Ted Topping, Creative Insights Inc.

Vancouver, BC Canada

We Became Disney Cruise Customers Without Booking

With the 2011 cruise ship season wrapping up in Vancouver, British Columbia, my partner and I made one final visit to Port Metro Vancouver to witness the September 20 departure of the Disney Wonder.

Our personal experience – coupled with the amazing emotional experience that we shared with literally hundreds of other people on the pier that afternoon – effectively made us Disney Cruise Line customers long before we had consciously thought seriously of booking a ticket.

There are lessons here for any business that wants to sell something more than an undifferentiated commodity.

At Port Metro Vancouver, the Disney Wonder stands ready for its 2011 repositioning cruise from Vancouver to Los Angeles.

South for the Season

We had marked on our calendars well in advance. The Disney Wonder would depart at 5:00 pm for a five-night repositioning cruise that would take it from Vancouver to Los Angeles, with stops in Victoria, British Columbia and Ensenada, Mexico.

This marked the end of Disney’s first Alaska cruise ship season, but you would never know it from the appearance of the vessel. The Wonder literally sparkled in the sun after a week-long refit in Victoria that included work on the underwater hull, painting and maintenance on the ship’s stabilizers and propellers, plus testing and maintenance of the ship’s lifesaving equipment.

Even as we arrived at the cruise ship terminal, Disney Cruise Ship cast members were spray-washing windows and metal surfaces at the bow, and touching up any imperfections in the white paint. We noted with interest that even while working in their yellow coveralls, these Disney cast members were wearing name tags.

Something more for Guests to discover: the scroll on the starboard side includes a wonderfully Hidden Mickey.

Floating Theme Park

In many ways, the Disney Wonder reminded us of a Disney theme park – a self-contained environment where essentially everything except the weather is directed toward a Guest’s fun, happiness and satisfaction.

At a basic level, this plays out in the design elements of the ship. The bow includes an elaborate metal scroll that features Mickey Mouse as Steamboat Willie, the first Disney cartoon with a post-produced soundtrack. And, because Disney always leaves something more for Guests to discover, the scroll on the starboard side also includes Pluto, Mickey and Minnie on a Sea-Doo, and a wonderfully Hidden Mickey.

Guests do not see these details while they are on the ship, but they certainly do as they go ashore and later return to the Wonder at every port of call.

We noticed a second Hidden Mickey on this visit, too. It sits right beneath the ship’s bell, fully visible from both the Bridge and the Guest Fitness Center one deck above.

The willingness of an adult to come out and play is an important part of the Disney customer experience.

Family-friendly Experience

Just by waking the length of the ship, we were able to get a sense for the kinds of people who were making this voyage: couples both young and old, and families with children.

This mix of generations also reminded us of a Disney theme park, which means that the brand is consistent across its various offerings.

Always ready to play when Mickey is around, we made a wordless connection with an on-board family that included two youngsters – both of whom were wearing appropriate Disney ear hats. Noticing our enthusiastic efforts to photograph the group, the parents helped their children to climb a little higher so that they could wave to us above the protective railing.

The best part, however, was when the mother went into the cabin for a moment and returned wearing her own ear hat. That willingness of an adult to come out and play with complete strangers – with whom she will never even speak – is an important part of the Disney customer experience. We just knew that this family would be having fun together on the coming voyage.

And while we were enjoying our ship-to-shore wave, we overhead a conversation between two burly out-of-town convention delegates: “Just look at those spoiled brats,” said the first electrical worker to his associate, with a twinkle in his eye. “What are they doing on that cruise ship? They should be at school and we should be on it!”

Disney Cruise Line cast members and associates gathered on the pier near the stern to sing a version of Jamaica Farewell.

Sad to Say You’re on Your Way

This sailing of the Disney Wonder carried a certain overtone of sadness for people who were in the know.

Even before starting that season of Alaska cruises with Vancouver as the home port, Disney announced that the Wonder would be sailing the following summer from Seattle, Washington. The rumored reasons behind this decision ranged from higher operating costs in Canada to higher airfares for American passengers wanting to take the cruise.

Whatever the reason, Disney’s decision to at least partially leave Vancouver behind in 2012 dulled the enthusiasm of some locals for this season – but you would not have known that from what we witnessed on the pier as the ship sailed.

First, there was the visible enthusiasm of the Guests on the outer decks.

But this was matched by the enthusiasm of perhaps 50 Disney Cruise Line cast members and associates who gathered on the pier near the stern. As the lines were cast off for the final time and the ship’s whistle sounded the first seven notes of When You Wish Upon a Star, the group started to sing an altered version of Jamaica Farewell: “Sad to say you’re on your way. Won’t be back for many a day…”

Cast members on board the ship caught the spirit and waved back with a growing enthusiasm, some rushing for their cameras to capture the moment. Even Donald Duck appeared at the railing to join in the farewell.

Cast members caught the spirit and waved back with a growing enthusiasm, some rushing for their cameras.

While the emotional reaction of the cast was impressive, the reaction of that season’s security team was actually very touching.

At the end of the pier, three red Canadian K9 Detection trucks were parked in salute. Their owners and the trouble-sniffing dogs that had protected Disney’s Guests all season stood in front of them. They had brought huge individual letters that formed the message: “Thanks, Disney.”

The final departure of the 2011 season from scenic Vancouver.

When we, too, found ourselves sad to see the Disney Wonder leave, we understood that we had emotionally just become Disney Cruise Line customers without ever booking a cruise. The ship would be back in Vancouver next year, but just not as often. And when it was, we stopped by to renew the friendship.

Now… let’s discuss the ways that you can apply this Disney benchmarking experience to increase the success of your business.

Written and photographed by Ted Topping

Benchmarking the Disney Guest Experience is a unique, two-day benchmarking program. It demonstrates a service standard to which every consumer-facing business should aspire

This intense, small-group experience helps you to see the business behind the magic of Disney. Although you will be among thousands of guests, we will help you notice and study specific things – both good and bad – that most people will not see. You will interact constantly with the facilitators, and have time to discuss issues that are specific to your business.

While the Disney setting is amazing, this “learn by experiencing” program delivers practical ideas that you can apply immediately in the real world. And you don’t need to be part of a huge operation because Disney’s tactics, methods and standards work in any size business.

Benchmarking the Disney Guest Experience will be most effective for people working at a level where they can influence both the service environment and the people in it, and who already “get” why those things are important.