Dispatch from a Disney Cruise

Musings on pirate raves, double entrees, and when trying to be cool is very uncool.

I’ve always prided myself on being one of those people who’ll do anything for their family. Last week, when my parents surprised all the Blasbergs with a weeklong Disney cruise in the Caribbean, that adage was put to the test.

Like most snobs, I’ve always said cruises are my worst nightmare: You’re trapped in the same place with the same people, there’s a dearth of culture, and the food can’t be that fresh if it’s been onboard for at least as long as you have. This cruise in particular seemed especially daunting because there’s the added element of exclusively Disney programming, including cartoon character meet and greets, children’s “raves,” and an endless stream of animated kids’ movies. Yet, I have three nephews I adore, who I knew would adore all of that stuff, and who don’t know I’m a snob yet. (They’re William, 5, Ethan, 3, and Maxwell, 1.) Not to mention I’m at an age when I shouldn’t take bonding time with my parents for granted. So, despite my hesitations, I packed a bag of comfy, elasticated clothing and it was anchors away.

I flew from New York to Houston, and then took a taxi from Houston to Galveston, Texas. Technically, I took two taxis because the first one I was in broke down and the driver switched cars at a Texaco somewhere off Interstate 45. I wondered, Is this a bad omen? but kept heading for the big red, white, and blue mega cruiser with the silhouette of Mickey Mouse on its smokestacks. Since cruises have become a big part of Disney’s multi-million-dollar theme park business, check-in was smooth and hyper-organized: Perky, smiling people who are generous with compliments (“I looove your jacket,” “You have sooo many stamps in your passport”) assigned us keycards (“these are your Keys to the World”), ushered us to a waiting area, and then on the boat.

Photo by Derek Blasberg

There were four captains on this boat: the ship’s captain, Captain Mickey, Captain Hook, and Captain Jack Sparrow.

By the numbers: The Disney Wonder is an 83,000-ton, 964-feet-long, 171.5-feet-tall floating city comprised of 11 decks and 877 staterooms, and has a crew of 950. Originally launched in 1999, it got a makeover in the fall of 2016. It’s the only boat on the seven seas to have four captains: the ship’s captain, Captain Mickey, Captain Hook, and Captain Jack Sparrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. In the boat’s central lobby, which is outfitted in an Art Deco style, a sculpture of Ariel from The Little Mermaid sits with her hair permanently pointing (floating) into the air. This was especially auspicious since even before we disembarked I overheard no fewer than four different sets of parents call out for their daughter, “Ariel!”

For the first part of the journey I subconsciously reverted to the sorts of things we think “cool people” do in new situations. For example, my sister-in-law Angie had given me a Mickey Mouse T-shirt, which I purposefully wore under a big sweatshirt so I didn’t look too excited or eager to be there. At the first night’s welcome mixer, I declined to dance. I didn’t speak to anyone I wasn’t related to either, and kept a general countenance of contrarianism.

The children, on the other hand, were entranced. They had autograph books and dutifully went up to Mickey, Minnie, Captain Jack Sparrow, and a bunch of other characters I had never heard of (who is ‘Stitch’ and when did he come out?) to ask for their John Hancocks. The pools were heated and peepee-free because they had mandatory bathroom breaks every 30 minutes. The elder of my nephews spent their afternoons in the Oceaneer Club, which had slides, dress-up clothing, and counselors leading group activities. (All the kids were given a bracelet with a homing device, so parents could track them at all times.) Their fun was seemingly infectious and the smiles on their faces were mesmerizing.

Photo by Derek Blasberg

Mickey and Minnie were coveted autographs—but who’s Stitch?

Let’s talk about the food for a moment. It’s either the best worst food or the worst best food I’ve ever seen, depending on how you look at it, and there’s so much of it. For breakfast: waffles, French toast, Danishes, doughnuts, sausages, bacon, and an omelet station. For lunch: anything you want—as long as it’s fried. We had dinner at 5:45 p.m. every night, which included soups, salads, and entrees, and something I’ve never seen before. Couldn’t decide on one thing? No problem, just order more than one appetizer and more than one entree. This was encouraged. On the second day, I complained I hadn’t been hungry at all on the trip. My brother, Chris, said that was a good thing, and explained the goal on a cruise is to never feel the pangs of an empty stomach and to continue to graze, like cattle, throughout all the waking hours. “If you’re hungry you’ve failed,” he announced. There was also complimentary 24-hour room service and a never-ending self-serve soft-serve ice cream station.

