20 years ago—almost to the date—I was furiously putting together a demo reel for my friend JC to submit to cruise ship companies. His goal? To become a performer, see exotic ports of call and showcase his insane singing prowess. And while I’m sure his swagger and early 2000s goatee helped; it was his rip-the-roof-off-the-ship operatic vocals that landed him the gig traveling the world on someone else’s dime.
As payback, JC let me tag along on each of his Celebrity cruises. We partied in Barcelona. We went on a dogsled adventure in Alaska. And I got a third degree sunburn in the Cayman Islands. I also learned a lot about ship life and all the behind-the-scenes posturing that makes for a perfect guest experience.
JC was always a good sport. For example, despite visiting Vatican City countless times during his Mediterranean run, he was more than eager to show me around Rome’s famed tourist mecca. JC planned parasailing excursions for us. He booked helicopter rides so we could see glaciers up close and personal. Bless his nautical heart—even though he’d been-there-done-that a dozen times or more, he was always up for a get-off-the-boat-getaway when I was on board.
20 years later, I’m watching history repeat itself as my buddy Jeff now rules the roost as a lead singer on a Carnival ship. (No, I didn’t help him get the gig, but it sure felt rewarding shoving him out of the proverbial nest.) Touted as “The Fun Ship” for the past 30+ years, Carnival lives up to its name—despite the fact that Kathie Lee Gifford is no longer their perky spokes-songstress.
What’s changed in 20 years? (Other than I’m a little older, a little wiser and a lotta fatter?) Well, besides semi-decent Wi-Fi—cruises have certainly upped the ante when it comes to their shows’ production value. I counted no less than a dozen costume changes in the cast’s ode to Motown, entitled “Motor City.” (I can’t be sure, but I’m guessing the dressing rooms looked like a cyclone hit—one hot mess of discarded bouffant wigs and hastily strewn fedoras.)
Singing aside—and not unlike JC—Jeff uses his charm, charisma and manscaped chest to win over slightly schnookered audiences each night. His mostly British castmates help hold court on stage—each of them wildly talented. It was fun to watch the cast scour the audience and pull unsuspecting people up on stage to perform alongside them. (Seriously, audiences eat that up. I actually saw a 12-year old’s head explode when his mom knew how to do “The Hustle” on stage unprompted.)
Even weirder to watch? The fact that my friend Jeff can dance. I’m not sure when he lost his generic white boy moves, but he’s now officially a singing-dancing-acting triple threat. The kid knows his choreography. He leaps. He sashays. He throws his hands in the air like he just don’t care. Of course, doing two full-tilt shows a night nearly every night of the week is bound to hone your dance skills. (Oh, and I learned a new term while I was on board—“park and bark.” It refers to singers who come out, stand, sing and leave the stage. Think Mariah Carey on Quaaludes. No such thing for Jeff. He puts the theater in musical theater.)
The one thing I forgot about traveling with JC? It was watching guests lose their EVER-LOVING MINDS when they’d bump into him roaming around the ship. He eventually wised up and started going incognito—either wearing sunglasses or sporting the occasional ball cap. No such luck for Jeff. No matter where we went on the ship, he was busy kissing babies and shaking hands. I’m not sure how it happened, but Jeff is becoming the undisputed mayor of the boat. Everyone loves him. He’s like Bob Barker with biceps. However, being “on” all the time is exhausting—so if he needed to duck below deck for a couple hours of peace and quiet, I completely understood.
The beauty of having friends who get gigs performing on cruise ships is, well—I don’t have to pay for much of anything. Their employee discounts are so healthy it’s practically tantamount to a free vacation. Trust me though, I doubt I start ship-hopping again in 2040. But then again, never say never. I have yet to see Asia and Australia. And there is a certain allure about a complimentary 24-hour gourmet pizza bar. Just sayin’ …