Walt Disney Co. is expanding its cruise ship business, and Hawaii is one of the destinations on its radar screen.
The global entertainment giant will move its 964-foot Florida-based Disney Wonder cruise ship to the West Coast next year — a move that will coincide with the opening of the company’s new resort at Ko Olina on Oahu’s Leeward Coast.
The 2,400-passenger Disney Wonder initially will be used for cruises up and down the West Coast of North America, but Disney CEO Bob Iger recently mentioned Hawaii as a possible destination in future years. The move of Disney Wonder comes as the company is adding two new ships in 2011 and 2012, doubling the size of its fleet.
"We thought we had an opportunity to expand our horizons, no pun intended," Iger said at a June 2 presentation to stock analysts in New York. "We’re going to take advantage of that with Alaska, Southern California and Mexico, parts of Europe and, maybe down the road, Asia or Hawaii," he said.
Although a Disney spokesman wouldn’t comment on any of the company’s cruise itineraries beyond 2011, the state Department of Transportation confirmed that Disney has tentative bookings at Pier 2 in Honolulu Harbor in May and September of 2012.
Cruises to both Hawaii and Asia would offer Disney synergies in terms of resort and theme park pairings. For example, Disney could offer a land-and-sea vacation package combining a cruise with a stay at its 840-room Ko Olina project. Aulani, a Disney Resort & Spa, is on track to open in the fall of 2011. Disney currently operates a theme park in Hong Kong and has plans to build another one in Shanghai.
The DOT said Disney has not applied for permission to bring a cruise ship into Kalaeloa Harbor, a deep-draft port used by cargo ships and located about a mile from Ko Olina. Although the harbor could be used to embark and disembark passengers from cruise ships, it lacks a terminal and other accommodations for passengers.
The DOT granted a request from Ko Olina master developer Jeff Stone to bring cruise ships into Kalaeloa beginning in 2003, but said it could not justify construction of a new pier. Stone was unable to secure any commitments from cruise companies to use the harbor.
Then-state Harbors Administrator Glenn Okimoto said at the time that a ferry terminal at Kapolei was a low priority for the DOT.
"We have other needs in Honolulu harbor and we don’t think it will be a priority for cruise ships to use Kalaeloa, at least not at this time," Okimoto said in an article published in 2007 on dvcnews.com, a website dedicated to Disney’s time-share division.
"And we can handle four cruise ships in Honolulu at one time. So far, we haven’t had any cruise ship wanting to go there. They (Ko Olina) are still trying to get somebody," Okimoto said.
Disney entered the cruise business with the launch of the Disney Magic in 1998. The Magic, which also has a capacity of 2,400 passengers, is moving from Florida to Europe next year. The Disney Wonder entered service in 1999.
Iger told analysts that the company’s $1.5 billion investment in two new cruise ships is part of an effort to expand a profitable part of its business. Disney Cruise Lines has produced "nice double-digit returns on invested capital," Iger said.
Although The Walt Disney Co. is a U.S.-based company, Disney’s cruise ships are registered in the Bahamas. The Passenger Vessel Services Act prohibits foreign-flagged vessels from sailing directly between two U.S. ports. The Disney Wonder, which will be based in Los Angeles, would be able to comply with the act on voyages to Hawaii, by making a port call in Canada or Mexico before heading to the islands.