Disney Cruise Line has only canceled sailings through May for its Port Canaveral-based ships, but Disney CEO Bob Chapek talked a little realism at the company’s annual shareholders meeting on Tuesday.
“We’re anticipating that with some luck and the increase in the number of vaccinations out there and the encouraging trends that we’re seeing that maybe by this fall we might be able to have some limited operations of our cruise ships,” he said. “But that’s all going to depend on the incidents of the virus and the vaccination of the general public.”
Disney and other lines have been out of the cruising business for almost a full year when the coronavirus pandemic began to surge and ships halted sailing. U.S.-based ships were placed under a no-sail order from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that was only lifted last November. It was replaced by a conditional sail order that has more than 70 points cruise lines have to fulfill before the CDC will let them sail again with passengers.
But the pandemic got worse in the fall, and the CDC has not budged for any cruise line, which has led to companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian to incrementally cancel itineraries on a month-by-month basis.
“We’re very anxious to get our Disney Cruise Line business back up and running,” Chapek said. “As you know, the cruise industry had been quite hit hard by COVID, and as of right now, we don’t have any definitive information in terms of when we’ll be able to open up our cruise lines.”
Scott Sanders, who runs disneycruiselineblog.com, which is not affiliated with the company, said Chapek’s fall statement wasn’t surprising even though the cruise line has bookable sailings over the summer.
“My takeaway, he was speaking on behalf of the company to shareholders and potential investors which is significantly different from speaking to fans at a company expo,” Sanders said in an email. “Investor meetings walk the line of business/promotion, but ultimately this is a business statement to manage investor expectations.”
He says Disney, just as other cruise lines, have made shifting sail dates to the future fairly easy in the last year. Disney’s program is called “Book with Confidence,” which allows flexibility on final payments, cancellation fees and the option to change sail dates up to 15 days ahead of departure. This lets both those eager to sail to roll the dice that cruising will get back up and running, while not risking too much for those willing to give the cruise lines their money.
And while the reality is that sailing may not get back to normal until fall or later, Sanders said the incremental approach for cancellations is better for the business, which gets to hold on to deposits in the short-term, and makes sure potential sailings will have a ready crew and a profitable number of passengers. So he expects the month-by-month cancellations to continue in case there’s a sudden shift from the CDC that would let cruise business get back up and running quicker than expected.
“Full out cancellations through say a fall date would leave DCL scrambling to book guests in the event the ships do get the green light from the CDC to embark on revenue sailings after successful test cruises,” Sanders said.
Those booking cruises should not be too put out if their cruises continue to be canceled, he said.
“Given the ‘Book with Confidence’ offer, booked guest have options,” he said. “I see it as if you are booking cruises in the near future, you are OK with whatever restrictions/limited offerings there may be. You are just ready to cruise.”
His readers have expressed both sides of cruising concern amid a pandemic, he said.
“The fan base as you’d expect is mixed, but there is a significant percentage of them that are ready to get back onboard and would be happy with a cruise to nowhere,” Sanders said. “I have had readers tell me they would head to the port tomorrow if they could board a ship. To be honest, I’d probably be packing my suitcase as well.”
Disney Dream and Fantasy still have bookable sailings for early June, but plans to sail Disney Magic in Europe are on hold until at least August 18 and Disney Wonder’s Alaska sailing season isn’t likely to take place, especially since Canada has closed its ports to ships with more than 100 passengers until at least March 2022.
Port Canaveral officials this year had already budgeted to assume there would be no return to sailing until at least July, and even then it would be with only one ship per brand at reduced capacity.
All of those potential sailings though will need CDC approval. Its current “Framework for Conditional Sailing Order” requires negative COVID-19 tests from all passengers, but some cruise lines are moving toward a business plan that would require vaccinations to sail including luxury line Crystal Cruises and U.S.-based smaller lines American Queen Steamboat Company and Victory Cruise Lines.
Royal Caribbean will be testing the waters where all crew and passengers 16 and over will be vaccinated on sailings aboard its new Odyssey of the Seas from Israel visiting ports in Greece and Cyprus starting in May. Royal Caribbean Group CEO Richard Fain this month said he wasn’t sure if that was the key to a return to sailing.
“Clearly widespread vaccinations are the fastest and the best way to get this disease under control,” he said. “We expect to vaccinate all our crew members against the disease and they have indicated an overwhelming desire to be vaccinated. Whether we will require vaccines of all of our guests on all of our ships hasn’t been decided yet, but we are prepared to go where the science leads us.”
Vaccinations, though, are not currently in the CDC framework. What is in the framework aside from the negative COVID-19 requirement to sail are that cruise lines build up testing sites on and off-ship, ensure personnel are free of coronavirus and perform at least one test sailing to simulate an actual cruise and prove its ability to sail safely.
Guidance on how to enact all the points in the framework though has not been given yet by the CDC, which has meant cruise lines have been in limbo. Chapek said the cruise line is ready to move, though, when that guidance is given.
“We look forward though when we do open up to using the very same disciplined guidelines that we’ve used in our parks to safely reopen and use those same guidelines on the Disney Cruise Line,” he said.
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