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Familiar faces in the fight for family cruisers

Look out Mickey; watch your back, SpongeBob. There’s a big, green ogre on the horizon and he’s heading your way. His name is Shrek and he’s leaving his swamp and hitting the high seas.
Image: Royal Caribbean and Dreamworks
Donkey from “Shrek” is taking the high seas. Royal Caribbean has teamed with DreamWorks Animation to bring a new kind of family programming and entertainment to cruisers.Royal Caribbean International / PRNewsFoto via AP

Look out Mickey; watch your back, SpongeBob. There’s a big, green ogre on the horizon and he’s heading your way. His name is Shrek and he’s leaving his swamp and hitting the high seas.

It’s no fairy tale. Last week, Royal Caribbean International and DreamWorks Animation SKG announced a “strategic alliance” (their words) in which characters from four DreamWorks films will sail year-round on Royal Caribbean ships. Guests will be able to interact with Shrek and several of his big-screen brethren through character breakfasts, meet and greets and other special programming.

Yes, there’s a battle brewing on the high seas — and to the victor go the hearts and minds of your children and, presumably, a significant portion of your cruise-vacation dollars.

Ogres, pandas and Vikings, oh my
The aforementioned alliance will make its official debut when Royal Caribbean’s Allure of the Seas launches in December. As the sister ship of the massive Oasis of the Seas, Allure will feature many of her sibling’s signature amenities, but also a few new ones (e.g., a 3-D theater) and some very special crewmembers.

Along with Shrek, passengers will be able to spend quality time with Fiona and Puss in Boots from the Far Far Away–based franchise, Po from “Kung Fu Panda,” Hiccup from “How to Train Your Dragon” and those directionally challenged penguins from the “Madagascar” series. Presumably, less lovable characters like that preening putz Prince Charming won’t be making the trip.

And parades, photo ops and branded children’s activities are only the beginning. Befitting Allure’s outsized style and unique amenities, Hiccup and his Viking buddies will take to their skates for an ice show while the cast of “Madagascar” is expected to perform with the high divers and synchronized swimmers in the ship’s outdoor AquaTheater.

Look, too, for related programming on Oasis of the Seas, Liberty of the Seas and Freedom of the Seas during the first quarter of 2011. Who knows, maybe King Julien will lead some “I Like to Move It, Move It” dance classes or perhaps Po will show up poolside for the ever-popular belly-flop contest. (Skadoosh, indeed.) Hey, as long as they keep the gassy green one out of the hot tubs, it should be good, clean, cross-promotional fun for everyone.

New ships, familiar faces
Meanwhile, other fleets are wading into the battle for family cruisers and forging their own branded-entertainment alliances. In January, Norwegian Cruise Line announced that it was partnering with Nickelodeon to provide year-round slime-time entertainment on Norwegian Jewel and the soon-to-launch Norwegian Epic.

The program, which got rolling on Jewel in April, offers themed parties, poolside entertainment and character breakfasts with SpongeBob SquarePants and his pals. For some guests, a meet and greet with the porous one will probably suffice; those needing more Nick can opt for a more immersive experience — literally as well as figuratively — via regular SlimeTime LIVE! shows and a pair of all-Nick, all-day, every-day cruises next year.

Of course, both Shrek and Sponge ... sorry, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian will have to contend with the 800-pound rodent of branded entertainment. Disney may have only two cruise ships (with a third set to launch in January), but when it comes brand-extending, character-driven travel experiences, the Mick is anything but mousy.

Consider the fate of the now-defunct Premier Cruise Line, which students of cross-promotional cruising history will remember as the official cruise line of Walt Disney World in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Better known as The Big Red Boat, the company coupled short cruises to the Bahamas with pre- or post-cruise vacations to Walt Disney World.

At least it did until Mickey and company bailed out in order to launch their own cruise line. Left in the lurch, Premier inked an accord with Looney Tunes, but alas, Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd couldn’t keep the company afloat. During the late ‘90s, things proceeded to get vewwy, vewwy quiet, and by 2000, it was, as Porky Pig would say, That’s all Folks for Premier.

So here we are, 10 years later, and it’s anchors aweigh on another round of cartoon-centric cruising. Neither Norwegian nor Royal Caribbean will cop to copying the Disney model, but it’s clear that both, just like Disney, are counting on millions of kids waking up in the coming months and saying, “Mommy, Daddy, I wanna go on the ship with Shrek (or SpongeBob or Cinderella).”

Of course, the geopolitical puppeteers pulling the strings here will say that the appeal of branded entertainment goes beyond age and that young adults, older parents and international travelers are clamoring to sail with Shrek, SpongeBob and their pals. They’re probably right, and given the number of DreamWorks/Pixar/Nickelodeon projects in the pipeline, there’ll be no shortage of characters coming up the gangplank for years to come.

Like Skipper, the lead penguin in “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa,” said: Operation tourist trap is a go.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .