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Back on the boat...


Old King Log
Staff member
My lovely wife, who has resisted going on a cruise for thirty years, finally relented when we read that Disney was pulling their operation from Galveston at the end of the year. As soon as I heard her say yes, I went on line and booked us for a week, with stops at Falmouth Jamaica, Grand Cayman and Cozumel Mexico.

I picked DIsney since they "gold plate" everything, even though their cruises are a bit more "child oriented" than the other lines. I also wanted her to see a newer ship that was a bit more like a ship, not a hotel grafted onto a barge. We got the MV Disney Wonder, fifteen years old but still part of the new generation of liners. Interior and exterior appointments were wonderful, with three huge theaters, spacious staterooms (especially compared to the ones on the last cruise that I took, a week on a Cunard liner that was the sister ship to the one I worked on "back in the day", the SS Cunard Countess).

The physical aspects of the cruise were picture perfect. The food, while not in my wheelhouse (too much fancy Euro stuff - the dining staff accommodated my fussyness with a nice steak and potato meal on most evenings), suited my lovely wife just fine. The stateroom was spacious (king sized bed), provided with a double washroom, and a large veranda on the port quarter of the ship (free from light interference at night so I could watch the stars fly by (more on this later).

The activities provided for the patrons (since we spent four whole days and nights at sea) were comprehensive and interesting. Everything from cooking to dance lessons, trivia to baby racing, napkin folding to ship tours and a lot in between. (Youth activities were even more extensive, something that we old folks had zero contact with as the little ones, tweens and teens were largely isolated in their own areas of the ship.) The adults had their own quiet pool and twin hot tubs (made of stainless steel, they automatically drained each day at midnight - a sight to see when it happened).

The shore activities were of the usual sort - my wife loved the three hours she spent caring for, feeding, "training" and frolicing in the water with dolphins - the time spent with sharks was not as enjoyable. We will be going back to Jamaica, although not on Disney the next time. She loves dolphins...

But, you may ask, what does this have to do with music? Well, in the days of my work for Cunard, music was a very large part of what went on aboard the ship, and I was interested to see how Disney did same.

The answer is, very well but with recordings. Bummer...

The splashy, Broadway style shows were all done with recorded backing tracks (both instrumental and vocal for the big, active dance numbers). All of the lead vocalists were singing live (which could be told by several very slight falters as a vocalist executed a particularly difficult physical transition), and all of the performances were as solid as anything I've ever seen or played for in a Broadway company.

There was a show every night, with a total of some six hours of performance over the week's time. While "Disney-fied", every one was worth seeing and hearing.

(There were also a trio of spectacular comedians/ventriloquists/hypnotist who did their shows in formats both big and small. (The main live theater seated eight hundred, with a full thrust stage with "trapdoor" provisions and a loft for flying scenery.) Whether in the big hall playing a family oriented show, or in one of the dozen or so "nightclubs" doing a more adult oriented presentation, they too were "gold plated", typical Disney presentations. (One of them, the ventriloquist, even ate dinner with us on two nights - one of the other men and I had some common interests (industrial safety) as he did, and we pretty well picked over each other's brains during the meals, to the amusement of the women at the table.))

Other music? Well, I sampled every live performance on the boat at least once, and I never saw more than a duo, with a girl singer and a guy backup playing with backing tracks and his electric guitar. There was a lot of "auto-harmony", turned on and off with a kickbox by both performers, so the effect was a bit more than the sum of its parts. But, none of the vocalists were better than mine, and most were worse.

But, no real dance venues on the boat at all. At least not with music coming from human beings. The dance locations were served by high energy DJs with their dual turntables. Great for modern stuff, but not so good for our kind of music.

Our dinner partners were a couple of couples from the Dallas Fort Worthless area. Both couples were very pleasant people in our general age grouping. And, both of them were hoping for at least some concession to traditional music. (One of them took the ballroom session on Latin dances, but were disappointed that there was no place to put them into practice.)

Me? Well, after seeing how music is handled at Walt Disney World (very well, from what I have seen), I was surprised to find very little of same. The recorded stuff was first rate, don't get me wrong. But, I doubt there was enough live stuff onboard to justify a union steward.

Looking at it pragmatically, it makes perfect sense. Flawless recordings provide the same performance time after time after time, and cut down on the overhead (space and board for the hotel staff that makes up most of a ship's crew) - you can provide three backup CD players in case something goes wrong for the cost of feeding and housing one sax player. For the "live music effect" that many folks crave, you ship a couple of duos and a piano player. One tenth the expense of a live music group that provides combos when needed.

(The piano player on the ship was technically proficient, but she played everything off of an iPad. I've had piano players that could perform a full fake book from memory, so I was not at all impressed by her. She also looked stupid, peering at the tiny notes on the iPad display.)

So, while we had a wonderful time, it was a big step backwards from how live music was provided back in my day. Another standard shattered by modern practices.

(And, visualize such a ship sinking like the Titanic. You would have thousands of souls heading for the lifeboats, all to the accompaniment of a girl sitting at a grand piano, hoping that the battery on her iPad would hold out until the piano started to roll...

But, the best part of the whole week was entirely random luck. When I booked the stateroom, I specified a veranda with shielding from the mountain of white light that accompanies every one of these new ships, since I wanted to watch the stars at night. (You can't see stars here in Houston, at least not anything of third magnitude or lower.) The booking agent did me very well with our location, the last cabin on a lower deck, back in the stern adjacent to the huge luxury cabins with big verandas of their own.