On the afternoon of the third day, I snuck away from the family fun and went to the gym, which, unsurprisingly, was the only place on the boat that wasn’t crowded. On the treadmill, I had a hard time reconciling my behavior the last few days: Why was I being so grumpy when I really should have been more Goofy? (Get it?) Sure, in the real world, catering to the world of Disney isn’t rebellious or disruptive in the way modern culture celebrates. But look around—everyone else was loving this place. It was an epiphany: By attempting to be cool I wasn’t being cool. In fact, I was being uncool.

It was an epiphany: By attempting to be cool I wasn’t being cool. In fact, I was being uncool.

ade and went all-in for the rest of the Disney cruise. For dinner, I put on the same Mickey Mouse T-shirt I hid on the first day (my mother did a load of laundry on the boat in one of the laundry rooms that was on every floor) and this time proudly and on the outside of my ensemble. I wore matching red sweatpants, too. I ordered deep-fried brie cheese as an appetizer and both a strip steak and ravioli for my entree(s). That night was pirate-themed, and everyone at the table next to us had brought their own pirate costumes: Fully grown men wearing cheap striped pants and puffy white blouses and headbands and eye patches and clip-on hoop earrings. And they were doing it without a shred of humiliation. Amazing!

The pirate party turned into a rave, and Captain Mickey came down on a zip line over the swimming pool to vanquish an ill-tempered Captain Hook. There was a DJ and I danced with abandon and swung my nephews around so many times I thought we’d all puke. That night, I went to the ice cream station twice. I fell into bed and flicked through the all-Disney stations (from Mickey and Donald Duck cartoons to the Marvel franchise, from a charming Reese Witherspoon in Home Again to a queenly Judi Dench in Victoria and Abdul), and drifted off to bed with a Happiest Place on Earth grin on my face.

On our last morning, as I folded my new Pirates of the Caribbean bandana into my luggage, I had learned a lesson that applied beyond Disney cruises. Cool doesn’t have to mean the same thing as contrarian. Yes, it’s easy to be snobby and reject the cheesier things. But life—on a Disney cruise and off it too— is sometimes all about getting out of a safe space, putting on an eyepatch and a fake hoop earring, and making the most of it. The Blasbergs had a marvelous time on this cruise. I bonded with my family and made memories we’ll cherish forever. All because for a few days I let my Disney flag fly. I wouldn’t recommend calling your daughter Ariel, but now I won’t roll my eyes at anyone who does.


Apple’s former iTunes director will head up Disney’s upcoming streaming service

Last summer, Disney announced it was ending its licensing deal with Netflix, and it would be launching its own streaming service in 2019. Variety is now reporting that hired Apple veteran Kevin Swint will be building and running the new service.

Swint will be joining BAMTech Media as the senior VP and general manager of the unnamed service, the report states. He’s no stranger to the world of content streaming: he was an early member of Walmart’s e-commerce team in the early 2000s, and helped launch its music downloads site in 2003, according to his employment history via LinkedIn. From there, he joined Apple’s iTunes team, where he helped expand the store internationally and launch its HD movies and iTunes Extras features.

In 2013, Samsung also hired Swint to lead Milk, its streaming video and music services. Those projects were ultimately failures, however: Samsung shut down Milk Video after just a year, while Milk Music shut down in 2016. Now, Swint will lead Disney’s unnamed streaming service, which will be built off of technology from BAMTech, of which Disney now owns a majority stake. That platform is one that Disney has invested heavily in with the intention of having it power a new ESPN streaming service, which is set to launch sometime this year.

While Netflix is a major player in the streaming service world, it’s been working to develop its own content as studios have increasingly invested in their own content delivery mechanisms. Once up and running, Disney will use the service for its own massive catalog, which includes its Marvel and Star Wars franchises, and soon, content from 20th Century Fox. The company will also begin developing its own exclusive content, including new live-action shows for Star Wars and Marvel, as well as High School Musical and Monsters Inc.

Update January 19th, 2018, 5:44PM ET: This post has been updated to clarify that Swint was hired by BAMTech, not Disney, to run Disney’s streaming service.


