Disney Cruise Line Sails to Alaska

Disney Cruise Line puts its own twist on popular Alaska shore excursion By: David Swanson
Disney Cruise Line asked established Alaska operators to create something unique for its guests. // © 2011 Disney Cruise Line
Disney Cruise Line asked established Alaska operators to create something unique for its guests. // © 2011 Disney Cruise Line

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I caught my own fish, I left my mark on a totem pole and I bonded with a dogsled team atop the awesome Juneau Icefield. For a few days, I got to feel like an Alaskan.

Last September, as the Inside Passage cruise season was winding down in Alaska, I joined executives from Disney Cruise Line on a trip to Juneau, Skagway and Ketchikan. The visit gave me an opportunity to test-drive a series of shore excursions that will be offered to passengers on the Disney Wonder, the ship that will launch Disney's first-ever season in Alaska, beginning with seven-day roundtrips out of Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 3.

Although Disney will offer a number of "off-the-shelf" tours that are available to most other cruise lines at its three ports of call (in addition to a swing through Tracey Arm), the line is also looking to raise the bar by creating exclusive opportunities for its guests. Led by Larry Stauffer, Disney Cruise Line's manager of port adventures (that's mouse-speak for "shore excursion"), our group sampled a range of activities that spoke to the richness of the Alaskan experience.

Keeping Their Clientele in Mind
Kids, of course, are a priority for Disney Cruise Line. The company is anticipating that between one-quarter and one-third of the guests on the 2,700-passenger Disney Wonder will be children. (The number of kids under age 18 for Alaska cruises on other lines
averages only 6 percent.) As such, Disney has worked to adapt many of its port adventures to the interests and attention spans of younger passengers. For example, in the past, when Disney ships made calls in Russia, this meant shortening performances of the three-hour ballet, "Swan Lake," and incorporating surprise appearances by Snow White and Cinderella into tours of Catherine's Palace in St. Petersburg.

The 49th state offers plentiful opportunities to implement a Disney twist into traditional shore excursions, a process that began when Stauffer first met with tour operators last summer.

"We took a strong look at the tours being offered in Alaska," explained Stauffer. "We always try to add a Disney differentiator to any experience, and we challenged the operators to create something unique for our guests."

For instance, on my visit, we boarded a floatplane for a 30-minute flightseeing tour from Juneau that took us past jagged peaks and across yawning ice crevasses to Taku Glacier Lodge, one of the state's first hunting and fishing lodges. Once there, I learned about the history of the 88-year-old lodge and of pioneer Mary Joyce, its former owner who embarked from Taku in 1935 on a 1,000-mile journey by dogsled. I also dined on some of the freshest salmon I've ever had -- grilled with the lodge's time-tested recipe. Finally, with an Alaskan Amber in hand, I took a moment to take in the setting from a rocking chair on the porch. Inaccessible by road,
the rustic lodge sits along the Taku Inlet, one of Alaska's richest salmon-spawning areas, surrounded by a forest and facing the foot of the spectacular Hole-in-the-Wall Glacier. While totally relaxed, I still managed to keep an eye out for wandering black bears who are often lured to Taku by the aroma of the salmon.

One might think it would be hard to improve on such an experience and, in fact, not everyone initially jumped at the opportunity to adapt such established products. But Stauffer asked the Taku Glacier Lodge owners, as well as Holly Johnson, president of Wings Airways, to find a way to give their already popular excursion the Disney treatment.

"We've always been one of Juneau's highest-rated tours, and we prided ourselves on the fact that we had perfected it," said Johnson. "But Larry asked us to think outside the box. And, we knew it needed to be more than a free T-shirt, so we started brainstorming."

Johnson proposed integrating the Mary Joyce character into the tour as a living host, dressed in an antique fur parka, who would meet Disney Cruise Line guests at the lodge. The Alaskan pioneer passed away in 1976, but her story and adventures will live on in the new excursion through stories told next to a fireplace after the meal. The encounter is an exclusive that won't be sold to passengers of other cruise lines.

"Working with Disney was an exercise in creativity -- a really fun process," said Johnson.

Similarly, the Juneau Glacier Dog Sled Adventure by Helicopter is available on many Alaska cruises. Guests ride to a high point on the
Upper Norris Glacier, landing at a camp where a crew of 150 sled dogs and 20 people lives for the summer. With helicopters ferrying about 10,000 cruise ship visitors to the camp each summer, it is a mammoth operation.

The flight and the glacier camp setting are spectacular, the dogs are adorable and the opportunity to ride with a dogsled team is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most. Disney's guests can sign up for the traditional tour or the exclusive Glacier Dog Musher for a Day. The Disney tour adds a behind-the-scenes tour of the camp, cookhouse and veterinary clinic; one-on-one time with the dogs to equip them with booties and harnesses; and a longer mushing experience around the vast expanse of snow and ice.

