Performing on Cruise Ships

By ,   March 14, 2016 ,   Ships and Lines

When many prospective cruise employees think of cruise ship jobs, they fancy performing on cruise ships as the greatest position. Before signing on, however, it is of great importance to understand what such jobs require.

Places like New York City and Las Vegas are no longer heaven for dancers, musicians and entertainers, that provide steady jobs. As a result of present economic realities and budget cuts in every form of entertainment, the "freelancing" musicians, artists and entertainers has never been bigger. 

There is only one place left, where entertainers can find stable jobs - cruise lines. No other industry has grown so rapidly in the past 10 years as cruise industry. Just for the last 5 years all leading lines have doubled the number of employees and their fleets. Full scale Las Vegas style and Broadway production shows are performed aboard most of the contemporary cruise ships. Many new cruise companies have emerged trying to get share from cruise market explosion. 

Cruise ships are regular employers of singers, dancers, musicians, bands, cabaret artists, DJ's and other entertainers. The style of music or the type of show required varies depending on the company, length of cruise and passenger demographic. Musicians and entertainers are expected to be highly versatile, proficient and capable of learning new routines quickly and work long hours. 

Performing on Cruise Ships

Ships come in all shapes and sizes of staff expectancy. Some lines require the artists to provide their own musicians, lighting, equipment and backing, whilst other offer a fully equipped stage. The type of shows are also diverse. On bigger ships, this may mean a singalong duo is working in one bar, a DJ is in another, whilst solo artists up to theatrical style grand productions and major guest artists are performing on the main stage. Smaller ships have less space so tend to employ more self-contained acts. 

Being confined to a cruise ship (no matter how big) means that all crew members are expected to be on duty 24/7, or in other words, be nice to passengers even if you have a runny nose, sore head or bad day, plus be prepared to cover various other duties when the staff are off sick. Staff are contracted for the duration of the voyage which can be for anything between 1 day to around a year, and can expect great wages with meals and accommodation included. 

It is a fallacy that cruise ship performers are unlikely to attain celebrity status. Many artists use the opportunity to perform and subsequently move onward and upward in their career. 

Entertainers gain employment ordinarily by application and audition. 21 to mid 30's is the standard age, though it ranges considerably. Companies who aim at more mature market, prefer artists who can cater to an older clientele. A show reel is desirable, especially for those who are able to provide a 'pre-produced' package. 

The following review is integrated with 20 Crazy Things to Do on a Cruise Ship.

Types of Cruise Ship Performers

Cruise Line Cast Members: Actually, many performers are cruise ship crew members who are part of an entertainment troupe. These dancers and singers perform the regular cruise nightly shows and have to work with different types of performances, from solo numbers to chorus work. Depending on the length of the sailing, the cast may be responsible for 3 or more hour-long shows, and performers adopt different roles in each. Between performances, the entertainers rehearse for upcoming shows and develop new routines, fulfilling other duties related to the smooth operation of the ship.

Solo Performers: Every cruise line employs solo entertainers, usually for shorter contracts than the other crew members. They may rotate between different ships in the fleet to spread their skills to many passengers visiting a wide variety of destinations. Popular solo performers' types include:

  • Soloist singers performing independently or augmenting existing shows.
  • Specialized musicians or bands (jazz, bluegrass, classical artists) to add sophistication to formal dining or perform lounge music.
  • Jugglers/other active performers specialized in high energy shows.
  • Magicians who create family-friendly shows.
  • Comedians/impressionists who have both adult and family-oriented material.
  • Figure skaters for ice shows on cruise ships equipped with rinks.
  • DJs to keep ship's nightclub jumping until the wee hours.

When performing, cruise ship solo entertainers are responsible for several shows, lasting up to 45 minutes each, with unique material. Solo entertainers may be required to take part in other entertainment related duties.

Guest Performers: Guest performers are contracted for a single appearance on a special trip. For example, a music themed cruise may feature several celebrity musicians for that one sailing. Guest performers may be contracted (under certain circumstances) for several appearances, perhaps on various ships, but their shows are often quite limited. Popular musicians, singers, actors, comedians, athletes, or other renowned personalities may fall into this category.

Performers' Duties

In addition to the expected entertainment duties - arranging choreography, appearing in shows, etc. - most ship performers are involved in other cruise activities and entertainment, such as:

  • Assisting with luggage delivery/pickup at the start and end of the cruise;
  • Assisting in emergency procedures;
  • Offering singing, instrumental lessons or dancing;
  • Assisting with trivia/bingo games for crowd control;
  • Posing for photos with passengers, especially in costume;
  • Participating in kids' programs;
  • Assisting the cruise director to involve the crowd with different activities.

As the actual performance may only take up a small fraction of the performer's time on board, the additional duties fill in the time they're contracted to work between performances. Solo performers on limited contract and guest performers may be expected to appear at some meet-and-greet events, though they usually have minimal additional duties.

cruise ship performance

How to Get Hired as a Performer?

