How Disney reimagined the cruise experience

How Disney reimagined the cruise experience

How Disney reimagined the cruise experience

Repeat Customer podcast, Season 2, Episode 3

When Disney decided to enter the cruise industry in the mid-'90s, other cruise lines were skeptical that Disney could succeed—because how do you take the expansive experience of a theme park and plop it on the limited confines of a boat? What they failed to consider was Disney's previous experience disrupting the theme-park industry and Disney designers' legendary attention to detail, which came together to create a brand-new cruising category: the family cruise that has something for everyone.

Colleen McDaniel of Cruise Critic and Joe Kleiman of InPark Magazine recount Disney's impact on family vacations with the launch of Disney Cruises, while marketing consultant and Disney Institute graduate Arnold Tijerina describes the central role customer experience played.

Featured in this episode:

  • Colleen McDaniel, Editor-in-Chief of Cruise Critic
  • Joe Kleiman, News Editor at InPark Magazine
  • Arnold Tijerina, marketing consultant and Disney Institute graduate

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Transcript
[Carmine Starnino]
My idea of a good time is wandering Trastevere in Rome or spending the afternoon at the Portrait Gallery in London.

[Mio Adilman]
Carmine Starnino used to enjoy travel destinations rich in history, art, and fine wine. But then, you know what happened? Carmine and his wife had kids.

[Carmine Starnino]
Cruises weren't my thing, and they weren't my wife's thing, either.

[Mio Adilman]
But on a cruise they went.

[Carmine Starnino]
It was a slightly hallucinatory experience.

[Mio Adilman]
Hallucinatory? What kind of cruise was this?

[Carmine Starnino]
I mean you had these elderly couples with these matching Mickey Mouse ears buzzing past you and screaming packs of princesses, it was just weird, but you know the kids loved it.

[Mio Adilman]
The kids loved it because it was a Disney cruise. But what about Carmine? Did he love it?

[Carmine Starnino]
I'm the most cynical person.

[Mio Adilman]
Oh, come on. But what about Mickey, Minnie, and Goofy?

[Carmine Starnino]
When I was growing up, I didn't have a life-sized Goofy sort of hugging me the way my son did. And I wish I did.

[Mio Adilman]
In just a moment, does Carmine ask for his Goofy hug? But first, we got to do this.

Welcome to Repeat Customer, an original podcast from Zendesk about great customer experiences, how companies create them, and why their super fans love them so much.
Zendesk is a customer service and engagement platform. I'm Mio Adilman, your Cruise Director for this look at how Disney navigated its way from theme park to cruise ship by “imagineering” a totally new customer experience at sea.

OK, Disney Cruises. Lots to explore, but before we do, I got to know, did curmudgeon Carmine hug Goofy, too?

[Carmine Starnino]
I felt shy. I should've got a Goofy hug, but I didn't, no. But at the end of the trip, you felt like, "That was actually kind of fun." Once we got in there, the whole ship took over. It was like pixie dust was being pumped through the air or something. I just can't believe I'm the guy who's saying all this.

[Mio Adilman]
I get Carmine's initial cynicism. I feel like that would be me, too, if I ever went on a cruise.

[Colleen McDaniel]
Wait. You've never gone a cruise?

[Mio Adilman]
No, I've never gone on a cruise.

[Colleen McDaniel]
OK. You got to go on a cruise.

[Mio Adilman]
The woman trying to convince me to go on a cruise is Colleen McDaniel, editor-in-chief of Cruise Critic, a consumer website. You know, the fact that I haven't gone on one yet is a bit strange because as a kid, I was fascinated by that old TV show, The Love Boat, and by the whole idea of going on a cruise.

[Colleen McDaniel]
So it was a very kind of traditional cruise product. It was about getting to the ports and the destinations, so that time on the ship, the focus was more that you get to relax, you get to spend time by the pool. You want to have those lovely traditional long dinners. It was a more formal experience, the late night dancing, that kind of thing.

[Mio Adilman]
Come aboard, we're expecting you.

Every week on The Love Boat, Captain Merrill Stubing and his crew welcomed glamorous travelers who played shuffleboard on deck or Canasta at the card tables while sipping martinis.

[Colleen McDaniel]
The focus was very much on adults at the time.

[Mio Adilman]
Right. Cruises weren't actually designed for 10 year olds like me. Let's say if I had gone on The Love Boat with my screen parents, Charo and Sonny Bono, it probably would've been pretty boring, for me at least. Come to think of it, I mean, at the time, in the '70s, '80s, even the '90s, there weren't a lot of great vacation destinations that offered something for the whole family.

