TikTok Turned a 9-Month World Cruise Into a Reality Show

Joe Martucci @spendingourkidsmoney, Marc Sebastian @marcsebastianf, and Little Rat Brain @little_rat_brain.  - Credit: spendingourkidsmoney/marcsebastianf/little_rat_brain/TikTok
Joe Martucci @spendingourkidsmoney, Marc Sebastian @marcsebastianf, and Little Rat Brain @little_rat_brain. - Credit: spendingourkidsmoney/marcsebastianf/little_rat_brain/TikTok

When Marc Sebastian heard about a nine-month cruise around the world, his first thought was that it sounded like the perfect premise for a reality TV show.

“Put cameras on that goddamn ship,” Sebastian said in a TikTok that’s now been viewed 7 million times. “There’s gonna be mutiny. There’s gonna be blood. Someone is going overboard, I wanna watch. Alternatively, put me on the cruise. I’ll go. I’ll cause chaos. I’ll wreak havoc and I’ll record everything.”

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Marketed as “the most epic world cruise ever to set sail,” the Royal Caribbean’s Serenade of the Seas ship left port in December to take its passengers to all seven continents, 11 world wonders, and 60 countries throughout its nine-month journey. But as soon as it left its Miami dock, interest in the journey blossomed on TikTok — from simple fascination into an insatiable desire to know the goings on of the ship. Users on the app drove up demand for any video about the world cruise, turning passengers and crew into TikTok personalities seemingly overnight.

Hashtags using the phrase #9monthcruise have upwards of 200 million views, with thousands of video additions from both cruise passengers and rubberneckers alike. TikTok users turning events into live reality television shows aren’t new. (Take The University of Alabama’s 2021 and 2022 sorority rush weeks, which were followed and dissected on #RushTok like the sports event of the century.) But the close quarters and increased demand for drama-centered content hasn’t just established a central hub for content creators on the ship. It’s also sparking questions about whether a cruise supposed to last the next nine months can keep TikTok’s collective attention — and whether that’s something passengers even want in the first place.

Amike Oosthuizen is a South African influencer who joined the cruise with her parents and husband to celebrate her dad’s retirement, and plans to be on the boat for the entire nine months. But after posting cruise videos alongside her normal content, she saw a major jump in engagement and interest — something that has helped to fill the time in her “vacation of a lifetime.”

“The response has been crazy,” Oosthuizen says. “Everyone wants to know what we’re doing, how we’re doing. I’ve already had so many opportunities to work with friends.”

For retirees Joe and Audrey Martucci, the cruise was a well-deserved vacation after Joe’s retirement. But when their kids suggested putting their video messages on TikTok for their friends to watch, the two got an instant following. Now referred to as Cruise Dad and Cruise Mom, the couple shares videos with their 90,000 followers, about going on excursions, celebrating the birth of their first grandson, or how they’re keeping in touch with family. “We’re on FaceTime with each of the kids or texting with the kids every day,” Joe says. “They kind of say “Do you still have time for the OG kids since you have 90,000 others?”

But their newfound hobby of content creation — and the demand for it— has still come with a learning curve. “I really struggled at the start of the TikTok thing, because I felt, as we both, really protective towards this world cruise. This is an amazing thing that we’re doing and I did not want anyone to cause drama, because that’s not what it should be,” Audrey tells Rolling Stone. “But now I’m getting a bit more, you know, happy to be in the videos. I’m making more appearances.”

While the cruise has spent weeks on people’s FYPs, a majority of the passengers who spoke to Rolling Stone describe two worlds: what TikTok is discussing about the cruise, and what’s actually happening. Viral clips on the social media app dissected the boat’s journey through the Drake Passage — the infamous Antarctic waterway known for its vomit-inducing seas — and a flood onboard. (It was quickly resolved.) Footage of decorated door signage sparked wild rumors of a swingers cabal running through the ship. (Adita, the cruise passenger who decorated her door, has said she’s not a swinger but has since started making cheeky videos poking fun at the assumptions while displaying her collection of pineapple-themed apparel.) Leah B., the passenger behind the account @frugalvagabond, tells Rolling Stone that while each creator has built deep followings for their specific niches (art, history, travel content) there will probably always be an interest in the nitty gritty as the cruise goes on — even if nothing happens.

