Aboard the TCM Classic Cruise, the Most Fun I've Had at Sea in Years
It was evident that this cruise wouldn’t be like any other when someone’s phone rang in the middle of the pre-departure lifeboat drill—and it was Elton John calling on FaceTime.
“He was bored,” explained the recipient, Dave Karger. A personal friend of the pop superstar, Karger hurried to end the call politely so the group safety training could proceed.
Karger wasn’t the only intimate of Sir Elton’s aboard the TCM Classic Cruise on the Disney Dream. Standing nearby, you’d have seen Bob Mackie, the legendary costume designer who has dressed every luminary diva of our time and created so many of John’s most iconic performance outfits, from that Donald Duck suit to his gem-encrusted Dodgers uniform from 1975.
And so it went for the next five days at sea, awash in casual celebrity. Most of the passengers were regular people who booked the special sailing as they would any other cruise. Except on this one, a full-ship buyout produced by the Turner Classic Movies channel, they sailed alongside some truly distinguished fellow travelers—who, it turns out, are just regular people, too.
I was aboard, too, and as a classic film fan and the editor-in-chief of this platform, I was somehow selected to serve as the cruise’s sole journalist. I've taken a lot of cruises, but never one like this. Let me tell you a little about what this special annual adventure was like.
Chevy Chase was spotted on the water slide. Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss (pictured above) could be glimpsed taking leisurely afternoon dips in the pool. At night, singer Deana Martin, the accomplished daughter of crooner Dean Martin, performed her act to a packed house in one of the ship’s nightclub spaces. During one performance, 88-year-old Pat Boone, a record-setting pop superstar in his own right, jumped onstage as midnight approached to sing an unplanned duet.
The eighth sailing of the TCM Classic Cruise, held in November 2022, was a five-night Caribbean celebration of classic entertainment so propitious that it required more than a single master of ceremonies. Instead, there were four principal hosts, each of them a certifiable film nerd and a regular on-air personality on Turner Classic Movies.
Most of the year, hosts interview celebrities and introduce commercial-free classic films on TCM, which has earned a fervent following since its 1994 debut. But on the TCM Classic Cruise, which began sailing nearly annually in 2011, hosts function like a team of entertainment directors, introducing screenings, calling bingo games, making wry public announcements over the address system, and anchoring Q&A sessions with a short list of invited stars. On the 2022 incarnation of the cruise, the roster included Chase, Dreyfuss, Mackie, Boone, Martin, and actress-singer Lainie Kazan, whose appearances attracted standing-room-only audiences.
Principal emcee Ben Mankiewicz (also pictured above) manages to be simultaneously genial, approachable, self-effacing, and warmly sarcastic. The other hosts: Alicia Malone, bookish, insightful, and relatable; Dave Karger, boyish, precise, and as debonair as Cary Grant but perhaps even more immaculate; and film preservationist Eddie Muller, the so-called “Czar of Noir,” a dark horse who’s a little like what would happen if a street tough grew up to be a professor of cinema.
TCM’s fifth regular host, Jacqueline Stewart, actually is a professor of cinema at the University of Chicago. She’s also the director and president of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Stewart was reluctantly kept ashore in 2022 by an unexpected personal conflict.
All the hosts have encyclopedic understandings of film history, and all of them clearly relished the rare chance to interact with their audience on deck instead of through a camera lens.
The TCM Classic Cruise is a tradition going back more than a decade. In the spring of 2010, TCM launched a springtime, land-based film festival in Hollywood. TCM general manager Pola Changnon told me that her network’s special cruise began development the same year as a separate revenue driver for a “comedy-based” sister corporate channel. “But as they started to explore that business, they realized it's really hard to take comics off the road. Even for a night,” said Changnon. “But then the thought was, What if we do this for TCM?"
“The film festival is a different animal. There's an intensity around being in Hollywood, going to film, to film, to film,” said Changnon. “But the cruise was still a cruise vacation. You still have an opportunity to sit on deck, get some sunshine, have a cocktail, and then amble into a theater somewhere.”
