Epiphanies come at various times throughout our lives and I had one of my first, most important, life-changing moments at the Central Florida Fairgrounds on August 20, 1991. It came while I was standing in a 45-minute line for a port-a-potty so vile, so rancid, it should have been brought up on charges at The Hague. Lollapalooza ’91 was my first festival show, and somewhere between the end of the Nine Inch Nails set and the start of Living Color, I promised myself that, as God as my witness, I would never set foot at a festival ever again.
It was awful. Yes, getting right next to the stage for Siouxsie and Banshees was fantastic, but when a bunch of dolts decided “Kiss Them for Me” was the perfect song to slam dance to, I renewed my vow. I felt like Scarlett O’Hara at the end of “Gone With the Wind,” but with Doc Martins and no pro-slavery messaging.
Over the years, I have broken this rule a couple of times, and each time I was reminded of how much I hate festivals. Sometimes the lure of seeing several great bands on one ticket was hard to pass up, so when I received an email in the spring of 2015 announcing an upcoming festival featuring some of my favorite 80’s acts, it was met with a prolonged sigh. I would love seeing Wang Chung, Modern English, and Huey Lewis, but would I love it enough to endure another festival?
I couldn’t resist clicking the link and for a moment, I was flummoxed. It wasn’t a festival, but a cruise. Huh. I hated festivals, but could I handle a cruise? I’ve spent a good chunk of my life avoiding cruises, not because I have a fear of boats or water, but because I don’t always like people. I assumed one way to guarantee you have a terrible vacation is to get trapped on a boat with a bunch of awful people with no means of escape. That’s the reason I blanch whenever I read about class reunions on cruises. Can you imagine being stuck on a ship with the boyfriend-stealing bitch from senior year? Not even an unlimited alcohol plan could help you endure that nightmare.
Despite mild trepidation, I decided to take some thoughtful, almost Zen-like advice from a Golden Globe nominee from 1983: “Every now and then say, ‘What the fuck.’” Miles from Risky Business was right when he offered this advice to Joel, although in my interpretation, there would be far fewer prostitutes.
The 2016 80’s Cruise turned out to be not only a great vacation, but also a fantastic experience for a music fan. All of the negative parts of a festival show were gone: no mud, no $10 bottles of water and, best of all, no disgusting bathrooms. I really can’t stress how nice it was to have access to clean bathrooms.
It didn’t take much convincing to get me to sign up for this year’s 80’s Cruise. On Saturday, February 11th, we boarded the Celebrity Summit at Port Everglades in Ft. Lauderdale for another week onboard a floating Hot Tub Time Machine.
Themed cruises aren’t a new phenomenon. What started as a small part of the cruising market over thirty years ago has expanded to over 300 different cruises across a variety of entertainment categories. Anyone looking for a unique vacation can find cruises for Star Trek fans, History lovers, Crossword aficionados, and even people who love yarn. Yarn.
There are dozens of cruises in the music segment alone. Fan of country music? There are several cruises you could line-dance your way onto. Are you an oldie but goodie who loves oldies but goodies? You have your choice of ocean and river cruises to pick from. Do you like mediocre rap with a hint of country music? I suspect the Kid Rock Cruise is right up your alley!
If you’re in the demographic whose lives were changed by a fledgling cable channel dedicated to only showing music videos, you have lots of choices, but what set the 80’s Cruise apart was the way Entertainment Cruise Productions (“ECP”) created an immersive experience by chartering the entire ship and essentially creating Comic Con for 80’s fans.
There wasn’t a lot of room for Generation X cynicism. There was a bit of cosplay involved in almost every activity. Guests weren’t forced to participate, but like every good Halloween party, it was more fun if they did. There was an 80’s Prom on Valentine’s Day, a Neon Night, and a Pop Icon Night where the boat filled with multiple Cyndi Laupers, Ghostbusters, and Punky Brewsters. Since most activities were hosted by original MTV VJs Nina Blackwood, Alan Hunter, or Mark Goodman, there was a constant feeling like a Moon Man could plant a flag on deck at any moment.
