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Lethbridge people escape winter by working on cruise ships

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 When Old Man Winter is spitting snow and dripping ice and Mother Nature is howling her head off with her chilly voice, one’s mind wanders to sandy beaches, cool breezes, palm trees, squawking seagulls and exotic locales.
 So what better way to escape a Canadian winter, than working on a cruise ship and seeing the world for a couple of weeks, maybe even months.
 Several Lethbridge people did just that.


 Kyle Gruninger, who returned home to Lethbridge for a few weeks in December to perform with New West Theatre, spent much of the last year playing the perfect gig for a musician— singing on a cruise ship.
 “I started off in Australia and spent four months cruising on the south Pacific,” said Gruninger, in between New West shows, noting musicians have to do whatever possible to eat, and found working cruise lines to be an ideal fit while waiting for a record deal for his band Incura to come together.


After the show “Starlight” ended, he got on board a Carnival cruise ship, which is currently cruising around the Caribbean.Sheena Lawson enjoyed working  in the spa on a cruise ship. Photo by Richard Amery
But after the Australia  tour, he caught other ships sailing out of New Orleans, Long Beach, California and Mobile, Alabama.
“They went to many different places,” he said, noting all he had to do was sing, so he was able to get off the ship and see  the sights.
“You can walk to your gig and then walk back home after it. It really is a dream gig. You don’t have to drive anywhere either,” he said, noting he sang with a variety of different musical combos on the ship including everything from rock bands to musical revues similar to New West Theatre shows.
“It was pretty rigorous. I’d usually be singing from eight to midnight every night. I’d be singing everything from classic rock, disco, pretty much all styles,
“When I wasn’t singing, I got to get off the ship and go cave tubing and scuba diving,” he said.
“But you can’t get sick and you can’t stop. I’d play theme nights like ’80s nights, I’d sing in acoustic duos and solo as well. There was lots of different styles of music. it was definitely a lot of work,” he continued.


“But it was really a pleasure  to do it. Just being a singer was brilliant,” he said.
 He noted he took full advantage of a trip to New York several years ago to audition for a variety of productions and decided to apply to Carnival while he was there.
 Two years and and lot of work later, he got the call to work on a ship.
“I auditioned for three shows while I was there,” he said.
“Now I’ve been on five ships in the past two years,” he enthused.
Sheena Lawson, who often performs with the Herb Hicks Jazz Quartet, also spent most of 2017 on a cruise ship, but went about it differently— she got a job working with British company, Steiner Leisure, working in one of their shipboard spas and parlayed that into a side gig singing on board ship.


“Steiner has spas on 160 ships” she observed, noting it took her about two years of patience and a lot of work, not to mention her own money on flights to Britain for training, before she got accepted to Southampton based P & O Cruise line operating  out of Australia.Kyle Gruninger performing with New West Theatre. Photo by Richard Amery
She was impressed with the diversity of the employees.
“The guests were mostly Aussies and Chinese people,” she said.


“There were a lot of Filipinos working doing laundry and housekeeping. There were some Americans, but also a lot of East Indians, Sri Lankans,  South Africans and a couple of us from Canada— one videographer from Toronto and another person from Vancouver,” she observed.
“ There were also three musicians from Canada. They had agents, who got them that gig,” she said, noting she soon made friends with the musicians, who eventually let her sing with them, which turned into a paying gig.
“I brought my charts with me,” she said.
“So I got to do some performing and was hired by P & O,” she said.
 That made an already long day even longer.
“I’d have to be at the spa at 7:30 a.m. when we‘d have to pick up the laundry and then do an hour of training because training is really important,” she said adding they’d pressure the spa workers about making sales quotas.
“We’d have about seven guests a day for approximately an hour and 15 minutes,” she said, noting she also got a lot of exercise.