There’s programming on the cruise from 9am to midnight except when the ship is in port. At many times, there’s something going on at six venues at once, including screenings of classic films (with free popcorn), Q&A sessions between celebrities and TCM hosts, movies under the stars, book signings, live performances, quiz events, and games.
A typical hard choice: Attend a conversation with actress and singer Lainie Kazan in the Evolution lounge, hear Richard Dreyfuss introduce a screening of 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind in the Walt Disney Theatre, watch a Tarzan classic poolside on the top deck, or see Adam’s Rib (1949) in the Buena Vista Theatre.
For many years, the late Alex Trebek—a huge classic movie fan—emceed the sailings’ trivia contests and games, and his regular appearances became a firm fan favorite. “He was so integral to how we thought about planning the cruises,“ said Changnon. “He was just a really special, unique feature for us.”
On the 2022 edition, some of Trebek's duties were picked up by Bruce Goldstein, who, as repertory programmer of Manhattan’s Film Forum since the 1980s, claims virtual deity status among cineasts, and by Mankiewicz’s bright 9-year-old daughter Josie, making her public hosting debut calling bingo numbers.
For one, passengers are never required to wear formal outfits for dinner. In fact, with so many back-to-back events on the schedule, there are evenings when particularly engaged passengers don’t even have time to attend their assigned seatings and must grab supper from the buffet instead.
Because of controlled attendance, and because there were so many TCM-arranged events scheduled at venues across the ship, the usual Disney cruise content was offered at half power: fewer characters wandering around, fewer Disney-produced live shows, fewer filler activities like scheduled deck games. Even the normally tricked-out dinner service at the Animator’s Palate restaurant was operating in what theme park fans would call “B mode,” with the special effects disabled.
The Disney talent remains on hand, though, to help with TCM’s own events, such as a special movie-themed sail-away party and one costume party (with Disney fireworks) per cruise—2022’s theme was the 1920s (pictured above). Even Pat Boone dressed up.
There are very few kids on board. One crew member told me there were only about 44 on our sailing on the Disney Dream, which can hold up to 4,000 people when fully booked. Thankfully, the TCM cruise wasn’t nearly so packed, and attendance was kept at a level that meant screenings and interviews never required reservations and always had a few seats available.
If you missed an interview with one of the celebrity guests, there was usually a repeat scheduled with a different TCM host to give it a new spin. Many guests made sure to catch both sessions, but for those who couldn’t, the major talks appeared as streaming videos on stateroom television sets late in the journey.
In the public spaces, a special soundtrack of great film scores replaces the usual loop of nonstop Disney tunes. On the last day of the trip, one of the cabin stewards looked at me and said, more than a little dolefully, “I’m going to miss this music.”
The knowledge that discussions were only for passengers of the cruise, and not for broadcast, seemed to free the stars to speak more freely than they might do for a televised interview. When someone asked Bob Mackie about the work he did for the cult favorite Star Wars Holiday Special, a 1978 debacle that isn't available for legal streaming, the designer flatly told the audience, "That show was a piece of crap!"
I’m sure there are some former film stars who are approached for the cruise who think no one would want to hear their stories anymore, or that no one remembers, or that no one wants to see that they’ve aged and changed. But it was obvious from the jump that the people who pay to go on a TCM cruise aren’t hung up on those worries. Just being invited to be a part of the cruise is an indication that a celebrity indeed still has fans, and if there’s one thing classic movie lovers understand, it’s that we all age and change—but the past is still worth celebrating.
When Lainie Kazan momentarily forgot the name of Frank Sinatra’s hotel, a fan piped up with the answer. When Joel McCrea and Frances Dee’s grandson Wyatt McCrea spoke about the documentary he’s putting together about his grandparents, an attendee raised her hand and said she knew where he could find some rare footage he’d been searching for.
It’s a group that knows full well that although times change, there will always be some audiences that crave the old stories.
