More than 25 years after the TV show’s last episode, we learn the painful truth: Julie McCoy, the leggy sprite of the high seas, was a fraud. And who better to dispel the fantasy than Ricky Matthews, a real cruise director aboard a real ship (Oasis of the Seas) with a real following (see the Cruise Critic message board).
“My job is to provide the best entertainment and to keep everyone busy,” said the 39-year-old Jamaican of his position with Royal Caribbean. “I need to be able to make the people move even if they’re sleepy.”
Most cruise ship jobs are self-explanatory: captain, head chef, steward, waiter, comedian. The cruise director, however, requires some extra lines of description. Often seen flitting about the ship like a social butterfly juiced up on nectar, cruise directors oversee the boat’s nearly-round-the-clock activities and diversions. Sports, live performances, parades, deejays and dance parties all fall under their purview. In short, they’re like the tequila in the margarita. Without them, you have one very boring cocktail.
“Doctors, captains, bartenders — you know what they do,” said Ricky. “Cruise directors don’t translate anyplace else.”
For a peek behind the show curtain, I spent four days watching Ricky move the entertainment levers and push the party buttons on a seven-night cruise in the western Caribbean. I followed him from the early stretch of the day to the closing eyelids of the night. I tailed him from office desk to dance floor, from Deck 3 to Deck 16 to the helipad. On the world’s largest cruise ship, we spent an inordinate amount of time in elevators. But no matter the time or location, the Ricky Matthews Show was always on.
Meet and greet
Slight of height and hair, with a pro athlete’s physique, Ricky stood out from the throngs boarding in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. For one thing, he didn’t look dressed for a luau but rather for a day of yachting (fitted white polo, snug black pants, dazzling white teeth). For another, he was neither lost nor confused, despite frequent jokes about his ongoing search for his stateroom, even after eight weeks as cruise director on the ship.
When I met him at guest services, he was fully composed and wearing his meet-and-greet face: impish eyes that twinkled and a broad smile that could power the whole vessel.
“Hello, sir,” he called out to a man who appeared overwhelmed. “All’s well?” It wasn’t: The passenger needed help booking shore excursions. Ricky directed him to the appropriate desk but also informed him of the in-cabin reservation system on the TV.
“In the first 48 hours, it’s all about giving directions, guiding and showing people how to use the technology,” he said. “There’s so much going on. There’s not enough downtime.”
As Ricky knows, first impressions are important, so he strives to set the proper tone — fun, fun, fun — from the outset. During the first hours of the cruise, he strolls the decks like a one-man pep rally, waving his imaginary party flag. He joshes with guests and charms the female persuasion with endearing greetings of “Hello, ladies.” They fall under his spell, as do their husbands.
“I wish I could be out here all the time — dancing, jumping, talking to the people,” he said as we neared the end of our promenade. “That’s where I thrive.”
Then he went through a door marked “Crew Only,” lowering his flag, but only to half-mast.
What’s on the schedule
Most of us follow a 9-to-5 clock that ticks loudly Monday through Friday and falls silent on the weekend. Traditional drones slip in two or three weeks’ vacation during the year, plus the odd holiday and — cough, cough — sick day.
Ricky’s calendar defies convention. He signs on for a two-month stint (although some of his contracts last four months), then receives two months off, which he splits between alone time at his home in Jamaica and social calls to friends and relatives around North America. Then repeat.
He also relocates offices more than most people change their water filter: Since 2008, he has labored aboard the Majesty of the Seas, the Navigator of the Seas and the Serenade of the Seas. He occupied the cruise director chair on Oasis of the Seas from March to June, filling in for another cruise director on holiday. As I write this, he’s sailing in the Mediterranean aboard the Serenade. Ciao, Ricky, come va?
On a micro level, his schedule is organized by daily destinations, including ones without land formations: Fort Lauderdale; at sea; Labadee, Haiti; at sea; Falmouth, Jamaica; Cozumel; at sea. The weekly diary tells him where he needs to be at a certain hour and what he will be doing — fraternizing with suite passengers and “Madagascar” characters, for example, or twirling like a whirling dervish at the Rockin Rhythm Nation Parade.
While he copy-edited the Cruise Compass, the shipboard newsletter, I eyeballed the sked: At 4 p.m. he needed to be in his office, on the microphone, alerting passengers to the emergency safety drill in 30 minutes; at 4:15, he’d deliver an updated 15-minute notice from the bridge. Before the onslaught of evening engagements from 8:55 to 11:30, he had a short recess, which he would spend working out, eating, showering and shimmying into a swank gray suit purchased for his sister’s wedding.
“Once the evening starts, I don’t have time to dine out,” he said, admitting that he often indulges the diet of the overworked: instant noodle soup. (I wasn’t allowed to visit staff quarters, but according to Ricky, his stateroom comes with cooking facilities. His other dining options include the crew cantina and the public restaurants, though he has to pay the same surcharges and menu prices as the passengers.)
If he stuck to the formal schedule, he’d call it a night at around 12 a.m., after wrapping up “office work where necessary.” But he strayed from the plan. At the stroke of midnight, Ricky was wowing the crowd with his fancy footwork at Blaze nightclub.
Life of the party
“The party’s about to start!” shouted Ricky, standing in the eerie purplish-blue glow of the AquaTheater. “Who’s with me?”
Shouts and whistles erupted from the 800-seat outdoor stadium.
“Get up and clap!” he said with the swagger of an evangelical emcee.
The crowd obeyed.
“Ha, I tricked you into exercising!”
