Ask the cruise ship ex-crewmember

Hi, I mentioned in another thread that I used to work on a cruise ship, and there was some interest in asking me stuff. So here you go.

In 2007 I worked for 9 months on the MV Disney Wonder, in the Youth Activities department. That means I was basically a camp counselor. I learned a lot about the cruise line, and the industry as a whole, mostly pretty awful things. I know lots of people love cruising, but I live in hope that people will make informed choices, including their vacation choices. Fighting ignorance, yeah?

While I was onboard, the ship did short 3 and 4 day cruises from Port Canaveral to Nassau and Castaway Cay, Disney’s private island. (Once we went to another FL port because of a hurricane, and once to Key West, when the Disney Vacation Club bought out the cruise. It was very exciting to see new ports, not just the same 3 places over and over.)

I lived on board, naturally. Everyone did. My position was considered relatively high status, so I only had one roommate. Others shared with 2 or 3 other people, or maybe more. Only officers had a room to themselves, and the cruise director and captains lived in guest staterooms. Our cabin was TINY, two bunks, two cupboards, a miniscule shower and toilet, and floor space about equal to a doormat. I also had deck privileges during my non-work hours, which means I could dress up a bit and use some of the guests’ amenities, like buying very expensive coffees on deck 9, or swimming in the guest pools. Of course, we had to prominently display our crew ID cards, so no-one could really mistake us for a guest.

I worked 10 hour shifts every day – I didn’t have a day off for 9 months straight. If I’d been ill, I could have asked the ship’s medical staff for a note, but I never felt sick “enough” to do so. Working with kids, of course, everyone in the department got sick all the time, but we just took lots of Dayquil and kept on working. It was VERY frowned upon to go off sick. Although, if we had any GI symptoms, we were to report it immediately and were confined to quarters for 24 hours. Norovirus was not a laughing matter.

The ship’s office “held” my passport. I assume I could have asked for it back at any time, but I never tested the theory. They also issued our tiny pay checks, and cashed it onboard, for a fee, of course. Some crew had US bank accounts, and could deposit their checks, but most people took cash and paid the fee. (I don’t remember much of the detail about this, but I found it pretty troubling at the time.) I came home with around $7,000, I think, so I “earned” maybe $1.50/hour.

In terms of crew, the ship was flagged as a Panamanian vessel, a typical “flag of convenience.” We had crew members from all over the world. Some nationalities were more prized in certain positions - Aussies like me were popular in Youth Activities, Guest Services, selling in the stores, in the spa. Non-native English speakers, in general, had less public-facing roles, like in the kitchens or as cleaners or servers. Within our department, there was a disgusting policy known as “right-fit talent” which ostensibly matched staff to skills required - from my perspective, it was an excuse for institutionalized racism, where only the white counselors ever had a presenter or activity hosting role. My colleagues with thicker accents and/or dark skin usually had the lower status jobs, even within our department’s hierarchy, like cleaning or checking kids in and out of the programs.

But worse, there were crewmembers that we never saw in the common areas. Most of the 800+ crew ate in one mess, but there were certain staff that we never saw. The laundry crew were all, I believe, Chinese - they spoke little English. We literally never saw them out of the laundry - not in the mess, not even in the corridors, and certainly not ashore during port days, when most crew could get a few hours leave and take the bus to Merritt Island Mall. I assume they had berths down there somewhere, and their own mess maybe? But always completely segregated from the rest of us. The laundry was on the very lowest deck, below the water line, so I assume they literally never saw natural light.

Environmentally, every day I learned something that turned my stomach. The food waste was the most obvious: the huge kitchen staff onboard produced three times the food required for every meal, so guests would always have complete freedom of choice. Some excess guest food was served to crew (yesterday’s fancy desserts look less fancy in the morning), but most of it was ground up and dumped in the ocean. During one program that I recall, the 50 or so 8-9yr old kids each made a batch of chocolate chip cookie dough, which was taken away and “baked” - really, the kid-made dough was thrown away and replaced with the safely-prepared cookies prepped in cooked in the galley.

All paper and plastic waste was burned, and the ashes dumped. Sewage was treated onboard, to the lowest allowable standard, then dumped. I heard that the ship burnt the equivalent of six jumbo jets’ worth of fuel every hour, including the “sea day” of the 4 day cruise, which was spent literally sailing in circles, just so guests would feel like they were going somewhere. I watched the stars one sea day night, to prove it to myself.

The kids’ areas had lots of toys and games, as you might expect. Some of it was carefully sanitized between uses (K’nex in a dishwasher), but much of it was just thrown away. Not even thrown away, burned! Twice a week, almost-unused board games, books, dolls, craft materials… when I heard about this, I BEGGED to be allowed to donate it, we had ties to a kids’ program in the Bahamas, but was told we didn’t have an export license, so it would be illegal to remove these things from the ship, no matter what country, and too much hassle/expense to arrange for it. Ugh.

