February 4, 2009
Atlantis Events Presents FREEDOM :: on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas
Robert Doyle READ TIME: 16 MIN.
During its twelve-year reign on the gay imagination and its dominance of January vacations, the Atlantis Events Caribbean cruise, leaving from Miami each January, has inspired numerous sobriquets such as "the Love Boat," "the floating bathhouse," and "the widowmaker"-and yet the Freedom Class series of Royal Caribbean Cruise Line mega-ships that each year return 3,600 gay men and women to a blissful state of primordial gayness are probably best known collectively as the Mothership. For as the Sparkle Sisters said (and these two should know, having traveled on nine Atlantis cruises in just two years), "It's a chance to be who we really are, and to do all the things straight people take for granted." All that and more, these two fashionista sistas might have added, for as anyone who's ever been on this cruise knows, the Atlantis Freedom cruise is definitely about celebrating all your freedoms-and especially the ones you discover at sea.
The freedom to be whoever you are was a phrase that rang in our heads as the Freedom slid along Government Cut with Miami Beach spread out before her like a dazzling oasis. But as gorgeous as the Beach was (and often is), there was nothing quite so thrilling as the scene on-board: 3,600 queens waving Beyonce style to the life they were leaving behind.
In case you haven't heard, the Royal Caribbean Freedom series of cruise ships are basically the equivalent of a floating resort-and with the addition of Atlantis Events, that resort becomes Gay Central. The Royal Promenade, a full city block of shops, restaurants, and boutiques that form the Freedom's center, was hung with banners highlighting the world's gayest urban strips, such as Santa Monica, Castro, Old Compton, Eighth Avenue, Halsted, and Dupont Circle. According to Atlantis reps, more than thirty percent of this year's Freedom cruise revelers were from points beyond the mainland US-we're talking groups of 50 and 60 from places such as London, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Moscow. Certainly that was one explanation for the surfeit of beauty. Such an excess of gorgeous! To walk the Gay Promenade down the center of Freedom was to hear a dozen languages-and understand them all because, at last, at long last, you'd arrived on the home planet.
THE PEOPLE ::
Boys from London, Vancouver, and Amsterdam: a surfeit of beauty
Anyone who has ever traveled on a straight cruise well knows the feeling of being one in ten, at best-and having to explain the words "partner" and "lover" (not to mention "teabagging") to a table of masticating bovines. Instead, on the Freedom, we basked in the attentions of our own community-and particularly those Europeans, Asians, and South Americans, all of whom seem to possess a wonderfully non-judgmental attitude about our community's more licentious behaviors (unlike our own Puritan ancestors, for example...). Of course, as cruise directors Malcolm and Gordon reminded us, "Take it to the room," and most people did-and then went back out to get more.
Perhaps the overriding theme of this year's Freedom was established on that first night when Charo declaimed, "Dance don't bullfight." For if you think about it, there are numerous ways of dancing-and if you think more about it, Charo's adage is one the world would do well to adopt. Enough with the fighting and killing; use those cajones for dirty dancing.
And that's the thing about traveling on an all-gay Atlantis cruise: rarely will you encounter a more pleasant and polite group of stunning males. To watch us coexist happily and peacefully is to yearn for the day when we take control-and the entire planet becomes a gay cruise. Think about it: an entire world noted for its emphasis on fantasy, costuming-and platinum wigs. Because to travel on the Freedom cruise was to never be judged for what you wore-or what you didn't. Wear a giraffe top (yes, there was one), stroll in your skivvies, strut in your undies, or dress like Cole Porter-no one will bat an eye. (Although, admittedly, one evening we did hear one nearly naked boy say to another nearly naked boy, "You're overdressed. Take something off.")
THE STARS ::
Deejays, producers, celebutantes, and comics-a cavalcade of gay talent
Oh, what an idyllic holiday it was, wandering the Gay Promenade with the likes of director and porn star Michael Lucas, and deejay/producers Tony Moran, Abel, Wayne G, Warren Gluck, and Brett Henrichsen, as well as a cavalcade of gay talent, such as the drag magician Cashetta, and New York celebutant(e)/comedian Scott Nevins, and that deliciously wicked Jackie Beat. And there was Andy Bell, lead singer of Erasure, sucking on-ice cream. And the uber-gay Matt Yee (in Hawaiian muumuu) and the 21-year old twink comics, the VGL Boys, and comedian Alec Mapa, and deejay and visual designer Kidd Madonny and the hilarious Poppy Champlin and lighting designers Guy Smith and Ross Berger, and laser genius Kyle... And over there, the new Saturday night South Beach power group: Billy Kemp, Luis Morera, Abel, and Hilton and Mel Wolman. Everywhere you looked, there was a star-and another and another-over 3,600 of them, shining bright and packing tight in their Speedos and Andrew Christians.
