Finding community on a theme cruise: From 'Star Trek' lovers to motorcycle enthusiasts

  • Theme cruises cater to a range of interests, from "Star Trek" to motorcycles.
  • The specialty sailings can be more immersive than land-based events.
  • Some passengers have found a sense of community among likeminded guests.

Regi Davis was eating at a restaurant in South Dakota during the iconic Sturgis Motorcycle Rally when he saw someone who looked familiar walk in and sit down a few tables away. Davis eyed the person and let out a pirate's greeting used between passengers on the High Seas Rally, a motorcycle rally on a cruise ship he had been on many times.

"I look, and I go, 'Arrrgh,' and they 'Arrrgh!' ... and so that's how we figured out our common connection," the 58-year-old told USA TODAY.

Davis, who is a riding academy manager at Adamec Harley-Davidson, has been riding since the early 1980s. He and his wife, Maria, stumbled upon the specialty voyage in 2005. They have since been at least 10 times and have even met up with friends from the cruise at other rallies around the country.

Entertainment Cruise Productions operates Star Trek: The Cruise, along with other theme cruises.

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"You just never know when you're going to run into High Seas Rally people," said Davis, who lives in St. Augustine, Florida.

Davis is among a number of travelers who have found community and connection with like-minded passengers on theme cruises.

Regi Davis and his wife, Maria, stumbled upon the High Seas Rally in 2005.

'It is a sense of belonging'

Kathy Yarosh keeps a framed photo she took with Leonard Nimoy on a shelf in her living room. She has been a "Star Trek" fan for over 40 years and has hundreds of collectibles, though she said the picture is her "most prized possession" and keeps a copy on her desk at work.

Yarosh also takes cruises regularly, but those passions did not overlap until her brother invited her to join him and his family on Star Trek: The Cruise in February.

The seven-day sailing to the Caribbean featured panels with cast members from various "Star Trek" shows and films, a new episode screening and a costume contest, among other programming. Yarosh dressed up one night as Spock in a black robe from 1979's "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."

Kathy Yarosh dressed up as Spock during Star Trek: The Cruise.

"It is a sense of belonging because everybody on the ship shares that interest, whether it's the actors that are there or the guests," the 57-year-old marketing video producer said.

Yarosh, who lives in the Orlando, Florida, area, met up with friends she'd made on Twitter who are also in the fandom, and made new friends. She also dressed in costume every night, despite not generally being into cosplay.

Being around other avid fans gave her "the confidence to say, 'Yeah, I can do that too,'" she said. She was especially struck by their creativity as she waited in line during a costume contest, recognizing them as characters from throughout the franchise.

In addition to the characters, action and comedy, Yarosh said she likes "Star Trek" because of its inclusive, positive take on the future and "how things could be if we wanted them to be that way." She has found that mindset extends to the parts of the fan base she has interacted with and has plans to go on the cruise again next year.

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Theme sailings can be 'immersive'

Beyond the aquatic settings, Chris Hearing, executive director of Entertainment Cruise Productions, which operates High Seas Rally, Star Trek: The Cruise and The 80s Cruise, said the sailings are different from similar land-based events like conventions in part because guests are surrounded by the theme 24/7.

"You get a little bit of that at a convention, but at the end of every day at a convention, everybody goes their separate ways and that doesn't happen here," he said. "So, there's kind of an intimacy that gets built among the people and a relaxation aspect of it being so immersive."

Each annual sailing, which takes place on Royal Caribbean International, is a complete charter. The company takes over the whole vessel, Hearing said, even replacing signs at the ship's bars with ones that say "The Goonies Bar," among others, in the case of The 80s Cruise.

The sailings are also more communal than other kinds of events and allow fans to mingle with featured talent. On the "Star Trek" cruise, for instance, Hearing said, "if you're in the breakfast buffet line and the guy behind you looks a lot like George Takei, it's probably because it is George Takei, and he's there getting his omelet and having his breakfast, and they're just out and about."

Davis echoed that. On the High Seas Rally – which features concerts, a garage with pro tips on motorcycle maintenance, and demonstrations from custom builders – he said vendors are "there the whole time, so you get to be friends with them if you want to be."

Hearing said 65% of High Seas Rally passengers are between 45 and 64, on "Star Trek: The Cruise," passenger ages range the most widely of any of the cruises, from 20s to 70s. He added that about 65% to 70% of their passengers on the "Star Trek" cruise are returning guests, which is true across all their voyages.

"And they come back because of the talent, but they really come back because of the community on the ship," he said.

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'A good way to jump in'

For some passengers, theme cruises have offered a comfortable entry point to cruising. Joe Naughton had never been on a cruise when his sister invited him to join her for Joanie Madden's Folk 'N Irish Cruise to the Caribbean in 2015, which features Irish music, dancing, and more on board a Norwegian Cruise Line ship.

Naughton's parents emigrated from Ireland to the United States, and while he did not have a full affinity for the music itself, he decided to go so he could try cruising.

Joe Naughton had never been on a cruise until his sister Mary invited him to join her on a specialty sailing.

"Because there were people from the neighborhood going," Naughton said, referring to the Irish community, "I thought, 'This is a good way to jump in, because if I don't like it at least ... I'd have some people to talk to.' " He has since been on the specialty sailing five times, in addition to six other cruises.

The Bronx-based 62-year-old did not travel much before and said the cruise "opened up a whole new world to me, it really did." He was pleasantly surprised that in addition to the theme cruise activities, such as getting a harp lesson or attending a lecture on the Irish language, he was able to take advantage of other offerings on the ship separate from the group.

Naughton also met passengers from his parents' hometown who knew them. Before the cruise, he felt connected to his Irish heritage through his parents, but "not so immersive," he said. He and the friends he has made through the cruise keep in touch, sharing photos with one another on Facebook and having "ad-hoc reunions between the sailings."

How theme cruises can foster community

Commonality is linked to connection, explained Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist, speaker and author of "Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends."

When people have something in common, she said, they assume the other person will accept them more, which facilitates interaction.

"It makes you warmer, it makes you friendlier, it makes you more open when you are assuming people are going to be accepting of you, whereas you thinking people might reject you for your interests, it actually makes you colder and more withdrawn," she said.

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Franco said people also have an unconscious tendency to like people more who are familiar to them even if they haven't spoken to them. She said, "the cruise environment in just giving us increased exposure to one another" can promote fondness among passengers.

Davis is gearing up for his next High Seas Rally leaving later this month and is looking forward to participating in the cruise's Salute to Service Day, a tribute to military service members and first responders – he served in the U.S. Air Force – and reconnecting with old friends.

The camaraderie runs deep. For any potential first-timers, Davis said passengers are given color-coded wristbands indicating how many times they have sailed and the other guests look out for newcomers. "We take care of each other," he said.

Have you gone on a themed vacation?