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Disney Unveils a New Wedding Venue and the Airline Industry Rakes in Profits: The View from AFAR

Plus: A new cabin class on Princess Cruises and the history of Orthodox Judaism in Medellin

This was a banner week in the world of travel as a cruise ship tied up in Havana Harbor for the first time in nearly 40 years. There were also a number of other notable travel happenings, and we’ve rounded up the very best of them here. As always, if you have questions or comments, please tweet them to us @AFARmedia. 

Disney announces a new wedding venue inside the Magic Kingdom

Disney has finally said, “We do.” For years, Mouse-heads wishing to get married in Walt Disney World Resort’s Magic Kingdom park could only get married at the Train Station, far from the most famous (and romantic) of the park’s sights. This week, however, the park unveiled a new European-inspired garden on the Tomorrowland side of Cinderella’s Castle where couples can tie the knot. The new area, dubbed the East Plaza Garden, will be open for 9:30 a.m. ceremonies and can accommodate a crowd of up to 100 people. It boasts whimsical topiaries, fountains, and a stellar view of the castle. The new facility does have its limitations—as of now, it’s for ceremonies only, so guests must head to the Wedding Pavilion or elsewhere in the park for a reception. Prices on wedding packages vary but can run as high as $75,000 for a completely customized ceremony. Horse-drawn carriage, here we come! 

DOT: US Airline industry earned $25.6 billion in 2015

U.S. passenger airlines are flying high these days, with a group of 25 major carriers reporting $25.6 billion in combined profit in 2015. The numbers, published this week by the Department of Transportation’s Bureau of Transportation Statistics (BTS), showed that the 2015 totals were up sharply from the $7.5 billion profits of 2014. The BTS report also noted that total operating revenue (in other words, money earned before taxes and expenses) for all U.S. passenger airlines in 2015 was $168.9 billion.

So how are they making all that money? Airlines collected $126.9 billion from fares, $3.8 billion in baggage fees, and $3.0 billion from reservation change fees. The report also laid out the industry’s expenses: Total operating expenses were $140.9 billion, including $27 billion for fuel and $45.4 billion for labor. Finally, BTS statistics noted that net income for U.S. airlines was highest in the third quarter of 2015. 

Hotel news from Central America

Good things come in threes, and there were three pieces of hotel news out of Central America this week. First, Casa Palopo, on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, unveiled a special package just for solo travelers. “Travel Solo-la” includes a three-night stay, daily breakfasts, a private guided boat tour of two lakeside villages, a personal blessing ceremony by a native Maya shaman, and round-trip ground transportation to and from Guatemala City. (Prices start around $1,100; call the hotel directly to book the package.) Second, in the Dominican Republic, the soon-to-open Nickelodeon Hotels & Resorts Punta Cana offered up details (and images!) of the property’s Pineapple Villa, a 2-bedroom, 3-bath presidential suite inspired by the home of the fictional character SpongeBob SquarePants. The villa has 2,292 square feet of indoor and outdoor living areas, including a garden, a patio, and an infinity pool. It also comes with private butlers. Prices start at $3,800 per night. Finally, the adults-only, all-inclusive Hideaway at Royalton Riviera Cancun, in Mexico, rolled out a private chef’s-table dining experience for $80 per person called the C/X Culinary Experience. The seven-course meal features a choice of foie gras, yellowfin tuna, duck, or king crab, as well as pumpkin blossoms, sea scallops, beef tenderloin, and a chocolate dessert course. 

Princess introduces Club Class mini-suites

Princess Cruises got a little swankier this week as the company announced a new upgrade option for their mini-suites. The new stateroom category, Club Class, enhances the already-spacious mini-suite with bonuses like exclusive seating at dinner each night (and for breakfast and lunch on sea days); the Princess Luxury Bed; priority embarkation and disembarkation; complimentary wine set-up on embarkation day; and complimentary premium evening canapés. (Guests who book full suites will also automatically enjoy all of these benefits.) According to a press release, Princess will roll out Club Class across the fleet beginning in December as part of the line’s “Come Back New Promise” program. 