Other than having a pair of video cameras mounted outboard of the rail (to monitor for folks falling from their verandas), we had an unobstructed view of the sky, free from light pollution once the folks forward of us turned out their lights and went to bed. We had a spectacular view of the Milky Way as we raced to the south, something I had not seen for many, many years. (The view of the sky was as clear as what I enjoyed over in RVN - the stars seemed to "swim" in the sky, so clear was the view.)

On the way back north (Thursday night), we came back to the cabin from our hour in the hot tub (where we had been joined by a drunken, jilted woman who had run out on her husband and children and who climbed in the tub fully clothed), changed into lounging wear (a shirt for me, a coverup for my wife) and settled into our chaise lounges for the evening's viewing.

What we were treated to was the Leonid meteor shower, and what a shower it was! On shore, the standard wisdom is that you will see at least a meteor a minute. Out at sea, with zero pollution (both air and light), the rate was in excess of five per second - I know this because I was "finger flicking" counting (an old military technique), and had to reset my hand more than once a second.

At times, the sky looked like a huge cloud of fireflies, zipping around in random directions. Often, a meteor would streak across the sky, then suddenly appear to change directions. This was due to one trail expiring as a second, intersecting the first, began to track in a different direction.

I saw occasional indications that others were watching as well, this due to the strobe flashes of cameras as the others foolishly attempted to take a photograph of the display. (You need to override the flash and take an extended exposure for it to register.)

I watched it all for a couple of hours (my wife only lasted for one). It was the peak day, for the next evening's sky was just the now-boring expanse of the Milky Way. In any event, it made for a lasting memory, although one not documented by the ubiquitous Disney-employed photographers. But, that's what memory is for.
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Striving to play the changes in a melodic way.
Staff member
Nice review Terry. The best cruise Suzy and I took was the Disney "Big Red" ship. I worried about the "kid" aspect but was please to discover that they handled that better than any of the many other cruises we took. Who knew. The musicians on that trip were ... well, okay. But I wasn't blown away by any of them. I wonder if it's getting harder to get musicians to sign up for a cruise, let alone cheaper to use a recording?


Distinguished Member
Distinguished Member
I swear SOTSDO, you are the "Ernest Hemingway" of the Woodwind Forum for your storytelling ability. Your recall is amazing. I can vaguely remember going on some cruises with my wife back when. Actually there were some musicians who stood out in my experiences onboard. On the funny short cruise out of LA to Ensenada there was an incredible jazz trumpet player who played lead trumpet in the show band and flugelhorn in a jazz combo that played at different locations around the ship. Another memorable musician was a "classical" guitarist on Holland America who played background lounge music. On a tip from one of the couples assigned to our table who took the same cruise year after year, I approached him and asked if he could play a jazz tune. He was obviously pleased at my request and began to play some of the tastiest jazz guitar I had ever heard. Hearing jazz played with the tone of a classical guitar was a transforming experience for me, and I hung out where he was playing every chance I got for the rest of the cruise. Unfortunately I too have noticed the shows using more and more recorded music to back the singers and dancers as the years have gone by.


Old King Log
Staff member
As a cost saving measure, it's a no brainer. Although the staff to passenger ratio on cruise ships is pretty high, it's nowhere near what it was "back in the day", or on Transatlantic runs, for that matter. Every warm body on the ship occupies berthing space, and requires periodic feeding and basic creature comforts.

The utility of a cabin steward or stewardess cannot readily be replaced by a machine or machines - whereas live music can (more or less adequately), as unpleasant as it is for us to deal with. True, it doesn't have the presence of a live performance, and true, all of the personality is stripped from the music.

However, theatrical performance accompaniment is not the main draw for a musical theater performance. Hoi polloi is not there to hear the music on its own, they are there to enjoy the performance as a whole (of which the music is an important part, but not the major part). And, when "live music" is taken out of the equation, in addition to saving on warm bodies (and salary, and berthing, and feeding, and the employee bar) you get a flawless performance each and every time.

I've been to ballet performances where the music was canned, and while the reality of flesh and blood musicians was great to experience, the recorded music used at that performance was flawless. I can't say that for other ballet performances that I have attended. Having flawless music for the dancers to hit their marks to removes the possibility of a musical miscue - a plus.

Of course, it also means that the music cannot adjust to accommodate flubs by the dancers. But, that's their problem, and it has the effect of forcing a better performance from them. Sort of a win - lose - win situation.

Face it - Petrillo had it right when he took his stand on recorded music back in the day. He dug in his heels, shut down the live musical world for a good long time, and forced a decent (for the time and place) settlement before he allowed the music to start again.

Times have changed again, and we are badly in need of a new AFM savior. The price of paying for live music has continued to go up, even though it's nowhere near a living wage if you look at it closely. When the forces that control hiring for such venues as the ballet and the cruise industry take a look at where corners can be cut to squeeze out that last nickel of expense, live music (particularly 'big' live music) is going to be trimmed well before the number of waiters in the main salon get the chop.

And, even if there was a New Millenium Petrillo on deck, the net result would be much more money for a few, and a lot fewer slots for the rest of us. A sad fact, but certainly a fact nonetheless.

My grandfather, a member in AFM from a few days after he arrived from Wilhelmine Germany, was present when the talkies had their advent back in the day. He saw live music shrivel up and die, with the number of performance venues drop from many to few. Recordings have always been the enemy of live music, regardless of how they support it as well. I suppose we should blame Emile Berliner and Tom Edison for this, but they're both long time dead and buried.

But, if they ever come up with the cabin steward equivalent of the CD player, all of those Filipino lads will be on the street tout suite, just watch...
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