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On board Disney Wish, Walt Disney Co.'s newest cruise ship

Disney Wish is a hard pivot away from nostalgia, favoring modern franchises and high-tech, immersive experiences

Fireworks launch over Disney characters, company executives and guests as the Disney Cruise Line ship Disney Wish is officially inaugurated. (AP)

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On a three-daypreviewof Disney Cruise’s Line’s new4,000-passenger Disney Wish, I was hoping for nostalgic reminders of classic characters and princesses. My 35-year-old tech exec son wanted Star Wars experiences. And my 5-year-old grandson was hoping for encounters with Marvel characters.

Despite our diverse Disneyleanings, we found it all across the ship’s 15 decks, which look to appeal to everyone who likes anything in the company’s portfolio.

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‘Storylines’. as the the company calls them—promotional opportunities, to the rest of us—are around every corner, even in the (very comfortable) staterooms. Besides the fact that almost all of them have verandahs and large bathrooms with tubs, each roomis themed. Mine had a gilded mural of a scene from The Princess and the Frogbehind the bed; others may feature Cinderella or Frozen. Some categories add bunk beds, and my grandson George was thrilled to climb to an upper berth.

Wish is the first shipWalt Disney Co.has built in 10 years—during which time the onboard experience has evolved from grand floating hotel to an immersive, five-star product with immense nerd appeal. “From a story perspective, you’re seeing us leaning even heavier into our franchises. You see more contemporary franchises coming to life on the ship,”says Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parksdivision,onboard the ship inPort Canaveral, near Orlando.

Bloomberg was hostedas part of thenon-revenue christening preview cruise for invited guests. The first paying guests board on July 14.

By leaning on Marvel (acquired in 2009) and especiallyStar Wars (acquired in 2012),D’Amaro expects to lure enough of the new-to-cruising fan crowd to consistently fill the shipto capacity—along with two as-yet-unnamed sister ships scheduled to arrivein 2024 and 2025.As the fifth ship in the fleet, Disney Wishis also the first to run on LNG (liquified natural gas), which produces 20% fewercarbon emissions than traditional fuels do.

“It’s an obvious investment,” D’Amaro says, demurring on just how much money the company is spendingto buildthe vessels. But at current shipbuilding rates, where it’s often more economic to cut a ship in half and add a new section than build a new one from scratch, the number is almost surely in the billions. Previous profitability would appear to justify a nine-figure spend, though, with Disney Chief Executive OfficerBob Chapek citing the earlier ships’ “double-digit” return on investment.

Premium fares help boost the profits. Prices for a three-night cruise to Nassau and Disney’s private Bahamas island, Castaway Cay, in September start from about $3,900 for a cabin with verandah fora family of four.

A Disney Theme Park at Sea

‘Wish’ is built and run more like a theme park than any previous Disney ship. The first space you see when you board is a three-deck Grand Hall, a take on Cinderella’s Castle that’s sprinkled with “magic” (read: tons of twinkling fiber optics) and populated with “real-life” princes and princesses.

Various shipboard experiences come courtesy of Disney’s Imagineers, who most famously design theme park rides.

Mickey, Minnie and dancers perform as the Disney Cruise Line ship Disney Wish is officially christened in a ceremony at Port Canaveral.
Mickey, Minnie and dancers perform as the Disney Cruise Line ship Disney Wish is officially christened in a ceremony at Port Canaveral. (AP)

Take the multiday interactive game called Uncharted Adventure, which turns your smartphone into a “spyglass” that helps you join characters such as Nemo and Tiana as they search the ship for a missing wishing star. The gameplay unfolds across any of four distinct storylines and has 16 different choose-your-own-adventure-style permutations. To participate, you to set up your own avatar and follow clues to points of interest around the ship; finding them reveals a multidimensional treasure trove of digital games, secret (physical) spaces, and augmented reality animations. The app logs your play history so that nothing gets repeated; it’s Disney stepping into the metaverse.

Imagineers havealso created what the company is calling “the first Disney attraction at sea.” The top-deck AquaMouse is a 760-foot, 2 ½-minute flume ride withmore than 60 squirting devices, as well as twists and a dramatic drop. It features animated visuals that have Mickey and Minnie leading adventures under the sea and in the Swiss Alps.