“There were a lot of stairs. Our quarters were on deck three and the spa was on deck 14,” she recalled. She noted she was lucky with accommodations.
“There were only two people in my room. I was sharing my room with a fitness instructor, who worked next to me in the spa.  Some of the others had six to a room in bunk beds,” she said.
She observed the Filipinos controlled things for the staff who made a little extra money on the side.
“They have a thing called the Filipino mafia. If you needed something fixed you’d pay them and they’d fix it for you,” she noted, adding most of them were working to send money home to their families.Though they weren’t mafia in the traditional sense of the  term.


“There is a zero, zero tolerance for physical violence and fighting. Even verbal abuse,” she said.
 She noted ships are different. Some have more classes than others.
“On the first ship, crew weren’t allowed up on the passenger deck without  a name badge and uniform. It must have been two weeks before I discovered I had deck privileges,” Lawson said, noting crew had their own bar to socialize in.
“We’d always meet at the crew bar after work. Some people were on board for six months and others for five days, so somebody was always  leaving the ship, so we’d all meet there to say our farewells,” she said.
 She also got to do some exploring in between shifts.
“The spa would be closed during excursions, so we could go in them too as long as we were back by 2:30 p.m. when the spa opened again, she said, adding she got to explore a lot of Australia including Sydney, New Zealand, Fiji, New Caledonia and numerous island nations.


“A lot of the crew went snorkelling, though I had no interest in snorkelling,” she said.
She did a lot of research before applying to work on the cruise ship, finding http://www.cast-a-way.co.uk/ where most of her crew mates applied.
“It took me about two-and-a-half years cost me about $3,000— about $5,000 including flights. They really want to make sure you want to work on a cruise ship,” she said, adding once she was accepted they’d pay for the flight to the port where their assigned ship was docked.


 She noted she’d like to work on another cruise ship and was offered a contract in December, but she turned it down to take care of family business.
“Though it was very tempting when it‘s -50 with wind chill,” she said.


Newlyweds Jocelyn  and Devon Brayne had a perfect honeymoon they got a job sailing around the Caribbean, working with Disney Cruise Lines.
“Disney Cruise Lines had the first open casting call  in Calgary in 10 years, so a group of our friends got really excited about it and went up because we all grew up loving Disney. Devon went along begrudgingly because he didn’t want to be away from home that long, because character contracts are quite a bit longer at nine months. He was the only one who got cast,” related Jocelyn Brayne, noting her husband was cast as a good friend of both Goofy and Captain Jack Sparrow.
 “Then we went looking for jobs that I was qualified for on DCLjobs.com and disneyauditions.com until we found one,” related Brayne, whose naturally bubbly and outgoing personality  ended up best suited for a job as entertainment hostess.
“They wanted people with two years  experience with a microphone, a background in entertainment and  in customer service, so that was  me,” she enthused.

“I did phone interviews and Skype interviews and the next step was to fly to Toronto, which is the hub of Disney cruises, for a day long interview/audition,” she said.

 


“I was hired in October 2015, but didn’t get a ship until a year later, because I wanted to be placed on the same ship as Devon. I could have been placed sooner if I’d been more open to other ships,” she continued.
“Disney was very good to us. We  shared a room with bunk beds. Devon couldn’t swing his arms around in a circle, but we had everything we needed-a  TV and a mini-fridge, a wardrobe and a desk, “ she said, noting Disney makes sure their crew are happy and taken care of. Jocelyn Brayne performing with New West Theatre. photo by Richard Amery
“On board we have a saying — there is teamwork so the team works,” she said.
“They’d pay for our flights and our  our room and board and perks like going to Disney World,” she said.
“There were activities happening all the time for crew,” she said.
“On board, they had a library and a game room with pool tables and X Boxes. They had a coffee shop and bar and a learning centre. And a sundeck for suntanning and shore excursions and our own dining area. But really, what most people wanted to do was sleep when they had time off. I became the master of the six minute catnap,” she said, noting it was difficult to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
“The Wi-Fi isn’t very good and it’s expensive,” she said, noting when the ship docked the crew could disembark and goo to specialized crew quarters with wi-fi.
 Depending on their rank, they were also allowed to socialize with guests
 She enjoyed rubbing shoulders with 1,500 other crew members serving the 4,000 guests aboard the Disney Dream.
“There were people from 66 different nationalities. And when you’re on a ship with nowhere to go, you get to know them really well. So now we have really lovely new friends all over the world,” she enthused.