“I get that everybody’s really interested in the drama,” Leah says. “To me, it seems like they’re they’re continuing to watch because they want a front-row seat when it actually does happen. They’re expecting [a] reality show and I think what they should know but don’t is the producers on those reality shows tend to poke the bear to get that drama to come out. People don’t normally revert to that sort of behavior and that sort of interpersonal conflict on a normal basis.”

Rather than all-out brawls filmed from every conceivable angle, the rise of #CruiseTok has had the unexpected result of creating a floating collab house for creators onboard. TikTokers have hosted their own meetings, done collaborative TikTok Lives, and featured each other in their videos. And that doesn’t just include people who started on the cruise from the very beginning. After Sebastian’s viral video begging to be on the cruise, publishing company Atria Books funded an 18-day stay on the boat, during which Sebastian promised to get the tea on the “characters” onboard, promote Atria’s upcoming release, and paint himself as the reality show villain. Instead, while on the ship, Sebastian found himself teaching the newfound TikTokers how to keep their following going — and instead pivoted his drama content to exposing problems he had with the onboard amenities and the cruise industry at large.

“I literally do not give a fuck about playing bingo all day. I just wanted to look cunt,” Sebastian says.

Onboard, he set his sights firmly on roasting the decor, rating the limited facilities and entertainment on the ship, which he referred to as a “floating retirement home with a Cheesecake Factory attached,” and lambasting Royal Caribbean for making two employees split a $500 employee-of-the-month prize rather than giving them each their own.

“While I still feel like I did capture a lot of drama, quote-unquote, it just wasn’t the drama that people were expecting. I decided, let’s talk about the cruise industry and how this [billion dollar] company is treating their employees. Let’s have those conversations instead of me being mean to these people who paid $126,000 to be on this cruise.” (Royal Caribbean did not respond to Rolling Stone’s request for comment.)

But that isn’t to say the ride is boring. In fact, most of the drama that TikTok so desires seems to primarily stem from the app’s intrusion into the ship in the first place. Little Rat Brain (LRB), who has asked to only be identified by her handle, grew her TikTok following by documenting the trip, which she is on with her mother. But she tells Rolling Stone the TikTok fascination with the cruise, and the influx of people vlogging about their days meant the TikTokers and the other passengers had to agree about the rules of the boat — especially after many retirees were informed by their families and children that they were now the unwitting subjects of a social media reality show.

“There was a little, ‘What if we don’t want to be filmed? What if we don’t want our faces out on the internet? How is that going to be addressed?’” LRB says. “We have a private Facebook group for all of the passengers and people basically said, ‘Listen, this is what we want. Don’t film us doing Zumba.’ I think that kind of put everyone at ease with TikTok and just filming in general. Because now it’s become more of a way to document your journey, not necessarily speak for everyone.”

The ethical questions about consent and personal privacy have begun to develop on the boat. Beth Anne, a 36-year-old creator, tells Rolling Stone that as dozens of unaffiliated accounts have sprung up recapping or breaking down events on the ship daily, TikTok creators on shore have also had to develop their own ethical guidance for what content they decided to share. Beth started “Ship Happens” on TikTok, where she does daily clips dissecting rumors and videos from the ship. She says that while she began making the videos because she needed a replacement for her favorite reality show, she’s more than aware that these are people — not characters.

“It’s important that we have some boundaries in terms of what we share and how we share it,” Beth says. “Imagine if I’d saved up all this money and I was going on this trip of a lifetime and I felt like people were invading it and making it sound like something it’s not. And I think we have to be really careful of that because a lot of people worked super hard to be there.”

Among both TikTokers and the civilian passengers of the cruise, the big question of whether interest in the journey will extend for nine months seems easily dismissed. All of the creators who spoke to Rolling Stone seemed acutely aware that their followings might slow as the cruise continues. That’s not to say there isn’t still interest. The daily recaps continue, and even as Sebastian left the ship this week, another influencer, Christian Hull, has already announced he’ll be joining the boat soon. But many passengers say that even if people stop watching, creators on the cruise will still enjoy using their TikToks as a digital scrapbook of their vacation of a lifetime.

“I would be shocked if this continued throughout these nine months, just because that’s an incredibly long time for anything to sustain interest, especially on TikTok,” LRB says. “But I’ve enjoyed the community that’s been created. And I hope to continue that.”

“I came in there as the reality person who’s like ‘I’m not here to make friends.’ I’m here to get content. I’m out of here for me,” Sebastian says. “And I left there as the person who really discovered that humanity and the kindness in people and left there feeling a little kinder themselves — even though I absolutely hated being on that ship.”

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