“It shows you that people who had careers maybe not as number one on the call sheet still have so many fans out there because their work was spread over so many beloved movies,” said Changnon.
There wasn’t a single velvet rope on board, and no inappropriate fan behavior. Instead, everyone played as equals. That was clear the night Deana Martin was joined for an impromptu duet by Pat Boone, who defied the notion that midnight is past the bedtime of an 88-year-old. Insead, he jumped up on stage (pictured above) to perform "Memories Are Made of This," a song made famous by Deana's father, Dean.
The next day, Martin stopped Changnon in passing. “She said, ‘Do you know what kind of moment that was for me?’,” said Changnon.
"It stopped the show," Martin told me later. "So then I sat on the stool to do 'Quando Quando Quando.' And Pat had [released] 'Quando Quando Quando' [in 1962]! I had forgotten."
Some of the talent uses the event to weigh in on their legacies. Dreyfuss, for example, opened up during his interviews to explain his famously exacting reputation, but from his own perspective.
And Pat Boone, who in recent years has been asked about appropriating Black music for white fans in the late ‘50s and ‘60s, spoke unprompted about his collaborations and friendships with many of the African American artists whose songs he covered, and how he provided a link between Black and white pop music culture at a time when the two worlds rarely intersected.
In a way, the cruise gives celebrities a chance to take a victory lap and help write the narrative of their lives.
Boone told me he got some personal satisfaction from the cruise, too: He’d never watched his own 1962 movie State Fair until he caught it on the pool deck during the cruise.
“I cried in it! I didn't remember that I cried.” he told me. "I mean, I actually cried on camera, and it brought me into tears watching it now today."
But one of the biggest surprises of the trip came during one of the more popular events, TCM Open All Night, a sometimes bawdy get-to-know-you late-night session that closes out some evenings.
One evening, Richard Dreyfuss (a two-time TCM cruiser) insisted he wanted to join the TCM hosts on stage to play an impromptu round of the revealing parlor game Two Truths and a Lie (pictured above).
One of his truths: He once slept with Gloria Grahame, who won an Oscar the year he was born.
The audience howled. This was stuff you won’t find in Wikipedia profiles, let alone on regular vacations.
I’ve been on a lot of cruises in my time as a travel writer—and remarkable moments like that made my spin on the 2022 TCM Classic Cruise the most fun I’ve had on a ship in more than a decade.
• January 21–26, 2013: Debbie Reynolds, Mickey Rooney, Arlene Dahl, Sally Ann Howes, and Norman Lloyd aboard the Celebrity Constellation, with stops at Grand Cayman and Cozumel
• October 21–26, 2014: Diane Baker, Ann Blyth, Richard Dreyfuss, Tab Hunter, Shirley Jones, and James Karen aboard the Disney Magic, with stops at Key West and Castaway Cay
• November 1–6, 2015: Angie Dickinson, Eva Marie Saint, Louis Gossett, Jr., Roger Corman, and Ruta Lee aboard the Disney Magic, with stops at Grand Cayman and Castaway Cay
• October 22–27, 2019: Diane Ladd, Mitzi Gaynor, Leonard Maltin, and Cicely Tyson (pictured above with Ben Mankiewicz) aboard the Disney Magic, with a stop at Bermuda
• November 12–17, 2022: Chevy Chase, Richard Dreyfuss, Pat Boone, Bob Mackie, and Lainie Kazan aboard the Disney Dream with stops at Grand Cayman and Castaway Cay
The 2023 cruise is scheduled for November 6–11, 2023, sailing aboard the Disney Magic from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas and Ensenada, Mexico, with a lineup to be determined. Sign up at TCMCruise.com.
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Frommer's joined the 2022 TCM Classic Cruise, a themed vacation experience in the Caribbean. Offered by the movie channel TCM since 2011, the TCM Classic Cruise invited Frommer's to attend the 2022 sailing. We retained full control over the topics and content of our coverage.