“Life’s no fun without a good scare…”
So go the lyrics of “This is Halloween” from the now-classic holiday film “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” becoming more popular each year. And as the years go by, Disney follows this trend, first beginning with the Haunted Mansion Holiday overlay at Disneyland, then bringing Jack Skellington and Sally to meet Walt Disney World guests. Now for the spookiest of seasons, Disney Cruise Line has unveiled its most ambitious addition of entertainment to date, dubbed “Halloween on the High Seas.”
Though Disney has featured pirate nights, Muppets cruises, and other themed evenings across its fleet of four cruise ships, Halloween on the High Seas now offers a complete holiday overlay spanning the duration of each voyage with a storyline that continues throughout a number of all-new experiences.
The idea to bring Halloween to the Disney Dream surfaced only a few months ago, landing in the hands of Show Director and Show Writer J Michael Roddy in March 2013. Roddy is certainly no stranger to Halloween events, having helmed Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights for many years as well as occasionally working on Busch Gardens’ Howl-O-Scream. Now at Disney, he and his team were tasked with the creation of a new not-so-scary experience on the ocean.
“When you say Disney and you say Halloween, a lot of things come to mind,” said Roddy. “And then you add the beautiful Disney Dream into that and really try to combine those.” When envisioning what Halloween would look like on the ship, they filled a vision board with words like Fall, leaves falling, Jack-o-Lanterns, trick-or-treat, carnival, and festival.
But finding places to fit in more entertainment amidst an already-packed cruise schedule was difficult. “Working on the ship is fantastic, but it’s a lot of challenges because it’s a 24-hour operation,” explained Roddy. “If you’ve been on one of the Disney cruise ships, they are filled with programming already so it was really finding the opportunities of where to place this programming so that it created its own cohesive storyline.” Without removing anything, they found spots for a couple special Halloween-inspired events per sailing day.
It all begins in the Dream’s grand atrium, which Roddy dubbed “Halloween central.” Roddy is a self-proclaimed “huge fan” of Ray Bradbury’s 1972 novel “The Halloween Tree,” having previously been inspired to feature trees full of twinkling carved pumpkins at Universal’s Horror Nights event. Now he decided Disney needed its own version – “The Pumpkin Tree.”
Like all Disney experiences, Halloween on the High Seas is led by a story. This tale is centered around a 17-foot-tall dead tree guests first encounter when stepping aboard the ship. And on the first day of sailing, guests meet a caretaker who tends to the tree. His/her appearance is not at all unlike the famous caretaker in Disney’s Haunted Mansion.
She explains The Pumpkin Tree to guests on board. “Do you know what a Pumpkin Tree is?”, she asks. “Of course, no one knows,” adds Roddy. “Do you know why we dress up for Halloween? Do you know why we carve Jack-O-Lanterns?”, the Caretaker continues, ultimately deciding “Well it looks like I need to do some caretaking of my own!”
Through the caretaker character, Halloween traditions and customs are explained, including a retelling of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Guests get involved by writing their names on pumpkin seed cards and placing them in a cauldron, ultimately invited to return the next day. It’s the type of experience that can only happen on Disney Cruise Line, a multi-day adventure that sets it apart from theme park entertainment. And when guests return, a surprise awaits.
“You should have seen the people,” recalled Roddy. “They come out and they see this tree that was dead. Now it has produced sixty pumpkins. Each one’s unique.” The Disney Dream crew spends the overnight hours hanging and programming each pumpkin, preparing for the big reveal. “Then the Caretaker says, ‘Now let’s find out about the story. Let’s find out if our imagination can bring this tree to life.'”
Video: Pumpkin Tree lighting on Disney Dream cruise during Halloween on the High Seas with caretaker
And so it happens as the tree comes to life, talking via bright lights and ending the experience with a dancing pumpkin light show to Danny Elfman’s “This is Halloween” as pumpkin head confetti bursts overhead. It’s quite literally an explosion of Halloween in the middle of one of the Dream’s most elegant spaces.
But that’s just one of the many experiences Roddy and his team have added for the holiday. Special onboard 3D screenings of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” add fog, snow, and lighting to immerse guests into the show. “We also have the lyrics on the screen so you can sing along, very much like our version of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show,'” says Roddy. The big surprise comes just as Jack Skellington and Sally hug in the film’s final shot with the two characters rising up out of the fog on stage. “And they turned to take a bow and went into a meet-and-greet and people went crazy,” recalled Roddy. “They loved it. It’s great seeing them realized.”
