“Tampa!” screamed a disembodied voice at the PortMiami cruise terminal. “Bay!” replied a chorus of others from all corners of the check-in area. As I looked around and noticed a sea of red and black, I started to feel like something was very, very wrong.
I was about to board Celebrity Cruises‘ Celebrity Summit for what I thought would be a standard short voyage to Key West, Florida, and Nassau, Bahamas — a quick trip I booked to get away for a few days of R&R. Instead, I unwittingly found myself on the first Tampa Bay Buccaneers cruise.
As a rabid fan of the Philadelphia Eagles, I was appalled — mostly with myself.
What follows is a tale as old as theme cruises: unsuspecting passengers book themselves on sailings that are partial charters but don’t realize it until embarkation day.
So, was my experience a fumble or a touchdown? You might be surprised.
For more cruise news, guides and tips, sign up for TPG’s cruise newsletter.
The Tampa Bay Bucs cruise
Of the ship’s 2,000 passengers, about 500 were on board as part of the partial charter. Why the organizers chose to leave on a ship out of Miami instead of Tampa is a mystery. I was also curious how much it cost fans to participate in the exclusive experience, so I headed to the official website for the sailing.
There, I learned that various cabin categories, ranging from basic inside accommodations with minimal inclusions to spa-themed AquaClass balcony rooms that included gratuities, drinks and Wi-Fi had been up for grabs. The latter sold out at $1,349 per person. Although pricing wasn’t listed for the other cabin types, which did not appear to be fully sold, a Bucs fan I met during lunch at the ship’s buffet told me she paid $900 per person for an ocean-view room without the extra inclusions.
You’re likely wondering what, exactly, a football cruise includes for those prices. As is standard for theme cruises, only people who have booked and paid for the themed experience can participate in most activities.
Sign up for our daily newsletter
The sailing’s dedicated website lists such events as a sailaway party, an exclusive Key West scavenger hunt ashore, pirate dinners, themed photo opportunities, team trivia, VIP cocktail parties, meet-and-greets with players (Leonard Fournette, Tristan Wirfs, Martin Gramática and others), and appearances by the Buccaneers cheerleaders and the mascot, Captain Fear.
What I found nice as an outsider was the events that were open to all passengers, whether subtle nods to the team — like screenings of the movies in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise each night on the outdoor movie screen — or in-your-face displays like a pool volleyball game that pitted the ship’s officers against several current and former Bucs players. (The latter was a figurative bloodbath in favor of the Bucs.)
The public events allowed all passengers to feel included if they were interested in watching, but those who wanted to avoid the theme would have had a difficult time. After all, it was nearly impossible to miss all the costumes, flags and general swag that covered every deck.
The constant shouts of “Tampa!” followed by echoes of “Bay!” were also intrusive. On the second-to-last night of the cruise, a man dressed only in Bucs swim trunks came into a trivia session that was not Bucs themed and started the cheer. Either there were no other Buccaneers fans in the room, or everyone was tired because no one responded — at which point he sheepishly slunk back out of the lounge.
How it went
Still reeling from the Eagles’ Super Bowl loss (which, thankfully, I couldn’t watch because I was in the Galapagos), the last thing I wanted was to be surrounded by fans of another team. It felt disloyal somehow, even though I wasn’t part of their group.
Shortly after boarding, I was wandering the pool deck, taking in the scene, when, like a beacon, a woman dressed in full Eagles regalia walked by. I did a double take and yelled, “Go Birds!” She spun around and screamed, “Oh, thank you! Thank you!” Together, we lamented how we truly were on the wrong voyage.
As it turns out, the Eagles were supposed to have a fan cruise in 2021, but COVID-19 had other plans. The sailing was postponed until 2022 and ultimately canceled.
Throughout the Bucs sailing, I was surprised at how friendly the fans were. I am, after all, used to being surrounded by the same fanbase that infamously hurled snowballs at Santa Claus during a game and which trashes its own city, win or lose.
As I waited in line for ice cream, the guy next to me — who was wearing a Hawaiian-style shirt with the Bucs logo all over it — told me his wife had booked the sailing. I glanced down at his matching Bucs sneakers and noticed he also had the team’s logo tattooed on his arm. That’s dedication.
When I stopped a group of costume-clad pirates for a photo on their way to a themed dinner later that day, I commented on how pleasant everyone had been, despite knowing where my loyalties lie.
“Well, we’re not from Philly!” one of them joked. And then, more seriously, he told me Bucs fans love it when fans from other teams visit their stadium.
Two days later, on the boat ride back to the ship after an island beach excursion in Nassau, I struck up a conversation with a couple of other fans, who mentioned they have a place in Pennsylvania where they stay when they visit their son.
“We’ve had some bad seasons as a team, so we’re pretty humble,” said one of them, adding that they were having a fantastic time on the sailing.
How to check for theme cruises before booking
Finding yourself amid a bunch of people with a common interest that you don’t share makes for a great post-cruise story, but it might not always be a good one if you find yourself outside of your comfort zone. Take, for example, families with young children who unexpectedly end up on a Harley Davidson-themed sailing, or a group of college students looking to party but instead finding themselves tossed in with a group of knitters.
Here’s some advice that should be obvious but that even I, as a cruise expert, didn’t think to follow: Google your voyage before you book it.
A simple search for your sailing date, cruise ship’s name and “theme cruise” can alert you to partial charters that might be taking place on the same sailing you’re hoping to book. It doesn’t always work, though, as I learned when I tried that trick with the Bucs cruise after the fact.
What I did discover is that Celebrity Summit frequently hosts theme cruises and has a few coming up, including a “Golden Girls” sailing, a swingers voyage, a couple of music sailings (disco and rock ‘n’ roll) and even Moira’s Party Boat, which is a nod to TV show “Schitt’s Creek.” (Word to the wise: Norwegian Pearl and Royal Caribbean’s larger Oasis- and Quantum-class ships also frequently host themed sailings.)
You could also try asking your travel agent or contacting the cruise line directly to inquire, but there’s a good chance that they either won’t know or won’t tell you even if they do.
Even though the Bucs fans made up only a quarter of the passengers on board, they definitely stood out on the sailing. Women who had dyed their hair bright red for the cruise sported custom nails and flaunted Buccaneers bikinis. Men donned jerseys with their own names on the back and sneakers in the team’s colors, and dozens of cruisers decorated their cabin doors with Buccaneers swag.
Though I expected the partial charter to detract from the onboard experience, I was pleasantly surprised to discover it added to my enjoyment. It didn’t feel like key onboard venues were inaccessible because of private events, and the public components were just themed takes on activities that would have been offered anyway. I’ll probably catch some heat from other Eagles fans for saying this, but it helped me realize that bonding over the love of the game is more fun than antagonizing fans with different allegiances.
My mistake had a happy ending, but not everyone who inadvertently ends up on a partial-charter theme cruise is happy about it. Unfortunately, once you’re on board, all you can do is make the best of the situation and try to enjoy the sailing.
With that, I have just one last thing to say: “E-A-G-L-E-S! Eagles!”
Planning a cruise? Start with these stories: