Still dripping nervous sweat after having sang under a spotlight in front of hundreds of cruise guests, I remember navigating the inner passages of my ship and making my way to the doors of the auditorium before anyone had left his seat. I looked out of the glass door to my left and saw the sun setting across the ocean and couldn’t help but feel that, despite some highly unique struggles, I was right where I was meant to be.
Anyone considering working as an entertainer aboard a cruise ship is likely doing so in large part because of the excellent travel opportunity provided. For what is typically a six-to-twelve month uninterrupted contract, you will experience multiple itineraries and get paid to do it, often between $2,000-$3,000 per month with room and board included. Luckily, as an entertainer, you will be in one of the best positions you can be in on the ship to get out and actually see the ports. It makes sense: when a ship is at port, the guests are, too. With nobody aboard to entertain, you’re allowed to get off the ship and go exploring nearly as much as any guest.
In addition, the interactions with other crew members simply aboard the ship itself provide an unparalleled multi-cultural experience. The most Americans employed at any one time during my six months was 28 out of nearly 1000, and there are plenty of opportunities to interact with the rest of the crew. The management aboard the ships works to provide, usually at least once a day, special events like karaoke or wine and cheese nights for crewmembers across all departments.
For anyone seriously interested in pursuing entertainment as a long-term career, the cruise industry provides another great benefit in the opportunities provided on board. In my case, we had all the necessary resources to write, arrange, choreograph, perform and film a 45-minute show with a backing orchestra and custom lighting design. Much of this is possible because people within the department are almost always willing to collaborate, as there is mutual benefit—pieces like our show will often go into multiple portfolios, and the management loves it as they have something new to offer guests without having had to pay anything extra for it. Plus, I now keep in touch with many of the performers and entertainment professionals I used to work with and have made other connections through many of them.
The drawbacks to working on the ships, however, were as unique and varied as the benefits. One of the most frustrating aspects for us to have to deal with was the constant change. Our most direct supervisor, the band director, changed four times within our six months aboard the ship and each person at each level of leadership had different expectations for us. One band director, for example, would give us two full days off a week—as our contract dictated. Another refused to give us a day off for a month straight, in full knowledge that it violated our contract, and we had little recourse: we contacted our agent, but were just told to demand our days off. Simply put, our demands were ignored.
Aside from the simple change in management, there was also a significant emotional toll associated with the constant change. Each week we would be saying goodbye to another person we loved whose contract had come to an end. The nature of the cruise industry requires constant turnover, so you will have to accept that nearly each week will end in another sad goodbye, many of which may be the last face-to-face interaction you have with a person who may live in Belarus or South Africa.
There are also plenty of struggles coming with the living arrangements on ships. The rooms for most entertainers will be double-occupancy and smaller than any college dorm room. They are perfectly suitable for living and have self-contained bathrooms with showers, but don’t expect to practice yoga in your cabin, or even, if you have the top bunk, to sit up in bed. Also be aware that your cabin will be among the lowest decks on the ship, at or near water level. If you are claustrophobic, you likely will not enjoy a contract on a cruise ship.
Along with claustrophobia, many people expect seasickness to be a common issue on cruises. While it is possible to experience some level of seasickness, it’s a much rarer occurrence than most would expect. On a ship big enough to carry 2,000 guests and another 1,000 crew members, you’ll hardly notice any movement at all. There are occasions when the waters will be a little choppier, particularly if you have an itinerary along the New England and Canada coast or a trans-Atlantic itinerary, but even these moments didn’t cause trouble for most people. As long as I was on the ship, nobody I knew ever had to miss work as a result of seasickness. Just think of it as being in a giant, floating cradle and you won’t have any trouble.
The living arrangements, being in such close and self-contained quarters, also create a significant risk of illness spreading quickly. There are protocols in place for such occurrences, and you should not be surprised if they go into effect during your contract. It happens far more often than you may guess, as I and nearly every employee I spoke to experienced some level of quarantine or significant ship-wide safety measure.
Still, my experience working on the ship was an excellent one and I would seriously recommend it to anyone considering it. You will be paid to do what you love, you will have free room and board, great food, greater travel, and you will make life-long friends. You may even end up sweaty and standing outside an auditorium watching the sun go down, greeting guests as they file out, politely refusing to shake their hands in the midst of an outbreak of gastrointestinal illness, soaking up precious moments of freedom from a quarantine, and yet still thinking to yourself that there is nowhere you would rather be.