Disney doing Seine cruises in 2019

From Gympie to Disney World, she’s found her dream

FANTASY REALITY: Gympie's Sally-Anne Smith is working a dream job overseas.
FANTASY REALITY: Gympie’s Sally-Anne Smith is working a dream job overseas.

IT IS known as the happiest place on earth, and now Gympie is right in the heart of it.

Sally-Anne Smith has brought our region to Orlando’s Disney World as a merchandise cast member, and her name tag proudly proclaims where she is from.

The 23-year-old scored the glamorous role in August last year as part of the Disney World International College Program, after graduating from University NSW with a Bachelor of Business. And it turns it the first question is not always about where it is.

“I have been asked how to pronounce Gympie quite a lot,” she said.

“I usually describe it as a regional town around two hours north of Brisbane.”

“And they get quite excited when they hear how close we are to Australia Zoo,” she said.

Sally-Anne Smith enjoys the fun of Disney World.
Sally-Anne Smith enjoys the fun of Disney World.Disney

“The Irwin family are really big celebrities here, probably more-so than in Australia, and talking about Australia Zoo is a sure way to engage with Americans, particularly children.”

Unfortunately, visitors to the park from our region have been scarce.

“I have not yet met other people from Gympie, but I have had some great conversations about Gympie with guests from Mackay, Maroochydore, Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

Sally-Anne Smith has brought Gympie to Disneyworld.
Sally-Anne Smith has brought Gympie to Disneyworld.Disneyworld

“It’s always the highlight of my day when I get to talk about home with someone who knows the area.”

Ms Smith moved to the region with her parents, and while she only lived here for a year she still calls it home – and, being more than 14,000km away, part of her were was still there.

“More than anything I miss the little things,” Ms Smith said. “The sound of kookaburras outside my window in the morning and being able to find Vegemite in the supermarket.”


Disney World denies report of plans to discontinue resort monorail system

Walt Disney World officials have denied a report claiming the resort’s iconic monorail system may soon be coming to an end.

Screamscape, a popular theme park information website, reported Friday that the transportation system which zips passengers around the resort has aged past it reliability point.


The report claims Disney officials are considering a plan to discontinue the monorail due to high maintenance and upgrade costs.

The report adds that the closure of the Epcot line is “100% necessary,” although any timeline of a possible shut down was not mentioned.

According to the site, closing the Epcot line would allow more resources and materials to be used to keep the Magic Kingdom lines up and running. It added that the Express and Resort lines that currently operate around the theme park could be folded into one line.

A Disney spokesperson told Local 10 the report is completely false and there are no plans to discontinue the system which has existed since Walt Disney World opened in 1971.

The latest news comes days after video showed one of the Disney monorail trains operating while a door was open with passengers onboard.


Disney Officers Took Big Pay Cuts In 2017; CEO Bob Iger’s Fell By 17% To $36 Million

Disney CEO and chairman Bob Iger and Mickey Mouse look on before ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange. (Photo credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

A proxy statement filing on Friday by the Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) indicated that its top executive officers took big pay cuts last year, led by Bob Eiger’s 17 percent, $7.4 million pay haircut to $36.3 million.

Forbes had named Iger as America’s 4th highest paid CEO in the previous fiscal year.

The 66-year-old Iger began his tenure as the CEO at Disney—one of the biggest and most successful of Hollywood’s corporate conglomerates with a market capitalization of $169 billion—back in 2005. He has overseen an enormous expansion in the company’s business and its profitability, and is considered by many to be its most important chief since Walt Disney himself passed away in 1966.

Iger’s pay has taken annual drops since 2014, when he earned $46.5 million in annual salary, bonuses and stock awards. In 2015 he earned $44.9 million, according to company filings, and in 2016 he collected $43.9 million.

Iger’s base salary remained steady at $2.5 million. The drops have been mainly due to changes in the value of his stock awards and bonuses. His non-equity compensation fell from $20 million in 2016 to $15.2 million in 2017.

Also mentioned in the filing were CFO Christine McCarthy, whose pay fell to $8.95 million from $10.2 million in 2016; Chief Strategy Officer Kevin Mayer, whose comp dropped to $8.4 million form $10.1 million; General Counsel Alan Braverman, whose package declined to $8.45 million from $11.12 million; and Chief Human Resources Officer M. Jayne Parker, whose pay also dropped to $5.09 million from $5.6 million.