  • A well-rounded resume is the first step toward becoming a cruise ship entertainer, and venues such as other lines, nightclub engagements, amusement and theme parks or Las Vegas shows help distinguish if performer's work experience is appropriate for a cruise ship. 
  • Other useful skills include multiple languages, travel experience, safety certification or child development degrees depending on the type of entertainment position sought.
  • Having great talent, expertise and skill in whatever medium the performer represents is the first key to being hired as an entertainer on cruise ships. 
  • A cruise ship is a closed environment, and it is also critical for any performer to be versatile. A skilled solo guitarist who can double as a dancer or a comedian will have an advantage over not so flexible performers. 
  • Prospective entertainers should also be outgoing and enthusiastic, well able to work with different personalities.

Cruise Line Entertainer Jobs

Entertainer jobs at sea are much the same like land-based ones. The major difference is that instead of packing your stuff and going home after the cruise, you are staying aboard the ship (unless you are working on a local harbor voyage. 

A large number of cruise entertainers perform with shows varying from singing and dancing to magic and comedy acts. Entertainment jobs onboard cruise ships are almost entirely contract positions. This means that you work for a specified amount of time while onboard.

Depending on the contract, you might work for one show only, or you might book a contract for 6 months or more. It's impossible to determine how long your contract will last since the type of entertainers, hired and booked on cruise ships vary from vessel to vessel.

When hiring acts, cruise companies look for general public appeal. This means to find entertainment that will satisfy the clients attending the show. When a cruise line is featuring guests from an older demographic, they might hire a mature comedian. Entertainers who work for Disney Cruise Line, for example, would have to provide performances towards kids. This is a reason why an entertainer may be booked for a few shows only - to appeal to specific demographic.

Entertainment jobs on cruise ships are very competitive. Entertainment directors receive up to 20 media packs (taped audition materials, profiles, background information and photos) daily. Often the auditioning is up against professional dancers and singers. Auditions are also the standard approach for finding dancers, singers and other guest performers. Comedians who apply need good material for three 30-minute sets. Vocalists need proven routine with music.

Some concessionaire companies and cruise lines travel around the country to audition talent, so it’s a good idea to check to see if talent scouts are coming to you area.

Entertainers are often advised to document on DVD their acts and send it to the entertainment director/concessionaires as part of the media pack. 

Pay varies. The standard salary for a cruise ship performer depends on your experience, the type of performance, the length of contract, and liner you'll be working for. Stage performers make from $1,600 to $4,000 per month for feature performances. Sometimes, entertainers don't receive a salary but are instead given a free deluxe room in return.

Benefits of Performing on Cruise Ships

  • Being a cruise line employee as a performer has a lot of advantages. Regular cast members are part of ship's crew and don't have specialized benefits. They earn $2,000-4,000 per month depending on their experience, the cruise line, and the length of the contract. 
  • Solo and guest performers are ordinarily offered passenger privileges when not fulfilling their duties. They may also be able to bring a spouse, significant other, or family member on the cruise at discounted (and sometimes free) rates. 
  • While for some the experience might be about making friends, for others it is an escape from winter, with delicious delights prepared by internationally renowned chefs. Cruise ship entertainers perform every night in front of thousands of new passengers in multi-million dollar theaters and even get their own room steward.
  • Performing on cruise ships is great ad for talented artists, who are also able to travel the world and experience a variety of destinations. When their duties don't interfere, even crew members are permitted to go ashore and have a good time.
  • Beyond the fascination of discovering the world, entering exotic ports of call can change the way one sees the world. Cruise ship performers often have free time like never before, an opportunity to save most of the money they make, and free travel.

The True Story: Confessions of Cruise Ship Entertainers

Quite often, however, entertaining people who are on a cruise vacation may not be a dream job. In recent years, there were a number of infamous allegations of cruise ship entertainers involving sex, drugs and more. A handful of piano players and comedians, current and former, revealed the juicy details about behind-the-curtain life of cruise ship entertainers. 

Piano players on cruise ships usually work on contracts as long as 6 months at a time, beating out melodies in piano bars every night. Randall Barnes, who worked for Holland America Line as a piano player over a decade ago, managed 6 long years at the line. He described his return from months at sea with glassy-eyed stare and barely able to socialize for weeks. Barnes said: “I wouldn’t even think of touching a piano between contracts”.

Comedians usually work as guest entertainers and cycle onboard through a schedule of short hops as featured performers once or twice during a 7-day cruise. Between sailings they maintain a land-based career. Jimmy Dunn, star of CBS sitcom, The McCarthy’s, keeps quiet the days about his past life as a cruise ship comedian. He gives no credit to the time spent onboard for his success. In 2012 Dunn wrote a book about cruise life, "Boat Hack: A stand-up comic’s farewell to the cruise industry: Not cruise line approved." 

The thing that makes seemingly easy work intense is the “never off” factor. The performing on cruise ships employees are contractually obligated to smile, socialize and entertain every moment they are onboard the ship. All discussions, negotiations, contracts and agreements are left at the dock.