The cruise ship Disney employed to murder Herbie

Somewhere in the South Pacific, Disney threw Herbie – a 1963 Volkswagen Beetle overboard from the Sun Princess. It was never retrieved. Here's the full story

Some of us reckon there must have been LSD in the drinking water at Disney HQ.

Witnessing Herbie plunge off the side of a cruise ship before dissolving beneath the South Pacific’s churning waters remains a low point in film history, and the Disney boardroom of 1979 clearly approved those demonic script pages to traumatise children and the young at heart.

Although Disney films regularly showcase plot points that establish new boundaries of emotional endurance (Mufasa’s demise in The Lion King or the abject horror of Fantasia’s Chernabog springs to mind), Herbie Goes Bananas pushed the boat out.

Watching Disney’s automotive hero helplessly sound his horn in a prolonged and depressing blast, spinning his little wheels in the air prior to the Captain’s execution orders, reduced most children into hysterics. I was one of those tearful adolescents, subjected to director Vincent McEveety’s brutal handling of events.

And as any viewer will tell you, the real gut-punch stems from knowing Herbie drowned as punishment for saving an orphan from the ship’s brig. Yet, the vehicular heroics couldn’t save the film. Already circling the box-office drain, 1980s Herbie Goes Bananas effectively killed the Herbie franchise for 25 years. Good job, everyone.

The motion picture sank more than just Disney’s credibility. Somewhere between Bolivia’s La Paz and Baja, California, rests a mound of sludge that once resembled a charismatic and semi-anthropomorphic 1963 Volkswagen Beetle; sacrificed in the name of Hollywood.

And, as it would later turn out, the cruise ship that facilitated such cellular offence – Sun Princess – would suffer a somewhat similar fate.

1980's Herbie Goes Bananas killed the Herbie franchise for almost 25 years. Credit: Disney Press

Murdering Herbie

As the running time for Herbie Goes Bananas pushes towards the halfway mark, a situation develops where the valiant Volkswagen helps an orphaned stowaway (Paco, played by Joaquin Garay, III) escape from the cruel iron mesh of a cruise ship’s temporary jail cell.

Having been loaded into the grand liner for transportation to South America (to race in the Brazilian Grand Primeo), Herbie befriends Paco and fights against overzealous Captain Blythe (played to perfection by Harvey Korman) and his increasingly tyrannical command. The ship’s cargo area quickly becomes awash with chaotic and herculean activity.

As punishment for the crime of free will and moral ethics, Blythe throws Herbie overboard and denounces the Volkswagen as a metal terrorist.

While the sombre brass soundtrack climaxes with sorrowful horns amid the feverish screaming of onboard passengers, the entire scene could easily find a comfortable home within the Horror Hall of Fame.

According to official reports, the sequence where Herbie "walks the plank" cast a real Volkswagen Beetle into the sea. Incredibly, it was never recovered and still lurks beneath the waves. There’s even a cheeky nod in Pixar's Finding Dory, where the main characters encounter a white Beetle upon the sea floor.

Research offers conflicting accounts, of course, with some claiming the Beetle was a fibreglass mock-up that featured a wooden frame. Others say it was the real deal. We’ll leave you to decide, but I know which story holds more credibility – especially as little Herbie’s wheels continue to rotate at an alarming speed while the sea pulls him down. He's a real car, alright.

Of course, as this is a kid’s film, Herbie eventually finds his way to the coast, now rusted and heavily damaged, to continue the slightly racist adventure that involves preventing the theft of Incan treasures by unscrupulous American thugs.

However – not every story features a Disney-esque happy ending. And the real-world tale of Sun Princess cruise ship is laced with genuine calamity that leads to a disastrous finale. Take that, Hollywood.

Under her original name, Spirit of London launched in 1972. Credit: Wikicommons

Sun Princess: A difficult birth

Originally ordered by Norwegian Caribbean Line (NCL) in 1970, the new ship was initially to be christened Seaward and bear an almost identical sister ship.

Financial troubles at the shipyard – Cantieri Navali del Tirreno & Riuniti, consequently taken over by the IRI group – put a halt to progress and eventually saw the Seaward contract cancelled, much to the protest of NCL bigwigs.

