A ship's cruise director (CD, for short) can have a big impact on your vacation. So big, that increasing numbers of savvy cruisers track the comings and goings of various CDs: "Who's on what ship? When will they return from vacation? Is it true so-and-so is retiring?" Cruise Critic Message Board posters list pages of updated cruise director schedules, and many even plan sailings that coincide with when their favorite is onboard.
Why? Because the most effective cruise directors can influence vacations by engaging with passengers, and planning or hosting interactive activities and games, receptions, in-room TV shows and top-notch performances that become highlights of your time onboard. Many are also talented vocalists, dancers or stand-up comics, enhancing the ship's entertainment options.
CDs work full days and long nights, and the best ones seem to be everywhere, but always have a moment to stop and chat. We tapped five of the most popular cruise directors, so we can peek behind the scenes at their work, their favorite experiences at sea and their best tips for a memorable cruise.
With nearly 30,000 Instagram followers, it's no wonder that Matt Mitcham recently topped Porthole's Readers Choice list for Best Cruise Director.
Originally from London, England, and often seen sporting a neon T-shirt that says "Free Hugs," Mitcham has been a cruising fan favorite since he joined Carnival nine years ago -- passengers often cite his energetic personality when discussing him online. While he was initially surprised when passengers told him they booked sailings around his schedule, he considers it a privilege.
"I try and be as real and personable as possible, and my main goal is to become part of your family during your cruise," he says. "I'm there to get the fun started and make sure you know where to be. Guests often send me pictures after their cruise, and it's nice when they say, 'Hey, you made sure my cruise was fantastic.'"
Behind the scenes: Cruise directors need limitless energy 24/7, and Mitcham admits debarkation day is challenging.
"You're up at the crack of dawn, saying goodbye to 5,000 guests that have made you part of their family, and then an hour later embarkation starts and nobody knows who you are; it's an emotional roller coaster," he says.
"I feed off the crowd, and even if it's my 40th time hosting sail-away, I try to make sure I always deliver. If they're hyped, I'm going to be right there with them. If they're not, I'll find some reserve in the tank and get them on my level."
Mitcham also enjoys helping passengers plan birthday surprises and proposals before their cruise.
"It's always great to be part of the buildup, because lots of people start their vacation four or five months in advance, when they join Cruise Critic groups, to really amp up their excitement for their cruise," he adds.
Favorite cruise experience: Some of Mitcham's most memorable moments at sea include dropping in to visit his grandmother, who lives in St. Kitts, and participating in Carnival's Give Back With Purpose excursions.
"A few years back, we painted an orphanage in Freeport and played with the children, and the program's getting bigger and bigger," he explains. "We've just started one in Jamaica and one in Cozumel, and we did a huge project in Puerto Rico. It was awesome to go out there and help them rebuild the city."
Insider cruise tips: Even the most dynamic cruise director can't enjoy your vacation for you. Mitcham suggests that passengers should take responsibility for their own fun.
"Come with an open mind," he says. "Believe it or not, when I'm on vacation, I am so shy to get involved in things because I'm nervous. It's different when you've got a name tag on, and you're in charge of running the party. But you can have so much more fun if you get involved."
His other tip is to bring and generously apply sunscreen. "Do you know how many red lobsters I see walking around a cruise ship?" he says.
Mitcham also encourages cruisers to seek out and speak to the diverse crew members onboard, saying it's a great way to learn about other cultures.
Not everyone can take a sound effect and turn it into an onboard identity. But Marc Walker, who worked on 20 different ships and has been with Royal Caribbean since 1996, is one of a kind.
"After every ship announcement, I say 'Bing Bong' -- the sound of the elevators and the SeaPass machines -- and then everyone copies me. It's quite legendary now," laughs Walker, who was born in Southern England and resides in Orlando. The popular cruise director has about 16,000 Facebook followers, with whom he shares family photos and updates. Walker says staying in touch with passengers between cruises is a great way to build and maintain connections.
Behind the scenes: Walker thinks passengers would be surprised to know that his job involves much more than standing onstage with a microphone.
"I'm a 3.5-stripe officer, which means I'm responsible for a huge amount on the ship, not just entertainment: There's guest flow, crowd management, fire and safety, and liaising with the Revenue, Housekeeping, F&B [food and beverage], Marine and Guest Services departments," he explains.
"Depending on the ship you're on, there is a massive amount of behind-the-scenes work such as HR, finances, meetings, appraisals, future cruise planning, scheduling, reports and Cruise Compass editing. And, I have a team of 120 who may need me at any time."
Contrary to what most cruisers believe, Walker says CDs don't necessarily have to be funny all the time, but likeability is paramount for success.
"I'm the same offstage and at home as I am onstage. You can't be two or three different people; it's noticeable," he says.
Favorite cruise experience: In 2009, while on Enchantment of the Seas, Walker took on an unusual new task.
"I was chaperone for John Travolta for the week while he was onboard," he recalls. "He wore a hat and dark glasses, and somehow we kept it a secret for the entire cruise."
Insider cruise tips: Walker's advice for first-time cruisers involves researching and booking excursions and activities online rather than spending precious vacation time standing in line.
"But don't fall for all the negative posts you might read, as they can be personal opinions based on one bad experience," he cautions. "It's very important to be open to anything, as it's a new environment. Try everything you can and forget your troubles."
A towering figure onstage -- he's 6-foot-6, plus whatever height his spiky blonde hair adds -- Eric De Gray's singing skills match his larger-than-life presence, say passengers who board Azamara Journey, where De Gray is lead performer and cruise director.
Guests who spot him on roller skates may not know that De Gray used to figure skate competitively or that he's a keen model railroader. He's also an accomplished bassoon player, a published author and a recording artist.
