Arriving at PortMiami, we found the usual cruise crowd had ditched the tropical shirts and nautical stripes for mini-skirts, brightly printed button-downs, mod shift dresses, flared bell-bottomed pants, white go-go boots and shaggy wigs. Did we fall into a time warp and emerge in 1974? Almost -- we were getting ready to embark on StarVista LIVE's second annual Ultimate Disco Cruise.
For five nights in February, Celebrity Infinity would do a bit of time travel as it sailed to Key West and Nassau, Bahamas. Musical icons of the '70s and their disco-loving fans would set sail together for a nonstop nostalgic party. And, in this "Boogie Wonderland," many found the music of their youth gave them new energy and one of the best vacations they've ever had.
The nonstop party began as soon as we boarded. Loud and lively passengers crowded Celebrity Infinity's ice-topped Martini Bar soon after boarding and danced their first "The Hustle" to piped-in disco music before they'd even seen their cabins. The ship's crew played along, some dancing through the crowds while the bartenders put on a martini-shaking show.
Some folks who weren't dressed '70s-style wore T-shirts from the inaugural Ultimate Disco Cruise in 2019. It was clear that many passengers were veteran theme-cruise vacationers, sporting shirts from other StarVista LIVE music-themed trips, including the Soul Train and the '70s Rock & Romance cruises.
The 10-piece Boogie Wonder Band set the tone during sail-away, performing a medley of songs, including Patrick Hernandez's "Born to Be Alive," Wild Cherry's "Play That Funky Music" and Kool & the Gang's "Celebration." Leave your worries and stresses behind, one performer said. It was time to have fun.
Dig out your best wigs, '70s clothing and more. The Ultimate Disco Cruise has no dress code, but donning disco-era ensembles was encouraged and is part of the fun. The cruise also offered multiple theme nights, encouraging passengers to dress as extras in "Saturday Night Fever," as '70s TV and movie characters, and in a single color for "white night."
During one of the artist Q&A panels, Ignatius Mason of Heatwave described performing during character night, "You look up and see Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Scooby Doo."
As the Ultimate Disco Cruise grows, so too does its ability to attract top acts. New additions to the 2020 lineup included the Commodores and the Jacksons. Returning favorites included KC and the Sunshine Band, and The Trammps featuring Earl Young. The lineup was rounded out by several tribute bands and DJs. The 2022 sailing will add Peaches & Herb and Kool & the Gang to the mix.
Not all of the bands appeared in their original lineups. The Commodores were, of course, short one Lionel Richie. Jody Watley was the only original member of Shalamar onstage, thus the name change to Shalamar Reloaded. The Blue Notes had an entirely new lineup, but it's been put together by late singer Harold Melvin's daughter.
These performers know how important their fans are; most brought their A games. George McCrae brought down the house when he hit the high notes in "Rock Your Baby." KC and the Sunshine Band's mainstage performance was a nonstop dance party, and Sister Sledge pulled fans onstage to dance and took their mikes into the crowd to work the aisles and rows. The Jacksons may have simplified their stage choreography but they didn't stop moving.
While there were about 2,000 passengers onboard, the seating capacity of Celebrity Infinity's large indoor theater was about 1,000. That meant each headliner performed at least two "mainstage concerts" during the cruise with passengers' attendance divided into two groups by the color of their key card. Everyone got to see one big show each night.
For example, on the first evening, passengers with gold ID cards were invited to see the Commodores at 6:30 p.m. while passengers with silver ID cards could enjoy Shalamar Reloaded with Jody Watley at 9 p.m. On the second evening, the two groups swapped performance times and passengers got to see the show they missed the first night.
StarVista LIVE executives said that while they're confident they could fill a larger ship with passengers, they prefer smaller ships with larger theaters, so they can ensure every passenger has a chance to see the headliners.
StarVista LIVE modified Celebrity's main indoor theater in a few ways for the cruise; for example, adding more bar-style seating so the venue could accommodate half of the ship's passengers each night. The theater layout also made it easy for performers to step into the aisles or invite dancing passengers onstage. (Some passengers turned the large space between the front row and the stage into a dance floor, lifting their hands for high fives.
One of the best things about this cruise for passengers was the opportunity to meet the performers and to get to know them as people. Fans and stars ate in the same dining rooms, roamed the same hallways and lounged under the same sun. The Trammps' Earl Young, who popularized the "four on the floor" beat underlying most disco songs, said he never minded when fans stopped him in the buffet line or pulled him aside in the public areas to share a story.
