More on Disney's Castaway Cay
View our slideshow of upcoming enhancements to Disney's Castaway Cay, the company's private island in the Bahamas.
CASTAWAY CAY, Bahamas — Two huge cranes rising into a cloudless sky pierced the otherwise idyllic Caribbean scene here, with the requisite white-sand beaches, clear blue water and desert island tranquility.
Castaway Cay, the private reserve of the Walt Disney Company, is undergoing a massive upgrade to accommodate the growth of Disney Cruise Line, which has the exclusive right to use the island as a port of call.
The anticipated growth is a result of Disney’s order in 2007 for two 122,000-ton vessels, which by 2012 will more than double the line’s current capacity on two 83,000-ton ships.
Disney’s private island is an extension of its ships. And just as the company has had to expand its sales and operations forces to accommodate its growth, so too is it expanding the capabilities of its private island to feed, entertain and move shiploads of passengers, which will jump from 2,700 to 4,000 in less than two years (Disney reports lower berth numbers because its ships are so full of families).
Disney is one of many cruise lines that own or lease private islands, or parts of them, throughout the Caribbean.
As with Castaway Cay, the lines are continuing to invest in these destinations because they consistently earn among the highest satisfaction ratings of any port on any itinerary. In fact, Castaway Cay is so popular that Disney began offering two stops there on four-day cruises in 2008, and next summer it will stop there twice on five-day cruises.
"Castaway is our guests’ favorite port of call," said Ozer Balli, vice president of hotel operations for Disney Cruise Line.
It is not difficult to understand the formula that earns private islands high accolades. They generally offer the idyllic beach scenes that passengers conjure when dreaming of the Caribbean. Cruise lines understand that the islands’ desert charm is their best feature, and aside from low-slung, cabana-type structures, the private islands for the most part are not built up.
Disney, for example, will have built up only 10% of Castaway’s 1,000 acres even when the current expansion project is complete.
"Before we make any choice, we want to celebrate the natural beauty of the environment," Mark Kohl, director of development for Walt Disney Imagineering, said as he and Balli surveyed construction progress in August. "This is not the right place to put the Tower of Terror."
Passengers arriving at private islands — usually on tenders, though Disney is able to dock alongside a pier at Castaway — are welcomed by long stretches of sandy shoreline, with beach chairs set up for them.
Meals are available for free, as they are onboard the ship, and feature the same crew and service standards. Passengers make purchases with their room keys: There is no changing money, haggling or worrying about carrying a wallet full of credit cards and a passport.
Ralph Santisteban, owner of a CruiseOne franchise based in Miami, counts himself among the fans of private islands. "The islands are clean, well-maintained," he said. "They have lounge chairs set up, hammocks. There is full bar service, and it’s cashless. It’s an extension of the ship in a safe, controlled environment minutes from the ship."
Santisteban, who sells many of the three- and four-day cruises that stop at private islands, said that after more than a decade in the business, he is still surprised at how popular the private destinations are.
"I had assumed that the private island was a dud stop, a filler," he said. "It turns out to be the highlight of a cruise. … People call me and ask to go on a cruise that includes a private island."
Norwegian Cruise Line was the first cruise company to invest in a private island destination when it purchased the 250-acre Great Stirrup Cay in 1977.
"The idea of a private desert island with exclusive access was very compelling then, and it’s very compelling today," said Andy Stuart, NCL’s executive vice president of global sales and passenger services.
Great Stirrup Cay was purchased before Stuart joined the line, but he said that in the 1970s cruise companies were looking to offer variety and an alternative to Nassau, the key Bahamian port, at a time when the Bahamas were the heart of the cruise industry.
Nowadays, with some Caribbean ports hosting as many as 12 cruise ships per day, a private destination might carry more weight than ever before. Like Castaway, Great Stirrup earns the highest satisfaction ratings of any destination among NCL’s passengers.
"Who doesn’t dream of spending time on a desert island?" Stuart said. "You look at the richest people in the world, and they are buying themselves islands."
Stuart said that at Great Stirrup, a tender drops people on a pristine beach on an island that is free of cars and that boasts what he considers some of the best snorkeling in the world. Lunch is a beach barbecue. Like Castaway, Great Stirrup is hardly developed.
NCL is focused on preventing overbuilding on Great Stirrup "and maintaining it as a private island paradise," Stuart said. "People travel thousands of miles for that sort of thing."
Private islands can also offer better financial margins for cruise lines than ports typically generate. Almost everything spent on the island accrues to the cruise line. The bars and most shore excursions, such as snorkeling or, on Castaway Cay, swimming with stingrays, are 100% cruise revenue.
However, the cruise lines must also make major up-front investments in the island that they don’t have to make at other destinations, and of course maintenance also represents an ongoing overhead. Moreover, when a major hurricane devastated Carnival Corp.’s private destination on a piece of Grand Turk, it fell to Carnival to repair the Grand Turk Cruise Center. Carnival had already invested $60 million in creating the private destination.
Disney will not say how much its upgrades to Castaway will cost, other than to acknowledge that the investment is "substantial."