THE SHIP ::
Art on the stairwells-and lounging about the pools
Fortunately on the Freedom, there's an abundance of mirrors-beauty forever gazing back at you. The ship is a narcissist's delight! And filled with a stunningly curated collection of art-and we're not just talking about the kind working the runways and littered about the pools. At more than 1,100 feet long, the Freedom is immense, stocked with everything from a skating rink to nightclubs and a rock climbing wall, as well as bars, lounges, theatres, a screening room, and enough dining places to suit every body type and food fetish.
The staterooms are skillfully designed, utilizing every square foot to create a fully functioning mini-apartment (think Tokyo and you'll be happy). And the RCCL staff could hardly be more accommodating and pleasant. In fact, it was a mutual love affair between the RCCL staff and clientele-and repeatedly, we were told, "The staff adores this cruise. They love the gays." Which made us even more considerate-even going so far as to pick up our own Mardi Gras beads.
THE PARTIES ::
Every night, another invitation: party, party, party
For, let's face it; at least 99% of the boys on the Freedom were there for the parties. There are other Atlantis cruises if your focus is on the ports o'call or on a more relaxed kind of vacation, but on the Freedom, it's the parties. Every evening, there was an invitation-a glossy printed invitation-placed in your stateroom for the next night's party. And then there were the after hours, and the after parties...
Barely had we sailed out of Government Cut before we were at the Sailaway Party-and then mere hours later, it was off to Studio B for the Welcome Aboard Party. With its arena-style seating and its dance floor doubling as a skating rink on other nights, Studio B echoes Arabian Nights (for anyone who's ever been to One Mighty Party in Orlando). This is a seriously large club, not your rinky-dink second- or third-tier city club. And with Brett Henrichsen on the boards, the boyz were out in force. "Are you ready to dance?" went one refrain, while lightman Ross Berger created mesmerizing spectacles. It was a welcome aboard reunion, accompanied by caterwauls of joy at seeing yet another Freedom friend you hadn't expected to encounter. It was a roomful of rock stars, catching the rhythm of the night; it was "That's the Way You Do It" mixed with "Make It Last." And behind it all was that salsa beat, that New York/South Beach/Los Angeles beat, from the three corners of the American gay triangle. The stage was mobbed with boyz, werking it out to Charo's massive hit with its incendiary flamenco guitar-and meanwhile, on the floor, there was Kidd Madonny doing a reprise of his celebrated "Broom Dance," albeit this time with a mop! And by the time Brett plated Maya's "Happy People," the verdict was in: happiness reigned throughout the Freedom.
The next day, upstairs on the pool deck, it was the popular Atlantis Dog Tag T-Dance, where every boy embodied the opposite of Don't Ask, Don't Tell. Instead, this was the sort of fraternal gathering where it was entirely acceptable to turn and ask someone, "Mind if I suck on your tit?" This was military conduct beyond reproach. And for this comradely bacchanal, deejay Wayne G. was the Admiral, throwing down "Strings of Life" and "To Touch The Sky" and that crowd-pleaser, "I Just Wanna' Fuckin' Dance," alongside a deeply cathartic "Nobody's Supposed to Be Here." It was late afternoon of the first day at sea, and everywhere you looked, you saw another person you knew-and another one you were going to know, before the week was out. Oh, yeah-and everyone was smiling.
After a disco nap and dinner, we were all back Poolside again for Abel's Brazil Party. With a dress code specifying Rio Speedo, Amazon tribal, gaucho, or voyeuristic tourist, the packed Poolside Deck was filled to the gills with the best of Brazil, and Abel was breaking open the vault, slamming down "Get Your Hands Off My Man." The man was on fire-and so was the crowd, sporting so many sarongs, cangas, and pareos that a strong gust could have sent the party sailing into the heavens. The sky was gorgeous with stars. Abel worked through a bang-up set, including "Touch My Body" and "Let Me See You Sweat," while Guy Smith found the switch and sent the lights soaring-at one point evoking in white lights the planetarium dome of the most famous club in gay history, the fabled Saint.