COO Thomas Staggs, who has been in that role for less than a year, earned $20 million.

Iger’s pay will presumably bounce back with Disney’s $52 billion acquisition of certain entertainment assets of 21st Century Fox, assuming that deal passes muster with the SEC. He had been planning to retire this year, but entered into a new 2-year employment contract this month which will grant him an additional $100 million in stock awards.


Doreen Tracey, Original Disney Mouseketeer, Dies at Age 74

Disney Mouseketeer Doreen Tracey, a former child star who played one of the original cute-as-a-button Mouseketeers on "The Mickey Mouse Club" in the 1950s, died from pneumonia on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018, at a hospital in Thousand Oaks, Calif., following a two-year battle with cancer.

Doreen Tracey, a former child star who played one of the original cute-as-a-button Mouseketeers on “The Mickey Mouse Club” in the 1950s, has died, according to Disney publicist Howard Green. She was 74.

Tracey died from pneumonia Wednesday at a hospital in Thousand Oaks, California, following a two-year battle with cancer.

Tracey maintained ties to Disney and show business throughout her life, appearing in the film “Westward Ho the Wagons!” and touring with the Mouseketeers. She later served as a publicist to musician Frank Zappa and worked at Warner Bros.

It was the pig-tailed Tracey and her talented co-stars — including Annette Funicello — who appeared on television in black hats with ears following the anthem “M-I-C, K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E …” on ABC’s “The Mickey Mouse Club.” Millions of kids raced home from school to watch in wonder as the bouncy Mouseketeers announced themselves at the top of the show.

Cubby O'Brien and Doreen Tracey, Aug 16, 2015. Anaheim, Calif.
Cubby O’Brien and Doreen Tracey, Aug 16, 2015. Anaheim, Calif.
Image Group LA—Disney/Image Group LA via Getty


The hour-long show proved a sensation with its Oct. 3, 1955, debut. It flourished for two seasons, then was reduced to a half-hour for two more. Tracey stayed for its four-year run.

Born in London on April 3, 1943, to parents who worked in vaudeville, Tracey arrived in the United States when she was 4 and learned to sing and dance. She nabbed a spot on “The Mickey Mouse Club” when she was 12.

Lorraine Santoli, a former executive at Disney who wrote “The Official Mickey Mouse Club Book,” said Tracey remained close to her Disney roots, maintaining long-time friendships with her fellow Mouseketeers.

Tracey strained her relationship with Disney by posing for a men’s magazine in 1976 with nothing on except her mouse ears and later wearing nothing but an open trench coat in front of Disney Studios. Still, she often appeared at Mickey Mouse Club reunion shows at Disneyland and at Disney conventions, last celebrating the show’s 60th anniversary in 2015.

Tracey is survived by her son, Bradley, and two grandchildren, Gavin, 9, and Autumn, 12.


Disney Will Allow Some Guests to Buy Extra FastPasses, and People Aren’t Happy About It

Magic Kingdom entrance at Walt Disney World

Disney diehards know it’s not uncommon to see an astronomical 240-minute wait time posted for Animal Kingdom’s new Flight of Passage attraction, or even a substantial hour-long wait at the classic Peter Pan’s Flight. Luckily, Disney’s FastPass+ system has, for years, helped guests ride these attractions without the wait, allowing them to reserve ride times well in advance and enter through a special FastPass+ line, away from the crowds.

Now, however, thanks to a few recent updates to the FastPass+ system that Disney plans to implement, things in the land where dreams come true might be changing.

Beginning January 12, Disney World will allow some resort guests to purchase three extra FastPass+ selections per day for $50 per person, a Disney spokesperson confirmed to Spectrum News 13. The option, now in its pilot stages, will only be available to those guests staying in club level rooms and suites on property.

Club-level rooms can be found in many Disney deluxe resorts, like the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Contemporary Resort, Grand Floridian Resort, and Yacht Club Resort, and also encompasses cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, bungalows at the Polynesian Village, and various suites at the Swan and Dolphin Hotels.

According to The Kingdom Insider, guests must participate in the program for a three-day minimum ($150 per person) and can only purchase one Fastpass+ per ride, but will be able to use FastPasses in more than one park per day, as well as book FastPasses 90 days in advance, as opposed to the traditional 60 days for resort guests.