Win a Micronesian resort for $49!

Talk about return on investment—for $49 you could win your very own tropical resort. The contest, which was announced by Micronesia’s Kosrae Nautilus Resort, aims to find a new owner for the 16-room hotel (which the owners are selling so they can become full-time grandparents). According to the official website, the contest will be a random drawing, and entrants can buy as many $49 tickets as they’d like. There are also a number of multi-ticket packages available, ranging in price from $129-$349. In addition to its 16 rooms, the resort has a pool, a private beach, and a dive center. The winner will also receive a private home, two one-bedroom apartments, five rental cars, a pair of vans, a pickup truck, a pre-stocked restaurant, a bank account with $10,000 in it, and a staff of 16 people. The drawing will be held on July 26, but there is one catch: The owners will only give the big prize if at least 50,000 tickets are sold. (If fewer than 50,000 tickets are sold, the winner will instead receive half of all of the money generated by ticket sales.) Good luck!

JetBlue Mother’s Day campaign rewards fliers for crying babies

It’s no secret that a whole lot of people hate flying on airplanes with crying babies. This week, JetBlue took those haters on directly with a brilliant social media marketing campaign tied to Mother’s Day. The carrier released a three-minute mini-documentary video about a recent JetBlue flight from New York to Long Beach, California—a flight on which the airline gave people significant discounts on a future flight every time a baby cried. The first cry netted passengers a 25 percent discount, the second cry 50 percent, the third cry 75 percent, and the fourth cry a free flight. Of course all the passengers ended up with free tickets for a future flight. But, really, the stunt wasn’t about crying babies or free flights. As I penned for my own family travel blog, it was about changing public perception and making passengers cheer for crying babies instead of being angry about a normal and unavoidable part of travel. (After all, crying is just what babies do.) JetBlue, we applaud you. 

Amtrak announces locomotive farewell excursion

After 37 years and more than 220 million miles of service, Amtrak’s AEM-7 electric locomotives are being retired, to be replaced by the new Siemens Cities Sprinter. But first, the national rail service is throwing a farewell trip to celebrate the older trains along a part of the Northeast Corridor where the locomotives did most of their work. The commemorative journey will depart from Washington D.C.’s Union Station at 9 a.m. and head north through Baltimore, Wilmington, and other cities to Philadelphia. In Philly, passengers will have the opportunity to disembark for a brief walking tour of the shops where Amtrak technicians have serviced the AEM-7s and other electric locomotives over the years. Then passengers will re-board the excursion train and return to D.C. by 5:40 p.m. Tickets for the trip are $155 for adults and $77.50 for kids and include a box lunch and a souvenir lapel pin. 

Good reads

Nowadays the most traveled route between Los Angeles County and the San Joaquin Valley is a stretch of I-5 known as the Grapevine. But, as Charles Fleming wrote in a feature for the Los Angeles Times, the first road to tame the San Gabriel Mountains was a ribbon of concrete called the Ridge Road. Though the older road is closed today, Gabriel’s story brings the history of this marvel of engineering back to life with anecdotes and tells a compelling story about the push to get it designated as a historic byway.

On the surface, Graciela Mochkofsky’s recent feature for the California Sunday Magazine is about the efforts of a couple of men in Medellin, Colombia, to convert their megachurch to Orthodox Judaism. But the article also paints a wonderfully colorful picture of modern-day life in the former capital of the Colombian drug cartel, especially of the city’s now-flourishing Orthodox population. The feature is a master class in “show, don’t tell.” The result is a read you’ll remember for a while.

The travel world cheered the launch of Carnival Cruise’s Fathom Travel earlier this month; the line aims to promote do-good tourism in various ports of call. Fathom took a bunch of travel bloggers on its inaugural cruise to the Dominican Republic, and Justin Walter (of the “Around the World with Justin” blog) was one of them. In his post about the trip, Walter captured the spirit of the experience. Even if you’re not a fan of cruising, the story should inspire you to travel with purpose.

Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In more than 18 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications includingTIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Alaska Airlines,and more. He is a senior editor for the Expedia Viewfinder blog from Expedia and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com.