In the last few months, Beth Fletcher, a 39-year-old photographer in Derbyshire, England, built a small following on TikTok by recapping and analyzing the British reality show “I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here!” When the latest season ended in early December, Ms. Fletcher was at a loss for content because, she said, “we don’t have another good reality TV show on until summer.”
Then the TikTok algorithm delivered: a video of Brooklyn Schwetje, a graduate student and influencer, sharing a day in her life on the Ultimate World Cruise, a nine-month-long, round-the-world voyage with Royal Caribbean. Ms. Fletcher was instantly rapt. “I’ve never been on a cruise, and the idea of a nine-month cruise blew my mind,” she said. After finding more videos from other passengers on the cruise, something clicked: “Maybe this is our own reality TV show, but better.”
Since the ship launched from Miami on Dec. 10, TikTok has been flooded with posts from voyeurs on land, dissecting the videos shared by cruise passengers and speculating on the ship’s potential as a floating arena for high-level drama. Some are declaring it a “nine-month TikTok reality show,” with the passengers becoming unintentional celebrities.
Videos with the hashtag #UltimateWorldCruise have had more than 138 million views on the social media app.
This isn’t the first time TikTok creators — competing for views with millions of other accounts — have mined videos posted by others to manufacture their own genre of online reality TV. In 2021, the University of Alabama’s sorority rush became an internet fixation known as #BamaRush (and eventually, a Max documentary). But much as on reality TV, the truth behind the content can seem beside the point.
With a 274-night itinerary, the Ultimate World Cruise is the longest cruise ever offered by Royal Caribbean. Fares for the full trip — which stops in 65 countries — start at $53,999 per person and can go up to $117,599, excluding taxes and fees, according to Royal Caribbean’s website. The ship, called the Serenade of the Seas, has capacity for 2,476 guests, although a Royal Caribbean representative would not confirm how many are currently on board.
From England, Ms. Fletcher started posting videos of herself talking about the cruise, introducing passengers that she identified through their TikTok accounts as “cast members” and sharing tidbits about their life aboard the ship gleaned from their videos.
More accounts dedicated to the cruise emerged: One creator refers to herself as TikTok’s “sea tea” director, updating her followers with “breaking news” (claiming that someone had left the cruise, and another had tested positive for the coronavirus). Another TikToker made a virtual bingo card with predictions like “petty neighbor drama,” “a wedding,” “stowaway” and “pirate takeover.” That bingo card video amassed more than 300,000 views and hundreds of comments like, “This is the new Hunger Games,” and “It’s gotta be a social experiment.”
Ryan Holland, a 28-year-old posting regularly about the cruise, says people are “curious how people afford it” and “how people can stand being on a boat for that long.” She sees two possible outcomes for the trending fixation. Either “it dies out,” she said, “or it changes the future of reality TV.”
One unlikely star of #cruisetok is Joe Martucci, a 67-year-old recent retiree from St. Cloud, Fla., posting from the ship with the handle @spendingourkidsmoney. Mr. Martucci’s four children encouraged him to post video updates on TikTok, which he’d never used before. His first video has nearly half a million views.
“This is not us trying to become famous,” said Mr. Martucci, who now posts daily with his wife, referring to themselves as “Cruise Mum & Dad” and opening each video with a cheeky, “Hi, kids.”
Mr. Martucci, who now has more than 69,000 TikTok followers, says the attention is mostly positive, but he worries about fan accounts dedicated to drumming up drama. “I think they’re trying to manufacture something,” he said. “They’re in it for the views and for the followers.”
Another passenger, Lindsay Wilson, a 32-year-old teacher from Phoenix, said the attention “was very, very weird.” She and some of the other passengers who have amassed new TikTok followings have since connected in person and talk via group chats about their overnight stardom.
Apart from some grumblings about passengers of different customer tiers being treated unequally, few actual dramas have yet to emerge. One exception, however, was a video (currently at 2.5 million views) posted on Dec. 17 by Brandee Lake, a Black content creator and cruise passenger who said she had been mistaken for a crew member, once by a passenger and another time by a staff member. Neither Ms. Lake nor Royal Caribbean confirmed if they had been in contact regarding the issue.
Despite TikTok’s fixation with the cruise (and hope for drama), most of the videos coming from the Serenade of the Seas has been more mundane than gripping. Ms. Lake described a typical day at sea: Zumba class, breakfast, coffee at Café Latte-tudes and an activity such as doing a team puzzle or making gingerbread houses. After dinner, she will occasionally take part in the evening programming, like a silent disco, but usually she just retires to her room. “I’m trying to figure out where this drama is,” Ms. Lake said. “What am I missing?”
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