If you visit a cruise line's private island in The Bahamas, have you really visited The Bahamas?
That was the Niles family debate as we walked through the U.S. Customs line at Port Canaveral after debarking the media preview "Christening Cruise" of the Disney Wish. The fact that we had to clear customs to re-enter the United States answered our question - legally, at least. But while we all enjoyed our stay in what legally was Bahamian territory, none of us felt like we had left the Disney domain, much less visited a foreign country.
Our only port of call on our Disney Wish cruise was Castaway Cay, Disney's private island in The Bahamas. Castaway Cay provides a Disney-designed perfect day at the beach. No need to ride a tender over, Disney dredged a harbor that allows its ships to dock just a short tram ride or a reasonable walk from the beaches.
Cast members hand you a beach towel as you step off the ship, and thousands of beach chairs and recliners await you on the sand.
Plop down and enjoy the day on one of the family beaches, or ride the tram a bit further up the island for the adults-only Serenity Bay. You can swim in the seawall-protected ocean water, ride down the Pelican Plunge water slide, or rent some snorkeling gear, if you did not bring your own. (Disney has dropped a Nautilus sub from the old Magic Kingdom 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride down there for you to discover, among other nautical Easter eggs.)
Kayaks, paddle boards, and glass-bottom boat trips also await you, for an upcharge. Or you can opt for a massage in one of the cabanas next to the Serenity Bay beach.
Hungry? Lunch is included in your cruise fare and served buffet-style at Cookie's BBQ and Cookie's Too.
If you get thirsty for an adult beverage, roaming waiters will take your order on the beach, or you can visit one several open-air bars on the island. Don't bother with your wallet. Your room key is all you need, as drinks and other upcharges will be billed to your account.
All this convenience helps make a day at Castaway Cay feel like the ultimate beach get-away. You just don't feel the insecurity that you might on a public beach where you have to watch your things, including credit cards and cash. No one is running a hustle here, and no one cares if you have a drink on the beach. Heck, they'll even bring it to you.
Two moments illustrated the Castaway Cay experience for us. First, we all had a bit of a moment at water's edge when a stingray glided past us, just a couple yards away. One of my adult kids had gotten stung by a stingray in Malibu last fall, and the memory of that excruciating incident remains fresh. But Disney has removed the barbs from the stingrays at Castaway Cay, allowing guests to see and swim near these graceful creatures without risk.
Second, Laurie lost her sunglasses when doing a turn in the water. She didn't notice them missing for several minutes and figured there would be no chance of finding them in the surf 20 minutes later. But when she returned to where she had been swimming, there they were - easily seen in the shallow, crystal water, protected by Castaway Cay's seawall and left alone by other Disney Wish passengers.
This is not a normal beach.
And while that's a joy for anyone looking to enjoy a carefree day playing in the sun and the water, it can be a little disappointing to someone who enjoys the adventure of traveling to new destinations. Like Gertrude Stein's Oakland, there's no there there at Castaway Cay. As a place, it represents an ideal. There's no real history, no native or long-time residents, no home-grown businesses.
Norwegian Cruise Line created the first private island experience when it bought Great Stirrup Cay in 1977. Disney followed in 1997, when it signed a 99-year lease with the Bahamian government for the 1,000-acre former Gorda Cay, which Disney now calls Castaway Cay. Private islands allowed cruise lines to capture 100% of the money that passengers spent on drinks, equipment rentals, and excursions while in these ports. They also allowed cruise lines to provide a more secure, and thus potentially safer, experience that their guests would have in a public port of call.
For Disney's Imagineers, Castaway Cay provided a canvas upon which they could design the ultimate carefree beach vacation. And they did. Visiting Castaway Cay is a joy and a delightful asset to any Disney Cruise Line itinerary that includes it.
But sitting on the sand watching the ocean at the end of the day, I couldn't help but long for some more Bahamian flavor. Fortunately, Disney has felt that need from its guests and is working on a solution.
In 2019, Disney signed another deal with the Bahamian government, this time to take control of a portion of the island of Eleuthera, which will become the Disney Cruise Line's second private port of call, Lighthouse Point.
Expected to open in the next couple of years or so, Lighthouse Point will be designed to showcase Bahamian art and culture, much like the Disney Vacation Club's Aulani does for Hawaiian culture. (Imagineer Joe Rohde, who oversaw Aulani, also headed the Lighthouse Point project before he retired from Disney.) Work began in April on the project, which will include an Arts & Culture center, displaying works commissioned by Disney from Bahamian artists, along with family beaches and an adventure camp.
But why go to Disney's idealized version of The Bahamas when you could visit the real thing in Nassau or Freeport? Because, one might argue, you can't experience "the real thing" in those port cities any more. Foreign visitors, immigrants, and trade long have influenced the culture of port communities. But the modern cruise industry transforms port communities like nothing else in the travel business. How many jewelry stores and T-shirt shops does one port community need? Apparently, the answer in every port - at least, before the pandemic - has been "more."
Cruise ships also create enormous environmental strains on port communities. Disney boasts about its environmental efforts on the Wish, with its LED lighting saving 30 percent on energy consumption from lights, hydrodynamic hull and propeller design reducing greenhouse gas emissions by six percent, and liquefied natural gas fuel decreasing carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 20 percent compared to traditional diesel or marine fuel. But the infusion of thousands of guests every day into a port community can strain infrastructure when that community has not or cannot design it to accommodate those crowds. That pressure creates environmental damage of its own.
Well-designed private islands can mitigate that damage by diverting tourists to destinations created specifically for accommodating them. But more calls on private islands can mean fewer at traditional ports, robbing them of the income that their residents need. Disney's deal for Lighthouse Point reportedly includes a commitment by the DCL to make more calls on Nassau and Freeport, not fewer - which Disney can do easily by increasing the number of ships it sails on Caribbean routes. (Two more ships are on order following the Wish.)
Beyond the physical environmental issues, Lighthouse Point gives Disney the opportunity to spend its money to commission art and cultural experiences that the free market in Bahamian port communities too rarely supports in the rush to sell more jewelry, T-shirts, and knick-knacks. Yes, that puts Disney in the position of gatekeeping Bahamian culture for its guests. But is that a worse option than watching access to Bahamian culture collapse under the weight of unguided demand for more chain restaurants and indistinguishable shops? Disney's Imagineers have boasted that Aulani contains the largest collection of contemporary Hawaiian art in the world. I would love to see a similarly robust collection for Bahamian artists on Lighthouse Point someday.
Let's not forget, though, that it was Castaway Cay that awakened that desire within me. Like any great entertainment, one day on that lovely beach left me wanting more. Not just more time on Castaway Cay, but more opportunity to discover The Bahamas, too.
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For more coverage from the Disney Wish, please see our round-up post: All Aboard the Disney Cruise Line's New Disney Wish.
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