Updated: Jan 25, 2021
I knew I wanted to work at sea since I was 13 years old. I sailed on the Carnival Liberty, traveling around the standard Caribbean ports, and remember every new experience like it was yesterday. The gourmet food, gorgeous beaches, and constant entertainment keep kids like me busy on vacation. But, more than all of the above, I was fascinated by the crew. They waved goodbye to us as we left on debarkation day, and I wondered “who are these people who never have to leave the ship? How do I get to be one of them?” and my subsequent Christmas break was filled with google searches for more information about the life of a cruise ship crew member. WiFi onboard is notoriously bad, so most crew didn’t have blogs or even social media pages. All of the books I found at my local library talked about getting a job onboard in the 80’s and how you should mail your application to the executives in Miami to be hired for one of these coveted jobs. Yeah, that’s not really accurate anymore. So how do you get a job onboard and what is it really like living on the high seas? I’m here to be the encyclopedia I always wanted and could never find!
I worked as Cruise Staff, who works on the Cruise Director’s team to provide all of the entertainment onboard. From game shows, to Bingo, to theme parties, you are the face of the ship. Almost everyone onboard will recognize you by the end of the week. When I was young I always imagined being a dancer in the production cast, sitting by the pool in the afternoons and dancing in a sparkly thong and feathers at night. I’m glad I went another way for a few reasons. Most cruise ships don’t have the Vegas style dance shows anymore, for one. Some ships, like the ones on my line, have replaced them with Broadway productions instead, and some do themed revues featuring country, swing, jazz, pop, or 80’s music, to name a few. I have half of a musical theatre degree and a performing past, but as Cruise Staff I’m onstage in a different way. We work about 4-10 hours a day depending on the port and the schedule, and all of our time is spent face to face with guests. I’ve always been extroverted, and so much time spent socializing really energizes me. As cruise staff you’ll meet hundreds of wonderful people every week and know their names and faces within a few days. Every cruise you’ll have a few who really stand out. I have Facebook friends from around the country that I met onboard, people who I can’t wait to see around the seas again! If you thrive on connection, cruise staff is the perfect job for you. Another reason why I’m glad I chose the cruise staff route is because I love being involved in the daily operations of the ship. I was an emergency leader for our weekly drills and took my role in the safety of the ship very seriously. I worked alongside managers and secretaries from almost every other department onboard from food and beverage to deck and engine. I had connections within the crew all around the ship which really helps when you need a friend or a favor!
I got my start onboard in an unconventional way. When I moved to Orlando for the Disney College Program my mom booked a cruise to celebrate going out of Miami the week before. Onboard we had the most fabulous cruise director. I don’t want to give you her name because I don’t want anyone to try what I did and have it get out that I’m the reason people are reaching out to her, but she was fabulous. For one, I had never seen a female cruise director before! On Carnival we had only sailed with men, and seeing someone like me in such a powerful role was inspiring. She was also about seven feet tall in her heels and wore floor length sparkling gowns every night. On top of the glamour and height, she was hilarious! On the pool deck she cracked eggs on her head during an activity, she led game shows with ease and poise, and every joke out of her mouth seemed natural. I was completely in awe. I asked her if there was any way she could sit down with me and answer some questions. We were sailing on one of the newest, biggest ships in the fleet, a huge honor and responsibility for her position and I know now that she absolutely couldn’t spare half an hour to chat with me. But she did. We met in the small coffee shop in the atrium and she answered all my questions about how she started out, as youth staff on a seasonal summer job, and how she climbed the ranks so quickly, by being the most dedicated, punctual, and personable cruise staff in the fleet. I shared my plans with her, the internship, the degree I was pursuing, and my past experience. She told me she would love to have me on her team one day. After our chat I went up to the spa to find my mom and tell her everything. Looking out the panoramic window form the thermal loungers I saw a double rainbow streaking across the ocean sky. I knew that’s where I was headed one day.
