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Weekend cruises drawing passengers

Every Friday afternoon, 2,000 passengers board Carnival's 70,000-ton Ecstasy cruise ship and sail from Miami toward Nassau in the Bahamas.

By dawn Monday, the ship is back in port. Its weekend passengers are preparing for work or school or other routine daily pursuits. And 2,000 others will depart in a few hours for a four-day voyage to Key West, Fla., and Mexico.Royal Caribbean's 2,200-passenger Sovereign of the Seas follows a similar agenda. So does Norwegian Cruise Line's Leeward. Other lines offer three- and four-day itineraries from Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral in Florida.

On the Pacific coast, Carnival and Royal Caribbean schedule quickie itineraries from Los Angeles.

More often than not, these ships are jammed to capacity.

And, says Carnival President Bob Dickinson, "A three-day cruise is only one potato chip."

Indeed, cruise lines use three- and four-day itineraries to attract customers reluctant to experiment with a vacation at sea - whether because of budget or time constraints, fear of seasickness or confinement, or other factors.

While surveys indicate high passenger satisfaction on cruises, 93 percent of the U.S. market remains untapped. As lines continue to build new and bigger vessels, finding ways to reach these potential customers becomes essential.

"You can go to an automobile dealer and test-drive a car," says Celebrity Cruises President Richard Sasso. "But it's hard to get people to test-drive a cruise.

"By the first day, the barriers are usually removed," Sasso says.

"People find out they don't get seasick. They like the food. They like the atmosphere on board."

The cruise lines figure people will like it enough to try a subsequent seven-day Caribbean cruise, a voyage through the Panama Canal or a trip to Alaska or Europe - a whole bag of potato chips.

But this "test drive" is a moneymaking venture in itself. A main leisure-travel trend is toward taking shorter but more vacations.

On March 12, 1998, Disney will introduce the most significant development yet in the three- and four-day cruise market with the launch of Disney Magic, an 85,000-ton ship designed to carry 1,760 passengers at double occupancy, or 2,400 if kids occupy extra stateroom berths.

Disney possesses the perfect hook, too, to lure first-time cruisers on sailings from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas. It's already marketing weeklong vacations that combine a cruise with a stay at the Walt Disney World resort in Orlando.

Seven-day packages include the cruise (with all meals aboard ship); resort accommodations; unlimited admission during the resort stay to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney-MGM Studios, the new Disney's Animal Kingdom Park and other attractions (with early admission before the general public on some days); unlimited use of the Disney World transportation system; round-trip air fare; and transfers.

Brochure prices range from $1,309 to $3,619 per person, depending on the season, stateroom category and resort lodging chosen. Early booking discounts are up to $700 per stateroom, and discounts are offered third, fourth and fifth guests sharing accommodations.

Disney also is marketing cruise-only packages that start at $779, including air fare. A travel agent can discuss options. Or you can access a new Internet site (http://www.Disneycruise.com) that includes music, animation, 360-degree views of the ship's staterooms and other information about Disney Magic.