Pride of America: Inaugural Voyage with Regis & Kelly
About the Virtual Cruise
The launch this week of Pride of America has been hotly anticipated, due not only to the fact that it's the first ship built to fly the U.S. flag in
nearly 50 years, but also because Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa will be
filming "Live with Regis and Kelly" onboard this week's inaugural
Join Cruise Critic's Melissa Baldwin, whose day-by-day onboard chronicles will allow us to virtually experience "Live's Pride of America Cruisin' Reunion" as it sails (and broadcasts the show) from Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Miami. She'll share gossip and tidbits about the folks onboard -- as well as offer a neat look at this much-awaited, one-of-a-kind cruise ship.
P.S. Don't miss this week's episodes of "Live with Regis and Kelly." Sure, Regis and Kelly are the big stars, but we think Pride of America and the folks onboard, all contest winners, will get some airtime too.
The virtual will be launched daily (with a break on weekends) through Tuesday, June 28, so check back often!
Day 1: Monday, Embarkation in New York
Sailing on just about any cruise ship's inaugural voyage is an exciting experience, but this week's trip on Norwegian Cruise Line's Pride of America thrills for two reasons. Sure, the ship is a huge deal -- it's the first ocean-going cruise ship to fly the U.S. flag in more than half a century, and was custom-designed for its (eventual) Hawaiian home. And the second cause for excitement? I'm onboard, along with 1,000 other fans, with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa for "Live's Pride of America Cruisin' Reunion."
On this, Pride of America's first voyage with passengers, we'll sail a six-night all-American trip that calls in Boston, Philadelphia, Norfolk and Miami with two days at sea. Everybody onboard is somehow related to "Live with Regis and Kelly," the smash ABC-TV daytime program -- whether staffers, friends and family, or contest winners. The show will be filmed live (!) on four of its episodes -- Philadelphia, Norfolk, a sea day opposite Cape Fear, North Carolina, and Miami -- and will be taped once (tomorrow, a Sunday, when we're in Boston).
The idea for a "Live With Regis and Kelly" tie-in originated with NCL. After successfully filming an at-sea wedding for "Good Morning America," the cruise line pitched a week onboard Pride to "Live's" producers, who are known for taking their show on the road (Puerto Rico and Disney World, for instance).
Soon enough, "Live's Pride of America Cruisin' Reunion" contest was underway; for an entire week in May, the hosts revealed clues on their show -- words such as "horn" and "button." Viewers who collected all five clues (much back-and-forth support was offered on Cruise Critic's NCL board) then entered the contest via postcard or the Internet. After that? The waiting game -- waiting by the phone that is. Each day for several weeks, a name was picked at random from all the entries, and if the person could correctly answer a trivia question, they'd win a free cruise for themselves and 19 of their closest friends and family -- airfare and gratuities included! Winners could also spin a wheel for fun add-on prizes like cabin upgrades and dinner with the captain.
In total, 20 people each won a cruise for 20; local contest winners and second-chance-drawing winners (folks who missed the correct answer were allowed to try again for a cruise for two) bring the total number of lucky viewers onboard to over 1,000. Even with Regis and Kelly's people (about 100), the ship isn't full but the energy level is definitely high. Folks, including myself, can't wait to see if Regis and Kelly are going to be hanging around the ship ... or holing themselves up in their cabins before and after tapings.
It's easy to forget, with all the showbiz hullabaloo, that the ship, too, is the star attraction.
Pride of America is unlike any ship I've ever sailed on before. Upon entering the lobby, a huge space with a fabulous two-level staircase, I felt as if I'd walked into a resort hotel. The seal of the United States on the floor in front of the main desk symbolizes the ship's tie to Americana: its all-U.S. itineraries and nearly all-U.S. crews. The public areas are themed after some of the country's greatest places: the Gold Rush Saloon pays homage to Alaska, while the Hollywood Theater invokes a flashy L.A. vibe. History has its place too, in the Capitol Atrium, S.S. America Library and Jefferson's Bistro (honoring Jefferson's library in Monticello).
So far I've already met folks from all over America -- Michigan, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Ohio -- and everyone I've talked to has said they had no problem finding friends and family who could take off work on such short notice (though packing, especially for last-minute winners, was a production -- I've noticed that a lot of cruisers, myself included, forgot the essential wristwatch!).
The lifeboat drill barely completed, I had my first celebrity sighting! At a bank of elevators -- all oddly open at the same time -- I scooted into one. A nervous-looking employee quickly ushered me out, and I wondered if it was broken ... until here come Kelly Ripa and a whole army of people right past me, and into the elevator! After nearly knocking over the woman of the hour (quick impressions were that she walked briskly, and was quite thin), I decided to get the scoop on the tapings at the information desk.
I've already detailed the taping schedule, but the woman at the desk also told me that everyone is entitled to be in the audience for one taping, with tickets picked at random. She tipped me off that if anyone wants to switch, they can stop down and see if extras are available, and that "stand by" tickets could also become available the day of if folks were interested in going to a second show or a particular taping. I know I'm hoping to go to tomorrow's to catch a glimpse of Joey McIntyre, who was one of my favorite New Kids on the Block (anyone who says Joey M. wasn't at least in their top two is lying). These days, he can be seen on "Dancing with the Stars."
Other highlights throughout the week include Nikki Cox from NBC's "Las Vegas," fashion guru Carson Kressley from "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," former "Love Boat" and current "Hope and Faith" star Ted McGinley, "American Idol" judge Randy Jackson, and Michael Bolton, who just released a new album, "Vintage." I heard one woman in particular swooning over the chance to see Michael -- I bet I know which taping she's going to vie for at the desk.
