Talk to 'Crush' During Dinner on the Disney Dream

Disney Cruise Line

"Fran, have you ever spoken turtle before?" says surfer-dude sea turtle, Crush. I answer -- without stopping to think that I'm talking to an animated character, who referred to me by name.

On the new 4,000-passenger Disney Dream, Disney Cruise Line's first new ship in more than a decade, a very chatty Crush will star in a very different kind of show at the Animator's Palate restaurant.

"Undersea Magic" may feature animated characters from Disney Pixar's "Finding Nemo," but don't think for a minute you'll just be watching cartoons.

AOL Travel News got an exclusive look at the show, the first news outlet allowed to videotape progress at the top-secret Walt Disney Imagineering lab in California, where creative geniuses are hard at work fine-tuning features for the cruise ship.

At the 700-seat Animator's Palate restaurant, passengers will enter a place decorated to look like a classic Disney animation studio from the 1930s, complete with drawings pinned to walls, paint brushes, colored pencils and other tools of the animation trade.

But while the design may evoke a time past, the Animator's Palate is full of new elements of Disney "magic."

"This is the place on the ship where animation comes to life -- literally," says Steve Spiegel, director of show writing for Disney Imagineering.

Our sneak peek took place at a warehouse where designers have created a full-size plywood mockup of a section of the dining room, thoughtfully designed so that everyone gets a prime view.

And what a view. About 20 minutes into dinner service, after passengers place their orders for food and drink, the restaurant starts changing. Lights dim, walls open up and more than a hundred 103-inch HD monitors come into view. Bubbles appear and everyone is immersed in an undersea world, complete with coral and fish swimming by.

Welcome to the East Australian Current (EAC) of "Finding Nemo."

And then Crush appears -- animated, but capable of having real conversations. His body language actually changes as if he were, well, a real talking turtle.

Fans of the Disney parks may recognize the "living characters" concept from attractions such as "Turtle Talk" and "Monsters, Inc.," where guests interact with animated characters. But in this case, the entire restaurant is designed with a focus not only on great food, but on interactive experiences.

While the "magic" at work in the virtual puppets involves the latest in computer graphics and interactive audio technology, Disney is hush-hush about the specifics. But I am told the interactive part comes from "guest tracking," which allows the show to respond in real-time and characters to "react" to guest input.

So, for instance, the kids screech and an animated character's eyes bug out in response.

"We wanted to give guests even more of an immersion into these stories," Spiegel says. "We're trying to up the magic on everything we're adding."

Of course, there were some challenges. Knowing that everyone will want to talk to Crush, designers were confronted with the issue of how to entertain everyone in the restaurant at the same time -- and still allow for impromptu conversations.

The solution, brainstormed in the Disney Imagineering lab, came in the form of games, sing-a-longs and riddles posed by other animated characters from "Finding Nemo" to entertain the audience, giving Crush the time he needs to swim through the room.

Nemo, Marlin, Dory, Mr. Ray and Bruce the Shark are just some of the 22 characters to make appearances in "Undersea Magic."

Spiegel says guests will see happenings on the monitors throughout the meal, and because of the improvisational element involved in the interactive bit, no two shows will be alike.

A creative team has been working on the concept and show for two years, resulting in more than an hour of new animation. And the production is clearly not easy -- for our preview there were more than a half-dozen technicians present, along with lots of computer equipment.

The results from the brief snippet I saw? In the words of Crush, "It's awesome dude."

And for any cruisers not all that familiar with the "Finding Nemo" characters, no worries. The show is designed to entertain everyone.

During our sneak peek, Spiegel was quite comfortable talking to Crush on a large monitor as if he were real (and of course, that's the whole idea). I, on the other hand, may have been red-faced, but still thought it was fun to interact with an animated turtle determined to teach me the phrase "totally sweet" with proper surfer-dude inflection.

All Disney Dream guests will get to see the show, as Disney has a unique rotation dining system where guests have dinner at several different themed restaurants over the duration of their cruise.

If you find yourself onboard, you may want to tell the kids there is a surprise at Animator's Palate. And if they need more incentive to go to dinner, tell them Crush is coming. They'll be old friends anyway, since both Crush and Stitch from "Lilo & Stitch" will be on hand in the ship's Oceaneers Club and Oceaneers Lab, the main kids playrooms.

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