Franchise Overload

But it’sStar Wars and Marvel that receivethe most attention,as I came to understand the full meaning of D’Amaro’scommentduringthe preview.

Take the ship’s Star Wars: Hyperspace Lounge, which is adults-only at night. Though I’d hoped it would be a rowdy recreation of Mos Eisley Cantina, I still got a kick out of the upscale intergalactic bar, which you enter through a space door that makes an impressive “whoosh” sound. My drink of choice, the Chancellor, was a $20 concoction of Hennessy James and Calvados Menorval 1972; as it was set down in front of me, a server used a torch to make it smoke.

The lounge is plainly anadvertisement for Disney’s Galactic Starcruiser hotel, with its similar emphasis on immersive storytelling. Behind the bar is a high-resolution jumbo screen—ahem, “space window”—that shows the “spaceship” jumping through hyperspace and arriving in various galaxies. Guests cheer as they watch (my son, Eli, seemed to lead the crowd one night) and role-playing servers bolster the narrative. Ours informed us she was from Tatooine, but had once vacationed on Earth.

Star Wars also has real estate in the Oceaneer Club, a staffed activities program for kids aged3-12, accessible to them via a deck-long tube slide from the Grand Hall. In a room done up as a cargo bay, Disney nails Star Wars experiences as kids interact with such creatures as a dianoga in a jar and a porg in a cage. The attention to detail is just as thorough as you’d expect; if you look carefully, you’ll find pink porg poop on the ceiling.

For kids that aren’t yet indoctrinated into Star Wars lore, there are other club spaces á la Marvel and Frozen, a Mickey and Minnie-themed indoor playground,and a Toy Storywater-play area on an upper deck. A nursery offers services for babies as young as six months.

Restaurants make use of the new franchises, too. My young grandson George, a collector of Marvel figurines, was most excited about an Avengers dining experience hosted, via screens around the room, by Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and the Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) with special appearances on screen by Captain Marvel, Captain America, and Ms. Marvel, among others.

Each table is outfitted with a “Quantum Core,” and diners can press buttons to supposedly help the superheroes along their quests. It took George five minutes to realize they didn’t do anything, but he nonetheless bought into the storyline of bad guys attacking the ship and the Avengers saving the day—so much so that he was concerned the bad guys might return during the night.

If you need a break from the sci-fi and superhero action, aFrozen dinner theater experience features live songs from the movies, with characters visiting each table. (The princesses are played by humans; Olaf is mechanical.) There’s also a new, Broadway-style The Little Mermaidshow with a big cast, puppets, and impressive special effects. And when only the classics will do, two movie theatersplay a full slate of Disney movies, so you can see Peter Pan and Cinderella—as well as new releases that will debut at sea on the same day they launch in land-based theaters.

Wish Upon Five Stars

The ship has treats for big spenders that rangefrom practical luxuries to extravagant stunts. In terms of the former, Disney doubled the number of suites on this ship to 76, including a two-story, almost 2,000-square-footMoana-themed penthouse that’s built into the ship’s forward funnel. The cost comes to around $29,000 for three-night sailings in July 2023, based on two adults and two kids—and it’s mostly sold out until then.

As for the stunts, Disney bloggers have had a field day trying to revealwhat’s in theKaiburr Crystal,dubbed“the galaxy’s rarest and valuable cocktail” on the menu.The $5,000 tipple seems to be made with Camus cognac, and the price is rumored to include an invitation to Lucasfilm’s California sound design facility, Skywalker Ranch. Disney won’t confirm or deny anything, which only addsto the mystery. I didn’t dareorder it.

One thing that’s worth the splurge is an adults-only date-night:dining at the Beauty and the Beast-themed Enchanté fromchef Arnaud Lallement. (He’s the owner of the Michelin three-star L'Assiette Champenoise in France.)You can easily spend hundreds of dollars per couple if you skip the prix-fixe and go with a la carte and fine wine selections, suchassquab fermiere with turnip relish. Send the kids to the Oceaneer Club that night; Enchanté’sfood and service is worth it.

Wish fulfillment is, after all, themantra on Disney Wish.It was even christened by kids from the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Whether it fulfills Disney’s ownambitions as company leadershipnavigates choppy waterswillbe the ultimatetest of the franchises in which it has so heavily invested.

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