Then, I got distracted. I really liked Disney, I started working in animal care at Sea World, changed my major a few times, got into a bad relationship, and stayed. I never pursued that career I always wanted, and the regret sat inside my heart like a cherry pit. One day I decided it was time to take the leap. I was looking for an excuse to leave my relationship and my lease was coming to an end. On top of that my job at the aquarium was hanging in limbo again. I held the same title three different times, doing three completely different things with it, and they were looking to cut costs by changing my responsibilities once again. There were rumors we would be promoted to trainers, or demoted to ticket sales. The uncertainty pushed me to start looking for shipboard jobs. I decided the easiest way to escape would be by getting onto a Disney cruise as a performer, so I drive eight hours to Atlanta after a ten hour shift, stayed overnight, and showed up to give the best audition of my life the next day. At the end I was breathing hard, but happy knowing I had for sure secured my spot. I mean, I had already been doing the job for four years! And I had that sequence down pat. Instead they called all the numbers that they wanted to stay, and mine wasn’t one of them. I was stupefied, and walked slowly out fo the room. On a glance back, I saw that the only ones they kept where about five inches taller than me. Height really matters at Disney, and if you’re not the right fit, literally, there’s no place for you.
At the audition I called my mom on the drive home and cycled through sadness, acceptance, rage, all of it. If you’re looking for tall people just say that! Why would they let me drive all the way up here before they tell me that? They said they could keep my scores for a year. maybe they’ll call when the time is right. Maybe this is the sign I should go back to school instead. Maybe I should quit Disney! How could they! I had spent weeks researching, fighting with my partner over the chance to get onboard, holding the secret in, and now it felt like it was for nothing. My mom texted me after we hung up. “Why don’t you email that cruise director?”
I sent my email with a resume attached at 11 pm that night. I told her she may not remember me, but that our talk had stuck with me and I was finally ready to join her team. I sent it out before I could think twice, and went to sleep. The next morning at 7 am, while I was chucking herring to our biggest sea lion, my phone buzzed in my pocket. She said she would pass my resume along with a head shot, and that they would get in touch with me before the end of the week! The interview was scheduled for a few days later. I put on false eyelashes, red lipstick, made sure my hair was perfect, sure that I would be Skyping with a panel of executives in a Miami high rise, probably with a floor to ceiling window looking out at the port in the background. Instead I talked to a woman in a cubicle who’s face I never even saw. I stared at the camera that was angled at her forehead for about fifteen minutes. Half of the questions she started to ask and interrupted herself saying, “we can skip that, you worked for Disney I’m sure you know customer service.” I was a little disappointed that I broke out the lash glue for that, but relieved and felt that it went well. By the next morning I had my offer of employment. I was in one of many Disney break rooms and all the performers around me celebrated. I called my mom on the way home. I felt so free, like finally my dream was coming true.
Two things still had to be arranged. before joining each crew member has to undergo an extensive medical exam looking at vision, blood tests, lung x-rays, everything you can imagine. Some extra vaccines had to be administered, and all of that was scheduled for a few weeks out. I kept the secret until I had my joining documents just to make sure nothing would change before I broke the news. The next few week were a blur. I was saying goodbye to my friends and family, and to the animals that I worked with for so many years. I was trying to make sure I had packed appropriately. Through all of this I was moving all my things out of my apartment, making packing even more difficult as my stuff was shoved into random boxes. Why do I continue to put my high heels in the Kitchen box and my toothbrush in the Books box?
On May 3rd I set out for the airport. Crying and exhilarated and nervous and feeling every emotion in between, I hugged my family goodbye and walked through the sliding doors at MCO to start life all over again. The next six months would teach me a lot. I grew as a person, traveled, made lifelong friends, and never regretted for one second that late night email that set me onto this course. I’m so grateful for the opportunity I’ve had to live my dream and know that one day we’ll sail again. I can’t wait to get back out onto the open seas, balancing on my heels with the waves beneath me, in front of a crowd again, working to give everyone the vacation of a lifetime.
I want to talk about ships! Let’s put the Sea in landseaadventure. Over the next few weeks I’m going to talk about what it’s like to work onboard and how you can join the industry if you want to make traveling your lifestyle. Send me your questions, anything at all, no holds barred, and I’ll make sure to get to all of them!