From swingers to Swifties, there's a cruise for every theme

The Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic dance music festival, took over the Norwegian Joy for four days in early November on a sailing out of Miami.
The Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic dance music festival, took over the Norwegian Joy for four days in early November on a sailing out of Miami. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Demian Becerra

It began with a Taylor Swift fan wearing a concert T-shirt while on a cruise ship.

That fan was Jessica Malerman, a travel advisor with North Carolina-based Marvelous Mouse Travels, who was itching to see the pop icon on her sold-out Eras Tour in Miami. These mega-gatherings are not just concerts but also where fans, known as Swifties, exchange friendship bracelets, dress like the pop star, dance and bond over their love of Swift and her lyrics.

When Malerman's T-shirt struck a chord with a fellow cruiser during a Royal Caribbean Seminar at Sea in late October, it inspired her and a pair of agents who had been eager to host some sort of girls' cruise to launch a fan cruise for Swifties after the artist's three-show run in Miami next October. Although Swift wouldn't be onboard or be affiliated with the cruise, the sailing would include dance parties, trivia, bingo, karaoke -- and the bracelet swap.

Less than two weeks after launching the In My Cruise Era sailing, news of the cruise went viral. The first 50-room block sold out, so they doubled down on another 50 rooms, trying to expand while keeping their group size manageable. It kept growing, ultimately stopping at 200 rooms despite thousands of inquiries.

"It's overwhelming," Malerman said. "As a travel agent, you're used to building these intimate connections with people and really making personalized vacations for people. So the fact that we can create a vacation that so many people can relate to and say, 'You know, this is going to be an amazing experience for me,' is really awesome." She added that she hopes to add more cruises that appeal to Swift's fans in the future. 

And travel advisors who put together themed or group sailings said that Swift-themed sentiment taps directly into the secret ingredient for a successful offering: passion for something, whether it's an artist, a lifestyle or self-improvement. 

Themes at sea sweeps the Internet daily for themed cruises. As of mid-November, the site had posted about 670 active sailings, some with multiple sailings. Here are some of the most popular categories:

  • Enthusiasts and hobbies: 88 
  • Food and wine: 64 
  • Music: 61
  • Lifestyle: 54
  • Active: 40 
  • Intellectual pursuits: 36
  • Holidays: 30
  • Entertainment: 27 
  • Nature: 19
  • Religion: 13

Travel advisors can leverage that passion in popular culture or niche interests by either booking clients on existing themed voyages or by concocting their own, seizing on something that sparks interest from consumers, said David Bittner, a travel advisor and co-founder of

"The theme cruise space in the last 20 years has just exploded," he said, adding that there is a cruise for just about "anything you can think of."

That currently includes headbanger music, cats, wine, bridal fashion shows, comic-cons, line dancing, yoga, Zumba, golf, tennis, pickleball, wrestling, running, comedy, magic, Irish music, storytelling, Broadway, antiques, the American Revolution, "Star Trek," Jay and Silent Bob, "Golden Girls," art, astronomy, grand prix racing, knitting, poker, murder mysteries, LGBTQ+, photography, baseball history, D-Day, swingers, nudists, country music, politics, rock music and religion, not to mention food, beer and wine -- just to name a few.

Wrestling fans on a Chris Jericho's Rock 'n' Wrestling Rager at Sea sailing.
Wrestling fans on a Chris Jericho's Rock 'n' Wrestling Rager at Sea sailing. Photo Credit: Will Byington

How theme cruises get done

Theme sailings have become more important to cruise lines. 

Norwegian Cruise Line understood the value of theme cruises early and in 2012 acquired Sixthman Festivals at Sea, which for two decades has built themed cruise and land experiences to bring bands and fans on vacation together. 

This year, parent company Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings (NCLH) created the Experiences at Sea division to build unique experiences by blending Sixthman with its charters, meetings and incentives department.

Themed and chartered cruises have become "much more important" to the company, said Neil Brodie, senior director of charters, meetings and incentives for NCLH. Despite still being a small piece of the business overall, its importance grows as the company's three brands build capacity that needs to be filled, he said.

"We used to focus on just the hardware, and now we're focusing on what we think people will care about the most, which is experiences," Brodie said. 

Companywide, NCLH has blocked off at least 100 nights each year for theme, charter and incentives clients, offering them a better rate than if they were booking a regular sailing. 

Sixthman aims to create immersive festival destination experiences by finding the most passionate fan bases, said Jeff Cuellar, vice president of events, marketing and community. He said the group looks for the kind of artists and interests that inspire tattoos and passionate discussions on Reddit and attract people who buy merchandise, attend shows and listen to podcasts about that artist or topic. 

"Our goal at Sixthman is to find these communities and bring to life this destination vacation experience so when you come onboard, you are immediately immersed in everything 'that,'" Cuellar said. "And from all of the touch points from when we actually go on sale through post-event with videos that we're sharing with them, we're building communities." 

The assumption behind themed cruises, he said, is that the subject is the most popular of its genre. That does not have to be true, he said.

DJ Fisher pumps up the crowd at the Electric Daisy Carnival cruise on the Norwegian Joy.
DJ Fisher pumps up the crowd at the Electric Daisy Carnival cruise on the Norwegian Joy. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Demian Becerra

For example, the band 311 enjoyed peak popularity in the mid-1990s but still has a cult following. The rock-rap group, perhaps best known for the song "Down," has hosted more than a decade's worth of cruises, with more in the works. 

"They've got an extremely passionate fan base that wants to be together, that wants to celebrate the band and everything that they do," he said. "From Paramore to Kiss to rock and wrestling with Chris Jericho, that's what we do." 

