At a press conference today, the cruise line announced that it has inked a partnership with DreamWorks Animation, the powerhouse entertainment studio responsible for films including "Kung Fu Panda," "Madagascar" and -- of course -- all three flicks in the growing "Shrek" enterprise (a fourth is on the way). Animation-themed activities and amenities will debut with Allure of the Seas, due out in December 2010, and eventually roll out to Oasis of the Seas, Freedom of the Seas and Liberty of the Seas.
On tap are:
Opportunities for character interaction, day and night, including parades
Character meals in the main dining room
A new lineup of movie-themed games and adventures in the Adventure Ocean kids' program
DreamWorks Animation movies on the big screen -- in 3D
Special character shows in the Studio B ice rink (such as "How to Train Your Dragon") and AquaTheater
The knee-jerk reaction among most cruise travelers is probably to compare what Royal Caribbean is doing here to what Disney Cruise Line does at its very core -- but there's more to the story.
Believe it or not, Disney Cruise Line wasn't the first to bring children's characters to sea, even though the Disney brand was involved. In the 1980's, now-defunct Premier Cruise Line operated as the official cruise line of Walt Disney World with a family-friendly ship known as the Big Red Boat (due to its Disney-themed color scheme).
Once Disney launched its own cruise line, Premier lost the Mouse and turned instead to a partnership with Looney Tunes. The cruise line eventually folded in 2000. And of course, Disney Cruise Line really set the stage for integrating an entire brand -- from characters like Mickey and Goofy, who attend parties and meals onboard, to movies like "Toy Story," which have influenced onboard theatrical entertainment -- into the cruise experience.
But Norwegian Cruise Line, a more recent entrant into the family game, is offering a family-based entertainment program that's as interesting in the wake of today's announcement if not more so. Just earlier this year, NCL revealed it was teaming up with kid conglomerate Nickelodeon to offer themed programming (character story hours, interactive game shows and poolside performances, dance parties) on select ships year-round, with special theme cruises -- featuring more of everything -- offered annually.
Still, with just a few exceptions, like an ice show on Allure featuring characters from "How to Train Your Dragon" or "Slime Time Live!" on Norwegian Jewel, much of what NCL has added and RCI has in the works Disney has already been doing for what seems like forever. Character breakfasts, sailaway parties, themed entertainment: these things have defined the Disney cruise experience since day one.
But Disney's also upping its own ante when it comes to family cruises with its under-construction Disney Dream, the most interesting ship launching in 2011.
On this ship, Disney's introducing fun family firsts, from the industry's only "watercoaster," a combination roller coaster and water slide on the top deck to interactive art on the walls, which set the scene for onboard scavenger hunts for families. Meanwhile, the line's also completely revamped the basic structure of its youth programming, fleetwide, eliminating age restrictions (which have often kept siblings from participating in the club together) and instead divvying up activities by children's interests.
Spokespersons for both NCL and Disney declined to comment on today's announcement and what, if any, impact Royal Caribbean's partnership could have on their programs -- or family cruises in general.
Where does Royal Caribbean fit in with these competitors -- and is the line taking one (or both) head on? During a press conference to announce the partnership, DreamWorks' head honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg said the move, at least from its perspective, had nothing to do with NCL, noting that the Royal Caribbean project has been in the works for about a year -- long before NCL announced its Nick hook-up.
And as for Disney? "I don't think that's actually what puts the wind our sails every day to be frank about it. They do outstanding work ... [but] we've tried over the last 15 years to build our own brand at DreamWorks and have things about it that are unique." Katzenberg continues, "Honestly, this was much more driven by the opportunity to take our characters and take our properties that we've spent all these years building out on the seas...."
But the elements of the program as revealed today are right in line with Disney's successful model and the trend Norwegian Cruise Line has started with Nickelodeon.
"A third of our customers are traveling in a family unit type of environment," Royal Caribbean President and CEO Adam Goldstein said during the conference. "Adding to the surfing machine, the ice skating rink and the rock climbing wall will now be 'Mom, dad, we have to go on that ship that has Shrek.'"
Ultimately, will Shrek (and Kung Fu Panda, and so on) sell cruises? There's no question that the "Shrek" franchise is a global phenomenon -- but can DreamWorks compete with the likes of Disney and Nickelodeon and will the allure of sailing with these characters be enough to move parents to book with Royal Caribbean?
Lissa Harnish Poirot, editor of Cruise Critic's sister site FamilyVacationCritic.com and mother of two, says, "My 6-year-old daughter, who loves all Disney Princesses, is just as enamored with Princess Fiona from 'Shrek,' and my 4-year-old-son loves that Shrek burps. My kids also love the 'Madagascar' films and penguins, and 'Kung Fu Panda,' and I get a kick out of 'Chicken Run.' For families looking to break away from all things Disney, I think a Royal Caribbean cruise would be fun and definitely unique."
Cruise Critic contributor Carrie Calzaretta -- who has taken Disney cruises with her kids (and is headed to the Baltic on Disney Magic this summer) and has also experienced a Nick-themed voyage (interestingly, on Royal Caribbean, before NCL inked its exclusive deal) -- is also onboard with Shrek and company. "Would it encourage me to book? You bet," Calzaretta says. "Unlike Nick, which really appeals to a pretty limited market (even my 7-year-old was on his way to outgrowing the Nick crew when we sailed), DreamWorks is cutting-edge family entertainment and their movies and characters appeal to a much wider audience, including older children and grownups."
No matter the characters, the concept of having them onboard is a hit with families. "If I had a choice for future cruises, and were comparing similar itineraries among ships and one had the Nickelodeon or DreamWorks characters, and another didn't, I bet I'd lean toward the character-driven itinerary," says Kara Williams, writer for TheVacationGals.com, a blog for women who travel with their families and each other.
However, Calzaretta raises one interesting caveat: "[DreamWorks] will undoubtedly alienate some loyal (older) RCI fans -- so hopefully they've been smart about it and make sure that although present, the character experiences enhance the RCI experience, rather than invading it."
And this is something Disney, to bring it back to the Mouse one last time, has definitely mastered -- offering on its ships an elegant atmosphere with subtle nods to characters, which prove that "elegant" and "family friendly" don't have to be mutually exclusive. How Royal Caribbean will handle this delicate balance remains to be seen.
--by Melissa Paloti, Managing Editor, with additional reporting by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief
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