In fact, major upgrades to an area as remote as Castaway are far more costly than an equal amount of work in mainland areas. "It is a logistical nightmare," Kohl said. "You can’t run to Home Depot if you forget a part. If you want to do something in two months, you start doing it now."
To get to Castaway, Kohl and Balli hopped a ride with American Bridge, the company in charge of the island’s renovations. American Bridge has plenty of experience constructing marine facilities for cruise ships at remote locations all over the Caribbean.
The company is currently building two berths for Carnival Corp. in Roatan, Honduras, and is one of the contractors taking part in a $44 million contract to widen Nassau’s channel and upgrade its harbor facilities to accommodate Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis-class ships.
Richard Kermode, who heads American Bridge’s Tampa office, makes regular visits to Castaway and Nassau to monitor the progress of the work there.
"If you think about it in April or May, you load it in June," he said of servicing projects in a place as remote as Castaway. And especially at this time of year, the company must be prepared for the very likely possibility that one of its many projects in the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico will feel the wrath of a hurricane.
"We’re going to catch a storm somewhere," Kermode predicted. "This is when it gets interesting. We have a plan of action. Evacuate people, secure the equipment and the job and hope for the best."
Getting to Castaway, though it’s not far from Orlando and Tampa geographically, is not easy. From Orlando, it involves a flight to Miami, then to Nassau, then to Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island, followed by an hour’s drive to Rocky Point on Great Abaco and an hour-long boat ride to Castaway.
Even taking American Bridge’s private plane to Rocky Point meant that Kohl and Balli had to hop into the back of a pickup before boarding the boat to Castaway and hope that no afternoon storms would delay their trip home.
Such logistics are what add to the cost of doing work out here.
"Building on an island would cost 50% more than it does to build on the mainland," said Chris Krolow, CEO of Private Islands Inc., a broker for private-island sales around the world. "You might have to provide temporary shelter for workers, bring your own water, and many barge trips to bring the materials. It’s a huge amount of work."
While the idea of owning a private island seems straight out of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous," the development costs typically far exceed the price of buying the island.
There are islands selling now in the Caribbean for as little as $1 million, less than the cost of a two-bedroom apartment in most of Manhattan. Actor Johnny Depp bought his private Bahamian island for a reported $3.6 million, far less than the price of a Malibu mansion.
The better the location and the nicer the beach, the more the island will cost, Krolow said. And cruise ships have parameters that usually don’t concern celebrities; most importantly, cruise ships need deep water.
One of Castaway’s best attributes is its proximity to a natural ocean shelf where the water depth plummets suddenly from five feet to 2,000 feet. With very little dredging, Disney is able to bring its ships directly alongside the pier it built on the island. It is the only private destination where passengers do not have to tender on and off.
Cruise lines also have to make major investments in bringing power and water to these islands. At Castaway, a desalination system enables Disney to convert saltwater to fresh water much as it does on its ships.
As for stocking the islands, the cruise lines use their own ships to bring food and supplies. Since energy is precious here, Disney uses the cooking oil from its ships to power the golf carts that the staff uses to get around the island.
As with the ships, the islands must be constantly upgraded with amenities.
Princess Cruises recently added private, air-conditioned bungalows to its beach at Princess Cays. Holland America Line built a pirate-themed play area with two pirate ships on Half Moon Cay. Last year, Carnival brought a FlowRider surfing simulator to Grand Turk.
As with every project Disney does, its cruise line alone does not make decisions about the upgrades and amenities to the island; the company’s "imagineers" are involved in every project design to ensure that each meets Disney standards. As Kohl explained it, imagineers are the "creative heart" of the company, while Balli makes sure things work.
"We think of good stuff, and he thinks of how the operations will work for 4,000 guests," Kohl said.
While walking the island last month in heat well into the 90s, Kohl and Balli engaged in a lengthy discussion about ice cream.
"We might talk about ice cream for three days," Kohl admitted. "We go to great lengths to make sure the ice cream here is cold and to make sure there’s enough of it on a 92-degree day. My boys go for three to four servings a day."
Ice cream, water in the fountains (which have cooling coils that corrode in the salty air, Balli explained): Everything that is easy on a ship with massive refrigeration and air-conditioning systems becomes a major undertaking on a desert island.
That Disney stops at Castaway so frequently speaks a lot to the satisfaction level of the call as well as to Disney’s unique position in the market. As a family cruise line, which hosts a higher percentage of passengers traveling with children than most lines, Disney is more invested in offering a contained space for families to spend time together.
Being able to walk off the ships is an attribute the Disney executives here often mention.
"It distinguishes this from other private islands," Balli said. "It is important for families because it is very convenient and they can go to and from ship easily if they want to."
Like the ships it hosts, Castaway is divided into areas for young children, for teens and for adults.
"This mirrors the ship setup, with day care in kids’ areas and places where adults can be on their own," Balli said.
Having the two stops at Castaway also enables parents to spend one day on the family beach with their kids and the other by themselves on the adults beach, Kohl added.
For other lines, as much as passengers enjoy the day on the island, people also cruise to see other cultures and have the option to take a large variety of day trips and shore excursions that a private island simply can’t offer.
"There is a benefit to variety," NCL's Stuart said, "despite the level of satisfaction on the private island."