She enjoyed being an entertainment hostess.
“Under the cruise director, there are the Broadway show performers, characters and cruise staff.
 Our job is to make sure everyone has the most magical time possible,” she said, noting Disney cruises aren’t just for kids.
“There are five bars and and adult specific entertainment like games, activities, magicians and sword jugglers.
 They have a supervised kid’s area, where you can drop off  your kids 3-17 at 7 a.m. and pick them up at 1 a.m. when they close and have a child free day,” Brayne observed.
“If you wanted to laugh, sing and dance, you’d want to find my team,” she said.

Jocelyn Brayne and Goofy aboard the Disney Dream. photo Submitted.
She underwent two days of training at Disney university in Disney World, but most of her training was on board the ship.
“The first week on board was HR and safety training. They were really supportive about releasing scripts and even helped choosing outfits. From there I built up my database of programs on top of that,” she said, noting she arrived in time to learn extra Halloween program training, which was almost  immediately followed by specialize Christmas programming.
 She was responsible for 40 different programs and activities which included animation classes and was the MC on the microphone for most of the activities.
“I learned how to draw Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and the genie from Aladdin. They fill in the eyes last because that brings the character  to life,” she enthused.


“We even raced babies. They had to be able to crawl. But if they stood up and took their first step everybody would stand up and cheer, but the baby would be disqualified,” she chuckled, adding she also ran TV and trivia contests, but her favourite was Pirate night.


“They’d have big pirate deck shows on decks 11 and 12. Mickey’s people would defeat Captain Hook and Snee,” she said.
“Every day is a long day when you work on a cruise ship. Because when you sign a contract, you work seven days a week with no days off. But they do give you time off to get off the ship and run errands, get groceries that aren’t available on the ship and go see Disney World,” she observed, noting they also got time to see Cape Canaveral, which Brayne decided not to do, not being interested in the space program.


“I signed two contracts from October 2016 to June 2017, so it sailed from Port Canaveral Florida to Nassau in the Bahamas and Castaway Key, Disney’s private island. The ship is registered in the Bahamas, not the United States, so it had to dock at the Bahamas once a week. So I got to know Nassau really well,” she said, adding another favourite part of working on the ship was the fireworks.


“Disney Cruises is the only ship certified to have fireworks on board because they are so eco-conscious. Their fireworks casings are made of fish food, so when they fall into the ocean, they feed the fish instead of polluting the ocean which is really cool,” she said.
 With fireworks on board, fire safety is all the more important, so the crew undergo stringent fire safety training.
“Nothing can sink a ship faster than something catching on fire,” she observed.


“So we had a lot of fire safety training. I didn’t expect all of that, but it made sense to me. I became leader of Munster Station, so I was responsible for 11 crew member and 140 guests to make sure everything went smoothly if something happened.”
She noted Disney emphasized training, so they funded courses for the crew.
“I became a certified Disney trainer so I have the ability to train crew for Disney Cruises,” she said.
 Brayne would like work another cruise after some much needed downtime at home to reconnect with family and friends.
“People spend a lot of money to have the most magical experience of their lives so it’s the crew’s job is to ensure that they do,” she said.
“The whole experience was great. You’d get to see Captain Jack Sparrow and then Peter Pan would show up. And Cinderella would be around the corner,” she said.

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 24, 2018 edition of the Lethbridge Sun Times/ Shopper
— By Richard Amery, L.a. beat Editor
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