Other tours are also being adapted specifically to meet the diverse range of ages and abilities of Disney's cruise passengers. A helicopter trip and touchdown on the upper slopes of one of Juneau's famed glaciers is sold in multiple ways: as an easy one-hour walkabout; as a two-hour hike; as a three-hour trek with an introduction to ice climbing; or as a teens-only trip, another Disney exclusive.

In Skagway, the Disney Wonder will have 12 hours in port, which is ample time to take in the quaint town's shopping, as well as ride on the famed White Pass & Yukon Route, a scenic train climbing to the 2,865-foot White Pass and over the Canadian border. On the Disney version of the excursion, parents and children are separated on the return leg of the trip and up to 40 kids will get their own activity car where they will participate in sing-alongs and I-Spy Bingo, searching the terrain for clues using binoculars. The adult car, meanwhile, will be amply stocked with champagne.

Closer to Skagway, the Liarsville Gold Rush Trail Camp celebrates the location where newspaper scribes set up camp to report on the Klondike Gold Rush, rather than make the arduous trek across the White Pass for in-person research. The result? Tall tales. Today's Liarsville is a gentle tourist recreation of that period and the typical visit includes a puppet show at the open-air Hippodrome, a salmon bake and gold panning. Disney passengers, however, will find Liarsville spruced up with a kid-friendly storyline for a puppet show, a scavenger hunt and appearances by Disney characters who will assist with the gold panning.

During my visit to Liarsville, a group of local children came to meet Frontier Donald -- who had flown into Skagway earlier that day, undetected by paparazzi -- and the excitement among the young group was palpable.

Similarly, in Ketchikan, the "Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show" received a makeover for Disney guests as well, with kids in the audience competing alongside the lumberjacks for prizes. The Cross Cut Saw event features a modified saw, with the blades removed at the end to keep wayward fingers safe. The Obstacle Pole Race and the Rigging Race are also being reworked for child participation.

The top-rated Bering Sea Crab Fishermen's Tour will operate as normal aboard the Aleutian Ballad with its crew of real fisherman (both the fishing vessel and some crew members were featured in the "Deadliest Catch" television series). The standard 3.5-hour tour heads into the open waters where 700-pound crab pots house king and Dungeness crab, octopus and sharks to be displayed in an aquarium on deck (everything is later released back into the water). However, Disney guests who purchase the tour also get a tour of the wheelhouse and a crab feast dinner with the crew -- where stories of life on the Bering Sea are shared. Just 12 guests will join the crew for this private meal.

While young fans of the "Dead-liest Catch" series sometimes treat the fishermen as celebrities, captain Terry Barkley said that he sees the tour as more of an educational opportunity.

"Everyone in Alaska sustains their family in some way through the fisheries, and we love sharing our personal experiences," said Barkley. "Kids ask the best questions and parents tell me that they are amazed by how much their children learn on the tour."

Ketchikan is also the totem pole capital of the world and, on the Totem Traditions tour, Disney guests visit Totem Bite State Park and Potlatch Park, a recreated native settlement. Here, carver Brita Alander will explain the long process of creating a totem pole."

"I'm planning something very special for the kids on the Disney cruise," said Alander.

The carver has drawn up designs for a sea monster totem to be crafted this summer, and Disney's young cruisers will help her complete it. During my visit, as a test-run, a crew of local children began painting the pre-cut scale-feathers that will eventually adorn the 32-foot western red cedar pole.

Some of the adults couldn't resist adding their mark on a wood piece as well.

"We'll have a website to show the progress," said Alander, adding that the pole will be raised at the end of the season. "This totem pole will stand for more than 100 years."

Disney understands that a hands-on element is key to engaging the younger crowd, and I finished out my afternoon in Ketchikan doing some hands-on adventure of my own on the Alaskan Fish Camp tour.

On this excursion, every guest gets his or her own rod and reel, along with proper fishing duds, including a hooded jacket, bib overalls and tall waterproof boots. Each of the 20-foot skiffs takes four guests and a guide, outfitted with GPS and local knowledge of the best fishing spots, out for rockfish, red snapper, halibut and Pacific cod. Here, the Disney twist is to turn the fishing adventure into a derby -- with awards for the biggest, the ugliest, etc. -- so that everyone goes home with a prize.

"This is what we do on our day off," said Deby Slagle, owner of the Alaskan Fish Camp tour. "We go out and fish and pull up on a beach to cook our meal."

The feast is prepared at a shoreside camp in a beautiful forest, miles from any road, and is accompanied by mugs of coffee and hot chocolate and rhubarb-and-blueberry bread pudding.

It was the kind of setting that dreams are made of -- something that Disney knows a thing or two about, after all.
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