[Joe Kleiman]
You know the family vacation used to be where it was either kind of geared towards the kids or geared towards the adults.

[Mio Adilman]
If Colleen McDaniel is my cruise director, then Joe Kleiman is my everything-else director, because this guy has worked at hotels, theme parks, theaters, zoos. He once even cleaned up after the penguins at SeaWorld. But now Joe reports on theme parks, water parks, and museums for InPark Magazine. His memory of childhood family vacations is kind of, well, meh.

[Joe Kleiman]
I recall going down when I was in my teens with my family to the Bahamas. The idea of connectivity at this particular resort that we stayed at was that they had a video arcade. It was really not something that catered to kids.

[Mio Adilman]
But that attitude slowly started to change in the '90s.

[Colleen McDaniel]
It's not enough anymore to just be like, "Well, the parents are going to do this and we're going to bring along the kids." That's changed. And so kids really dictate how their families are traveling.

[Mio Adilman]
Really what was missing was one vacation experience that met the needs of every member of the family. Even the holy grail of family vacays, Disney World, if you stayed more than a day or two, it was going to end up skewing more in favor of the kids.

[Joe Kleiman]
There was one particular cruise line that did contract with Disney for licensing their characters called Premier Cruises. When Disney took a look at things, they also noticed that a lot of these people that were booking the Premier Cruises that were sailing out of Florida were also booking vacations to Walt Disney World as part of a package.

[Mio Adilman]
So Disney was like, "If we get into cruises, we can offer both." This played into a larger strategy of theirs, something called the Disney Decade, where Disney started to expand like crazy. Like one example, Disney World grew to include not one, but several parks, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studio, and Animal Kingdom, each with its own hotel.

[Joe Kleiman]
One of the things that they began to look at was alternative tourism businesses that Disney could come in, take their expertise from operating the theme parks and operating resorts and apply that to these other businesses.

[Mio Adilman]
OK, but what are you going to do, stick a rollercoaster on a boat? How do you take the expansive experience of a theme park and shrink it down to a limited space on deck?

[Joe Kleiman]
When Disney entered the market, I was following a number of the cruise lines, and a lot of them were kind of hesitant. They didn't believe Disney would succeed.

[Mio Adilman]
What those skeptical cruise lines might not have considered was that this wasn't the first time Disney would be trying to disrupt an industry. For all of you young whippersnappers out there who've always known a world that's included Disney World, that wasn't always the case. Before Disneyland opened in California in 1955, there was nothing like it at all. Disney was only a movie studio.

[Joe Kleiman]
Up until then, you had what were called trolley parks, which kind of died out right around the '40s and '50s with the advent of the freeway. And so people would take the trolley line out to the end and there would be this amusement park with one or two wooden roller coasters and a Ferris wheel, and then you also had more along the lines of roadside attractions. That would be something like Knott's Berry Farm and its Calico Ghost Town.

[Mio Adilman]
At first, Disneyland was going to sit in a small corner of Disney's Burbank studio, but then it moved to Anaheim to a much larger plot of land.

[Joe Kleiman]
A lot of these other parks would have third-party vendors operating the rides or operating the food and the concession or operating the retail or the games. And so it kind of ended up almost like a mish-mosh—a very carnival-type feel. One of the things that Disney did that was very unique was really pushing the customer service angle.

[Mio Adilman]
And this happened even though Disney, at first, also used some third-party vendors, including, get this, a barber shop, a pharmacy, even a lingerie boutique.

[Joe Kleiman]
As you're going through the park, if you have a problem, if a person doesn't know how to resolve it, they will take you or find somebody immediately who can resolve your issue. A lot of times in those smaller parks, you might be blown off if you have a problem. Disney was really one of the first where they started referring to the patrons as guests.

[Mio Adilman]
Every employee from top to bottom was told to treat customers as if they were guests in their own homes.

[Arnold Tijerina]
Let's say a little kid loses a balloon, those big balloons that cost $150. There's Mickey Mouse's head flying into the air. Well, the janitor could actually go to a balloon vendor and get a new balloon without asking anybody's permission and fix their problem right then and there. And that goes for anything.

[Mio Adilman]
Arnold Tijerina is a marketing consultant working in the automotive industry, but he looks to Walt Disney for customer experience guidance.

[Arnold Tijerina]
Another kind of cool little point is he wanted to keep his park clean. So, he hired people to stand there and see how many steps a person would take before throwing their trash on the ground and not getting to a trash can, let's say. And that answer was 30 feet. So if you go to any Disney park, there's a trash can every 30 feet.

