Nine months. Seven continents. Hundreds of passengers in close quarters at sea. Millions more watching along online.
Welcome aboard Royal Caribbean’s Ultimate World Cruise, which set sail a month ago and has unexpectedly captured the internet’s imagination.
No, the cruise isn’t the first of its kind – months-long sea voyages have been a stalwart of the cruising world for over 100 years (although this one is longer than average).
And no, the Royal Caribbean ship that’s handling the journey, Serenade of the Seas, isn’t new (in fact, it’s over 20 years old).
Nor is this ship the largest leisure vessel to navigate the world’s waters (that’s the soon-to-launch Royal Caribbean ship Icon of Seas, which measures 1,198 feet, or 365 meters prow to stern against Serenade of the Seas’ comparatively-small 964 feet).
But the Ultimate World Cruise is one of the first months-long world voyages to set sail in a while – such journeys have largely been off the table since Covid upended the industry back in 2020.
In fact, Serenade of the Seas’ 2023-2024 voyage was originally pitched by Royal Caribbean International president Michael Bayley as a way for travel-starved cruisers to “make up for lost time” in the wake of the pandemic.
This – plus some impossible-to-pin-down alchemy of timing (the cruise embarked during the holiday period, when many social media users had more time on their hands to get invested) and happenstance (there are a few pre-established TikTok influencers on board who created compelling content from the get-go) – led the cruise ship to become what social media user Beth Anne Fletcher calls the “unedited reality show that was never meant to be a reality show.”
TikTok content relating to the nine month cruise has garnered some 253 million views and counting on TikTok. Passengers – TikTok pros and newbies alike – are becoming minor social media celebrities, as they give room tours – from enviable, balcony rooms to less enviable, windowless interior cabins; chronicle the ship’s journey across the treacherous Drake’s Passage; detail on-board food and drink options and share the the often moving personal stories that led them to embark on the voyage.
“It’s just regular people going on this massive adventure,” TikTok user Fletcher tells CNN Travel. “People are invested in watching their journeys.”
Watching along from land
Fletcher isn’t on board Serenade of the Seas. In fact, she’s never been on board a cruise ship, period. But back in December, in a matter of days, Fletcher went from knowing next to nothing about cruising to regularly posting about the Ultimate World Cruise to her 59,700 TikTok followers.
It all started when Fletcher, a 39-year-old photographer from the UK, happened upon a TikTok video from a world cruise passenger.
The traveler, Brooklyn Schwetje, posted that she was boarding the ship for nine months alongside her sister and her parents.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is going to be crazy,’” says Fletcher. “Like, if I was on a cruise with my parents and my sister for nine months, one of them would be going overboard, you know what I mean?”
Somewhere between intrigued and horrified, Fletcher found herself watching all of Brooklyn’s videos. Then, she switched to Brooklyn’s sister Madison’s TikToks. Soon she’d consumed everything she could find about the nine month cruise on TikTok. She’d also Googled the ship, learned more about the itinerary (274 days, over 60 countries, over 150 stop offs) and astronomical costs (the price range for the full excursion is between $59,999 to $117,599 per person, plus taxes and fees).
“The next morning, because I’d watched all these videos, my FYP (For You Page, the algorithm-based home screen where TikTok recommends content) was just inundated with stuff about cruises,” says Fletcher, who runs the account @livingmy_bethlife.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I can find out more about the people that are on there and why they’ve chosen to do this?’’ Because whilst I’ve never been on a cruise, I’m interested in the kinds of people that want to go on a nine month cruise.”
As Fletcher committed to becoming a cruise expert, other TikTok users were also taking note – among them, American TikToker ND.
ND was more familiar with the world of cruising than Fletcher. But ND’s own cruising experiences only made her even more bemused by the idea of nine months at sea.
“I’ve been on a Carnival Cruise and Royal Caribbean cruise before,” ND, who has requested her full name not be included in this article for privacy reasons, tells CNN Travel.
ND insists she enjoyed these trips – she’s even got another cruise booked for later this year – but just can’t get her head round the nine months of it all.
“When I heard that people were on this ship for nine months, I imagined myself back when I did a seven day cruise and I said, ‘There is no way I could do this for nine months,’” says ND.
Both ND and Fletcher are reality TV fans. They couldn’t help but view the voyage – and those on board – through that lens.
“Can you imagine the type of drama that’s going to happen on that boat?” said ND in her first TikTok on the subject, adding she was committed to following anyone on board who posted TikTok updates.
