To Boldly Cruise Where No Couple Has Cruised Before

Star Trek superfans take to the high seas.

Tim and Rody Kriner.

Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

On her left upper arm, Allison Holmes has a tattoo of an octopus with pointy Vulcan ears wrapping its tentacles around a spaceship that resembles an elongated VW camper. The “Spocktopus” is a tribute to Leonard Nimoy, who played the half-Vulcan, half-human Mr. Spock on the original Star Trek television series. “It was inspired by old science fiction posters,” says Holmes, 33, of San Antonio. Holmes is a self-described Trekkie, though that probably goes without saying if you’re showing off Spock-inspired body art. Especially if you’re showing it off in a hot tub aboard the Norwegian Pearl as it sails through the Western Caribbean on the first-ever Star Trek: The Cruise.

Joining Holmes in January were Trekkies from as far away as Australia and New Zealand, their suitcases full of costumes and body paint. Shorts and bathing suits were the favored daywear, but at night fans emerged from their cabins dressed as Vulcans, fierce-looking Klingons, antennaed blue Andorians, and green Orions. There were also several reptilian Gorn and Yeoman Rand look-alikes with beehive hairdos. Didn’t get any of these references? Then this cruise was definitely not for you.

Star Trek screening in the central room.
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

You might not think of wannabe Klingons as people who leave their parents’ basements much, let alone as sun-and-fun types. But superfans such as Holmes make up one of the newest and most enthusiastic groups hitting the high seas. Music themes have dominated the industry for years, but cruises are increasingly embracing other forms of pop culture. In addition to the Star Trek trip, fans are filling ships for shows including The Walking Dead and Property Brothers, where the Scott brothers held Q&A sessions about design, signed autographs, and sang karaoke. Oprah is going to attend an O, The Oprah Magazine cruise to Alaska in July, and the publication, with partner Holland America line, is running four additional theme cruises this fall and next year. “There is a tremendous sense of camaraderie” on these cruises, says Howard Moses, a travel agent who also runs the website Theme Cruise Finder. “It’s nice to know that people you meet at dinner share your passion.”

Angela Vaughan (left)
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

It’s also nice for the cruise lines, which see themed events as a way to draw new clientele. Third-party production companies book entire ships, usually during what would otherwise be cruising’s fallow season; fans care more about the what of the experience than the when or where. And they’re willing to spend. The average fare paid by the 2,300 passengers on the six-day Star Trek cruise was $2,400 per person, more than double Norwegian Cruise Line’s typical January rate.

Since the first theme cruises set sail about 30 years ago, they’ve become a bigger and bigger part of the industry. Moses’ site recorded 150 in 2012. Today there are 600-plus listings. Included are small group gatherings and shipwide takeovers. Music and superfan charters have become such an attractive business that in 2012 Norwegian bought Sixthman, a production company in Atlanta that began staging Festivals at Sea each year; the 2017 lineup includes cruises featuring Pitbull, Kid Rock, Kiss, acts from the Warped Tour, outlaw country musicians, and the funny men of the TruTV show Impractical Jokers. “The purpose of a theme cruise is orange juice concentrate,” says Michael Lazaroff, executive director of Entertainment Cruise Productions and the mastermind behind the Star Trek voyage. “We are providing fans with a chance to experience their passion in the most intense possible way.”

Lazaroff and his team started talking with CBS, owner of the Star Trek franchise, in the summer of 2015. As it happened, CBS had been looking for ways to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Gene Roddenberry’s creation, which went on the air in 1966. “We considered developing a Star Trek cruise for fans for some time, and the 50th anniversary seemed ideal,” says Veronica Hart, senior vice president for CBS’s consumer-products division. She adds that the “stars aligned” when William Shatner, 85, Captain James T. Kirk in the original series, signed on to host. “He wasn’t cheap,” Lazaroff says.

That September, Lazaroff and his staff headed to the annual Las Vegas Star Trek convention to test fan reaction. “The website we had wasn’t ready to take reservations,” he says. Interest was overwhelming, and his team cobbled together an online sign-up. “We just threw it up, and next thing we knew—boom!—we were done.” The cruise sold out in three weeks, although many who booked had never attended a Star Trek convention, according to a precruise survey. Hart says the experiences aren’t mutually exclusive: “The cruise is a completely unique, immersive experience.”

Diane Ahlberg and Sherry Quinn.
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

The Pearl was tricked out with references to the shows—the original series, Next GenerationDeep Space NineVoyagerEnterprise, and Discovery, which is set to premiere this May—and films. Special signage transformed elevators into turbolifts. The ship’s specialty restaurants incorporated the names of characters into dishes such as Vic Fontaine’s chateaubriand, which was named for Deep Space Nine’s holographic lounge singer.

Programming included the Q&As and the autograph and photo sessions you’d find at a convention; autographs cost $25 to $35, depending on the actor, and photos were $40. Klingon foreheads ran $45. Shatner, whose contract mandated that he pose for one photo per cabin, joked to the crowd about how cute Chris Pine’s portrayal of Captain Kirk is in the latest Star Trek movies, talked physics and global warming, and attempted to answer fans’ requests for details about his experiences on set.

Debbie Fisher (left) and Stephanie and David Batchelder.
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

Passengers could also attend a no-fee yoga class hosted by Terry Farrell, aka Jadzia Dax, Deep Space Nine’s Starfleet science officer; play blackjack with Marina Sirtis, aka the half-human, half-Betazoid Deanna Troi on Next Generation; and attend a happy hour with Denise Crosby, aka Tasha Yar, briefly the USS Enterprise’s chief of security on Next Generation. Special actor-led shore excursions to Cozumel and the Bahamas, which cost $75, up from the normal $50, sold out before the ship set sail. A lecture by theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek (1995), drew a standing-room-only crowd. Former Saturday Night Live cast member Joe Piscopo, who guest-starred as a comic on an episode of Next Generation, got multiple standing ovations for a nighttime set.

If the Pearl wasn’t quite a floating Enterprise—the crew didn’t wear Starfleet uniforms—there were constant references to “boldly going” and “warp speed.” The mood was friendly and accepting. “It’s nice to be among your people,” says Holmes of the Spocktopus. “You see a lot of cool costumes and a lot of people really, really geeking out.” Her parents were also on board, and she and her husband, Allen, 33, have already booked a penthouse for the first of two more Star Trek cruises that will take place next year, both hosted by George Takei, who played Sulu, the helmsman on Kirk’s Enterprise.

Janyce and Mike Wright
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek

The cruisers knew their stuff. At a trivia contest with Max Grodénchik, who played Rom, a large-eared Ferengi on Deep Space Nine, passengers rushed to call out answers to questions such as “In the ‘Enterprise Incident’ episode, the Romulan commander offers Spock what?” (Answer: “The Right of Statement.”) During a $40 pub crawl with Robert O’Reilly, Gowron from Deep Space Nine, passengers showed off their Klingon language skills. One man pounded his feet as he sang the words to several Klingon battle songs. O’Reilly was impressed.

In one session, Rabbi ElizaBeth Beyer, 57, and her husband Tom, 63, of Reno, Nev., renewed their wedding vows at a ceremony officiated by Deep Space Nine’s Farrell. Married 35 years and wearing Starfleet uniforms, they repeated vows written by Jordan Hoffman, host of Engage: The Official Star Trek Podcast. They referenced phasers and Tribbles and holodecks and, near the end, said, “You are the bridge to my Enterprise, you are the captain to my starship.”

Inside the ship's elevator.
Photographer: Eva O’Leary for Bloomberg Businessweek