The ship's programming included a daily wine tasting with George McCrae and panels and Q&A sessions with the performers. Passengers could -- and did -- jump in with their own questions.
At one Q&A, Sister Sledge talked about being a family in the entertainment business. A "Girl Power" panel featured France "Come to Me" Joli, Norma Jean "Dance, Dance, Dance" Wright and Linda "If My Friends Could See Me Now" Clifford. "The Birth of Disco Phenomenon" discussion included insights from "Dance Fever" host Deney Terrio, Felipe Rose of the Village People and StarVista LIVE Executive Producer Alan Rubens.
StarVista LIVE kept the smaller pool on the pool deck covered to accommodate multiple concerts every day and night. No tickets or passes were required for these shows. Passengers could dance near their pool chairs, crowd near the stage or sip a drink at one of the outdoor bars during the performances. (Some passengers claimed loungers with towels before they'd even eaten breakfast to ensure the perfect spot.) The stage was on Deck 10 but passengers could also see and hear the concerts on Deck 11, which rimmed the ship.
Even if they weren't at a live event, Ultimate Disco Cruise passengers were never without musical accompaniment. Passengers could walk from the pool on Deck 10 to Guest Relations on Deck 3 and hear a different song playing on each floor via piped-in music. DJ Jazzy, who had his turntables in the Grand Foyer on Deck 4, spun disco favorites during different times each night and hosted nightly karaoke in the Rendezvous Lounge. Some passengers played favorite tunes over personal speakers.
Some of the disco era's biggest stars didn't want to perform on the cruise; others have died. StarVista LIVE executives said they carefully selected tribute artists who will do the originals justice.
Rainere Martin of the Ultimate Donna Summer Tribute looked, sounded and moved like the original singer of songs, including "Hot Stuff," "Last Dance" and "On the Radio." Tribute artists ABBA the Concert: A Tribute to Abba were also a credit to the original artists in looks and sound. (Were they really from Sweden? Did it really matter?)
Anthony Wayne, who cowrote and performed the title role in "Mighty Real: A Fabulous Sylvester Musical," nailed the singer's falsetto. The show was more than just a concert. Wayne, as Sylvester, talked about being an openly gay man in the 1970s and losing friends and lovers to HIV/AIDS in the '80s. Sylvester died of HIV/AIDS complications in 1988 at age 41.
Other on-ship performers tackled the work of multiple artists. Singer Cara Lee performed tributes to Cher and salutes to "Disco Divas" in the intimate Rendezvous Lounge. Keith and Leslie Ferguson -- a husband and wife duo who have worked with artists including Stevie Wonder, The Temptations and The Spinners -- also interpreted the works of multiple artists.
After the last dinner guests had left the main dining room, the Trellis Restaurant was reimagined as a two-story venue called Studio 55 -- "the hottest nightclub at sea." That meant adding a silver disco ball and a color-changing floor as well as multiple mini-bars around the dance area. Doors opened at 11:30 p.m. each night and closed around 3 a.m. "Saturday Night Fever" became "Every Night Fever" for the passengers who flocked to the late-nightclub.
DJs included Felipe Rose of Village People, Philadelphia radio host Bob Pantano and original Studio 54 DJ Nicky Siano. (And yes, Rose played "YMCA" and led the crowd in singing and spelling.) Passengers showed off moves they'd learned from "Dance Fever" host Deney Terrio, who taught John Travolta how to move. (The final night on the ship featured a dance contest.)
It's hard not to make friends on this cruise. Passengers are outgoing and friendly and share at least two passions: music and cruising. People who'd met and bonded on the 2019 cruise reunited in the buffet line, at the bar or around the pool. Passengers hailed from throughout the U.S. but state boundaries and political differences faded as the ship sailed away from the Atlantic coast.
This cruise is a must for disco fans. Whereas some cruises focus on the ports, this one focuses on onboard activities. It manages to be low key while also feeling energetic. Passengers can opt to go, go, go from 10 a.m. until 3 a.m. the next day, filling their time with music and dancing, or they can set a slower pace, enjoying each evening's mainstage show and relaxing the rest of the time.
The third Ultimate Disco Cruise is set for February 26 to March 3, 2022, sailing roundtrip from Miami. .StarVista LIVE, which also offers music-themed cruises, including '70s Rock & Romance and Southern Rock, said it is considering adding a second Ultimate Disco Cruise in the future.