hen Martha and Richard Wikert booked 20 family members on the Nov. 23 sailing of the Disney Magic, they didn't know it would become one of the most publicized voyages in recent memory.

Travel Weekly survey of 926 travel agents.But before the seven-day cruise was over, 218 passengers and crew, including six members of the Wikerts' party, would come down with a stomach bug that would make the front pages of newspapers throughout the country and idle the ship for a thorough cleaning.

It was to be the second consecutive sailing of the ship during which a high number of passengers and crew experienced Norwalk-like symptoms.

Two days before the Wikerts' departure, Disney Cruise Line spokesman Mark Jaronski's phone lit up with calls from reporters.

The news: Some 312 passengers and crew on the Magic were showing signs of a Norwalk-like virus.

"The volume [of calls] was about as heavy as I've ever experienced," Jaronski said. "I wasn't home for dinner at all."

Disney Cruise Line's three-person public relations team recruited help from other Disney divisions to handle the calls.

And while the line sanitized the ship and communicated with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), president Matt Ouimet met Disney guests at the pier and held a press conference with reporters to outline the steps Disney and the CDC were taking to clean the ship for the Nov. 23 cruise.

Even though the scrub-down didn't work and the line later took the vessel out of service, industry watchers and public relations experts said Disney and the other cruise lines may have avoided leaving a long-lasting, negative public image by their handling of the problem.

They cite such steps as being frank with the media and reaching out to guests with refund and rebooking offers, and by candidly admitting that they just don't know why Norwalk shows up when it does.

"The public fears, more than anything else, not knowing what's going on," said Don Stacks, a professor of public relations at the University of Miami. "Not only have [the lines] come up with the truth, but they've been proactive about it."

Travel Weekly survey of 926 travel agents.Cruise officials and agents expressed surprise, and some frustration, at the continuous media coverage of a gastrointestinal bug that, while not pleasant for those who catch it, is affecting relatively few passengers on relatively few cruises.

But the reports haven't drastically affected cruise sales -- at least, not yet. According to a Travel Weekly survey, 27% of agents are "very concerned" about recent cases of the virus, and only 8% said it was "dramatically" affecting bookings.

"My understanding is that this is something next to the common cold," said Pat Blassie, owner of Altair International Travel in St. Louis. "We thought we'd be getting calls ... but we haven't had any problems from it."

Sales could be affected down the line if the virus continues to surface on ships, agents cautioned; last week, P&O Cruises reported cases of gastrointestinal illness on the Oceana. One agent said she was getting several calls from clients.

And agents and executives pointed to some "sensational" stories about the Norwalk cases.

During an appearance on NBC TV's "Today" show, travel writer Peter Greenberg said terrorism hadn't been "ruled out," and he questioned food and water conditions, saying, incorrectly, that both the Disney Magic and Holland America Line's Amsterdam sailed from the same port.

David Giersdorf, senior vice president of sales and marketing for HAL, said the segment was "unfortunate and ... inaccurate."

Giersdorf said HAL was "caught off guard" by the media attention when the Amsterdam couldn't shake Norwalk cases on four consecutive sailings. HAL canceled a 10-day voyage of the ship.

After the Amsterdam was taken out of service, Giersdorf made about a half-dozen phone calls to trade publications. The line also sent faxes to agents with passengers on the Amsterdam to explain the basics of Norwalk.

"We're doing everything we know how to do," he told Travel Weekly, adding, "I can't guarantee people won't become ill on their vacations."

The CDC's Vessel Sanitation Program held its first telephone conference call with reporters to discuss the Norwalk virus.

And Carnival chief Bob Dickinson met with reporters at the Miami pier hours after reports surfaced that a gastrointestinal bug was causing problems on the Fascination.

All three lines have offered guests on the most recent sailings of the three ships options to cancel or rebook at a later date. Few are taking that option, the lines said.

The Wikerts, for example, decided to proceed with their vacation on the Magic. And, Martha Wikert said, they managed to have a pretty good time.

"There were people far sicker than us," she said. "But we saw people daily, going around having fun. There's [more than] 3,200 people on this ship."

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