JUNEAU, Alaska — Larry Stauffer’s job assignment the past 15 months or so has been pretty straightforward:
Figure out how to make the standard shore excursions in the busy Alaskan market so special that passengers aboard the Disney Cruise Line’s first-ever trips there in the summer of 2011 will happily opt to buy its pricier versions.
For Stauffer, that meant getting the lumberjacks, dog mushers, gold-panners, helicopter pilots, totem-pole carver, glacier guides, train conductors and fishing boat operators to come up with something distinctively better.
To achieve that, the manager of Disney Cruise’s Port Adventures (the Mouse’s term for excursions) flew from Orlando to already wintry Fairbanks in October 2009 and met excursion operators at the state tourism conference.
“I absolutely challenged the operators to come back to us with ideas that were different for Disney. I told them we would be coming with 1,000 kids, told them what we already do on our existing itineraries,’’ Stauffer told me as he led a brief media tour to the ports in September.
“I wanted them to create something different, an added value to their tours.’’
While the operators huddled indoors during the Alaskan winter, Stauffer went last March to the cruise industry’s SeaTrade gathering in Miami Beach to “speak with my contacts.’’
During the spring he also studied web sites of the cruise lines that fill the main harbors with four and five ships a day, from May into September. He learned that many vessels routinely offer up to 60 excursions per port.
Next, the executive went back to the 49th state during the height of the summer 2010 tourist season, sampling about 20 excursions. He again invited operators to escalate the routine tour into Disney Cruise’s up-market ticket, termed the Signature Collection.
The test of his efforts comes when the ship begins the first of 18, one-week voyages next May 3 from Vancouver. It will call on Skagway (for about 12 hours), Juneau (nine) and Ketchikan (six or seven, depending on the direction of that sailing).
Judging by what Stauffer and other Disney employees displayed to that handful of travel writers, the 40 to 45 excursions per port offered to Wonder passengers include imagination, excitement and just plain fun. A sampling:
Ketchikan – Devotees of cable TV’s Deadliest Catch series can settle into the 150 theater-style seats aboard the 107-foot Aleutian Ballad during a three-hour trip. The passengers will watch crewmembers haul in the huge “pots’’ holding several species of crab, the occasional octopus and shark. These are put in aquariums in front of the seats.
During the mini-voyage, crew members answer questions “to fill in the blanks from the TV show,’’ said Capt. Terry Barkley. This vessel is featured in one of the series’ most-watched episodes, as cameras caught it being hit and rolled on to its side by a massive rogue wave.
The Signature Collection option, limited to 10-12 passengers, will come after the return to the dock: a “Crabfeast with the Crew.’’ Visitors and crew will settle in for a meal of just-caught crab and more story-telling.
If the Wonder passengers prefer a lesson in native culture, there’s a tour of Totem Bight State Historical Park and explanation of the symbolism and folktales represented by the 14 poles. Then comes the Signature Collection touch, at the adjacent Potlatch Totem Park:
Youngsters can help create a new totem pole, this one portraying a sea monster. Each child will be given paints and a piece of wood bearing a stenciled design – either feathers or gills for the monster. Guided by totem carver Brita Alexander, a member of Alaska’s Haida tribe, the children will paint their pieces. Afterward, each will be attached to the 20-foot-tall pole Alexander will finish by the end of the summer season.
As part of the onboard Alaskan experience, children will be encouraged to draw their own totem poles. Alexander will select the winning design, then carve a full-size version as well as a miniature, which will be presented to the child who drew that pole.
For something flashier, the long-running Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show is adding special elements, and down-sized logs and equipment, for shows performed just for Wonder passengers.
The lumberjacks will select about 10 children from each of those audiences to help with kid-sized versions of several stunts. Each act will be age-specific, so that kids as young as 5 could take part.
Skagway — The famed White Pass & Yukon Route railroad, an engineering marvel when built by 35,000 laborers between 1898 and 1900, has been a must-do for tourists since 1988. In 2010, the White Pass carried about 365,000 passengers on the 27-mile, narrated trip.
For those Wonder passengers selecting to upgrade, White Pass will form special Disney trains of just three cars, carrying up to 120 passengers. They will get the standard trip as the train chugs up the mountain pass for about 100 minutes, with recorded narration and conductors available to answer questions.
But Signature Collection passengers will stay onboard for the return trip, rather than getting into buses. On the downhill ride, kids will be placed in the middle car, with adults in the other two. The children will be given special activity books, including a clever I-spy bingo style game to keep them checking the slowly passing scenery.
In addition to two members of the Wonder’s youth-activities crew in that car, there will be a costumed character – either a railroad figure or a prospector, who will tell tales of the gold rush era.
While the character on the train won’t be from the Disney stable, one of them will surprise youngsters at the attraction called Liarsville. Here, Wonder passengers will watch an exclusive performance of a puppet show and listen to costumed staff explain that the prospectors had to carry about a ton of goods to help them survive the harsh winter on their way to the gold strike area, hundreds of miles to the north.
Then the kids will be given a list of those supplies and sent off on a scavenger hunt in the mock tent village that is Liarsville. Next, the youngsters will try panning for gold flakes, with help from the Liarsville staff and that suitably costumed Disney character – I saw Donald Duck looking resplendent in a traditional black-and-red-checked mackinaw and matching ear-flaps hat.
Then it’s time to make s’mores and finally have a salmon-bake lunch. Liarsville stages seven to 10 shows a day, but it is only at the meal that the Signature Collection guests would mingle with other cruise passengers.
Juneau — Perhaps the most-spectacular of the Signature Collection trips takes place out of Juneau, atop the 3,000-foot-thick Upper Norris Glacier.
In a typical summer, helicopter operator Tim Cudney and 16-time Iditarod musher Linwood Fiedler will haul about 10,000 passengers up to the glacier and put them on two-mile loops around the glacier in sleds pulled by Fiedler’s dogs. This event is pretty passive but according to Cudney, “It is a life-changing experience … We have people (saying) this is on their bucket list.’’
And that’s without the tourists’ getting to put booties on the dogs to protect their paws – which is just one of the add-ons fashioned for the Signature passengers. Those folks will also be get to select which animal will be the lead dog, then help harness the dogs to the sled.
Finally, the Disney passengers can actually take the place of the professional musher – though youngsters will be just holding the sled’s handles while the pro stands behind them on the runners, doing the work. These trips will be doubled to about four miles; afterwards, these passengers will unhitch the dogs and take their booties off.
Also, Fiedler said, “We’ll show them how 150 dogs and 20 people can live on the glacier in a tent city, without flush toilets and light switches.’’
For more information
For rates, sailing dates and more information, consult a travel agent or go to http://disneycruise.disney.go.com.