Theme Cruises Attract Affinity Groups of All Stripes

By Scott Vogel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 18, 2009

Scrapbooking, Elvis, tulips, Harleys: At this point, there's no passion you can think of that hasn't inspired a cruise of some sort, so don't even try. The phenomenon -- "theme cruising," as it is known -- has intrigued scholars for centuries, which is to say since before cruising even existed. And few have spoken more eloquently on the subject than Alexis de Tocqueville.

"Americans of all ages, all conditions and all dispositions constantly form associations . . . religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive," wrote the 19th-century Frenchman who, sadly, never lived to see the NASCAR cruise or the Star Trek fans cruise but whose writings somehow prefigured both.

"As soon as several inhabitants of the United States have taken up an opinion or a feeling which they wish to promote in the world, they look out for mutual assistance; and as soon as they have found one another out, they combine."

And then, just when you think Tocqueville will go further and explain why these combinings will one day find their way onto Caribbean mega-ships, the author of "Democracy in America" falls silent, to the everlasting dismay of cruise historians everywhere. Is it the fellowship? The social validation? The feeling of merging with a larger nautical whole?

The answers, as I discovered, are yes, yes and definitely yes.

But first, a definition. Though the term is of recent vintage, theme cruising has been around as long as cruising itself. Sometimes it's centered on a hobby shared by as few as eight to 10 cabins, at other times entire shiploads, but at all times the participants are die-hard enthusiasts whose onboard activities must be customized accordingly.

"In the early days, we had lots of senior-citizen-type groups, which we still have," notes Joan Levicoff of Carnival Cruises, "and lots of fraternal organizations, which we still have." At present, however, "if you can think of something that's going to be attractive to the cruising audience" -- that hasn't been thought of before, which you can't -- "then you have a potential theme on your hands."

And so, an explosion of sorts has occurred, although a controlled one.

"Fifteen percent of the sailings have a theme element, either the entire cruise or audiences within a ship," observes Bob Sharak of Cruise Lines International Association, an industry group. That percentage has remained relatively constant over time, he says, "although the themes themselves have certainly evolved."

That's putting it mildly. At any given time there are hundreds of theme sailings available through both the cruise lines and private charters, so many that whole Web sites are now devoted to sorting out the offerings., for instance.

"People make fun of this, but the truth is, everybody's interested in something," says Howard Moses, who founded the site last year. "So why wouldn't you want to be with people who share that interest?" Right now, he has more than 500 upcoming cruises listed on his site. Some of these Moses sells himself (such as, say, a 12-night photography cruise through the Mediterranean in June), although he insists that his site will list any theme cruise for free, regardless of its backer.

Familiarity Breeds Success

It's not that Beth Dewenter didn't love traveling. It was cruising that she hated.

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