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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Disney Cruise Line President Holds News Conference

Aired November 23, 2002 - 09:04   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: And now at any moment, the president of the Disney Cruise Line will hold a news conference to discuss that outbreak of a stomach virus that swept the "Magic" on its Bahama cruise. At least 175 people were sickened aboard that ship, which docked awhile ago in Port Canaveral, Florida.
And that's where we find our Miles O'Brien with the latest. Good morning again, Miles.

Have they started to leave the ship yet?

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Catherine.

Yes, we just talked to some of the passengers as they came off, and they describe -- well, it doesn't sound like it was the best cruise ever. As one passenger described it, walking through the halls often got the distinct odor of -- well, it -- of, of the -- the -- vomit is the word. I -- it's a terrible situation. I don't even like to describe it for you over your morning breakfast, but nevertheless, that's what occurred.

A lot of people with symptoms of a stomach flu, or what seemed to be a stomach flu. We don't know what -- any sort of viral cause might be as a result of all this. The Centers for Disease Control is here with their team that specializes in cruise ships. They will be going through and interviewing some of these people, getting some so-called baseline information. They'll be taking some samples, they'll be trying to see if it is, in fact, this Norwalk virus, which we've seen afflicting some other ships.

Now, the Disney folks are going to be talking in just a few moments to try to bring us up to date. But we've gotten some numbers from the Centers for Disease Control. About 175 passengers, 12 crew members were afflicted by these symptoms. It occurred about midweek on this week-long cruise, about Wednesday. The "Magic" was on its way to the Caribbean with stops in the Bahamas.

During the trip, we're told Disney began the process of sanitizing the ship. Passengers told us...

Matter of fact, let's listen in to the news conference right now.

ROBERT OUIMET, PRESIDENT, DISNEY CRUISE LINE: ... happy to answer your questions when I get done.

As you know, during the recently completed Disney "Magic" voyage, some passengers and crew experienced flulike symptoms. As of now, approximately 200 people have confirmed symptoms, and we have another 75 people who reported similar symptoms at some point in this voyage.

As you can appreciate, as some guests recover, many of the guests recover, we also have new incidents, so these numbers are a little fluid.

Well, certainly this is an unusual event. I think it's also important to point out that our 2,300 guests, the vast majority of our 2,300 guests and 950 crew members, are reported to be healthy and had an excellent cruise.

But as we should be, we are focused on those who do not feel so well. This is a very unusual situation, and experts tell me that wherever a large number of people gather, there is a chance for illnesses to transfer between individuals.

The Disney "Magic" has one of the highest United States Public Health Service inspection ratings in the industry. She has a score of 99 out of 100. This doesn't mean we can't do more, and today we are.

In fact, today we're aggressively sanitizing the ship from stem to stern. In addition to our crew of 950, we've got 200 additional workers here today to scrub every area that the guests will come in contact with.

It's also -- it's not just on the ship. We've sanitized the buses, we've sanitized the terminal. With the representatives from the CDC here today, and they've been working with us since we first reported the incident on Thursday, and we believe and they believe as well, I -- that we have an excellent strategy to get this under control.

When we first became aware of this unusual pattern, we notified the CDC, as I said, that was Thursday morning, and communicated with our onboard guests so they could help us contain the spread of this illness.

You know, experts tell us they're not sure there's anything we could have done to avoid this outbreak. But that doesn't mean we don't feel bad about it. These people were our guests.

These are the people we -- by the way, the people that we are talking about are the people who were ill, and we'll continue to talk to those people on a one-on-one basis over the next couple days. And every one of them will receive appropriate compensation.

As for the next voyage, we also started very quickly to contact the guests who will sail today. As of this point, we've been able to reach about 70 or 80 percent of them at home before they left. We've told them about the intensive steps we're taking to curtail further spread of the suspected virus, and to give them the opportunity to schedule another voyage if they chose, to receive a refund, or to get an alternative vacation at Walt Disney World.

So far, less than 4 percent of today's guests have canceled or rescheduled their cruise. And -- and I think this important -- every guest will receive before they get on board today the latest information that is available.

Now, I know with the recent news about Holland America, many of you are prepared to ask me why we're not taking the ship offline. You know, as a father with two young children, we value our vacation time together, and so do our guests. I think we owe it to our guests to do our very best to preserve this special holiday vacation. I also believe that the Disney Cruise Line team, along with the CDC and other experts we have available to us, can accomplish great things.

And I assure you we are totally focused on this today.

Let me close. We would not sail if we did not believe it was safe for our passengers and for our crew.

We'll now open it up for questions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why not err on the side of caution and cancel today's cruise?

OUIMET: Well, I think the answer to that is, we talked to all the experts available to us. They tell us that there are many circumstances, in fact, most circumstances, where it's not necessary to cancel a cruise to get this problem under control.

And I would add, effectively, we've given every passenger the opportunity to cruise their -- to cancel their cruise. You know, passengers on this voyage and on the future voyage want what you and I want, they want good information, they want choices, and they don't want to have an economic impact. So guests who are either going to choose to board today or, if they elect not to choose, will either receive a full refund, a future cruise, or a vacation at Walt Disney World.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have any more indication of what may have been the cause, food related or anything of that nature?

OUIMET: We do not at this time. The CDC is continuing their investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some of the guests are saying that they (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this morning (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

OUIMET: Yes, one of the things I worry about with the numbers is, they're probably higher than you would normally see, but that's because we went out proactively...

O'BRIEN: All right. We have been listening to Matthew Ouimet, who is the president of the Disney Cruise Lines, indicating they have a very, very big task that lies ahead. They are not canceling next week's cruise. Saturday's the day when the ship comes in. It gets cleaned and gets sent out on the next weeklong cruise.

This is going to be an unusual turnaround today, an additional 200 workers are on board. They'll attempt to continue sanitizing every last thing that a passenger would come in contact with, and off they will go. He indicates that only about 4 percent of those who had booked this particular cruise have canceled.

It is the Thanksgiving week, I'm sure people have had plans to do this for quite some time, and I guess they will press on and steam on here from Port Canaveral, Catherine.

CALLAWAY: And Miles, just to be clear, for those who choose not to board this afternoon, they will be given a comparable vacation?

O'BRIEN: Yes. Yes. They can cruise later, they can go to Disney World, they will be made whole, according to Disney. Obviously this is not the kind of thing you want to quibble with over a few dollars when Disney's public image is on the line here, quite literally.

And so they are offering a package which gives people the -- an opportunity to get out. You know, in most cases, if you cancel at this late date...

CALLAWAY: Right, you'll be out.

O'BRIEN: ... you're going to eat the fare, yes.

CALLAWAY: Well, take the pressure off of them. At least they can make the right decision for themselves. All right, Miles, thank you very much. Miles O'Brien in Florida.

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