The crowd surrounding the Discovery Princess’ main pool let the disco rhythm transport them to another place and time — high school gyms circa 1977, when the Bee Gees, platform shoes and leisure suits reigned.
“That period in my life was the best,” recounted Rich Plummer, 56, of Las Vegas. He remembers spending virtually every Saturday night in the clutches of two escapist television shows: “Fantasy Island” and “The Love Boat.”
The latter, through a blend of romance, campy humor and exotic locales, engineered a nine-year run through the 1970s and ’80s, single-handedly popularizing the modern cruise industry. Hoping to stir old memories and create new ones, Plummer was among some 3,600 travelers last October aboard a seven-day “Love Boat”-themed cruise from the Port of Los Angeles to Mexico.
My wife, Mica, and I joined them, attracted by the heady cocktail of romance (including a mass vow renewal) and sunny Mexican ports. We also wanted to experience our first themed cruise.
Themed sailings began about two decades ago, and have quickly regained traction as the industry navigates a comeback from two disastrous pandemic years. Although cruise ship bookings are rising, COVID remains a risk, even more so as cruise lines drop restrictions like vaccine requirements.
A 1980s “Love Boat” mass-wedding episode may have inspired the themed-cruise phenomenon, but by now the options run well beyond the basic draw of romance at sea. Formula One racing cars. Tracing ancestors. The 1980s. Comedy. Broadway. Jazz. Outlaw country. Food. Wine. Fashion. Name a passion that keeps you anchored, and chances are a cruise line has crafted a themed voyage around it.
Through the magnetism of shared experience and often nostalgia, cruise lines have identified a fiercely loyal legion of new fans. No sooner had Discovery Princess escaped the port’s container stacks and headed south than I met the first of many passengers who, like Plummer, were giddy at the prospect of sailing with five principal cast members from “The Love Boat.”
Having packed their passions, they boarded this brand-new vessel for a voyage straight into the past.
‘They come back for each other’
Although cruise passenger numbers have steadily climbed over the past three decades (apart from the pandemic), lines constantly seek new customers. Themed cruises provide such an opportunity, says Chris Gray Faust, executive editor of Cruise Critic, a cruise review website.
“What draws people to themed cruises is that everybody on the ship is into the same stuff you’re into,” she said. “They know all the words to the same songs you love. So every person is a potential friend.”
Those newfound friends, she and others said, are likely to return on future cruises.
“They come the first time for the artist, but they come back for each other,” said Anthony Diaz, CEO of Sixthman, a subsidiary of Norwegian Cruise Line. “When people share a passion and come together on vacation, it makes for a magical experience.”
Over the past two decades, Sixthman has emerged as a leading producer of music festivals at sea across a variety of genres, from classic rock (Kiss, Heart) to country (Zac Brown Band, Lucinda Williams) to the blues (Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Joe Bonamassa).
Although the pandemic brought Sixthman’s sailings to a halt in 2020, the company rebounded with 11 themed cruises in the winter of 2021-22. This year, Diaz said, the company will see 18 themed sailings aboard Norwegian vessels, eclipsing the previous record of 16 in 2019.
Apart from the pandemic, Diaz says demand for unique shipboard experiences has accelerated in recent years. Others in the industry concur.
Andrea Lenihan, a Cunard senior brand manager, said the line’s entry to themed cruising in 2016 — Transatlantic Fashion Week — expanded to eight separate offerings by 2019. Cunard plans seven themed cruises in 2023, from literature to gardening to dance.
Often third parties book themed cruises for a particular ship, which can make web searches difficult. For example, cat lovers will struggle to find their obsession on Carnival Cruise Line’s website, but a Google search for “cat cruises” will unearth April’s “Meow Meow Cruise” aboard Carnival Horizon.
Some other themed voyages aboard major cruise lines:
“The general sentiment is that people are desperate to come back to cruising,” said Lenihan of Cunard. “The themed events are just another avenue to reach new people, and talk about new stories.”
