Twenty-five million people had a magical experience last year when they took a cruise vacation. Some of them were treated to magicians for entertainment. Then, a few combined a passion with their vacation, performing a magic act aboard a cruise ship.
Shipboard magicians come in three basic varieties. Featured acts perform a routine that lasts 30-60 minutes, either in a small intimate room set up for close-up tricks or on a theater stage big enough to handle great illusions. They may be on board for the length of a cruise or more or they may be "fly on" talent who are flown to the ship, perform a few shows, then fly home or to their next gig.
Others, considered crew members, have an extended contract and they perform close-up magic in the main dining room at the end of meals and in similar settings. They may be asked to do other entertainments.
Alex Crow, manager of guest entertainment for Carnival Cruise Lines books the first two types of performers. He says: “The dining room table top magicians are hired by the food operations department. They provide added entertainment to the dining room, similar to caricature artists or other performers working in front of a small table. They’re hired for six to seven months and are part of the crew.”
Large illusions are found only on the mega-cruise ships (carrying 5,000 or so passengers). Greg Gleason was the resident act on the Norwegian Dawn for seven years performing his big illusion show. “My contract was three months on and one month off,” says Gleason. “This was a great opportunity for me because it was a steady job and I could constantly rotate new illusions in. I now prefer the fly on act because I am concentrating more on land tours and dates.”
As can be expected, there are pluses and minuses. Francis Menotti, who was seen fooling Penn & Teller on their weekly show, Fool Us, did a “couple of the Crystal Cruises gigs early on, partly to help Rich Bloch (who arranges magicians for the Crystal Magic Castle at Sea programs) and partly to see if I was interested in pursuing actual cruise work. I’m glad I did it for the education, because I decided (at least for now) that ships really weren’t for me. I know MCAS helped a couple of people with getting into the market, but right now I have other work that’s kept me quite happily busy.”
Gleason, often seen as the closing act of the Masters of Illusion TV show, says life aboard a cruise ship, “depends on the cruise line, and what your goals are while you are on it. If you are working on a high end cruise line like Silver Seas, Crystal, Regent, Oceania, or Cunard you are traveling in first class, living in a beautiful cabin or stateroom, enjoying the most incredible food, and meeting and socializing with very successful people, often millionaires and celebrities.
“I just have experience with the American-owned cruise lines. You can compare them to hotels in Las Vegas. The first cruise lines I listed could be compared to the Bellagio or the Wynn. Carnival would be more like Circus Circus. Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, Princess, all fall in the middle and would be like the MGM or Bally’s.”
Just as the cruise lines are different, so are the audiences, says Gleason. “The upscale cruise lines have passengers who have sailed on many cruises, some over 100 cruises. I have met passengers who spend three months on the ship, three months at home, then back to the ship. These passengers have seen a magician on almost every cruise so don't expect them to be excited to see your linking ring routine, even though you do it better than anyone else. If you’re booked on one of these cruise lines you need to have material no one else is doing and be very friendly during the cruises. They will want to see your show. You are often required to host tables for dinner with meals lasting up to three hours.
“The audiences on Norwegian, Royal Caribbean, and Princess have sailed less,” says Gleason, “so you can perform some classics along with your favorites as long as they have good presentations. The Carnival audiences are usually very excited to see the magic show and have maybe never seen one. They can be the most appreciative audiences of all the cruise lines.”
When it comes to which cruise line is the best, it depends on your interests. If you want to see the world, then try for one of the upscale lines where they are constantly changing itineraries. Gleason adds, “If you sell a lot of back of the room merchandise, look for the line that takes the least in commission.” Another factor is the time of the year. There will be more children on cruises in the summer and school holidays. Jackson Rayne says, “The best audience are family audiences. They are awesome where you have some kids peppered in. On the other hand, the 18 and up crowd during spring break is raucous.”
Rayne performs on Carnival ships, working three months, off two weeks, working three months. He’s known for his escape tricks (lock picking, restraints, etc.) and is working on a water escape for the 2018 season. He says the contract does not include internet time. Although he’d like more free internet time, it wasn’t a top requirement in negotiating his contract. He’s headlining on the Sunshine and, in addition to performing in the big showroom, he teaches some magic card workshop. “There’s a decent amount of free time.” Rayne is 36 and single. “It’s tough to find the right woman when you travel a lot,” he says. “I love what I do. If it (meeting the right woman) happens, it happens. His accommodations are in the crew section, but he has a larger bed than crew members and he’s in cabin by himself.”
The benefits of being a featured act include bringing a guest with you. If you have an assistant, she will be your plus one. You’re treated as a guest. You may eat with the guests, see the shows, use the fitness center, and take the shore excursions. Usually, you’re asked to not get intoxicated, to not sit at the bar, and to sit in the back of the theater so the paying guests can sit up front. Fly-in acts, however, generally cannot bring a plus one unless they want to pay for the air transportation. While you are encouraged to socialize with the guests, you may not fraternize (get intimate) with them or the crew members.
In addition to your paid or free vacation (magicians in the MCAS program aren’t paid), seeing domestic or foreign ports of call the cruise line provides your transportation, accommodations, and meals. Sometimes gratuities and alcoholic beverages are included. Perhaps most important, your audience is built in. They have other things they can do, but you don’t have to wonder if a crowd is going to walk in off the street. Most likely the theater will be filled. On the downside, if you’re booked for several months, you don’t see family, friends, or pets that you left at home.