“The Nightmare Before Christmas” continues to be a smash success for Disney, growing far beyond its cult following. Haunted Mansion Holiday is always a hit at Disneyland, so much so that Jack Skellington and Sally have finally found a home at Walt Disney World as well, now meeting guests at Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party. “I think Jack and Sally live beyond their movie,” said Roddy. “Lots of people know Jack and Sally as icons of Halloween and may not know exactly their story so there’s a lot of opportunity to retell that story, which is really sweet and a lot of fun.”
Roddy also wanted to take the Halloween experience a little further on the Disney Dream, adding a few eerie elements for those a little braver. “Up on on deck we have something for the ones that want to be a little more scared – kind of getting to that point like, all right I want to have that chill down my neck.” A 12-minute show called “Haunted Stories of the Sea” brings together live action entertainment with on-screen visuals as two hosts interact with a somewhat sinister sea captain.
“He tells four different ghost stories of the Caribbean that are fictitious but for the audience we make them feel like it happened right in the waters where the ship’s parked,” added Roddy. The action includes a few ghosts and zombies, a bit more frightening than your average Disney show. “It’s spooky but then at the end it reveals that everybody that was there was all part of the team and they take off their cloaks and their masks and they say ‘Happy Halloween. It was a big prank.'”
While there’s plenty of trick-or-treating on board for the young ones, Roddy noted, “Halloween isn’t just for kids.” Adults can also find a little fun of their own in the Evolution night club with a costume dance party aimed exclusively for them.
In the world of cruising, the months of September and October are not big. Summer is over and kids are back in school. But Disney felt a holiday overlay could bring in bigger crowds. “Maybe there’s an audience for Halloween,” suggested Roddy. “Let’s try this on the Disney Dream and see what happens – and so far it’s been great.”
Other entertainment featured during Halloween on the High Seas includes Mickey’s Mouse-querade Party where Disney characters dress in Halloween attire, plus mask-making, pumpkin-carving and even a Disney villain takeover of the ship announcements.
Eileen Ritmiller, a guest aboard one of the first Halloween on the High Seas cruises and contributor of many of the photos seen here, thought the added experiences aboard the Dream were fun, but a bit sparse. “The decorations on the Dream were very well done, but were limited to the atrium which had the pumpkin tree and pumpkin banners with autumn leaves,” she said. She also noted a few other fun elements, including Jack-O-Lantern faces in the ship’s large circular windows, actual carved pumpkins in Cabanas, and chimes from The Haunted Mansion played over the ship’s speakers when Halloween announcements were made. It seems, for her at least, this Halloween cruise should have featured even more – a good sign showing that the holiday is being welcomed on board.
Brandi Elmore, another guest, raves about the Halloween additions, noting the “Nightmare” 3D screening was a highlight, as her family didn’t have to wait more than 5 minutes to meet Jack and Sally after the movie and that it was “breathtaking when the snow fell on Halloweentown and in the theater near the end of the film.” But the adult dance party didn’t necessarily sit as well with her, featuring what she describes as “sexier versions of villains” with a “risqué dance number including a sleeveless Captain Hook, Lady Gaga-esque Cruella de Vil, and a body suit-wearing Evil Queen with a shirtless Dr. Facilier.” Ultimately, she hopes the Halloween festivities spread to all of Disney’s ships.
Though the new experiences are only a couple weeks old, many positive guest reactions have been making their way back to Roddy. “Everything I’m hearing from the ship is that the crowds are enjoying themselves, having a great time, and we kind of knocked it over the fence.”
When Disney’s team reconvenes in November to go over how well the event did, decisions will then be made as to whether it is expanded, either with more on the Dream or even to Disney’s other ships. “This kind of Halloween overlay would be fantastic on the Fantasy,” said Roddy, citing obvious comparisons between the sister ships. In the meantime, the Fantasy, Magic, and Wonder ships have some minimal Halloween additions, including a few macabre movies, special edible treats, and smaller “haunted” parties.
As for Roddy’s own satisfaction in once again scaring up some new spooky entertainment, he understated, “You know, I do like Halloween…”
Halloween on the High Seas can currently be seen on the Disney Dream, sailing three- and four-night Bahamas cruises from through Oct. 31.
Photos by Eileen Ritmiller, Anne Puchkoff, Brandon Dozier, and Brandi Elmore.
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