[Mio Adilman]
This was key. Not only did Disney change the customer experience of a theme park by scaling up the size of the grounds and the scope of the attractions, it heavily prioritized customer service. As we'll see, this became its secret weapon.

OK, so back to sea we go. In 1992, Disney announced it would enter the cruise market, but it had a lot of work to do. The challenge? Change the way people cruise.

[Joe Kleiman]
Rather than buying another cruise line or buying existing ships and retrofitting them, all of the Disney cruise ships are designed and built from the ground up. The entertainment offerings are all designed by Walt Disney Imagineering, which is the same group that designs theme park attractions and the resort hotels at Disney.
[Mio Adilman]
Imagineers are Disney's designers.

[Joe Kleiman]
Everything from conceptual artists to story writers to engineers and architects, and they look at every single aspect of an attraction or a hotel or a cruise ship, and everything from your room design to some of the shows and entertainment to your dining experiences, imagineering has a hand in that.

[Mio Adilman]
It took the Imagineers in Disney about five years to design and build the first ship.

[Joe Kleiman]
The central mechanics of the cruise ship on Disney are the same as they've been going back decades. What they changed was how the guest experiences the cruise ship.

[Mio Adilman]
This change would come to have a major impact on the whole cruising industry. Disney's first cruise ship, called The Magic, launched in 1998 from Port Canaveral in Florida.

[Colleen McDaniel]
It really feels like a throwback to a cruise liner that did those crossings back in the day, so there's something very nostalgic about the feel of these Disney ships.

[Mio Adilman]
At first, the cruise was offered as part of a larger package that included a visit to Disney World.

[Colleen McDaniel]
Right away, you know this is a Disney ship, because there are characters both in costume, but also all over in the décor.

[Mio Adilman]
OK, that isn't surprising, but it's just a start.

[Colleen McDaniel]
And then you start to see that, "Hey, this is designed really with the family in mind." So you see kid's pools and kid's play spaces and family cabins that are created really for families that have kids and even young children. So they have the separate bathtub from the bathrooms. The bath and a half is very much geared towards families.

[Mio Adilman]
The ship was laid out completely different than traditional boats.

Did you like it? Did you have a good time?

[Scarlet]
Yeah, I went to the Bippity Boppity Boutique and I went to the Kids Club, and your parents stay away.

[Mio Adilman]
Parents are not allowed in the Kids Club?

[Scarlet]
Uh-huh.

[Mio Adilman]
That sounds like the best club of all-time.

[Scarlet]
I know.

[Mio Adilman]
Six-year-old twins, Scarlet and Atticus, are showing me photos from their last trip.

[Atticus]
There's a zip line that goes there, and then pirate Mickey Mouse zip lines across in the fireworks show.

[Mio Adilman]
Wait a second. You're acting like this is the most normal thing in the world.

[Atticus]
It's a Disney cruise, a giant boat, but it's no ordinary cruise.

[Mio Adilman]
No ordinary cruise. Complete with water slides, pirate themed nights, tea time with Disney princesses, 24-hour self-serve soft-serve ice cream, and maybe not the healthiest, but Disney introduced bottomless soda on cruises, something never done before, which you could drink at the Animator's Palate restaurant.

[Colleen McDaniel]
While you're at the restaurant, it's black and white, starts off all black and white, and all the spaces are decorated in those colors. As the meal goes on, the colors kind of change and color pops up everywhere.

On top of that, they do this amazing thing where they give kids menus and they draw themselves or a character on it. They collect those, and by the end of the meal, the characters you created are animated and you can watch them dancing and interacting all over the restaurant.

[Mio Adilman]
Disney's Imagineers had successfully taken the theme park experience onto a ship, and three more boats followed, The Wonder, The Dream, and The Fantasy. The Fantasy even has a see through water slide that juts out the side of the ship so you're sliding over the ocean. All the boats started cruising to spots around the globe, no longer just packaged with a visit to Disney World. I totally get why kids are totally into it.

[Colleen McDaniel]
One of the things that is really an important distinction for Disney is it's not a kids’ cruise. It's a family cruise.

[Mio Adilman]
Colleen McDaniel of Cruise Critic is quick to make this distinction, and Joe Kleiman of InPark Magazine agrees.

[Joe Kleiman]
One of the things that Disney on their cruises has been able to do successfully is to differentiate activities for each of the different age groups. There's something called the Oceaneering Club, which is for, I believe, through age 12.