“If something big goes down, I want to hear from different people, different angles, perspectives” she said to the camera.
“We’ve all watched ‘Below Deck,’” ND tells CNN Travel today. “Being on a ship for nine months, things are bound to happen. But what exactly, we don’t know. So I think the reason why we’re so fascinated by it is because it does feel like a social experiment of people being in the middle of the ocean for nine months, traveling together.”
On TikTok, ND now dubs herself the “SeaTea Director,” posting @nchimad. She’s posted 61 world cruise-related videos over the last few weeks to her 189,300 followers and is committed to chronicling the cruise for the duration of its voyage. One month in, ND says the interest doesn’t seem to be waning.
“I’m posting the content and sharing because I love traveling myself – and I think this is a cool opportunity that a lot of people don’t have,” ND says.
“So whether there’s drama or not, I’m going to keep posting – because things are always going to happen. We just don’t know when – we just have to sit back and watch.”
View from the sea
Every good reality TV show has a compelling cast of characters – different ages, from different walks of life, offering different points of view.
Fletcher was surprised, at first, that the world cruise seemed to offer just that – contrary to what she’d assumed, those on board the Ultimate World Cruise weren’t all retirees – there were plenty of young TikTokers, like twentysomethings Brooklyn and Madison Schwetje, in the mix.
“People have preconceptions about cruises, I know for sure that I did – thinking that most people who go on cruises are older people, maybe retirees or older couples, people that are financially stable,” Fletcher says. “Actually, what this cruise is showing us is that it’s a real mixed bag of people from all over the world.”
It was the younger, more social media-savvy passengers who got the TikTok party going. Take 26-year-old South African passenger Amike Oosthuizen, who is traveling with her husband and her parents, and posting on her account @amike_oosthuizen.
Oosthuizen tells CNN Travel that her prior influencing experience left her clear-eyed that this once-in-a-lifetime trip would be ripe for TikTok opportunities. She figured the cruise content would lead to “more traction to my social media accounts.”
“But I honestly did not think it would explode as much,” she says. “It was a shock but it’s also been amazing.”
Oosthuizen’s most popular TikTok post (6.3 million views and counting) depicts Serenade of the Seas’ journey through the perilous Drake Passage waterway last week.
In the video, Oosthuize films herself attempting to work out in the gym amid the Drake Passage choppy conditions, logging onto her laptop for a spot of remote working, heading to the laundry room and later applying make-up.
Oosthuizen has also documented what she eats and drinks during a typical sea day (4.5 million views) and her first glimpse at her room (2.9 million views).
Oosthuizen says the attention has been “crazy.” And if a professional influencer – with a famous mom (Oosthuizen’s mother, Renske Lammerding, starred in reality show “The Real Housewives of Pretoria”) – finds the whole thing surreal, just imagine what it’s like for the passengers on board who’ve become accidental TikTok sensations.
Meet ‘Cruise Dad’
Joe Martucci, 67, expected the Ultimate World Cruise would be life changing – he just didn’t anticipate it’d be life changing in this exact way.
Martucci and his wife Audrey booked the cruise to celebrate Martucci’s retirement. Martucci’s first ever TikTok dispatch was also his first ever TikTok. The 20 second clip is simply Martucci standing on the ship’s deck, wearing a palm-tree adorned shirt, addressing his kids directly and joking that he’s spending their inheritance on the trip.
“It was a joke to the kids, ‘We’re spending all your money,’” Martucci tells CNN Travel. “I sent it to them. They said, ‘Dad, we’d like to share this with our friends. Can you put on TikTok?’”
It took Martucci a little while to comply with this request (“I was spelling TikTok wrong for a long time,” he says) but eventually he got the video up on the platform, dubbing his account @spendingourkidsmoney. The unedited, musicless video (a relative anomaly in the TikTok sphere) has 1.5 million views and counting.
“My wife and I did not think we’d ever go viral the way we have,” says Martucci, who has been dubbed “Cruise Dad” by TikTok users.
Now, Martucci posts regular cruise updates on TikTok, always beginning videos with “Hey kids.” This has become Martucci’s “trademark” as he puts it, but it only started because in his original video he was updating his actual kids on the experience. Now, Martucci feels like he’s the “internet’s dad” – and it’s a role he’s embracing.
“Some of the comments are very heartfelt: ‘I didn’t have a family, you kind of brought me into your family. You’re sharing your videos with me. It fills a gap in my life, or my father just died a couple of years ago, you remind me of him thank you for doing this,’” says Martucci.
