Perspective: Mouse Boat

Today, Disney dominates the family cruise business. But the story of how it came to rule the seas is, well, a little goofy

A vintage ad is always a window into the consumer culture of the past. But only a handful—such as the one at right—afford a glimpse of a domineering product in its infancy. No, it’s not Disney World. The theme park was already a huge destination when this ad ran in 1985. But check out that ship pictured to the left of Cinderella’s Castle. Now consider the following: Today, Disney Cruise Line rules the family-cruise segment (its fleet of four megaships holds 13,400 people and generates estimated annual revenues of $1 billion), and it all began with that secondhand boat wearing a coat of red paint.

The ship was already 27 years old in this photo. Launched in 1958 as the Federico C, the 21,000 ton transatlantic liner plied the Genoa-to-Rio de Janeiro run for Italian operator Costa Lines. Following a major refitting, fledging U.S. carrier Premier Cruise Lines bought the ship in 1983 and renamed it the StarShip Royale. Premier’s plan was to target families, a demo that had always proved challenging for the industry. Kids need to be constantly entertained if their parents are to be prevented from jumping overboard. Fortunately, there was another company that wanted into the cruise business, and one that happened to be very good at the kid thing: Disney. When the House of Mouse inked a partnership with Premier in 1985, the cruise industry knew that it meant a sea change.

Travel consultant Roger Dubin was the marketing vp for Royal Cruise Lines back then and recalls the significance of the deal. “When Disney started this, believe me, it got everybody’s attention,” he said. “We had a lot of conversations over how [the partnership] might affect the cruise industry. Everybody was certain that Disney would end up building their own ships.”

Dubin’s prediction turned out to be correct—but wouldn’t come to pass before Disney had learned all it needed to know from Premier, which added a second ship and ran Disney-themed cruises under the moniker, The Big Red Boat. As Dubin recalled, Disney took its time. “They weren’t going to just jump in and build their own ships until they found out if it really worked for them,” he said.

For Disney, what worked turned out to be a winning combination. The first is on display in the ad at right: a terrific package deal of four nights on the ship and three days at Disney World—for free. But Disney’s real edge lay in its experience with tots. The Big Red Boat booked Mickey, Donald and Goofy on every run—something the competition simply couldn’t do. “You could see how Disney was going to create an onboard experience for families,” Dubin said. “And you could see this was going to be big.”

As many predicted, Disney torpedoed its deal with Premier in 1994 and four years later launched the first of its own ships, a 964-foot megaliner called the Disney Magic. Appearing the following year was the Disney Wonder, shown plying the waters of Alaska in the 2012 ad on the facing page. Though Dubin believes Disney’s marketing magic was taking a holiday of its own at the time of this heavily photoshopped ad, there is no denying the evolution the ads represent. From modest maritime beginnings, Disney has turned into a global seafarer that carries half a million passengers every year.

We presume that figure includes Mickey, Donald and Goofy.