When a young Karl Holz and his family emigrated from “the middle of nowhere in southern Germany” to the US back in 1959, they crossed the Atlantic on the iconic liner, SS United States. “I’ll never forget my reaction to that ship,” he recalls now. “I was simply in awe of its beauty and the attention to detail. I can still summon up images of the ship.”
It is for this reason that – when his life fast-forwarded to his role as Disney Cruise Line president at the launch of the brand’s third ship (Disney Dream) in 2011 – one incident meant so much to him. “I met this older British couple and the husband told me that he couldn't believe what Disney had done – they had recreated the golden age of cruising,” he recalls. “As a brand, we have always focused on trying to follow in the footsteps of the classic liners, which may have been a brave thing to do but we are certainly very happy with how it has turned out.”
The real trick, though, continues to be in retaining the classic feel while trying to keep the product offering one step ahead of the fastest-moving market of them all – children’s entertainment.
“Kids today are so influenced by the sheer magnitude of the various media and entertainment channels – from TV, movies and the Internet to pads, tablets and other mobile devices – that bombard them with new things to do. We want to be ahead of the curve and not in a position where we are saying that we HAVE to make a change.”
This is why the first Disney ship – Disney Magic – was selected for the biggest makeover in its 15-year life with a five-week major refit scheduled through to 10 October. He explains: “We have always had a very robust refit programme with our ships going into drydock twice every five years. Over the years, we have renewed or changed spaces as well as doing the usual maintenance jobs but this time Disney Magic is going to be transformed in a way that will surprise and delight our passengers.
“We had always planned a significant reinvestment as we got further into the life of the ship. All the passenger accommodation will be renewed and we will include what we have learned from the Dream-class vessels, whether it be in the enhanced cabinetry or in terms of having elevated beds to create extra storage space.”
The children’s area will not be renewed; instead, it will be completely new, adds Holz. “The Oceaneer Club already has a range of concepts but some years ago the Walt Disney Company acquired Marvel so after the refit, children will be able to go into the new Marvel Avengers Academy, see Iron Man’s suit of armour, Captain America’s shield and Thor’s hammer and enjoy all the games and experiences they connect with the Marvel superheroes.
“We have also taken the Andy’s Room Toy Story concept from Dream and Fantasy and have re-imagined that into a totally different creation where everybody lives right under Andy’s bed.” There will also be a new element that is not available on the other ships, which is the Mickey Mouse Club. “There, the children will play games and do crafts on tables that just had to be shaped like Mickey’s ears – well, we couldn’t do it any other way, could we?”
When asked if Disney used focus groups of children before deciding on their re-imaginings, he says he cannot believe anyone would ever have thought otherwise. “Whether quantitative or qualitative, the feedback from our regular passengers could not be more important – and not just from the children, as we have seen a big increase in multigenerational groups. We need to engage all these people to ask them what they want to see in the way of enhancements.
“This is at the core of what we do. To do things without that understanding of what our passengers might want is simply not in the Disney DNA.”
That said, there always has to be a judgement call when it comes to reflecting or setting trends, particularly for the younger market. “Kids do have a tendency to follow anything and everything they see or hear but we have to focus on things which will not just engage them now but will also be enduring,” says Holz. “It is also important that their parents and families see what we are offering the children as experiences which are going to enhance their vacation. We will continue to leverage technology to influence what we can do to satisfy our passengers’ vacation appetites but, beyond that, we have always had an ongoing programme of rotating shows, deck parties and other events.
This means that when new content such as a Disney movie arrives, there is the option to take its story and roll it out through the family entertainment, whether in a theme park, a ride, a cruise ship or even an excursion.
“Last year, Pixar made its Brave movie, which was set in Scotland, and we immediately took that and embedded it into one of our guided tours to Scotland. We had a show – Aladdin – in Anaheim which was so popular we brought it to life again as a Hollywood-style show on Disney Fantasy and it is now one of our top performing productions.”
Back to Disney Magic and – when pushed – Holz does have a favourite among all the changes and enhancements being effected. “I do like the changes we are making around the Mickey Pool,” he says, “but I don’t think they are going to let me go on the slide because of my size so my absolute favourite would have to be the Marvel Avengers Academy as what we are doing from an animation perspective is just going to blow people away.”
Disney Wonder is scheduled for drydock at the end of 2015 and an equally major makeover is on the cards. “We are already dreaming about what we could do with that ship,” says Holz. But is he also dreaming about building more new ships? “Three years ago, following the introduction of Dream and Fantasy, I said that our next point of focus would be the Magic and then the Wonder,” he says. “Who knows what could follow after that?”
This article appeared in the Autumn/Winter 2013 edition of International Cruise & Ferry Review. To read the full article, you can subscribe to the magazine in printed or digital formats.