(4 p.m. EDT) -- Disney Wonder today became the first passenger vessel to sail through the Panama Canal's new expanded locks, the first of 18 cruise ships scheduled to make the journey during the 2017-2018 season.
The transit represents a major milestone: The expanded locks, which opened in 2016, allow larger vessels to make take the journey; the older lock system is smaller, and many modern cruise ships can't fit through.
"The original Panama Canal has been a cruise destination for many years," Panama Canal Deputy Administrator Manuel Benitez said in a press release. "Today’s historic transit marks the beginning of cruise lines being able to include the new locks as part of their itineraries, opening up additional transit options and allowing cruise passengers to witness first-hand this feat of modern engineering."
Indeed, the Panama Canal is a popular cruising itinerary, with a short season that runs in late spring and again in early fall. Passengers often sail from a West Coast port, such as San Diego or San Francisco, through the Canal to a Florida port, or vice versa. Disney Wonder is traveling west, on a cruise that began in Port Canaveral and will finish in San Diego, where it will ultimately reposition and begin the Alaska cruise season.
Disney Wonder is 984 feet long and 32 meters wide. Other cruise lines also have larger ships that will make the Panama Canal transit for the first time this year, including Caribbean Princess, which is wider than the maximum allowed through the old locks. It will is scheduled to make the transit this fall. The expanded Canal locks are 70 feet wider and 18 feet deeper than the locks in the original Canal.
--By Colleen McDaniel, Senior Executive Editor