[Mio Adilman]
Disney gave those young kids and their parents something called Wave Phones to stay in touch. Today, you can also message each other in an app.

[Joe Kleiman]
There's also a teen lounge and activities for family groups as a whole. One of the great things is that there are actually two theaters. One of is a movie theater and the other is a live performance theater. And so you have the same people working on these live shows that often work on similar projects for the Disney theme parks, and also for the Disney shows on Broadway.

[Mio Adilman]
But at the same time, there's also lots of stuff for Scarlet and Atticus' parents, Christine and Jamie, to do on their own.

[Christine]
There's all different kinds of adults-only bars, adult-only dance club. There's a pub, which we would go to for trivia night. There's different themed adult-only places as well, like a billiards room, all kinds of different stuff.

[Mio Adilman]
Adult-only pools, gyms, spas, and adult only restaurants like Palo that are more upscale.

[Jamie]
The adult dining, sort of the Palo type thing, it's like-

[Christine]
Amazing.

[Jamie]
...like really high quality Italian food.

[Mio Adilman]
So much so that you will often see adults without kids, many of them Disney enthusiasts, too, on the cruises.

[Colleen McDaniel]
One of the things that Disney did is they really made the ship the destination. The destination still is very important, but there are a lot of people who say, "You know what? I'm cruising. I just want to stay on the ship."

[Atticus]
I didn't even want to go on the beach.

[Mio Adilman]
Did you say, "Mom, please don't take me to the beach. Please let me stay on the boat"?

[Atticus]
No.

[Christine]
Yes, you did.

[Atticus]
No.

[Christine]
Yes, you did.

[Atticus]
I didn't.

[Mio Adilman]
Some of the things we've described might seem commonplace to you now on cruises or at resorts, but at the time, they were very new concepts. Disney did make the ship the destination, but they also changed what happens when you get off the boat.

[Colleen McDaniel]
Disney recognized that they needed a place that they could bring people regularly, especially on these three- and four-day sailings, where they would have a very Disney experience. That kind of place doesn't exist, so they created Castaway Key. A number of cruise lines have private islands, but Disney's is themed.

[Mio Adilman]
Disney bought an island and had their Imagineers do their thing.

[Colleen McDaniel]
It feels like a smaller, much smaller version of a Disney theme park. Families can go and have a great time at the beach, but there are trails all over the place, and you can see some of these really great Disney kind of pieces, like cannonballs all over the place or pirates.

[Mio Adilman]
There's also a 5K race and adult only beaches.

[Joe Kleiman]
It's not going to be just another island stop where people can get off and do activities. They're taking everything that you're experiencing as a guest on the cruise and they are applying it now to the concept of a landfall.

[Mio Adilman]
Another thing Disney did, and this goes back to the dining room, they created multiple restaurants and introduced the concept of rotational dining.

[Colleen McDaniel]
So you would be assigned to one restaurant one night. The next night, you'd be at a new restaurant, but you also brought your waitstaff with you. As you rotated, they rotated with you, so it helped you feel more like you had that relationship with the waiter or waitress. You don't have to talk about allergies and food preferences all over again.

[Colleen McDaniel]
Traditionally, people onboard cruise ships, they really do form a bond with their waiters. I think Disney said, "I get that." Just the organization of something like that is pretty incredible.
[Mio Adilman]
And according to Scarlet and Atticus' dad, Jamie, the waiters aren't just normal waiters.

[Jamie]
Whether it's making Mickey Mouse's head out of ketchup for the kids or doing magic tricks, they're just constantly entertaining the kids, so even though you're sitting with two four- or five- year-olds trying to have dinner, you can actually somewhat relax.

[Mio Adilman]
Kids are served right away and kept busy, and once they're done eating, Kids Club attendants will whisk them away if you want so you can take time finishing your meal.

The rotational dining concept is a good example of Disney's approach to the customer experience. On one hand, their Imagineers are always bringing new things to the cruising experience, in this case, the idea of rotating through multiple dining rooms. But assigning you the same waiter for the length of your stay is next level focus on the customer. This laser focus was mentioned by everyone I spoke to, including Carmine, the dad you heard at the beginning of the show.

[Carmine]
It was almost like everyone had been trained in the matter of being the most indulgent grandparent ever. One of the things we also remember was that our housekeeper noticed that we would sort of insert a blanket at the bottom of Gabriella's crib. Once the housekeeper noticed that, she did that, too. There were just these small moments where we realized, "This entire experience is being sort of engineered to make our lives slightly easier."