Behind the scenes: "A corporate executive once told me that the CD is the heart of the ship, and guests feel that genuineness and personal engagement," says De Gray, who grew up in Ontario, Canada. "I work from the heart, which is especially integral to a small/midsize ship. Being amongst the guests and open to their needs is part of the job, both in front and behind the scenes. You also have to be able to laugh at yourself a lot."
Regarding the many passengers who praise De Gray's talents online and in person, he says he feels tremendous joy sharing his story with them.
"I'm always surprised and deeply honored to have anyone 'follow' me through life," he admits. "I've been so blessed to meet many wonderful guests during my career that my mother says, 'You have a mother in every port around the world and I don't have to worry about you whatsoever.' I do enjoy having so much extended family and the experiences that only a life at sea could bring."
Favorite cruise experience: Of the 13 different ships he's worked on for 10 cruise lines, De Gray has one sentimental favorite.
"The most impressionable was the QE2," he says. "Early in my career, I had the great fortune of traveling with The Fifth Dimension and Victor Borge on a 1994 world cruise on the QE2. You could really feel a sense of grandness about her then; coming aboard was like stepping back in time."
Insider cruise tips: De Gray once likened being a cruise director as "traveling with our critics every day," and he suggests passengers be willing to enjoy new adventures.
"Don't expect to experience your culture from back home when traveling abroad; you're traveling to experience others and grow in appreciation for what they have to offer and develop your own understanding," he advises. "In so doing we have more respect for each other."
Gary Hunter, who is also a professional ventriloquist in Chiefland, Florida, has performed at sea since 1975 on dozens of ships for many cruise lines. He joined Crystal Cruises for the maiden voyage of its first ship, Harmony, in 1990. Since 2003, Hunter has been Crystal Serenity's CD. He calls the ship his home away from home.
After so many years at sea, Hunter knows the job -- and how to exceed everyone's expectations -- inside out. That's probably why passengers report sailing with Hunter many times, and keeping in touch via email or telephone after their trips.
"When guests want to cruise with a specific CD, it's usually because they've become friends, and I think my success is because what you see is what you get. I'm very relaxed onstage and I love people," he explains.
Behind the scenes: When passengers have a complaint or criticism, Hunter doesn't run away. "I sit guests down and explain why we do things the way we do, and it will always be the truth," he says. "It's amazing what 10 minutes speaking with a guest can do: It can completely turn them around if they're having a bad day or a bad cruise."
Favorite cruise experience: Hunter's most memorable experience at sea occurred when a passenger requested a special favor.
"She told me she and her husband had cruised with me many times. I didn't really remember her, but she knew me," he recalls. "She said, 'My husband passed away; I have his ashes with me on the ship, and I'd love for you to go with me to Magen's Bay in St. Thomas and help me spread his ashes there.'"
Hunter took the day off, arranged for a boat and fulfilled the woman's wish.
"For someone to come back onboard the ship, bring her husband's ashes and then track me down, I must have made some kind of impact on them; I'll never forget that," says Hunter.
Insider cruise tips: Hunter's best cruising advice is to pack your bags, not your baggage.
"Try to leave as many of your problems at home as you can," he suggests. "I've never understood how people spend so much for a vacation and then work so hard not to enjoy it. When most people are complaining, it generally has nothing to do with the cruise. Want to have a great time on vacation? Go with the right attitude."
Born and raised in Knysna, South Africa, Handre Potgieter has been working in the luxury cruise industry for 16 years, the last nine with Seabourn. The perpetually bow-tied CD is also an avid runner who fits in marathons between sailings.
"I absolutely love what I get to do," he says. "Cruise directors must enjoy dealing with people every day with sincere communication, care and leadership, and with humor and creativity."
Since Potgieter isn't active on social media -- he describes himself as rather private and shy -- he is often surprised at how well-known he's become among cruisers.
"So many of our wonderful guests with whom I've had the pleasure of sailing have mentioned me on different platforms and also word-of-mouth, and I am totally humbled by this," he says.
"When guests have such a strong connection to you, it's really heartwarming to know they want to spend time with you when you are onboard, and that it may influence their decision when considering a future ship or itinerary."
Behind the scenes: Passengers usually assume Potgieter selects all visiting entertainers and lecturers onboard, but that's not how he works.
"For the most part, it's a collaboration between our head of entertainment and the different agents we book with: We're presented with all the 'ingredients' and from there we have carte blanche to build a creative layout," he explains. "We can influence future bookings by sharing guests' feedback. For example; when guests really like a specific act or lecturer, we can sometimes secure them a few more bookings."
Favorite cruise experience: Potgieter has many favorite ports, including Scandinavia, Sydney and Hong Kong, but there's one he feels should be on every cruiser's bucket list.
"As a destination, Antarctica blew me away," he says. "I found it to be a life-changing, almost otherworldly experience: The ice, the wildlife and the colors of the sun's reflection at 2 o'clock in the morning were unforgettable. Seeing the northern lights when at sea was also a magical experience."
Insider cruise tips: Potgieter notes that while Seabourn passengers are usually experienced travelers, he still recommends packing lots of layers for the ports, as the weather can vary wildly. He also suggests using Seabourn's Source App, which recently introduced a new messaging function for passengers. Above all, he invites cruisers to discover new opportunities for friendship and adventure while onboard.
"Each cruise will be different and I try to encourage guests not to compare, but rather to embrace the differences," he explains.
"We're in business to make sure everyone feels included and part of the family on every cruise. A friend of mine once said, 'The stranger next to you is a friend you don't know.' So if you take a few moments to explore that, you might be pleasantly surprised."