Royal Celebrity boasts 'phenomenal' 1st year

MIAMI -- Royal Celebrity Tours' maiden season in Alaska went "phenomenally well," according to company president Craig Milan. Milan said there had been some hesitation from travel agents to book the new rail and motorcoach tour, but after having run a number of fam trips, he said he has "not gotten one complaint from a travel agent."

The $2.4 million, 80-passenger Wilderness Express train cars debuted in May. The Wilderness Express was the first product launched by Royal Celebrity Tours, the land-tour company founded in 2000 by Royal Caribbean Cruises, parent of Celebrity Cruises and Royal Caribbean International.

The observation dome of the Wilderness Express. Royal Celebrity Tours' new rail car has individual seats that rotate 360 degrees in pairs to form seating arrangements for groups of four. In 2002, the cars will serve Celebrity's Summit, launched in October, and Royal Caribbean's Legend of the Seas with 13 different itineraries, six pre-cruise and seven post-cruise. The Summit will replace Celebrity's Mercury in the Gulf of Alaska, joining Legend of the Seas in seven-day sailings.

Mercury had been scheduled to sail a variety of Baltic and Mediterranean cruises next summer, but following the Sept. 11 attacks, Celebrity repositioned the ship in U.S. ports, Milan said. In May, Mercury will join Celebrity's Infinity and Royal Caribbean's Radiance of the Seas and Vision of the Seas in roundtrip Alaska Inside Passage sailings from Vancouver, complemented by Royal Celebrity's new Canadian Rockies pre- and post-cruise rail tours.

"We're committed to this market," Milan said. "This year combined, our two companies, based on the number of berths, had the largest cruise group in Alaska. "But capacity will be down [in 2002] because we've shortened our season," he added. The season will begin the third week of May instead of May 7. "As an industry, we've struggled with selling the early season," he said. "Most travel agents don't realize that May can be a phenomenal weather month, with greater probability of seeing wildlife than in July or August."

Next season, Royal Celebrity will double its inventory of rail cars to four, Milan said. It also will increase its motorcoach fleet from 20 to 38 buses, each carrying 40 passengers. Of the 38 buses, 14 will be handicapped accessible. Six of the present coaches have lifts. In addition to being the newest cruise car traveling on the Alaska Railroad, the Wilderness Express also is the tallest (18 feet) and longest (85 feet).

The car has two levels. On the first is a dining room that serves breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on the itinerary; a gift shop, and bathrooms. A spiral staircase leads to the observation level in the dome, which has surround windows and individual seats as opposed to the bench seats found on some cruise lines' cars. The seats are on a raised platform for better viewing. The car also is handicapped accessible, with a lift for bringing a wheelchair on board and for access to the dome. Bob Stone, vice president of Royal Celebrity, said the new product differs from its competition in these ways:

• The bus leapfrogs the train, going on ahead with the passengers' luggage to the next night's accommodations. Passengers can take the bags they need and leave the rest on board. "You know that the luggage is going to be there every night, not just when you get to Fairbanks," Stone said.

• Tours are small-group escorted tours of about 40 people. "Everybody goes with the escorted tour. On the others, about 10% buy the escorted tour. The rest go FIT."

• Seats on the observation level swivel 360 degrees in pairs to form group settings of four. "The demographics has changed. We had 400 kids this summer. By rotating the chairs, families can be together."

• Lift extends to the dome. Stone said most of Royal Celebrity's cruise-tour guests book through travel agents. "We take direct bookings over the Web site, but 99% book through travel agents. We look at travel agents as our partners going down the road." Commissions range from 10% to 18%, on both cruise and land, depending on volume, he said.

Royal Celebrity uses the following accommodations, depending on the itinerary: Anchorage Downtown Marriott in Anchorage; Westin Alyeska Prince Resort in Girdwood; Talkeetna Alaskan Lodge in Talkeetna; the Denali Bluffs Hotel or the Grand Denali Lodge in Denali, and River's Edge Cottages or Pike's Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks.

Lodging is included in the rail tour; meals are not. On the train, the average dinner with appetizer and dessert for two people costs around $80. Alaska cruise-tour combinations range from $1,699 for an inside stateroom on the nine-night Mount Alyeska and Anchorage package, to $8,099 for a penthouse suite on the 13-night Great Land Expedition. The per person rates are for early bookings.

For cruise-tour reservations, agents can call the cruise-tour desk at (888) 307-8401.

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