Beth Anne Fletcher, following along from land, says Martucci has “created a really clever brand without even meaning to.” His content is “more endearing” than some of the more polished dispatches from the ship, she adds.
Meanwhile, ND says the “moms, dads and aunties of the ship” are some of her favorite passengers to follow to get the inside scoop on what’s going on at sea.
“They’re the ones spilling all the tea,” says ND.
Real life reality show
So far, there hasn’t really been that much tea (AKA drama) unfurling on the ship. There was an on-board flood (it was “a puddle of water,” laughs passenger Anthony McWilliams) and rumors the ship ran out of wine (“I believe it was just red wine,” says passenger Jenny Hunnicutt) but so far, it’s been relatively smooth sailing.
For the passengers, the breathless online clamoring for break-ups, hook-ups, feuds, disease and on-board mysteries (to name just a few of the suggestions on the TikTok Ultimate World Cruise bingo card) is often frustrating.
Passenger Angie Linderman, a 38-year-old American passenger posting @angielinderman tells CNN Travel that as a reality TV fan herself, she understands the desire – to a degree.
“I love reality TV shows and I watch for the drama, so I think that part is normal,” she says. “What I struggle with is the way people refer to us as a cast of characters because that is not how it feels here. We are just individuals who ended up on the same trip together on this ship, and now are on a different trip together on TikTok.”
Passenger Jenny Hunnicutt (who posts on TikTok as @DrJennyTravels, and who has cornered a niche in answering medical-related cruise questions, such as what happens if you get pregnant mid-nine month cruise) says she’s also conscious about the impact of the ship’s internet fame on those on board who aren’t interested in going viral.
“I try not to get anyone in my shots or backgrounds,” Hunnicutt tells CNN Travel. “But it’s certainly hard when you’re on a cruise that has received this much worldwide attention, making history.”
Fellow passenger Brandee Lake, who updates followers at @iambrandeelake, is also adamant that the passengers aren’t “characters.”
“We’re all people who just came on vacation and this happened,” she says.
Lake is on board with her sister (who posts updates @swankalamode) and her parents. Despite some TikTok viewers despairing at the idea of living in close quarters with their sibling as an adult, Lake says the two sisters, who are in their forties, travel well together. Those waiting for drama there will be disappointed, says Lake.
Lake and her sister also have a podcast – which they started before boarding the ship. And while occasionally their mother and father pop up in their videos, Lake says the sisters have banned their “boomer” parents from joining TikTok. “It’s a rule,” she says.
Early on in the voyage, Lake made headlines when she posted about being mistaken for a crew member by fellow passengers and crew.
“Apparently it seemed far fetched to some that a Black woman (and family) could be a guest on the once in a lifetime experience,” wrote Lake on TikTok.
Lake says she doesn’t want to discuss this incident any further. Separately, she praises the Royal Caribbean staff on board Serenade of the Seas.
“They’re amazing. And great and kind,” she says.
Some Serenade of the Seas crew members are also chronicling their experiences on board the ship. There’s singer Julian Mendoza AKA @cooljul1 who posts “day in the life” videos on board.
Meanwhile Daniele Salvatore Arbisi AKA @singing.sailor scored an exclusive comment from Serenade of the Sea’s Norwegian Captain Stig Nilsen, who offered tips for on board whale spotting. Salvatore Arbisi soundtracked Nilsen’s tips to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” theme music.
For TikTok fans following along on land, a glimpse of Nilsen is always exciting – but (so far) the veteran seafarer has yet to start his own TikTok account. And so far Royal Caribbean Cruise Line has been pretty quiet about their world cruise’s accidental virality.
The cruise line declined to comment for this article, explaining the team was focused on the upcoming launch of Icon of the Seas. The TikTokers interviewed said they’d had minimal to no contact with the cruise line’s PR team – although some were offered a free dining experience.
New characters “unlocked”
It’s possible to join the Ultimate World Cruise at several points along the journey – there’s no requirement to sign up for the whole nine months.
Learning this, some TikTokers following along on land started campaigning for sponsors to foot their ticket, promising, as in the case of American TikTok influencer Marc Sebastian, to “cause chaos” on board.
Sebastian’s wish was granted by publishing company Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, and he boarded Serenade of the Seas a couple of weeks back. There are also rumors a couple of Australian influencers will board the ship when it docks down under.