Hopping about in pointy white shoes, Ricky proceeded to describe the “Oasis of Dreams,” a liquid fantasia of aerial circus moves and Greg Louganis-style high dives. He goosed the energy level with a goofy dance that involved high-stepping on an imaginary movable walkway, his arms circling like a maiden churning butter. The bad prom date choreography belied his seriously smooth moves, which he’d break out later to unsuspecting crowds.
“I want every single guest to have an unbelievable time, to let their guard down and do something they’ve never done before,” he said. “Even if the guest doesn’t remember the cruise director, I want them to remember the experience.”
Over the course of the week, Ricky would open and close six “Oasis of Dreams” shows, his excitement never waning even though he had every flip and spin committed to memory. He would also appear in ice skates at the end of five “Frozen in Time” ice capades and dash onto the stage after three “Hairspray” performances. No surprise that he never has time to sit down for a proper dinner.
At every performance, he’d offer a witty repartee flecked with information (i.e., activities available on Labadee, the port in Haiti), self-deprecating jokes (“Don’t forget your sunblock; see what happened to me”); and, when appropriate, heckles.
“You don’t have to leave. There’s no traffic on the road,” he called out to departing audience members at “Hairspray.” “I can see yooouuu.”
Silly kids, you should know better: You can’t hide from Ricky.
Star of the sea
On smaller ships, such as the 2,490-passenger Serenade, it’s not only easy to spot the cruise director, it’s often impossible to shake him or her. You can find the ubiquitous crew member at the pool deck, commandeering the bon voyage parties, and at the main shows, grinning madly at the entryway. If you miss their face, you can often hear their voice on the loudspeaker, urging guests to come play bingo or learn the cha-cha or take their shirt off for the best abs contest.
On the 6,360-passenger Oasis of the Seas, a 1,187-foot mobile island with 16 decks, 24 elevators and seven neighborhoods, Ricky can be as hard to spot as Waldo in a field of peppermint sticks. He assigns many of the in-the-field tasks to his staff of 200. “The guests don’t see me until they turn on their TV or come to the first show,” he said. “And there’s a good percentage who will never see me.”
For a daily Ricky fix, flip to Channel 14 on the stateroom TV set, where he hosts a show that’s part infomercial, part Travel Channel. For example, in one episode, he talked up the marquee show, “Hairspray,” and mixed up cocktails with the bartender.
Passengers can also glimpse Ricky during his occasional walkabouts, which are either planned (see Day 4, 10:45 p.m.) or impromptu (such as when he’s in transit between appointments or needs caffeine and a scone). “You’re the guy from the video,” a female passenger said to Ricky as we waited for our coffee order at Starbucks. “I woke up and you were talking.”
Because of his multi-ship résumé, he has accumulated an enthusiastic posse of fans. “We’re pseudo-stalking him,” said Randy Fowlds, who first met Ricky years ago on the Majesty. “This is my 21st cruise, and he’s the only cruise director I remember.”
Flanking him with notebook in hand, I often felt like the personal assistant to a rock star. Surprisingly, no one asked for his autograph, but they did request photos. He mugged for dozens of pictures and hugged many extended families, from grandparents to wee ones.
“When I saw you were here . . . ,” said an excited guest from Chicago, wandering off to grab three generations of relatives. “Here’s my family. I told them all about you and how great you were.”
When I asked Ricky whether he recognized the passenger, he shook his head no. But he’d fooled me, and probably the guests as well.
When the turnaround was tight, Ricky would cut through a secret passageway to avoid the glad-handing. Noticing his exhaustion one evening, I wondered whether he was ever tempted to hide out in the private confines. But he popped out on the other end, just as the schedule said he would.
It takes a certain kind of person to live the cruise director’s life. Essential traits include an outgoing personality, an endless supply of stamina, affability, flexibility, unflappability and strong sea legs. You have to accept the fact that you might not see friends or family for months; most likely, you’ll have dates with Facebook. On the flip side, you’ll see and sail the world — Australia, Hawaii, Alaska, Europe — and not just once, but week after week.
Ricky, in the industry since his 20s, climbed his way up from his first job as bar staff on a Norwegian Cruise Line ship. Before reaching his current position, he wore the uniforms of deejay, bartender, social host and assistant cruise director. His affinity for oceangoing could be genetic: His father and two uncles worked on ships. Or maybe the sea just knew his number.
As we ran around the jogging track, a spot of exercise between events, I asked him when he plans to leave the biz.
“Maybe when I can’t jump for joy,” he responded without taking an extra gulp of air.
Despite his unfailing energy levels, Ricky admits that he needs to reboot or else he might crash. “You quickly learn that you have to pace yourself,” he said.
On the first night, when we were supposed to “walk around/degreet” from 11:30 to midnight, we slumped into a booth at Johnny Rockets instead. Ricky ordered a barbecue chicken melt with onion rings and a milkshake, a belated dinner.
Hungry after expending so many calories between 8:55 and 11:25 p.m., he still paused between bites to shout enthusiastic goodbyes to patrons leaving the diner.
Home port of call
When the ship is in port, Ricky typically stays onboard to catch up on e-mails and managerial tasks. But in Falmouth, he had other plans.
His mother and her neighbor, two nephews and a brother-in-law were driving up from Kingston, a three-hour trip across the island. He’d last visited with them in March, despite frequent ports of call to his home country.
For a few hours that day, he would show his family around his work and living space. Just a normal visit with loved ones — with one exception. When the ship announced “all aboard” that evening, his family would go back to their life on land and he would return to his world at sea.