This was a party where the whole group in the booth was a family of pros. These were men at the peak of their game: Abel and Guy and Ross, with Kyle on lasers, and Atlantis chief Rich Campbell overseeing-and all of them working together, mutually supportive. There was a kind of passing of the torch, with Guy letting two twenty-somethings dabble on the boards, and Kidd messing at Abel's feet. And all through it, there was Abel with his intense focus, such extreme focus, making sure we all had fun!
On Tuesday night, it was Mardi Gras, aka Fat Tuesday-not that anyone in that crowd was worried about how he looked because the gym had been standing-room only for the past thirty-six hours. Besides, this was a party all about fantasy, beads, and headdress-and let's face it, everyone's alter id emerges behind a Venetian mask. With a tiered series of eagle nests, the Poolside Deck provided the perfect venue for spotting prey on the floor below. The crowd was gorgeous. Kyle sent lasers into neighboring galaxies. In between, we caught two shooting stars-in the sky, that is... Wayne G. kept the crowd delirious with the Fragma/Mariah mash-up of "Toca's Miracle/We Belong Together," and then Rihanna's "Unfaithful," and-whoa, could it be?-"(I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone." Perfection. It worked. The energy was off the hook, allowing the Freedom to rock through the night on manpower alone.
THE FOOD, THE ENTERTAINMENT ::
Food, like sex, was always available
Every night, another party, and some parties during the day. And in between, we ate. At all hours. There was an endless amount of food. There was food anywhere you wanted-whatever you wanted whenever you wanted. In other words, food was like sex on the Freedom: always there when you wanted. Or as one sister put it, "She doesn't discriminate at all. She's taken everything that's come her way. Totally non-discriminatory."
A list of our favorite things hardly does the smorgasbord justice, but let's try anyhow: French fries, chilled berry and buttermilk soup, hash browns, risotto primavera, Greek salad, b?arnaise sauce, bread pudding w/vanilla sauce, Caesar salad, opera cake, pumpkin soup, vegetarian chili, papadam, sushi, pad Thai, jalapeno corn bread, miso soup, Hollandaise, chilled watermelon soup, pineapple, blueberries, shaved chocolate, whipped cream...
We were eating at all hours, and especially after the parties, at five and six in the morning, when everyone was giddy and punch drunk, and sharing stories and laughing uncontrollably at one punch line that went, "Bitch, do I look like I can eat sixteen waffles?"
And when we weren't eating or partying, we were being entertained. Whether merely seated along the Gay Promenade watching the endless rainbow parade of our brethren, or in a theatre watching our rainbow brethren onstage, there was always a show. There was Andy Bell, lead singer of Erasure in Studio B, complete with a mosh pit of dancing fools pogoing to "Blue Savannah" and "Oh, L'Amour," "Chains of Love" and "A Little Respect," as well as "I Could Fall in Love With You" and "Always."
And then we were wheezing with laughter as Jackie Beat charged through her song parodies, changing "Don't Leave Me This Way" into "Don't Tell Me You're Gay," and turning "A Little Girl From Little Rock" into "A Little Girl Who Loves A Giant Cock." Not suitable for the children-but fortunately, there weren't any! Another mighty perk about traveling on an Atlantis cruise!
And then on Friday night-the rumors had been correct-she really was on the Freedom, none other than this year's Tony Award winner for Best Actress in a Musical, Ms. Patti Lupone. She filled the Arcadia Theatre-for both the early show and the late show-and from the moment she took the stage, the audience was on its feet, stomping and cheering. This love affair goes way back-to the days when Lupone sang "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina," which she sang again to rousing applause, along with a slew of Broadway standards such as "Easy to Be Hard" and "Some People" and "Send in the Clowns" and "Ladies Who Lunch," and especially, Sondheim's "Being Alive," which perhaps had particular resonance for many in the audience who have weathered personal storms-and remain here still, to cheer for those who have always cheered us on, such as Lupone. A diva to love, Lupone thanked her adoring audience with such sincerity that her voice caught. And in a reference to a recent episode at a performance of Gypsy, Lupone flashed her own camera, repeatedly snapping flash photos of her audience-much to their delirious delight.