While there are already claims that these extra FastPasses will NOT affect other guests’ ability to book their regular selections in the future, many Disney fans are worried about the consequences of the seemingly small change. The pilot program introduces Disney’s first foray into a “pay-to-play” system for FastPasses, offering those families who have the means to stay in Disney’s most expensive rooms to spend additional money to skip some of Disney’s lines. Many argue that now that a price has been applied to FastPass+, it can only point to a larger trend in the future, especially if the pilot program is rolled out to more guests.

I agree with Chandler.
However, setting the price of a Fastpass has never been done before, and paves the way for an icky future. Imagine a day when certain guests might be able to add a single FP in the app for $16.50? https://twitter.com/ThemeParker104/status/951117432260845569 


I love Disney, but this up charge fastpass+ rumor is ridiculous.

Others maintain that, for now, the number of people taking advantage of the program will not cause a noticeable difference in the number of FastPasses available, especially while the program is in the pilot stages.

The idea of paying to skip the lines isn’t altogether new, though. Disney neighbor Universal Orlando Resort has been offering an Express Pass system for years, allowing guests to skip every line in the park for about $90 a day. The pass is also included with your room at some of Universal’s on-property resorts. While the option to skip the line over and over again can be well worth the money, the price is still steep, causing many fans to look at Disney’s FastPass+ as a more “fair” system.

Some Twitter users point out that Disney’s increasing hotel prices, ticket costs and (now) FastPass+ upcharges are making it less and less affordable to take an enjoyable Disney vacation. Disney day guests who do not have the luxury of booking FastPasses months in advance are also at a loss, especially if the system continues to allow for more purchasable FastPasses.

This is absolutely terrible. The hotels are becoming more and more unaffordable and now we will have less chances of getting a FP too? I hope this fails. https://twitter.com/thedis/status/951240619241889792 

Another notable change is Disney’s recent decision to allow some neighboring hotel guests to book FastPasses and participate in Extra Magic Hours (a change from the usual system that only allows Disney resort guests to do so.) While this could allow for a more affordable trip for families who do not stay on property, it does not benefit the annual passholders who already live in the area, and could make FastPasses even more scarce.

Of course, much of this is merely conjecture for now, and only time will tell how these new policies affect Disney’s overall wait times, costs and crowds.


‘Redesigned’ World of Disney stores coming to Disney World, Disneyland

  • World of Disney stores to be redesigned
  • Changes will happen at Disney World and Disneyland
  • Stores will remain partially open during construction

Disney has announced plans to redesign both stores this year.

The changes will begin in mid-February at Disney Springs in Orlando and Downtown Disney in Anaheim.

Although details about the renovations are scarce, Disney says guests will encounter “a dynamic and distinctly Disney retail environment.”

The redesign will happen in phase throughout the year, Disney said.

Both stores will remain open during the renovations.

In Florida, select World of Disney merchandise will be available at other Disney Springs stores, including The Disney Corner which is set to open next month.


Disney World to roll out new FastPass pilot program for select resort guests

Walt Disney World Resorts will launch a pilot program offering a new FastPass option to select resort guests.

The FastPass option, which will be made available as an add-on option Friday, will be a choice for select resort guests staying in club-level rooms at Disney’s deluxe hotels, a Walt Disney World spokesperson said.


Guests staying in a cabin at Copper Creek Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge or in a Bungalow at the Polynesian Village Resort could also be eligible for the pilot program choices.

The passes run $50, plus tax, per guest, per day and guests will also need valid theme park admission. The option will be available for guests who purchased at least a three-day admission to the parks, Disney officials said.

The passes include preferred viewing for nighttime spectacular activities and can be used at any of the Disney World parks.

The benefits of buying the passes through the pilot program include a selection period up to 90 days before guests visit the parks. FastPasses available to all theme park guests have a 30-day advance selection period. Currently, resort guests can book their passes 60 days ahead.

Resort guests offered the pilot program will also have an additional three FastPasses plus those already available with the purchase of theme park admission tickets.

A Disney spokesperson said the pilot program is limited and that this is something new resorts are trying as a new option for guests to help personalize their stays.

The pilot program, which starts Friday, was a result of guests asking for more personalized services, according to WDW officials.

The new FastPass option will be made available as an add-on option to select guests with the 90-day window to make their selections.


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