Hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to sea we go

Simba is about to get his paws wet. The Walt Disney Company confirmed yesterday that it is splashing out on two mega-cruise ships which will ply the high seas as "floating theme parks", with the usual cast of attractions and characters.

The newly created Disney Cruise Lines signed the contract in Orlando, Florida, yesterday with Italian shipbuilder Fincantieri for the two vessels to be delivered in early and late 1998: one will be the biggest cruise ship ever built, rated at 100,000 tons and accommodating 2,600 passengers.

Disney plans to use the ships in special two-week package holidays, with one week spent at one of the company's dry-land theme parks, notably in Florida and California, and the second week on the ocean. A likely cruising spot - the Caribbean, where Disney already owns a private island.

For the cruising industry, which has boomed in recent years, the arrival of Disney will seem like a natural progression. In recent years, cruise ships have become much more than decks, cabins and a swimming pool. The most recent innovations in on-board amenities include wedding chapels, spas and virtual-reality cinemas. A new ship shortly to be introduced by Royal Caribbean Cruises will feature an 18-hole miniature golf course.

Exactly how the Disney ships will be kitted out remains a matter for speculation. Unlikely to be included is the Disney Castle, one of the trademarks of the company's theme parks, except perhaps in a scaled-down version. Passengers can expect every other kind of Disney specialty, however, including the usual wandering Mickey Mouses and some pared-down thrill- rides.

"We intend to apply the excellence, the originality and the typical magic of Disney to every aspect of cruising, from the level of services to entertainment," Art Rodney, the head of the Disney Cruise Lines commented.

The cruise deal has come in a good week for the Disney company. Earlier this week it posted record profits for the first quarter of this year, with sharply increased earnings from its theme parks, with the exception of Euro Disney. The biggest earner was The Lion King, which worldwide turned in $730m (£456m) in box office sales - just short of the estimated $750m value of the contract with the Italian shipyard. And the names of two ships? Disney is not saying. Donald Duck may be fitting for one. For the other? Maybe Snow White and the Seven Seas.

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