[Mio Adilman]
This attention to detail seems crazy, and I find it kind of hard to fully understand how they achieve it and even why. I haven't been on a cruise, but I've gone to theme parks and attractions, and when I do, I always feel like one customer out of a million jostling for attention.

To answer my question, let's go back to that original commitment to customer service Disney made in their first theme park. It was decided to call visitors guests, but Arnold Tijerina tells me employees were also referred to differently.

[Arnold Tijerina]
Cast members. That's what they call themselves, cast members, because Disney wants to ingrain in the cast members that they're putting on a show. So, how these people act, how these cast members act, is directly related to the guest experience.

[Mio Adilman]
And so when you go to Disney anything, you aren't just a guest, you're actually part of the show, sort of like that movie, The Truman Show. And above all, the show must go on. An unpleasant customer service moment will break that immersive spell, ruin the illusion. This might seem sort of normal now. Some movie theaters do the same thing, but at the time, this was totally groundbreaking, perhaps the genesis of customer experience as we know it today.

That commitment to customer service is so serious that Disney cast members have to attend something called Disney University where they learn the company's particular brand of service, and a version of this called the Disney Institute is also available to external businesses from different industries.

[Arnold Tijerina]
It's like being in a college class all day.

[Mio Adilman]
Where you learn Disney's four keys to customer experience.

[Arnold Tijerina]
I mean, I liked it so much, I even have a tattoo of the four keys so...

[Mio Adilman]
OK. What are those four keys tattooed to Arnold's body?

[Arnold Tijerina]
So they go, "Is it safe? Is it courteous? Is it part of the show? Is it efficient?" If they can say yes to those questions, then they can make decisions based on those.

[Mio Adilman]
Those four keys are portable. I mean, Arnold works in the automotive industry, totally different world, and he's using CX tips from Disney World.

[Arnold Tijerina]
GM actually subsidizes their dealers and dealership employees to attend the Disney Institute.

[Mio Adilman]
By industry standards, Disney right now has a pretty small fleet, only four cruise ships, but with three more bigger ships on the way in the next few years. In 2018, they only had about 2.3% share of the worldwide cruise market, but since its launch, Joe Kleiman says Disney has really exerted an outsized influence on the cruise industry.

[Joe Kleiman]
Companies started looking at Disney and started emulating what Disney was doing by putting their own touch on it. Carnival Cruises, they've just announced they're going to put the first roller coasters on a cruise ship.

[Mio Adilman]
That influence has also been felt back on land at places like water parks, a growing piece of the attractions world.

[Joe Kleiman]
They have kids clubs for the kids, but they might also have a spa for the adults. Themed suites where the adults are in one room, the kids are in another. This is really very much taking the idea of what you have with the Disney cruise and saying, "What can we do with it on land to create this kind of homogenic environment that's self-contained?"

[Mio Adilman]
But even though other cruise lines and resorts are emulating Disney, Colleen McDaniel at Cruise Critic says Disney still has a huge advantage.

[Colleen McDaniel]
Marvel and Star Wars in particular have broad appeal. It's not just the kids. The adults love this stuff, too. And so that's something that they've really done very well is that they've said, "Oh, we have this new brand. How do we make it part of our experience?" They've had a lot of success with their Star Wars Days at Sea and bringing on the Marvel characters.

[Mio Adilman]
As Disney continues to add to its stable of properties, new things are constantly being added to the ships. Each one gets overhauled every couple years to keep things really fresh, and the Imagineers are continuing to evolve other aspects of the cruise experience. But Arnold Tijerina brings it back to Disney's secret weapon.

[Arnold Tijerina]
Other cruise ships have shows. Other cruise ships have adult areas and kids areas. I think it's more the attention to detail and focus on customer experience that makes Disney cruises the preferred choice for many.

[Mio Adilman]
Disney completely changed the cruising experience with a family-friendly offering that addressed the needs of every family member. They took their resort philosophy and stuck it on a boat. They made the ship the destination where you join the show. They revolutionized onboard dining and landfall activities, and they were able to apply their exceptional customer service to every aspect.

It's a good example of how successfully a brand can move from one category to another if they do it by leading with an emphasis on a strong customer-service and customer-experience foundation, which reminds me of another company in another industry. I'm thinking about the fast casual burger chain, Shake Shack. Did you know it was built out of the kitchen of a fine-dining restaurant with a serious reputation for something called enlightened hospitality?

Well, that's what we'll look at next time on Repeat Customer. Until then, leave a review here or post something at Zendesk.com/repeatcustomer, where you can also get tips on how to up your company's customer service game. Thanks for listening.