Disney Cruise Line is gearing up for its return to the Mediterranean next summer, when it will offer four-, seven- and 12-day itineraries out of Barcelona.
Disney has sailed the Mediterranean off and on since 2007, last cruising there in 2011.
Among the 13 ports that the 2,400-passenger Disney Magic will visit in 2013 are five where Disney has previously dropped anchor: Piraeus (Athens) and Mykonos in Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Dubrovnik, Croatia; and Venice.
With shore excursions (or as Disney calls them, "port adventures") a major component of most Disney cruises — more than 75% of passengers sign up for an excursion before sailing — officials from Disney just returned from a seven-day visit to some of the Magic's scheduled ports of call, where they checked on the planning progress for a few of next summer's shore excursions.
Disney, like other cruise lines, partners with local tour operators to provide shore excursions, and it's sometimes a challenge trying to preserve an authentic experience for visitors while mixing in a Disney twist, according to Arnaldo Zanonato, Disney's shore excursions manager, who was among those making the recent overseas visits.
"Often the initial impression they have of what we want is parties, balloons [and] colors," Zanonato said. "But we tell them, 'No, we want to tell your story.'"
Disney's great entertainment, imaginative stories and its characters are all found onboard, he added.
"On shore, we just take our storytelling skills and work with the locals to help tell our guests why we are bringing them to Venice or Croatia or Turkey," Zanonato said. "And when it's appropriate we try to make it more fun, make it hands-on for the kids, make it a learning experience for everybody."
In the coastal Turkish resort town of Kusadasi, a stop on one of the two 12-day itineraries, several excursions will include tours of the ancient city of Ephesus, the largest collection of Roman ruins in the Eastern Mediterranean. The site has long been a popular spot for other cruise lines sailing the Med, but Disney aims to add its typical array of Disney touches to make its shore excursions there something different.
At the ruins of St. John's Basilica, where the Apostle John is said to be entombed, Disney guests will encounter an "archaeologist" who will lead them in a competition to find scattered pieces of a sacred symbol, which they'll then have to piece together.
At Ephesus, a real-life archaeologist will be on hand to explain his job, show visitors a working dig and invite them to put their own digging skills to the test, searching for replicas of artifacts.
Another shore excursion for adults at Kusadasi will be a hammam, or Turkish bath, which combines elements of a steam bath and a massage parlor. Meanwhile, kids age 5 and over can make Turkish bracelets with the help of youth counselors from the ship.
In Venice — the only port where the Magic will overnight on one of its 12-day itineraries — Disney passengers can get a private, after-hours tour of the Doge's Palace, one of the city's most famous landmarks. Capping the tour will be a glitzy reception featuring Venetian royalty as well as Disney's own "royalty," in the form of several of its princesses: Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, etc.
Guests 16 and older can learn to pilot a gondola, while younger kids can help race a "dragon boat" or create their own version of a traditional Venetian mask.
Other offerings in Venice include visits to textile and marble workshops where artisans are commissioned to create items for exclusive clients such as the Vatican and Dolce & Gabbana. In the textile shop, the tools are a century old, and the workers produce just 8 to 10 inches of fabric a day.
Rome (Civitavecchia) has nearly always been a stop on Disney's past Med itineraries, so the challenge was to offer different experiences for visitors making a return trip to the Eternal City. "Highlights" tours will include the usual stops at St. Peter's Basilica, the Sistine Chapel, the Colosseum and the Trevi Fountain.
But other options will take guests to places like San Clemente Basilica, where they can descend to the bottom levels of the three-tiered complex, which dates back to the first century, when it was a pagan temple. Another offbeat destination is the Galleria Borghese, one of Rome's premier art collections, assembled and displayed in the residence of a single, fabulously wealthy 17th century family.
An art class for adults will instruct students in making mosaics as they enjoy wine, prosciutto and cheese. Younger passengers will have the opportunity to make pizza or take in a traditional Italian puppet show.
On all of its 2013 Med sailings, Disney is offering a limited number of packages featuring Adventures by Disney, which specializes in small-group themed tours. Some are precruise outings in Barcelona or Madrid, while others provide deeply immersive excursions at every port of call.
Tom Wolber, Disney Cruise Line's senior vice president of operations, said the cruise line expects that the new four- and seven-night itineraries will be popular with European markets, which are becoming more important to Disney as its North American market is dampened by the increasing cost of transatlantic flights.
Disney's Med cruises are already on sale, as are the accompanying Adventures by Disney excursions. Regular port adventures can be booked by repeat customers 120 days before sailing, and new customers can book them 75 days before departure.