The biggest draw for the 80’s Cruise was, of course, the shows. ECP smartly booked a variety of different types of musicians to appeal to a wide array of tastes. There was Debbie Gibson and Tiffany for the pop princes and princesses, Cheap Trick and The Romantics for the rockers, and Morris Day and the Time to provide the funk. The big winners on the 2017 cruise were the kids who weren’t afraid of a little eyeliner back in the day. New Wave fans had their schedules full trying to catch Howard Jones, Tom Bailey (of The Thompson Twins), Belinda Carlisle, Berlin, Information Society, and Men Without Hats. Colin Hay rounded out the bill with a mixture of solo songs and tracks from his time as the lead singer of Men at Work.
It seemed as though ECP made an effort to coordinate performances with the various themes, but it didn’t always work out. Morris Day and the Time must have thrown a monkey wrench into the schedule by agreeing to perform at the Grammy’s after the themes had been set. Instead of taking the stage on the night designated “Purple Rain”, they were fit into the Valentine’s Day slot, which made the Prince tribute video used to start their show feel completely out of place. This also forced Howard Jones to play to a house full of Prince impersonators.
Similarly, Belinda Carlisle was assigned to perform on “Hip Hop vs. Rock” night, while Cheap Trick played Neon Night. It would have made more sense to swap the two themes since Carlisle rose to fame as the lead singer of The Go-Go’s, a band whose album art was bright and colorful. Meanwhile, no one would ever look at Cheap Trick and think, “Day-Glo”.
The theme nights weren’t the only thing that made the 80’s Cruise feel like a music festival/pop culture convention hybrid. Each day featured several chances for passengers to watch a panel, attend a signing, take part in a game show, or participate in several other types of activities with the various musicians. Almost every act took part in a Q&A of some type, although Information Society opted to host the weirdest round of Star Trek trivia ever.
One of the unintentional throwbacks to the 80’s was the democratization of seating. There was a block of seats reserved for some passengers each night, but for the most part, if you wanted a particular seat, you had to line up old school. It was a refreshing change from the scalper economy we all live in now thanks to the monopolization of Ticketmaster. Wait staff taking drink orders didn’t hurt the process, either.
The shows justified the premium rate for the cruise. Themed cruises are always more expensive than regular cruises because of the increased cost for talent and other expenses. When you consider the cost of a concert ticket on land, The 80’s Cruise came off as a bargain. All of the venues were smaller than most that the bands usually play and there wasn’t a bad seat in the house. The acoustics in the main theater was better than in any arena.
I don’t know if it was a function of a relaxed atmosphere, extremely enthusiastic crowds, or the giddiness of feeling like they had just stepped out of a time machine, but every show was exceptional. From an unusually chatty Howard Jones to Cheap Trick inviting the members of Berlin up on stage at back to back shows, all of the artists seemed more engaged than usual.
When the celebrity bands weren’t playing, passengers were entertained with a host of other musical options. There were two excellent DJs spinning all over the ship at different times and in an array of different parties, and it’s worth specifically mentioning the excellent DJ Needles who mixed some much needed hip hop into every set.
Two very different cover bands were on board to fill the need for live music when there weren’t other concerts happening. Trial by Fire presented themselves as a Journey cover band, but they poured through an entire 80’s catalogue and hosted live band karaoke. Jessie’s Girl billed themselves as the best 80’s cover band on the planet, and it was hard to argue with that when they had three lead singers pour through an almost perverse number of costume changes.
The cruise was more than just great shows, panels, and dress up; there was a camaraderie amongst the guests. Part giddiness at being away from the kids and other responsibilities, part shared nostalgia, part buckets and buckets of alcohol, the 80’s Cruise turned a couple of thousand strangers into besties. Now that everyone has returned to 2017, that day-glo vibe has continued onto land in an unofficial Facebook group and promises for future bookings.
Next year’s cruise features an almost completely new set of artists, more Rock and Pop, less New Wave. Rick Springfield has signed on as musical host, bringing along tour mates Loverboy. Mike + The Mechanics, Thomas Dolby, Lou Gramm, Billy Ocean, The Tubes, Tommy Tutone, and Katrina (without The Waves) will also be on board. Crowd favorite, Berlin, will be back for a second year. Some previous cruisers are thrilled with the lineup, while some are less than excited, but even the most unenthusiastic agree that the 80’s Cruise is more than just the sum of its parts. There is no place better to go back in time than being trapped on board with a couple of thousand of your closest friends.
This is the first part of a two-part series. If you want a little more detail about the bands and their performances, check out, “The 80’s Cruise: A Week in the Life of an 80’s Fan”.