Well, that’s a little slice of my experience. I do have some good memories of my time - I met lots of wonderful people, and have friends all over the world from my short stint. Being Disney, there was some great training opportunities, specially in customer service - when I returned to Australia, I helped my next employer completely rewrite their customer service charter and training programs. The onboard shows were also great fun, and I made friends with some of the very talented performers. But overall, my message to you, o Internet, is this: if you have a shred of environmental consciousness, or if you care about social justice, please don’t support this industry. I’m more than happy to answer your questions.

Not to drag your thread into the murk, but one thing I have constantly heard about working on cruise ships is that among the staff they are an absolute hive of sexual promiscuity and a hotbed of personal drama.

Hundreds of young people crammed into a working environment together for weeks at a time I can understand why, but is this really the case?

I can’t speak from experience (a cruise would be flat-out last on my holiday wish list) but I’ve heard this too and imagine that it must be the case for exactly the reasons you mention. Similarly, they reckon the Athlete’s Village at the Olympics is a total shag-fest.

Interesting OP though, my idea of holiday hell just got a little more ugly.

I’ve only taken one cruise and it wasnt thru Disney.

One thing I remember was standing out on the deck overnight and looking at the ocean and I thought that if I wanted to kill myself, this would be the perfect time and place. Painless because the fall itself and the shock would probably kill me, and clean because I’m sure my body would never be found.

So were there any suicides while you were out there?

Also I wonder, I’ve read about many “disappearances” aboard cruise ships. Do you think these were suicides or possibly murders? I mean they have a LOT of crew, many with unknown backgrounds who might be a little pissed about their situation.

Do you think crew members could do such things?

Sounds like hell for the help. One thing i was always curious about-crime on board cruise ships. According to what i read, most of it is never reported, and since you are in international waters, who is responsible for handling such crimes? There have been a number of unsolved disappearances from cruise ships-are they ever investigated? There are also stories of rape , assault, robberies-whats the story on this?

This guy paints a different picture. Makes me wonder how much things vary from cruise line to cruise line. I have to admit, having known people who worked in the Disney parks, I’m not surprised about what you experienced on their cruise ship.

I guess I’m one of the sinners, because I have cruised often (Carribean, Asia, Australia and I have hopes for Europe in the next couple of years).

I’ve always known the people on the cruise ships were worked hard, and I’ve always tried to tip the wait and cabin staff (who a passenger will have the most interaction with) well, but I agree, people seemed to be assigned by nationality to the various jobs.

I am surprised by the amount of food wasted, albeit I shouldn’t be, given the menus and several thousand guests (for those that haven’t cruised, usually you have 5-6 entrees on the menu along with several ‘options’ every night. So the cooks have to ‘guess’ how many of each item to prepare).

Unfortunately, you and the other workers do too good a job; cruising is still one of the better deals when it comes to travel, and I must needs admit that I’ll probably do it again (Scandanavia and the Med beckon).

As for a question, did you (as someone who interacted with people) get tips and if so, we they yours or was there a communal ‘pot’ that was divvied up among the crew?

Eh, I mean, a bit. It was hard for anyone to find privacy, especially if you had more than one roommate. All roommates were assigned, and of the same gender, but you could request a swap – which meant that the same-sex-preferring crew could potentially share with their partner. I remember a complicated situation in which a man and his girlfriend were unofficially sharing a cabin, leaving their two other roommates to also share. We had regular cabin inspections, I’m not sure how they handled that. The girlfriend ended up pregnant, and her contract wasn’t renewed.

There was a lot of drama in my department, during most cruises I’d run into someone crying in a back corridor. Emotions ran high, for all kinds of reasons, but probably exacerbated by lack of sleep and lack of anything else to do - we’d all dwell on our problems because we were bored and stuck on a ship.

Just curious- did he have any consequences?

I never heard about any suicides or murders. And because our guests were mostly young families, we seldom had any medical emergencies - crew from other lines told us that there would be medivacs and deaths every week on their ships. I remember one death on the Wonder, a heart attack, someone’s grandpa. There’s a tiny morgue onboard. The code for public announcement for a medical emergency was “bright star.”

Again, never heard of any of this happening on our ship. The line would have good reason to keep these incidents from the crew. I remember a few firings, but they were for (somewhat_ understandable breeches of contract, like failing to disclose a prescription drug which then showed up in a random urine test, or one guy I went through training with, a cleaner, fell asleep when he was meant to be working.

My position wasn’t really tipped - other jobs, like servers and stewards, expected tips from all guests, and the level of tip to give was even suggested by the cruise line. Sometimes a grateful parent would leave a cash tip for the group, or even for one crewmember - if it was under $50, they could keep it, but if it was over $50, it went into the pot.

