Behind the scenes on the biggest cruise ship: Frisky behavior and Cinnamon Fireballs

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A visitor exits the Abyss slide on the Harmony of the Seas.

At a time when more travelers seek “authentic experiences,” the cruise industry is doubling down on the exact opposite: completely manufactured fun.

At Royal Caribbean Cruises, for instance, the mega-ships are destinations unto themselves. The restaurants, casinos, musical productions, silent disco parties, skating rinks, karaoke, dance clubs, and escape-the-room experiences are such strong lures that  some guests don’t even bother to look up where the ship is docking.

So when the cruise line invited me to serve as temporary director of its largest ship, Harmony of the Seas — which is as big as five Titanics — I knew I was signing up for the most manic week of my life.

A cruise director’s primary responsibility is to ensure the happiness of the  passengers — on this ship, that means 6,322 passengers, with a crew of 2,200. Over the course of a week, I had my hands in every department, from stocking the world’s biggest buffet and staving off gastrointestinal disasters to hosting celebrity guests. Everything is 10 times crazier when you’re mayor of a city floating in the middle of the sea.

My time on board proved that crew members bend over backwards to satisfy passengers. Want to thank them? Tipping is great, but comment cards that explicitly name standout staff members make more of a difference. Your praise gets noted on their permanent records, earns them such onboard perks as free Wi-Fi, and helps secure promotions down the road.

Here is some of what I learned.

There is secret cruise code language. It’s crucial for the staff to have code words so that passengers don’t get freaked out if something goes wrong. A “30-30” means the crew is asking maintenance to clean up a mess; three times during my stint I called in a “PVI” (public vomiting incident). An “Alpha” is a medical emergency, “Bravo” is a fire, and “Kilo” is a request for all personnel to report to their emergency posts for, say, an evacuation. Be wary of “Echo,” which is called if the ship is starting to drift, or “Oscar,” which means someone’s gone overboard. A crew member told me that in his 10 years of duty, he’s had four or five Oscars.

Drunk guests can’t outsmart the bartenders. If you thought those all-you-can-drink beverage packages correlated with debauchery at sea, think again. Only eight to 10 percent of passengers purchase the packages — Royal Caribbean’s guests are largely family travelers — and those who do are carefully monitored. Every single alcoholic beverage is poured with a jigger. Intoxicated passengers are subject to having their SeaPass cards temporarily disabled, blocking them from service at any of the ship’s bars. (What’s the most popular alcoholic beverage ordered on board? The cinnamon fireball shot.

The ship’s senior doctor, Ivan De La Rosa, said the biggest issue involving alcohol is when the ship is docked in Cozumel, Mexico. Mix an afternoon of unregulated drinking on land at Señor Frogs with tropical heat and a few glasses of Mexican tap water, and you’ve got yourself a guaranteed PVI.

Cruise staffers regularly engage in messaging,  subliminal and otherwise. The first thing guests likely see in their cabins is a gleeful jingle looping on their television screen about hand-washing.  It’s catchy as a Katy Perry song and meant to steer you toward the Purel pumps positioned at high-traffic junctions around the ship, like think entrances to the main dining halls and theaters).  Along with the emcees’ banter at large group events – “Have you washed your hands 50 times today? I have!” — the jingle is part of the crew’s unwavering effort to stave off a potential Norovirus outbreak.

But sanitation is just one aim of the messaging. When certain areas  become congested, the staff can direct  passengers to scatter to parts of the ship they might not normally travel past, which can result in increased onboard spending. If play in the casino is lagging, for instance, management might host a raffle or karaoke event there to drive foot traffic. Activities managers might film their daily newscast about onboard events with Starbucks iced coffees in hand, as a quiet reminder that passengers can get their venti latte fix on Deck Six.

There is a cruise ship burn book. Dru Pavlov, veteran cruise director and my mentor during this Royal Caribbean stint, keeps a hallowed book of passengers’ inane (or worse) comments and questions. The book is passed down from one cruise director to the next and makes great vamping material for event emcees.

The book Pavlov bequeathed to me included: “Is the toilet water drinkable?” and “How long does it take the crew to get home every night?” My favorite contribution came three days into my tenure, when a passenger stopped me to complain that she could no longer find her cabin because the ship had been parked backwards.

All cruise guests basically eat the same things. Freezers on board are the size of New York studio apartments — and stocking them is an art form. Before each sailing, the inventory team receives ingredients for 20 different dining venues, plus servings for the crew. (The total cost, including such other consumables as paper towels, is $800,000.) Overestimate the order, and the voyage becomes less-profitable (and wasteful); underestimate, and you risk a riot over coconut shrimp.