After tense boardroom discussions, largely sponsored by lawyers seeking bonuses, the IRI Group agreed to partially complete the build. Despite negotiations and graft, NCL quickly sold the hull to P&O and Seaward transformed into an altogether different beast – Spirit of London.

As a point of note, the new ship entered the history books as P&O’s first diesel-powered liner; signalling a direct change in society's cruising mantra.

The new liner undertook her maiden voyage on November 11, 1972, before P&O then purchased Princess Cruises and transferred Spirit of London across to their fleet. Princess opted for a new name – Sun Princess – and operated the ship alongside Island Princess and Pacific Princess.

A number of successful cruises took place over the following years and fortune for publicity came knocking on various occasions. The Love Boat filmed various segments aboard the vessel, followed by episodes of Columbo and Starsky & Hutch, culminating with an almost villainous role throughout Herbie Goes Bananas.

Rebranded as Southern Cross, the Sun Princess is seen here in Denmark in 1995. Credit: Svend Raether/Wikicommons

Turbulent times

Things took a turn for the worse after Disney's film crew disembarked following Herbie’s brutal treatment, almost as though God had taken umbrage with proceedings.

In September of 1979, a fire broke out in the laundry room while under charter to Mutual of Omaha and sailing from Portland to San Francisco. Lifeboats were lowered but, luckily, the fire was brought under control. God’s vengeance for Herbie would now simmer until 1991.

Following the sale of Sun Princess to Premier Cruises, renamed as Majestic in 1988 and then rebranded as Starship Majestic in 1989, the ship encountered the Disney curse once more.

Premier Cruise Line became the licensed partner with Disney as calendars flipped open for 1990, but shortly afterwards a catastrophic fire in the auxiliary engine room caused widespread panic and left the ship rudderless.

Passengers and crew scrambled for the exits and piled into the lifeboats by the time an announcement proclaimed that the fire had been extinguished.

The ship was towed back to Florida before being purchased by CTC and renamed again. Now known as Southern Cross, she was subsequently renamed for a seventh time to bear the name Flamenco in 1998 – operating as a Festival Cruises' vessel following a $25 million purchase.

Flamenco photographed in Kiel during July of 1999. Credit: Wikicommons

Yet more renaming and calamity

Festival Cruises was forced into bankruptcy in early 2004, leaving the fleet laid up with an uncertain future. Flamenco was sold for $12.25 million through a bankruptcy auction to yet another cruise line – Cruise Elysia – who then renamed her (again) to New Flamenco.

Yet another sale, this time to Club Cruise, occurred in 2007 where she served as a hotel ship in New Caledonia. Club Cruise folded in 2008 and the Herbie-killer was sold for scrap following a stretch of time docked off the coast of Singapore.

Fate dealt a twist card, however, and New Flamenco was hoisted from the breakers’ yard in 2012, renamed as Ocean Dream and given a fancy new paint job – featuring a dragon upon the bow. Starting operations under new owners – Runfeng Ocean Deluxe Cruises – from China to Vietnam, it seemed as though the ship would enjoy an extended lease of life.

The new lease didn’t last long.

An ignoble end

After almost a dozen name changes, lashings of new owners and repeated cases of fires and strife, the ship met her end off Laem Chabang, Sri Racha, in Thailand.

Having been abandoned and left without a crew for 12 months, the lack of maintenance had reduced the once-proud Spirit of London to a dilapidated state. She eventually capsized and sank into shallow water on February 27, 2016.

Although attempts were made to re-float the vessel, all efforts ultimately failed. The decision was made to scrap the ship where she lay, with demolition works commencing in late 2017.

By the turn of 2020, most of the wreck resting above the waterline had been removed, with the remaining hulk still awaiting attention.

Reportedly – there’s still a huge chunk of the ship resting beneath the waves, giving way to a fantastic sense of irony.

Having ejected and left a Volkswagen Beetle to the mercy of nature back in 1979, now the vessel suffered the same abandonment issues – discarded to the unsparing salt water and ditched to the echo of time.

Wherever the long-abandoned little Volkswagen Beetle now rests, there’s a gloopy mess of vinyl and rust that stole the hearts of a generation. And, on the other side of the world, there’s a rusted hulk of a ship that suffered more identity and image changes than David Bowie.

Both ship and automobile crossed paths under the guise of Disney-sponsored activity, and now both have found eternal rest with contrasting legacies for the ages.


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About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.