The other way crew were recognized by guests was in the evaluations. If a Youth Activities crewmember was called out by name, we heard about it the next day, and they’d have some bullshit prize awarded. The YA officers kept track of the highest performing who got more special rewards, like a meal in one of the guest restaurants, or a half-day off. I was pretty unimpressed by this, as you can maybe tell :slight_smile: The YA crew who bought into this often coached the kids they were working with, reminding them over and over of their name, telling the kids to tell their parents how much they loved playing with them, etc. This seemed to work better with younger kids, so those crew got more recognition than those of us who worked with the older groups (I was assigned to the 8-9 yr olds).

Of course not. But they were both ready to “go ashore” and leave the industry, they ended up married and settled, and now have 3 kids.

Since you worked with kids, you may not have encountered this, but I wonder how Guests From Hell are treated and regarded. Last summer I was on a cruise around the British Isles, and there was a couple we were stuck with at dinner one night who were outrageously demanding. They wouldn’t order from the menu - they had to have something special. They pretty much bitched about everything when they weren’t bragging to the rest of the table. (Thankfully, the next time they were seated with us, they hated the direction they were facing, so they demanded, and got, new seats. WHEW!)

Anyway, did you encounter any outrageous demands or hear tales and particularly colorful guests?

I suspect the biggest difference between what that guy in the linked interview says and araminty isn’t the particular cruise line, but rather that guy was management (if not actually supervising people, at least in high-status white collar work).

Color me unsurprised to find that a manager’s working conditions are better, and also unsurprised to find a manager expounding on how great the working conditions are for everyone.

Oh, I’m a sinner. I love a cruise vacation more than almost any other way to travel. I’ve never tried Disney before, mostly because it’s so much more expensive than the other lines. I’ve heard that Disney is very nice, comparatively.

I’d like to hear the low-down on Castaway Cay - I’ve visited HAL’s Half Moon Cay a number of times and I can never decide if the staff enjoys their time on the private island, or if it is their own personal hell and big smiles are required.

I think in some ways, Disney kind of relishes the challenge. We had specific training in dealing with demanding guests, which basically boiled down to, ALWAYS say yes, give 'em exactly what they want, and more if possible. Of course the crew privately despise them, and bitch and moan about extra efforts in the crew mess late at night, but we all got good at smiling at those monsters. I had a staff evaluation form once which said, and I quote, her “facial expressions could be perceived negatively.” Resting Bitch Face for the win :slight_smile:

There was a certain subset of guests who were determined to wring every possible advantage from their cruise. They’d find out the loopholes and exploit them. For example, we recommended that kids stick to their age group (5-7, 8-9, 10-12, 12+) for the whole cruise, so they’d make friends. Of course, if they weren’t happy, the parents could ask us to switch to the older or younger group. Some parents would sit down with the programs of ALL the age groups, and pick which activities their kid would enjoy, then berate YA staff to allow them to move up and down the age groups as appropriate. We knew when it was coming, that the 7yr old would do the princess thing one morning, then ask to switch to the 8-9s for the Kim Possible scavenger hunt the next day. It was kind of a hassle, but since our cruises were so short, we never really enforced the policy, and everyone got what they wanted – USUALLY with a smile :slight_smile:

This must have been after your time.


Eh. It was sometimes nice to be off the ship, but the YA programs on CC kind of sucked. We couldn’t take the kids swimming, which was pretty much all they wanted to do.

Sometimes we’d be in the right place at the right time, and the kitchen porters would be clearing away the tropical fruit buffet - fruit in the crew mess was limited to apple orange banana, so I was always excited to get a mango. Once some friends and I shared a whole pineapple that the porter sliced up for us. :slight_smile: But sometimes we’d be assigned to boring, hot work, like setting up and taking down beach umbrellas.

The cay itself was pretty uninteresting. It’s fake, of course, like everything Disney - it had tons and tons of white sand imported from Thailand dumped on the naturally brown sand beach. Like lots of Bahamian islands, the native flora and fauna were pretty much wiped out by competition from introduced species. There’s no reef, so the snorkeling “trail” was full of Disney shit, planted on the sea floor.

A couple of crew lived on the island full-time, including a lifeguard I knew from training (they purposefully did orientations with a cross-section of staff, so we got to know one another a bit). He said it was really awful, that the two days a week with the ship in port were MUCH more interesting, and when the ship was elsewhere, his duties were boring and unpleasant, and not related to his skills or experiences. This took place while the other Disney ship, the Magic, was elsewhere - California maybe? Usually the two ships were based from Port Canaveral, and both visited Castaway, so their usual schedules were off because of it.

I actually read it as his source was currently a VP at a cruise line, and that when he worked on-ship he had one of the white-native-English-speaker jobs. So, giant grain of salt recommended.