Filming an award-winning morning show at sea is nothing like picking up your Handicam and taping your family's vacation. The set for "Live" is high above the pool on the top deck, basically in the spot where the tennis and basketball courts would normally be, and the stage was built especially for the show while Pride of America was still at the shipyard in Germany. What's neat is that the contractors were actually able to use leftover scrap tiles to build the stage to match the same decor found in the actual pool area. "Live" wanted this setup rather than just filming by the pool or in the theater so that folks watching at home could see that day's city as a backdrop.
This isn't the only area of the ship to have received a temporary makeover. The aerobics area has been commandeered as a control room, filled with so much blinking, beeping equipment and TV monitors it took three days to set everything up. (Guess that means no sunrise yoga for me, darn.) Fire-retardant flooring was laid down in here for safety, and a special air conditioning system was installed, too, to help cool off the equipment. Another meeting space has been taken over by "Live" and ABC's people as a 1,000-square-ft. production room. Everything will be deconstructed on Friday in Miami.
While the crew and staff prepared up top for tomorrow's taping, contest winners, now passengers,arrived at the pool area -- predictably in quite happy moods -- for the sailaway party. Here I met a group of 20: the Svenssons, a huge crew of family members and friends wearing cute, matching T-shirts. They, too, said it was easy to get the group together. And they were nice enough to let me take their picture! Most of them are from the Pocono Mountains in Pennsylvania.
The bands, Dr. Dean's Music Machine and Local Folk, were excellent, playing lots of classic rock tunes. "Ain't That America" kicked off the party after a conga-line dance by staff and guests to the "Tequila" song. No signs of Kelly or Regis here; I guess they were either laying low or rehearsing for tomorrow's taping.
After grabbing a copy of today's "Freestyle Daily," the daily calendar of events, I retreated to my cabin for a little rest and relaxation, which quickly turned into an unpacking spree as my luggage had arrived. The cabins are indeed small, livable for two but I can't imagine how tight for a family of three or four. My suitcase, shoes and clothes pretty much dominate the tiny closet (if my boyfriend, who is a heavier packer than me, was along, there'd be turf wars for sure). But I like the warm decor and deep balcony, and as long as I have a clean, comfortable place to sleep I'm generally happy (though that didn't stop me from snooping longingly through a still-open penthouse suite a few doors down with a flat-screen television, dressing area and bathtub).
All that aside, I think I'm on a very, very good deck -- I can't help but notice folks get off the elevator on my floor wearing ABC and "Live with Regis and Kelly" tags around their necks, and at one point this afternoon, there was an assortment of silver cases, presumably containing television equipment, on the floor in my corridor. Excitement! I hear that Kelly and Regis are staying in suites one deck up, but that neither of them have the tippy-top accommodations because their contracts stipulate that they must each receive the same thing ... and there's only one Grand Suite. Wonder who's staying in there?
One of NCL's most distinctive features -- Freestyle Cruising's multiple restaurants that allow passengers to eschew the assigned dining, assigned tablemates experiences -- is the ship's plethora of specialty restaurants. But tonight, not having made any advance reservations, I headed for the Skyline Restaurant (which, like the Liberty, is one of the ship's main dining restaurants).
On my way to dinner, I noticed a "private party" sign parked outside Jefferson's Bistro, the ship's elegant French restaurant, which could only mean one thing: When you've got Ripa or Philbin as a last name, you can shut down an entire restaurant. Sure enough, Kelly and her husband were eating dinner inside, and I saw Regis hanging out as well -- he looked like he was having a great time, smiling and very animated, talking with his hands, but I couldn't tell if he was there for supper or just to socialize. After my third or fourth walk-by, I gave up trying to sneak a peek at everyone's plates (I really wanted to see what -- if anything -- Kelly was eating), because I was feeling a little too much like paparazzi.
My dinner at the Skyline was lovely. I had shrimp cocktail, a salad with mustard vinaigrette and the highlighted "celebrity chef" entree (regional cooks have provided recipes for NCL America menus, in my case a macadamia- and coconut-crusted snapper with fruity salsa and a Thai peanut sauce). But even better than the food was the scenery. I had the best seat in the house if I do say so myself: a small table against a window with a perfect view of the ship's wake and a bright orange sunset. Interestingly, I spied no big family groups -- I have to assume that the families of 20 made reservations elsewhere or ate in the Aloha Cafe (buffet area). I think this aspect of the dining set up might make NCL less friendly for solo travelers.
Afterwards, I headed out to the Hollywood Theater -- a nice touch is the red carpet entrance with flashing lights, replicating celebrities' paparazzi experiences as you enter. Tonight's entertainer was a comedian/juggler in the Hollywood Theater, who has appeared on HBO. I was a bit skeptical about a juggler being able to hold my interest, but must admit he was really funny and talented; he actually juggled three or more clubs while balancing a working television set on his head. When the machetes came out, I suddenly felt grateful that I hadn't chosen a front-row seat, but all went off without a hitch.
After a nightcap at Pink's Champagne Bar (which was mellow with a pianist/vocalist) and a quick walk-through at the ship's disco, Mardi Gras (which was a little too loud for my tired self), I retreated to my cabin for a good night's sleep.
Tomorrow, we arrive in Boston. Regis and Kelly's taping begins at 3 p.m. -- and I hope to be there!