For the passengers who signed up for the voyage before it went viral, it’s “a little nerve wracking to know that people can still join this cruise to potentially create drama on board,” as passenger Hunnicutt puts it.
Her words are echoed by passenger Anthony McWilliams, who posts on TikTok as @anthonyantoine1021. When McWilliams first heard Marc Sebastian was boarding the ship, he “didn’t know what to expect” and was “a little cautious.”
“But he’s such a nice guy. I don’t even know if he will want me to say that. But he really is a sweet guy,” says McWilliams.
Sebastian joined the cruise in time for the ship’s recent stint in Antarctica.
“To see him in front of icebergs, getting emotional. I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s why he’s on board,’” says McWilliams. “That makes sense that he gets it. He understands.”
So far, while his world cruise dispatches have racked up millions of views, Sebastian has yet to uncover the “hot goss” he promised. It seems that – at least right now – the Ultimate World Cruise has more in common with wholesome reality TV shows like “The Great British Baking Show” than the nautical shenanigans of “Below Deck.”
The passengers on board Serenade of the Seas say they’ve bonded, united by a shared love of travel and a communal, once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
“We’re just regular people on vacation. And we do genuinely like each other,” says Lake. “As much as everybody else would like drama, we actually don’t want that either, because it is our regular life.”
For solo traveler McWilliams, bonding with others on board has been one of the highlights of the experience. He gets on well with the other TikTokers, but also enjoys spending time with the other passengers who aren’t on social media.
“I’ve just gained such a huge respect for what it means to say ‘a trip of a lifetime’ for someone who’s 75 versus me at aged 54 – it’s a different perspective,” says McWilliams. “So all of that I didn’t expect or plan on – I was even concerned about how I would engage with a different demographic of people. And that has been a blessing to me as well.”
McWilliams has been looking forward to the trip for the past couple of years. He says he’s living a dream come true.
“I still pinch myself this is really, actually, happening,” he says, describing seeing Antarctica as a moment where he felt like “was about to pass out from excitement.”
McWilliams committed to traveling the world when his husband unexpectedly died from cancer six years ago.
“His wish for me was, ‘Lean on your family and friends and travel the world – that will be your salvation, that will save you,’” says McWilliams. “I just listened and started traveling immediately. And that’s what, I believe, has kept me here.”
McWilliams’ moving backstory and wholehearted enthusiasm for the Ultimate World Cruise has endeared him to social media users. The trip is part of his “healing process, grief process,” McWilliams says - and if he can help others through their own loss journeys via sharing his travels with a large audience, he’s delighted to do so.
Passenger Angie Linderman, 38, also had an emotional path to boarding the world cruise. Her parents both died in their 60s, also from cancer. Then Linderman learned she had the BRCA gene, increasing her risk of breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
“I know that the idea of retirement and growing old is not a guarantee to any of us,” says Linderman, who had a preventative double mastectomy in 2023.
Linderman had only around 100 TikTok followers when she boarded the ship. She now has over 178,000. Her TikTok Q&A talking about the loss of her parents and why she booked the trip has 1.6 million views.
“I have gotten incredibly lucky and have had lovely responses from people who connect with my story and reach out to me to talk about it,” Linderman tells CNN Travel. “I love that. I know when I first learned of my BRCA gene I searched online for other women my age going through it to see what life could be like after surgery and I just hope I can be helpful like that to even just one other woman going down this difficult path.”
For all the TikTokers on board Serenade of the Seas, their accidental virality might be unexpected, surreal and fun – but their focus remains on the “real life,” incredible experience they’re enjoying on the ship, and at the destinations. Upcoming highlights include Machu Picchu, the Great Barrier Reef, the Great Wall of China and the Taj Mahal.
“Everyone onboard has invested a lot of time and money for this experience and are protective of letting outside influences negatively impact that experience for them or fellow passengers,” says Linderman.
And while the online thirst for cruise chaos isn’t going anywhere (“It’s only been a month and we have eight more months to go, so anything can happen,” points out ND) for many TikTokers following the cruise, the positivity on board is just as appealing as the potential for drama.
The immediacy of TikTok allows social media users to live vicariously through those on board. By following multiple accounts, they get a flavor of life at sea from different angles.
“I think it’s a lot of people getting to travel along for the first time to places they may have not gone or may have never thought to go, but might be interested,” says Lake.
“I’d say that we want to be an encouragement to encourage other people to travel and see the world.”
For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com