The Cruise Facade

May 8, 2022
Confidence: likely

Warning: snooty and written at 5AM. Am I becoming my mother?

I’ve been out of contact lately; consider that a symptom of being in the middle of the Atlantic ocean on a Cruise. The idea was merely that it’d be cool to cross an ocean like our forefathers did, and a Cruise just happened to be the easiest way to make that happen. My mom, when hearing of this plan, said (rather disappointedly) “oh… I didn’t think you were Cruise People.”

And my god, are we not.

There are two good things I’ll say about the experience. It’s relaxing to spend all day in the pool and not need to worry about food. And, we have clearly managed to get outside of our filter bubble.

Cruising People are a peculiar bunch. Primarily American. BIG Americans. The sailing has 2500 passengers, of whom 40 are under 18, and easily 50% are over 65. I’d say there are maybe 50 people in our extremely permissive 20-40 age cohort, and a good chunk of those are families.

The on-board entertainment knows its audience, and it is not us.

For example, early on, we went to a stand-up comic’s set. The bits ranged from “you know how when you call the airline to make a booking, you need to navigate a lot of phone menus? AND THEN WHEN YOU GET THROUGH, IT’S NOT EVEN TO AN AMERICAN!!!!” all the way to “I sure am glad I’m not old!!”1

There are shows and activities every hour. Bachata classes, karaoke night, lots of easy trivia2. The dance classes are nearly empty, the karaoke nights are full but non-participatory, and Frank Sinatra is chosen more than every other artist combined.

But Beatles Night is always packed, and is by far the liveliest thing on the ship. Those boomers be shimmying!

There are “Enrichment Seminars” on topics like romantic comedies of the ’90s, and things you didn’t know about John Wayne. That is, anything someone on the boat could plausibly talk about for 20 minutes. There was a (technically amazing) cabaret consisting of lots of flashy dance moves, without any coherent story or theme. There was an (also technically amazing) “theatre production” consisting of lots of flashy dance moves, without any coherent story or theme, but set to pop music that you’ve familiar with.

I have lots to say here. The ship clearly knows its audience, so we can work backwards from the shows to figure out who that audience must be. The entire cruise experience is an excellent example of [premium medicre]3 — that is, “exclusive” without actually excluding anyone. Night 2 was a “black-tie formal night”, and they let my jeans-and-a-button-down-in-sneakers backpacking ass right in without a second glance. But it feels exclusive: it must be, because they keep saying so!

Over the first few days, we kept meeting cruisers who seemed genuinely shocked to hear it’s our first cruise.4 “Oh you’ll just love it!” they would keep telling us. And clearly they did indeed love it; cruisers keep telling us about their loyal program; we’ve met many people who have spent more than 365 days of their life cruising. And we met one guy who has spent over 720.

So, who is this cruise for? The entire experience is a weird facade; lots of stuff with no actual substance behind. It’s an experience that feels classy, without actually being classy. Cruisers can point to the cabaret and theatre and enrichment lectures and feel like they’re living a refined life. They know that these are the sorts of activities that high-status people enjoy, and are delighted to find that they too like these high-status activities!

I have never seen a cabaret before, and thus didn’t know what to expect. I quite liked what I got, because it was well-choreographed and technically impressive (there were six robotic arms that were in motion the whole time, and never once bashed into one another!) But Erin was unimpressed; “that wasn’t a cabaret” she said.

Here’s what I think is happening. Take 250 fit, sexy, twenty-something dancers and give them a week to choreograph and rehearse a bunch of dances to pop music. Take the resulting three minute pieces, and stitch them together with the barest amount of thread to pass it off as a work of high-culture. Set it in “another world” to lampshade any issues in continuity or theming, and voila, you have a cabaret, or a musical, or a hip-hop dance class, or whatever you want!

What you’ve come up with is something easily palatable. It’s got flashy dance moves and songs that you’ve heard before. If you call it a cabaret, it must be. And someone (like me) who might not be familiar with the intricacies of cabaret can come away being impressed, both with the show, and with the fact that I am the sort of person who likes cabarets. I too, must be high-class.

The whole ship feels like that. Which is weird, because all the talent is genuinely amazing. The musicians we’ve met are all very accomplished session players. The ones we haven’t met are also fantastic. We met one of the costumers, who made a dress for Lady Gaga. We’ve yet to meet any dancers, but my guess is that they’re equally accomplished. But there’s a creative flare missing, and I’d wager that’s intentional.

And then there are the art collecting lectures. The first three days had enrichment lectures on how to appreciate, and, subsequently, value art. Funnily enough, the next day there was an art auction. How about that? I overheard a woman saying she spent $5000 on art: “I’ve never really paid much attention to art before, I guess because I wasn’t really grown up enough. But now I’m ready to start collecting.” Did I mention there isn’t any internet on the ship? Well, there is, if you’re willing to pay a years’ worth of internet bills for a week. I haven’t worked out whether or not most people footed that bill, but I suspect they aren’t using it to get a second opinion before buying priceless art prints.

The average person on this cruise clearly considers themselves to be on an adventure. They are traveling! And seeing the world! We’ve been told we’re very brave for making a trans-Atlantic cruise our first one; it has almost no stop-overs, did you know!

Yeah, OK.

The staff, however, are much more clearly our people. Millennials, working weird-ass jobs in order to sail around the world and send money back home. People who are interesting and adventurous enough to pack up their lives for a few months at a time. From them we’ve learned all sorts of juicy gossip; that the entirety of the 3rd floor is off-access not because of ongoing maintenance like they say, but because it’s the covid quarantine floor. And everyone is sick. Or, how five old people die every cruise, and how the ship has a special morgue freezer to keep them in. The staff recognize how ridiculous the entire experience is, and it’s a refreshing reminder that we’re not crazy.

  1. This from a comic who was easily in his 70s, and not looking the better for it.↩︎

  2. eg. From which film is the line “may the force be with you?”↩︎


  4. And our last, but we are savvy enough to hold our tongues about that part.↩︎