Tom Baker thinks it makes perfect sense to launch his LGBT Halloween cruise out of Tampa this year. The president of Aquafest, a travel agency based in Houston, says the LGBT community of Tampa/St. Petersburg is a perfect match for its international LGBT cruisers.
“The Tampa area community is very LGBT receptive and it’s such a melting pot there,” Baker says. “Plus you have one of the most interesting and beautiful airports in the country and Tampa is accessible to everything when it comes to cruises.”
The Aquafest Halloween Cruise will leave the Port of Tampa on Oct. 25 aboard the Carnival Legend Ship. The ship returns on Nov. 1 and Baker expects that about 450 of the overall 2,200 passengers aboard the ship will be part of the Aquafest group.
“I’m not going to lie to you,” Baker says. “I think this year will be a little lighter for us because of the economy. We usually book 500 people on our cruises and 450 may be a bit optimistic. But we still have time to fill cabins and there has been a lot of interest.”
According to Baker, the Aquafest experience is beyond what just a regular cruise may be. True, travelers with Aquafest have access to fine dining, four pools, spas and other on-ship attractions. But The Aquafest package also includes special entertainment available exclusively to the group.
“We offer LGBT travelers an opportunity to participate in our LGBT-specific land excursions and our private events onboard the ship,” Baker says. “They are free to do the Carnival company attractions, but their fee to us secures them access to parties and opportunities not available to the rest of the passengers on board.”
Baker and his team of volunteers and employees decorate a private lounge specifically for the Aquafest members. The space is used for cocktail socials, parties, theme dances and the popular Halloween party.
“We also have [drag performer] Hedda Lettuce as our emcee,” Baker says. “She was with us last year and she is an amazing performer. She sings live is hilarious and has the ability to make everyone feel comfortable.”
During last year’s cruise, Baker says passengers from Aquafest and the overall cruise were flocking to Hedda Lettuce. She was lovely to all of the guests, he says, and told every straight person that she was indeed a man in a dress with green hair.
“This year we’re going to have Hedda perform in our own version of the Poseidon Adventure during the Halloween party,” Baker says. “I can’t tell you how we’re doing the disaster, but it will happen and it’s hilarious.”
Lettuce is in face throughout the cruise, Baker says, and encourages LGBT passengers to be themselves while on board.
“We want everyone to act as they would at home,” he says. “If you want to kiss your boyfriend by the pool, then do it. If you want to hold hands with your girlfriend at dinner, do it.”
Not just a guy thing
A common misconception about many cruises is that they are gender specific, according to Baker. He says he believes cruises are more fun if the entire community is involved, not just gay men or lesbians.
“I really like to have a mix of personalities and genders, and that’s not easy to pull off,” Baker says. “Our Halloween cruises began with a pretty even 50/50 split between gay men and lesbians. But the last two years it’s been more 70/30, with more men on board. Honestly, I’m not real happy with that.”
Baker says Aquafest’s Alaska cruise is usually more lesbians than gay men, so in a way, it seems to balance out.
“Everyone is different and has his or her own likes and dislikes,” Baker says. “But we reach out to everyone. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, single, partnered, young and old.”
About 75% of Aquafest travelers are made up of couples, based on the past eight years, Baker says, and typical travelers are around 40 years old.
“But we do have younger travelers in their 20s and 30s, but those are mostly singles,”
Baker says. “It really is a great melting pot that gives everyone a chance to learn something from another generation or from someone they may not run into at their favorite gay bar at home.”
In years past, Baker says the cruise has had travelers from every state in the United States and several countries. He expects the same for this October’s cruise.
The Carnival Legend will stop at four ports during its week-long cruise. Grand Cayman and Cozumel, Mexico, Belize and Roatan Island, Honduras are currently on the schedule, and Baker has LGBT alternative tours available already.
“Everything is included in our Aquafest price,” Baker says. “We put these excursions together with LGBT operators for our LGBT members so our passengers can travel together. If you book a regular shore excursion you’ll be with other Carnival guests and I have no control over who is on that tour. You could end up being one of two gay men on a tour with a large Baptist group of grey-hairs.”
The tours conducive to LGBT travelers are intended to help travelers meet others within the group and there are usually five to 10 excursion options per port.
“We try to give as many options as possible,” Baker says. “I think at one port, probably Roatan Island, we’ll only have one excursion, and that will be a big LGBT beach party.”
Too many travelers who haven’t been on cruise ships fear boredom, cabin fever and motion sickness. But according to Baker, ships like the Carnival Legend are essentially floating resorts, and unless the ship encounters a storm, motion sickness is rare.
“Ships are so large and so technologically advanced now that you can go around and get lost on them,” Baker says. “The Legend is a huge ship. It has four pools, casinos, dance clubs, spas and multiple restaurants. If there is bad weather ahead, they warn you so you can take whatever medicine you need to prepare yourself.”
Baker says he used to get motion sickness, but hasn’t had problems in years.
“I don’t know if I outgrew it or if the ships have improved,” he says.
And with all of the recent press concerning Mexico and Swine Flu, Baker is convinced the media is causing concern over nothing.
“I’m really not worried about it at all,” Baker says. “I as just in Mexico for five days and I believe it was all over hyped. I talked to people in the medical field who thought the same thing and Cozumel has had no cases at all.”
Baker says he’d be surprised if the Swine Flu changed any of the Aquafest Halloween Cruise itineraries, but if it does, he says he’s prepared to make adjustments.
“I think we’ll be fine in October, but if not we’ll replace the port,” he says. “Maybe Key West could come on. It’s always fun there and they are very receptive to us. We’ll just have to see.”
For more information on Aquafest, visit AquafestCruises.com.
2010 cruise benefits LGBT charities
Tampa In February 2010, a fundraiser cruise out of the Port of Tampa will benefit four LGBT charities, including the Ryan Keith Skipper Foundation.
The GayCruiseUSA trip aboard Royan Caribbean’s Grandure of the Seas leaves Tampa Feb. 6 and returns Feb. 11. A portion of the booking fees are donated to charities and travelers are encouraged to donate more if possible.
The cruise, sponsored by Watermark, features celebrities like comediennes ChristineOleary and Michelle Balan, performers Tiffany and Lady Bunny and DJs Joe Gauthreaux and Eddie X.
On deck, male and female body building contests are scheduled along with drag shows and themed parties.
Other charities benefiting from the cruise include the Gay American Heroes Foundation, St. Pete Pride and Sawmill Campground Charities.
For more information on the 2010 LGBT Charity Cruise, visit GayCruiseUSA.com or call 1-888-476-3511.