One of the highlights of my two-day pre-inaugural cruise on Disney Dream last week was the chance to sample the food in the Remy restaurant. While celebrities like Whoopi Goldberg and John Stamos, and some of our colleagues in the American media pack actually had dinner in the venue, the UK contingent had to settle for a brief tasting before adjourning to the poolside cafe for burgers and hot dogs.
We were unanimous in agreement that the smoked bison salad, created by chef Scott Hunnel from the Victoria and Albert restaurant in the Grand Floridian resort at Disney World, and the langoustine royale by Michelin-starred chef Arnaud Lallement from Reims were utterly delicious, as was the Champagne cocktail we also sampled before we were left helping ourselves to Cokes from the soft drinks dispensers on deck.
The restaurant, its decor inspired by the film Ratatouille; the waiters in their classically long French aprons, and the ocean view from the wide windows on Deck 12 all scored highly on the approval scale.
But we were also in agreement on another point – we could not see how the restaurant could succeed in attracting customers. Surely the $75 cover charge would be too high, especially when that is only for the food. Add the recommended wine selection to the tasting menu and that’s another $99 (per person); choose from the extensive wine list and you could be looking at anything from $50 to a stratospheric $25,000 a bottle !
Well what do we know? We should have had more faith in the commercial expertise of the Disney team. Because I just discovered that even though the ship only set sail on its maiden voyage with paying passengers on January 26 the restaurant, which seats about 70 people, is fully booked until April.
Passengers who have booked cruises can make dinner reservations up to 120 days ahead of their cruise, and they have been doing that in their hundreds. Members of Disney’s Castaway Club, for those with 10 or more cruises under their belts, get first choice, and in many cases all tables have been filled before the restaurant is open for general bookings 60 days before sail date.
A Disney spokesman told us at the tasting that all tables are available on-line; they have no plans to set any aside to be booked once passengers have boarded, apart from a few that will be saved in case a celebrity arrives unexpectedly, or for when it becomes necessary to make amends for any unfortunate incidents that may have led to a passenger complaint.
One passenger, who has booked a cruise in April, explained her disappointment in a comment on Disney Cruise Line’s own website. “Mary Kathryn” explained that as a member of Disney’s timeshare Vacation Club she had sat through countless character dining meals surrounded by excited children, but that she had been hoping for some child-free dining in Remy or the adjoining Palo Italian restaurant.
“Signed on today and there are NO reservations for Remy or Palo for my cruise dates in April. We are so disappointed. I understand the booking window is longer for previously-travelled guests, but how are us newbie cruisers supposed to try anything out if at 6.00 am on the first day we can make restaurant bookings, everything is already booked? ”
It’s all evidence – if any were needed – that Disney know everything it’s possible to know about extracting money from its customers while leaving almost all of them with a happy smile on their faces.
How else to explain the premium fares Disney can command over other ships sailing in the same waters?
An analysis by researchers at Goldman Sachs has discovered that inside cabins on Disney Dream sell for 60 per cent more than equivalent accommodation on Royal Caribbean’s Freedom of the Seas, and 78 per cent more than Carnival Dream.
Disney claim this is because of their innovative Magic Portholes – video screens which provide a live view of the sea from cameras mounted outside on the ship, and occasional cartoon interruptions from Mickey Mouse and Peach the starfish from Finding Nemo.
Some passengers booked into inside cabins have even declined upgrades to outside staterooms because they would rather watch the sea on TV than the real thing from out of a window. “It has made what are some of the least desirable rooms on the ship into some of the most desirable rooms,” says Disney Cruise Lines president Karl Holz.
The research also showed that balcony cabins on Disney Dream can sell for 25 per cent more than the Freedom of the Seas fare, and 66 per cent more than Carnival Dream.
The new ship is also performing better commercially than its older and smaller sisters; the average nightly rate for Dream is $233, almost a quarter as much again as the figure of $187 achieved by Disney Magic – which will be sailing in the Mediterranean this summer.
The report in the Orlando Sentinel – which should be as well-informed as anyone on Disney’s financial matters – also trumps my billion dollar estimate for the cost of the new ship. They reckon the investment is more like $1.8 billion.