When Luxury Liners Attack!

Come aboard as guests; disembark as jabbering asylum patients.

Original Story: sandiegotribune.com | Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010

With all the pity for (and jokes about) those stranded Carnival Cruise patrons going around, what better time to ditch make-believe politeness and just come out with it? Cruise ships are gleaming castles of sedentary absurdism. There. They are hyper-realized, cookie-cutter nanny states where everything is decided or done for you, leaving eventually stumbling back to your shame box your only genuine duty. They’re giant, floating supermarket checkout lines designed to accommodate power chairs and the Type 2 wreckage they ferry.

Cruise ships are like movie theaters or amusement park rides: following prearranged “passages” one forced march exits just as another readies to enter. Turn-around is quick: cleaning happens; disinfectant is splashed around; kitchens are reloaded like revolvers; and five billion tiny crumbs are vacuumed up. Those things that cannot be cleaned –- the ghosts of passenger complaints — hang on just below the next group’s consciousness, occasionally tickling them with déjà vu.

The same anti-bacterial, stain-resistant upholstery found in theaters is the fabric that literally holds the cruise industry together; if it weren’t for extreme textiles with their beiges, blues, and burgundies, companies with philosophies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Celebrity Cruises would go broke. (Then again maybe not, not with the cost of feeding a passenger for 7 days allegedly $10 per person.) Carpeting, too, is matinee-tough, with garish, non-denominational patterns and Hoof-Shield™ weaves. Every door has a kick plate to hide the wounds of countless shoes; feeding areas feature the handrails of a rollercoaster queue. Any surface that a human might touch, lean upon, or sneeze on is relentlessly polished, and crew members spring at regular intervals from the paneled woodwork to accost passengers with liquid hand sanitizer (while common area restrooms curiously lack hot water). And despite the spit-shine, so much of a ship’s décor can seem dingy, and in fact quite stained upon closer inspection. Keep looking and you’ll find frayed and lumpen chair arms or bits of broken teeth — who knows? Most cruise lines can’t keep up with the devastating power of ritualistic human mass-dormancy, and besides, they’re too busy trying to “up-sell” you from the “included” bladder-pumped orange juice to the fresh squeezed.

Maybe you still think this sounds fine; you could overlook a little imperfection for the pleasure of relaxation and the chance to check out some interesting parts of the world (from the comfort of, essentially, a floating Reno hotel). But what if it was just you and the furnishings and the décor? No lights, no television, no chick-flick, family-friendly movies or modified casino games — nothing to distract you from watching, up close and personal, passengers actually dropping further into inactivity, this time with depression and anger? You’ve never had to pay so much attention to sagging purple and green bar couches. You’ve never realized how bad artwork can be until you’ve stared at it for six hours at a time. Everything looked happy when you left, but after three days of being dead in the water, it’s just you and thousands of other moaning, rotting vegetable-people.

If everything in a casino is designed to keep you gaming, everything on a cruise ship is made to keep you consuming. If it all shuts down and you can’t escape, does that render all the social engineering ineffectual, or does the dry waterfall, the closed café, disco, and teen facility, the in-cabin dining, the artwork, the defunct hair-dryers and the unusable spa — the whole apparatus — become a funhouse of taunting, twisting mind-games? Does the expectation of relaxation in the face of its sudden impossibility turn pleasure into a hair-yanking monkey on your back? And what of the practical considerations like the batteries for all of those passenger power-scooters? Were they somehow recharged, or did they make 400 lb obstacles in corridors through the ship?

The mind reels at the possibilities.