LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla.— When the Disney Wish enters service in summer 2022, it will be the first new ship for Disney Cruise Line in a decade.
Ten years is a lifetime when it comes to technology, and it’s technology that underpins the “magic” that’s essential to every Disney guest experience.
The design and features of the Wish suggest that the time was put to very good use. One could even say the cruise line’s product has not just evolved but has made, appropriately to Disney theming, a quantum leap.
Most of the innovations connected with the new ship were incubated in the Walt Disney Imagineering complex. Walt Disney Imagineering is one of the creative arms of the Walt Disney Co. and run by Walt Disney Imagineers, which a Disney communications director explained are “the secret sauce makers.”
Earlier this month, the cruise line invited a group of journalists to Walt Disney World and into the complex to get a sneak peek not only at the experiences and activities that will be aboard the Wish but a behind-the-scenes look at how those offerings were conceptualized, executed and brought to life.
The doors of the Imagineering compound rarely open to outsiders. Security for our group included being sniffed by detection dogs before entering. Photography was strictly forbidden.
Walt Disney himself coined the term “imagineering,” describing it as “the blending of creative imagination with technical know-how.”
Imagineer Davey Feder told us, “We are technologists and storytellers.”
The first Imagineers were filmmakers, said Laura Cabo, the Disney Imagineering creative executive who leads design for Disney Cruise Line.
And, indeed, its processes are still often described in cinematic terms. “Each park hotel and ship is meticulously choreographed, scene by scene,” she explained.
Anyone who spends even a little time with Imagineers quickly realizes that no matter how impressive the technology, everything they do has its place within a larger narrative.
“There isn’t a person in our company who doesn’t have a role telling our story,” Cabo said. “We are all storytellers. Walt certainly was.”
Keeping that in mind makes it easier to understand the creative process behind every experience Disney offers. And the plot line of every story involves magic: As Gary Landrum, senior show awareness producer for Walt Disney Imagineering, said, “At Magic Kingdom, magic is made real; at Epcot, reality is made magical … and on our cruise ships, magic meets the sea.”
What became evident during the tour was that the Imagineers were determined that the experiences on a Disney cruise ship should be unique to the ships and not be found in other areas of Disney.
Uncharted Adventure: A mobile quest
That ethos was clearly reflected in Disney Uncharted Adventure, a multiplayer experience enabled by the Play Disney Parks app and which will debut on the Wish.
“We wanted an adventure that could only take place on a Disney ship, and specifically on the Disney Wish,” said Feder, the lead Imagineer working on Uncharted Adventure. “On a ship, you have the sea around you and the stars above. We wanted to take advantage of that. If it made just as much sense in the park, it wouldn’t be right.”
Uncharted Adventure marks another milestone for the cruise line: Its first entertainment experience using a mobile device. When the last Disney ship, the Fantasy, entered service in 2012, mobile phones were not nearly as ubiquitous as they are today, and apps were nascent. The Play Disney Parks app itself only debuted in 2018.
Imagineers have taken full advantage of today’s consumers’ comfort with app technology. The Uncharted Adventure experience begins in a guest’s home, before the cruise begins. The app turns a mobile phone into a “spyglass” that, once onboard, is the key to solving puzzles and conquering quests throughout the ship.
When the spyglass is used to view a painting on a wall aboard the Wish, for instance, pirates may pop out of it and become part of the game. Another painting we looked at through the app became a pot in the kitchen of the Disney film, “The Princess and the Frog.” We had to add ingredients and stir the pot by moving our phones in order to complete the game.
“We want people to see a family stirring [a virtual] pot by a painting and say, ‘What’s going on over there?’” Feder said.
It is among many innovations that will not only be the first at sea but the first anywhere in the Disney universe.
Another is a cinematic dining adventure, the Avengers: Quantum Encounter. Tables there have a “Quantum Core” that guests can use to shrink food (get ready for regular dessert cupcakes to become bite-size). Diners may also be visited by Marvel characters like Ant-Man and the Wasp.
The experience, of course, has a storyline, but it’s one that actually may have begun at the Marvel Super Hero Academy in the kids club, where kids learn about Avengers technology and design their own superhero suits.
“The kids will get really experienced with Avengers technology and then can teach their parents about it at the restaurant,” said Danny Handke, senior creative director for Walt Disney Imagineering. “There is always a connection.”
Avengers: Quantum Encounter is one of the three special dining experiences that passengers can have during the cruise.
The AquaMouse ride
The Wish will also feature a new attraction: the AquaMouse ride. Anyone who has been on the most recent Disney ships will have seen or ridden the AquaDuck watercoaster and may wonder what the difference is.
Sachi Handke, project coordinator for Walt Disney Imagineering, explained that while the AquaDuck is a water ride, the AquaMouse has a story: Minnie and Mickey set up an excursion company called Port Misadventures, and a raggedy raft takes riders up a tunnel on a conveyor belt where nine screens tell one of two newly conceived stories, Scuba Scramble and Swiss Meltdown. More than 60 nozzles soak the riders for the 75 seconds before the raft begins its plunge through 760 feet of winding tubes high above the upper decks. The story will vary by day to keep it fresh for people who want to ride multiple times.
“It’s more of an active story, whereas AquaDuck is more of a ride,” Sachi Handke explained.
Better passenger flow
Aside from these obvious bells and whistles, Disney fans aboard the Wish may not realize they are also experiencing innovative designs to enhance passenger flow, feelings of intimacy and venue arrangements.
“We are really proud of the layout,” said Danny Handke. “We really took the approach of making the circulation and wayfinding much easier.”
Previously, he said, restaurants, bars and entertainment were clustered more in specific areas. Now they are mixed together on Decks 3, 4 and 5.
Cabo said that on the other ships, “things can get jammed up in the atrium. People are so excited to be there. On the Wish we encourage guests to spread out.”
What was called the atrium on other ships has, on the Wish, been renamed Grand Hall, and it will, for the first time, include a stage. It’s also going to be more overtly connected to the ship’s theme of enchantment and Cinderella, a statue of whom will adorn the space.
Cabo said the space will be “more welcoming and more intimate.” And while the Imagineers didn’t confirm it, they also didn’t say no when asked if the atrium name might change on its the other Disney ships, as well.
A feature the Imagineers were obviously proud of is that children can literally slide down into the Oceaneer Kids Club from the Grand Hall (or take the stairs). As a result, parents are just steps away from dinner and drinks after the kids disappear down the slide.
In many cases, the public spaces on the Wish will be made smaller. More areas will offer live shows, with stages being added to many of the lounges and bars.
“It will feel like the most popular night of the week at every bar,” Cabo said. “But not crowded. We wanted to give adults more intimate ways to get together. The cruise line is the most intimate part of the Disney portfolio. You live, eat and play on the ship.”
Incorporating Star Wars
One of the most anticipated spaces on the Wish is the Star Wars: Hyperspace Lounge, which will simulate hyperspace jumps from planet to planet. In a first for the cruise line, by night it is an adults-only bar with an immersive Disney theme.
“We were hearing from adults, ‘Why are the kids the only ones experiencing Star Wars?’” said Sachi Handke. “They were saying, ‘My kids are Star Wars fans because I’m a Star Wars fan.’”
Given how many Disney franchises have that kind of fan base, the Imagineers designed spaces with the flexibility to offer youth, family and adults-only programming.
For example, by day, families can enjoy a tour of the galaxy in the Hyperspace Lounge and order from a menu that includes plenty of kid-friendly beverages. At night, there’s a different vibe and an adult drink menu.
Another space where age group flexibility is apparent is Disney’s Oceaneer Club, designated for the age 3 to 12 crowd but which also has family open house hours. On the Wish, themed areas within the club, like the Marvel Super Hero Academy and Walt Disney Imagineering Lab, can be closed off for families. (Imagineers clearly know they’re not the only adults who love Marvel.)
Every Disney ship has worked to keep character and theme in consistent and constant focus, but evolving technology has enabled the Wish to increase the intensity of that focus.
In the Imagineering complex, Nick Snyder, concept designer, and Ken Horii, executive creative director, were crowded into a small space that contained a replica of the screen that will be in the Hyperspace Lounge.
The theming has to be so perfect that guests will not see familiar labels on bottles of liquor in the bar but rather custom themed bottles.
“You’d never to see a bottle of Jack Daniels in a Star Wars bar,” said Snyder.
In the same vein, beer taps will have a Star Wars aesthetic, and the drinks list will correlate to planets from the film. A classic John Williams score will play all day and night.
Spaceships and asteroids will zoom across the lounge’s large “window,” which has a 16,000-pixel resolution and is four times as wide as a normal movie screen in relationship to its height, helping to carry that clarity.
The team is clearly obsessed with the galaxy looking authentic.
“We wanted the blackest of blacks and for space to look as real as possible,” Snyder said.
To do that, the line partnered with Lucasfilm to access its image library of ships, asteroids, etc., from each film.
That enables deeper connections between the theme of the planet that the bar may have “jumped” to and what’s seen on the screen. When the bar jumps to the planet of Coruscant, for instance, the spaceships zooming by will be authentic to that time and place.
“We have every ship that Lucasfilm ever created,” Snyder said, as a freighter from “Star Wars: Episode V” passed by.
One of the coolest parts of the experience is that when the lounge makes a hyperspace jump, the screen does it in authentic Star Wars fashion, with a “whoosh” recognizable to all fans. (And “whoosh,” by the way, is exactly what the Imagineers call that sound.)
With so much theming and storytelling, one has to wonder: Can there ever be too many storylines? What happens when guests simply want to just eat, drink and talk?
“We have a lot of discussions about how much story is the right amount,” Sachi Handke said. “Dinner is a time to connect. We want to make sure there is a story element but that it’s not taking over the dining experience. Finding that balance and fine-tuning that balance is part of the process.”
All images courtesy of Disney Cruise Line