THE PORTS O’CALL ::
Shopping to accessorize with that much more tropical zing
What? There were ports o'call? Oh yeah, that's right. Three stops. The Freedom made three stops-and people did get off the boat. Some people did. Labadee was lovely-a pristine cove at the base of massive and lush green hills, a far cry from what we've been led to believe about Haiti. Hard to believe that the sights we know from news stories are apparently on the other side of those hills, but for the day, it was all about refuge and sanctuary.
And there was also Old San Juan in Puerto Rico and Philipsburg on St. Maarten, both fine shopping towns, enabling more than a few queens to supplement their wardrobes and accessorize their costumes with just that much more tropical zing...
MORE PARTIES ::
A week spent partying with professionals who make fun a profession
Because there were still more parties! The Under the Sea Party, for example, where visionary designer extraordinaire, RKM/Kidd Madonny transformed Studio B's skating rink into a riotously hallucinogenic underwater amalgam of SpongeBob's Bikini Bottom and Peewee's Playhouse. Without a doubt, this party was the most visually stunning of the week (and that's saying something, given Kidd's exemplary Mardi Gras d?cor on the Poolside deck)-and combined with Warren Gluck's seamless set of current classics such as the PC Dolls, "I Hate This Part" and Mary J's "Just Fine," this Thursday night event was a climactic celebration of unrestrained release. We swam with the fishies, the jellyfish and cephalopods-and sharks-all of us floating and diving, a school 2,000 strong. It was Thursday night-and we had an entire weekend ahead of us.
And then it was White Party, the penultimate party of the week, the party everyone had packed for-for who doesn't have a pair of tighty whiteys? The spectrum of white outfits was a wonder to behold-it was white wedding and snow white and silver, blue, and cream. Guy was on lights again, creating a tropical winter white wonderland, complete with sexy blue dancing holograms and Maya was singing, "I fantasize, you're all I'm dreaming of..." It was heaven, and at the pearly gates was Abel as Head Angel, giving us "Freedom" and "Free." His beat was the one contagion impossible to resist. The energy was nuclear white-hot and time collapsed as white-wigged coiffed courtiers whirled with tribal chiefs in white headdress. Everyone was living free.
Oh, but there was still more-another party the next evening: the Splash T-Dance in Studio B, with Brett in total command of his sold-out crowd. Brilliantly consistent, and persistent, Brett poured it on-and at one point had the entire crowd singing the refrain to "Rehab"-"No, no, no," not a one of them yet ready to leave the Freedom or to head back to what's commonly referred to as reality on this planet.
And this was also the party where the RCCL crew suddenly appeared onstage as a chorus line of singing nuns, working their way through "The Sound of Music" before segueing into Beyonce's "Single Ladies," complete with choreography-at which point, the roof lifted off Studio B and sent the cheers soaring into the heavens.
Rarely have we witnessed a crowd as united and bonded together as this one. A week together can do that, and especially a week spent partying together at parties that are polished and professional.
THE COMMUNITY, THE FAMILY ::
Recalling a place called Atlantis, also known as home
Because, in the end, that's what Atlantis Freedom is all about: the sense of family we create together. How can you not feel it? There was a group of 35 guys, for example, every night in matching outfits. One night in basketball tees, each emblazoned with the phrase TAKE A NUMBER. Another night, they were 35 Dalmatian puppies. The boat was filled with this kind of camaraderie and the spirit of fun. It was the ultimate family reunion, with all ages represented from eighteen to eighty. It was family members from all walks of life, and cousins from countries around the world-and the joy of it all was how everyone in this Freedom family got along so well. For even as we were considerate of our differences, we were far more conscious of the bonds that held us together: one family sailing the seas together and subconsciously recalling a place, perhaps called Atlantis, that we all knew was truly home.
Long-term New Yorkers, Mark and Robert have also lived in San Francisco, Boston, Provincetown, D.C., Miami Beach and the south of France. The recipient of fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, and Blue Mountain Center, Mark is a PhD in American history and literature, as well as the author of the novels Wolfchild and My Hawaiian Penthouse. Robert is the producer of the documentary We Are All Children of God. Their work has appeared in numerous publications, as well as at : www.mrny.com.