To figure out what interests will hit that fan base sweet spot, Cuellar said Sixthman has created a proprietary tool to measure fan engagement and passion for an artist. While Cuellar wouldn't divulge what goes into its measurement tool, he said the entertainment company isn't just looking at bands but defines artists more broadly as musicians, comedians, chefs and star athletes.

In 2024, Sixthman plans to sail 24 themed cruises, 14 of which will be new.

One of them is a Hallmark Channel Christmas Cruise out of Miami. The Hallmark Channel approached Sixthman about teaming up for the sailing, which is centered around the holidays and will feature actors from the films -- and probably more Christmas trees on one ship than the entire Norwegian fleet combined, Cuellar quipped.

According to NCL, the sailing was fully booked in 12 hours, the fastest sell-out in Sixthman history. A second sailing was added and sold out on the first day of its presale.

"You talk about the ultimate holiday experience and then there is a passion around these 'Hallmarkees' that talk about the movies, that know the actors and actresses so well," he said. "It's so intimate."

A ship's design is a big part of a theme cruise production. Norwegian's Jewel-class ships are ideal for such cruises because the pool area can accommodate every attendee on the ship at one time. "We can create that community and family moment on the pool deck versus some of the other ships that are just designed differently and do not allow that same type of space," Cuellar said.

Cruise lines also like theme cruises because they often sail in the shoulder seasons, although those that have what Cuellar calls a "rabid" fan base also sell out peak-season sailings. And, he said, the cruises often attract people who might not otherwise cruise, bringing aboard the valued first-timer.

Some themed cruises focus on media and politics, such as The Nation Cruise, which is going on its 26th sailing this month.
Some themed cruises focus on media and politics, such as The Nation Cruise, which is going on its 26th sailing this month. Photo Credit: Courtesy of David Bittner

How to find themed cruises

Bittner and his business partner Howard Moses have put together and sold themed cruises since the early 2000s.

After hosting cruises oriented around politics, religion and lifestyles -- such as a cruise for runners -- the two travel advisors at The Cruise Vacation and Authority found themselves in 2008 lamenting the difficulty in finding a listing of upcoming themed sailings. Cruise lines put effort into creating these sailings, but there wasn't much awareness of them, Bittner said.

They created, enabling cruise lines and travel advisors to list theme cruises for the trade and consumers to find. The site operated for a decade before being hacked shortly before the pandemic and being relaunched this year. 

Moses and Bittner said the site empowers even small agencies to post their theme cruises, making them easier for prospective clients to find. 

Bittner said he's seeing just about as many themed cruises now as there were before the pandemic. One hurdle, he said, is that cruise business has rebounded so much that it's more difficult to place a theme sailing now than four years ago. 

"It's not that the ship is full," he said, "There's another group. You can't have two groups onboard because you're fighting for space."

Food and wine sailings are hot right now, Moses said, and are being launched by both private groups and cruise lines.

Princess Cruises is one of those lines. This fall it hosted two Pacific Coast Wine and Food Experience cruises featuring the Wagner Family of Wines, which includes Caymus Vineyards, and Jackson Family Wines, the largest owner of coastal vineyards in California and Oregon. The cruise tapped the line's relationship with Caymus Vineyards, which currently offers a specialty five-course "winemakers dinner" with a meal designed to complement tasting notes of the vineyard's wines.

Princess is also leaning into popular culture when devising cruises. Last month it operated a cruise featuring Adam Savage, the original co-host of the Discovery Channel series "MythBusters." Weeks later, the line hosted an early December sailing led by "Say Yes to the Dress" host and bridal designer Randy Fenoli. 

"People have affinities," said Carmen Roig, vice president of sales at Princess. "The '80s-themed cruise we held was so successful out of Galveston" that the line now incorporates at least one '80s night into every cruise, she said.

Running cruises can offer races, such as 5K and 10K runs in Alaska at multiple ports.
Running cruises can offer races, such as 5K and 10K runs in Alaska at multiple ports. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Howard Moses

Tapping the value of community

Advisors can also tap into demand for clients who may not be able to easily travel with the masses for health reasons. 

Or as Maureen Basye, co-founder of Celiac Cruise put it, demand for feeling normal and safe.

Basye's family long enjoyed cruising but struggled to travel or eat at restaurants after her then-4-year-old son was diagnosed with celiac disease. 

"'Not trusting' is how we enter dining situations," Basye said.

Her son, who would get sick if he ate food containing gluten, had to watch everyone else at the table be served their food while the kitchen carefully (and more slowly) made his. 

The wait, Basye said, was for him "an agonizing reminder that you're different. 'Life is not how it used to be' was in your face."

That experience inspired her to start Celiac Cruise with travel advisor Connie Saunders, founder and CEO of Total Travel and Events. Together, they have hosted six cruises this year that have a kitchen and dining space exclusively preparing gluten-free food. Being given an entire menu that caters to their dietary restrictions brings guests a sense of normalcy, Basye said.

"We're essentially selling out on everything," she said of her cruises, which are hosted by Royal Caribbean International. 

In 2024, there will be seven Celiac Cruise sailings: two full river charters on AmaWaterways and five on Royal Caribbean. Her next cruise, on the Oasis of the Seas in February, will host nearly 700 people, enough to take over an entire deck of the multilevel main dining room. 

In addition to guaranteeing a safe place for guests and their families to eat without fear of accidentally ingesting gluten, Basye said the cruises include speakers lecturing on celiac disease and other events that bring participants together. 

Her advice for travel advisors who are interested in hosting themed cruises is to recognize the value of community and commonality, especially to those with travel limitations that sometimes go unnoticed. In her case, it was people and families struggling to vacation and enjoy dining experiences when they were constantly afraid of getting ill. 

"There's so much value in community, more than just the food," she said. 


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