On the average week-long cruise, Royal Caribbean estimates its guests will be 80 percent American, consuming 3,000 bottles of wine, 7,000 pounds of chicken breast, and 100,000 eggs.

If more than 80 percent of the guests are American, the crew orders extra ketchup. When the percentage of Chinese passengers increases, they bump up the supply of sliced fruit, seafood, and rice. Latin Americans consume more red meat and Coronas (which also requires additional limes). And family-prone Spring Break cruises require three times as many chicken nuggets.

The one thing that never changes no matter who is on board? Toilet paper. Around 9,600 rolls are used each week.

Every ship has an “outbreak prevention plan,” with a hair trigger. Nothing is scarier to cruisers than a Norovirus outbreak —  which ship doctor De La Rosa says is almost always caused by a passenger who has brought the illness aboard, rather than poor sanitary conditions on the ship.

The United States requires that every ship maintain a detailed Outbreak Prevention Plan. On Harmony, regular sanitary conditions are called “OPP1,” and they get ratcheted up to “OPP2” when there’s a “6 in 6,” or six passengers reported ill in six hours. (You’ll know OPP2 is in force when the crew ratchets  up the “wash your hands” messaging.)

If the incidence rate escalates and the situation reaches OPP3, guests can no longer serve themselves on buffet lines; the entire crew, including ice dancers and synchronized swimmers, is recruited to help serve. And all linens from restaurants and guestrooms are sealed in red biohazard bags and laundered in a special facility on land.

If you want to avoid Norovirus like, well, the plague, stay away from short sailings, says figure skater and veteran crew member Chris Mabee. “Those trips tend to be the least-expensive, attracting both older passengers, who are prone to getting sick, and the young booze cruisers, who forget about hygiene.”

The most common diagnoses at sea include upper respiratory infections and bruised bones – plus, thanks to frisky behavior,  the odd Viagra mishap and urinary tract infections. Prescribing antibiotics can be hairy when passengers are committed to their all-you-can-drink packages.

 Crew members are trained to deal with handsy passengers.  Sleeping with a passenger will get a crew member sent home.  The zero-tolerance policy seems to be an industry-wide standard.

At Royal Caribbean, there’s staff training on how to defuse an escalating situation. More often than not, it’s a vacationing guest trying to seduce a crew member. “Whenever I take photos with people, I always give a thumbs up,” notes Pavlov. “My hands are visible, so no can claim any inappropriate behavior.”   (Some crew members monitor Grindr or Tinder to get a sense of who’s on board, and cameras cover virtually every nook and cranny of the ship.)

As for the staff of 2,200, it’s a genuine love boat. Dating is not just allowed but tacitly encouraged. Crew members live onboard through the entirety of their contract without days off, often 10 months a year.   (Most services on Harmony of the Seas — cabins, bars, a mess hall, shop, gym — are set off a second-deck corridor dubbed “I-95.”)  They have their own calendar of daily events that range from karaoke sessions to poker games and foreign language classes. And since Wi-Fi is pricey, romance is very much analog.

Several crew members recounted instances when they put in a request to share a cabin with their new boyfriend after only a month of dating, or dropped the “I love you” bomb within the first week of meeting someone. Relationships often end once one person leaves the ship, so actual cruise couples tend to become “lifers.” Almost everyone I met in upper management met their spouse onboard.

The ship has genies, and they can perform magic. Although bargain-basement discounts draw plenty of travelers, procuring Royal Caribbean’s VIP status can offer a true luxury experience. The easiest way to get it is by booking into the Royal Suites Star Class; the company’s crème de la crème offering includes 10 state-of-the-art apartments on Harmony of the Seas, with privileged access to pleb-free parts of the ship and butler-style service from a coterie of “Royal Genies.”

Daniel, one of the genies, once dealt with a couple who asked for  their suite to be filled with flowers. Unable to secure real bouquets, he had the pastry team bake dozens of petal-shaped cookies, which he scattered around the room. Andrei , another genie, had to deal with a family locked out of a peak-season December sailing; he surprised them with an early Christmas by decorating their suite and putting wrapped presents under a makeshift tree.

“The hardest thing to do is host a celebrity on board,” Andrei said.   To give them privacy amid thousands of cruisers,  “we usher them into shows after the lights go dark, and we grab them to leave five minutes before the show is done.”