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