St. Croix, which as a cruise port lies in the shadow of St. Thomas and St. John, its other U.S. Virgin Island siblings, got a huge boost today when Disney Cruise Line announced that it will send Disney Magic there on select special itineraries in 2009.

Disney Magic will offer a series of nine seven-night Eastern Caribbean itineraries throughout 2009 that will call on St. Croix (in addition to St. Thomas and Castaway Cay). Disney also announced that it will offer a series of seven-night Eastern Caribbean voyages that will stop at Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, as well as St. Thomas and Castaway Cay. All this is an effort to provide the line's legendarily loyal repeat passengers with some variety in itineraries.

St. Croix is an intriguing choice. The island, the largest of the three virgins, is located about 35 miles south of St. Thomas. Highlights for tourists include the Buck Island National Park -- one of the Caribbean's most popular snorkeling destinations -- along with a gorgeous rain forest, fantastic scuba diving, and Danish colonial architecture.

Other draws include the Cruzan Rum Distillery, the Divi Carina Bay Casino and the Carambola Golf Course.

The urban centers of the island are the cities of Frederiksted (on the west end of the island), its primary cruise port, and the historic Christiansted (on the northern coast), but St. Croix's personality is also rooted in its agricultural history. Historic plantations and sugar mills still dot the island landscape.

So Why Isn't the Island Better Known?
Up until 2001, St. Croix was a popular port of call. A spate of thefts, muggings and other petty crime targeting both passengers and crew, however, prompted lines to change course and bypass the island. Since then, St. Croix has been treated as a veritable pariah by the industry. And even with an $18 million investment in the revitalization of the Frederiksted’s waterfront, St. Croix has struggled mightily to entice cruise lines to add it as a port of call.

Indeed, in all of 2007, just two cruise lines -- the German Hapag-Lloyd and the luxury-minded Seabourn -- featured visits to St. Croix. Contrast that with the perpetually congested port of St. Thomas, which has 105 port calls scheduled for this month alone (and St. Croix? None).

So Disney’s commitment, as the first big ship cruise line to plan a regular series of visits in years, is symbolic. And it’s a move that’s as good for the island’s flagging tourist economy as it is for Disney aficionados who want to explore new places.

"I think it is an incredibly great step in the right direction," Virgin Islands Tourism Commissioner Beverly Nicholson Doty told us today, adding that territory officials have worked for months to secure the Disney deal. "We are very pleased that Disney has made this determination. We are just elated about the news and certainly think it will serve as a catalyst for other opportunities in the cruise industry."

But Is St. Croix Safe?
Passenger safety is the paramount issue for any cruise line, but for such a family-focused line as Disney, it's even more important. So, more than half a decade after the cruise ships pulled out because of crime, is St. Croix safer now?

A Disney spokesman told us that past concerns about crime there are no longer an issue.

"Being a family-friendly cruise option, safety is our utmost concern. From what we've seen of St. Croix, we feel it is a perfectly safe destination for our passengers," Disney spokesman Jason Lasecki said. "It's beautiful. When you look at it from the pier and the shopping district they've set up, everything is in place to create a wonderful experience for our guests."

V.I. Tourism officials believe Disney passengers will be pleasantly surprised. "One of the things unique about St. Croix is that you get an authentic cultural experience," Doty said. "You have a lot of cruise passengers that have cruised many times and they are looking for a new experience. I think [visiting St. Croix] is an experience that certainly gives them something to talk about that's different."

Are you tired of congested spots like St. Thomas? Be sure to vote for the replacement port you'd prefer in today's poll on our home page.

--by Michael Potter, Assistant Editor