It required old stories, however, to lure MaryBeth Kardos of Seattle aboard Cunard’s Queen Mary 2 for a 2017 transatlantic crossing. The theme was “The Greatest Generation,” featuring firsthand accounts from World War II veterans.
“My dad was in World War II,” Kardos said. “I would hear the stories but he wouldn’t go into detail. So when I heard that these (veterans) were going to share their accounts of the war, I thought, ‘I have to hear this. I have to commemorate the lives that they’ve lived.’”
Kardos also loves the timeless elegance of the Cunard ships, as evidenced by her seven transatlantic crossings with the line. But for some who choose the themed cruise experience, the ship consists of little more than a floating arena.
Last October, Laura and David Swenzinski of Marion, Iowa, were among the throng of black-clad fans at the Port of Los Angeles’ World Cruise Center Berth 93. They had just disembarked Norwegian Jewel, home to back-to-back cruises featuring the 1970s (and still going strong) rock band Kiss.
The ship stopped in Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada, Mexico, but Laura Swenzinski said she had reached her destination by day one.
“People would ask me beforehand, ‘Where are you sailing? What ship are you on?’” she said. “Doesn’t matter to me, as long as Kiss is onboard.”
‘The show made you feel good about yourself’
On our second day aboard Discovery Princess, Mica and I joined more than 200 couples in a giant vow-renewal ceremony presided over by original cast members Cynthia Lauren Tewes (Julie), Ted Lange (Isaac), Bernie Kopell (Doc), Fred Grandy (Gopher) and Jill Whelan (Vicki Stubing).
We gathered in the ship’s central atrium, which was festooned with a giant gold-colored heart. Some women wore veils. Many of the men wore suits. More of us, myself included, had donned floral Hawaiian shirts — the preferred garb of Gavin MacLeod, who played the part of Captain Stubing.
MacLeod died in May 2021 at the age of 90, and his absence was palpable. At one of the ship-wide gatherings on Discovery Princess, cast members paid tribute to him.
“Gavin made you feel good about yourself,” said Grandy. “The show made you feel good about yourself. And there are no shows that do that anymore.”
Now, I have a confession: I passed my teens and early 20s during the height of the show’s popularity, but “The Love Boat” barely cracked my consciousness. At age 61, I qualified for the right era on this cruise, but as a social chronicler I represented an outsider — an agnostic in the church’s back pew, mumbling along to hymns sung by true believers.
So, at every gathering — the disco party, bartender Isaac’s cocktail-making demonstration, a cast question-and-answer session — I found new people and tried to gain a better glimpse of what powerful force had drawn them here decades later.
Their answers meandered down various paths but intersected at a point that can simply be defined as nostalgia. A broad body of research indicates that savoring youth’s warm memories can trigger the brain’s reward centers — essentially, in this instance, feeling good about remembering a show that made you feel good in the first place.
R.W. Martin of Springfield, Vt., recounted being bullied in high school and refusing to go back. He stayed home and watched a lot of reruns.
“This show helped me through the most difficult time of my life,” he said, decked out in a full-dress replica of the ship doctor’s costume. “They saved my life. … I saw that if every problem on the ship could be solved, I could face my own problems.”
For a 10 a.m. cast Q&A session in the ship’s theater, Martin arrived at 7:45 a.m. to ensure a good seat. Next to him in the front row sat Fernando Mayett of Simi Valley, Calif., who arrived at 7:30 a.m.
“I watched all the episodes,” Mayett told me. “This is my 53rd cruise, and like millions of people, this is the show that got me hooked into cruising. This is what I love, and if I get my last wish it will be to live on cruise ships and be buried at sea.”
I had begun to see the light — the enduring glow of their memories, a power we can all comprehend. That evening, as pianist AJ Clarke invited a lounge crowd to join in singing Elton John’s “Crocodile Rock,” the words and tune seemed to bridge a distance of five decades. I joined the chorus: I never knew me a better time, and I guess I never will.