser like Mary from England. Cruising, more than any other vacation, is so satisfying to customers that close to 90% will cruise again. For example, after a first-time cruise on the Big Red Boat over Halloween last year, Wayne and Arlene Fowler from Jacksonville, Fla. said they’ll definitely cruise again–only longer next time and on a “party ship” like Carnival.

Everyone leaving Big Red last October, even exhausted little 8-year-old Audrey, was happy and satisfied and looking forward to their next high-seas adventure. But faced with the prospect of a Disney cruise this year, though, there is little doubt what Audrey’s vote will be for the next cruise: the one offering the free hat with ears on it.

COPYRIGHT 1998 BPI Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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