The Kingdom on the Sea

Mickey's luxury liner is pricey and posh, but aimed for the masses

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Some media types gathered last week on a high deck of the M/S Disney Magic, impressed despite themselves at the grandeur of the 83,000-ton ship as it cut through the balmy Caribbean night on its final preinaugural cruise. "We're not moving, you know," one of the journalists joked. "It's just a big fan out there." Behind them, a sturdy voice piped up, "Well then, when you leave, would you turn it off?" The speaker was Michael Eisner, Disney's chairman and CEO, ever eager to make a joke about saving a buck.

But in truth, the Magic, which sails out of a glistening Art Deco terminal in Port Canaveral on Florida's Atlantic Coast, is all about spending, not saving. It is one of four billion-dollar investments that the company has mapped out. (The others: Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, a new California park and a bigger Tokyo Disneyland.) Four years in the making and four months late in the sailing--due to shipyard glitches and the Disney perfectionism that drives subcontractors nuts--the Magic is a down payment on Disney's ambition to dominate every form of entertainment. Suave and bustling, it's a $350 million floating theme park.

And though there's no casino on board, it's also a floating crap game. The stakes are high: Disney will launch a second vessel, the Wonder, next June, and Eisner grandly hopes for a 10- or 12-ship fleet, sailing from Florida, California and the Mediterranean, within the next decade. He's betting that the cruise industry, which fills its cabins with discounted fares, can accommodate a competitor that charges 20% higher than the norm (starting at $860 for a three-day cruise, including airfare, compared with $648 on the Royal Caribbean line's Nordic Empress). The ship is heavily subscribed for now, partly because passengers who booked early sailings that had to be canceled were given tickets with 25% off on late-summer cruises. Disney's long-term goal: luring the 90% of American noncruisers to take the plunge.

Not long ago, Eisner would have been one of that group. He is not, he says, "a cruise guy." This type-A landlubber didn't see himself having fun trapped on a veritable retirement community at sea, where the most extreme sport was shuffleboard. So the Magic is not your grandma's cruise ship. Like Disney's parks and animated features, it is boldly designed to appeal to every demographic.

Children have their own deck--with slides and play areas. (Parents are given pagers to allow them contact with the kid zone.) Teenagers meet for coffee and schmoozing at a jukebox joint called Common Grounds. (And that's teens only, please; two middle-age interlopers were gently escorted out.) As for the grownups, they can dine in a no-kids restaurant--Palo, with decent Northern Italian cuisine--or visit an adults-only comedy club, Off Beat, where the humor is saucy but not blue. No Mickey Viagra gags; after all, this is a Disney ship.

It is also a Deco dream--a svelte, elegant evocation of the Normandie and other ships from the misty past. As Walt's Disneyland created a Main Street that was homogenized from some small-town, never-never ideal, Michael's Magic reimagines the swank of transatlantic liners. The cabins, larger than those on competing lines, are handsomely appointed, with burled-wood paneling and dressers shaped like steamer trunks. Don't bother trying to pick up that silver-plated knickknack in a stateroom niche; it's glued to the shelf.

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