Saturday, March 29, 2008

Our R Family Cruise Review: Part II, R Family

Okay, so I've reviewed the ship, food, and crew here. Now on to the good stuff- R Family!

For those who don't know, R Family is a company specializing in creating vacations for LGBT families and their friends and allies. Started by Kelli O'Donnell (former Nickelodeon exec) and Gregg Kaminsky (former second-in-command at Atlantis Events, which produced other all-gay vacations), R Family took their first cruise in July of 2004. We saw the documentary about this cruise, All Aboard: Rosie's Family Cruise, and decided it was a "must do." Based solely on the fact that it coincided with spring break here, we chose to take the March cruise leaving out of San Diego and hitting three ports in Mexico. To sum it up, everyone had a blast. [Continued after the jump...]

First, it was great to be on a cruise where our family was accepted and celebrated. We live in a pretty open and accepting community, and have been pretty lucky that most of our family, our friends, coworkers, neighbors, etc are welcoming and inclusive. So I think I underestimated how wonderfully different it would be to be in a self-contained "gay-friendly universe." But it was amazing how minor but meaningful it was that we never got asked who was the mom or what our husbands did for a living, when Gus clearly identified us as Mama and Mommy, our fellow passengers didn't even blink, and even the spa esthetician giving me my facial told me "my wife" was waiting for me in the lobby. And the diversity of community- it wasn't just families with two moms or two dads (although there were plenty of those) but also gay men traveling with their sisters or aunts, lesbian couples traveling with sisters and brothers-in-law, and nieces and nephews, a whole bunch of grandparents (straight ones and gay ones), singles and couples without kids (of all orientations, but mostly LGBT), transgendered folks, and lots and lots of large groups of extended biological and chosen families. We met families with grandparents raising grandkids, many with adopted children, families of two moms and kids and donor dads, children conceived through surrogacy, straight allies, and families with foster children. For this freedom alone I highly recommend that every LGBT family (of whatever stripes) take at least 1 trip with R Family.


But almost equally amazing was the programming: "Something for everyone" is is easy to promise but hard to deliver, but R Family did. The programming was great for LGBT families families with kids, but also for LGBT folks without kids, and for kids without LGBT families. R Family was responsible for almost all the activities on the ship, including theater shows, special events (like their version of the Amazing Race), affinity group get-togethers, seminars on LGBT-related topics (in conjunction with Family Equality Counsel), theme days and meals, and kid's events.

Theater Shows

The in-theater shows were absolutely first class. Each night there was a late show and an early show- the former geared more towards adults. Sometimes both shows were essentially the same- such as the night Cyndi Lauper performed and the opening night performance of broadway tunes by Broadway stars, Shoshana Bean, Gavin Creel, Kevin Chamberlin and many others. Other days there were two different shows: one night the early show was a kid's musical (The Daddy Machine) and later a comedy showcase (comedians on board included ANT, Jessica Kirson, and Julie Goldman).

Seminars & Affinity Groups

The seminars and affinity group get-together were also well-done (my traveling companions presented "Effectively Parenting a College Student,"), the highlight for us being the "teen panel" at the end of the cruise where children aged 11 and up took audience questions about being raised by LGBT parents. Other seminars ranged from Being a Dad in a Mom's World to Making Schools Safe to Reproductive Assistance to "Visibility for Victory," which included panelists like Todd Herzog (gay Mormon winner of Survivor), Ross Mathews (Ross the Intern from the Tonight Show), and others.

There were also affinity group meetings for groups like families with twins, folks who use the R Family forums, families with children adopted from Guatemala, etc. The one feedback point we heard after the cruise was that there were not enough of these affinity groups (some folks requested a "foster-to-adopt" affinity group, etc), and aside from these very specific affinity groups, there were not any small group opportunities to really get to know other people on the ship. While R Family did put on some great barbecues and parties during the week (see below), those events were not always conducive to meeting other people. I agree with these comments and would have liked to see an expansion of the affinity groups to include more of the diverse groups on the cruise, perhaps even have "larger" meet and greets - for example it would have been great to have had a "playdate" with other toddler parents at the beginning of the cruise where we could have met other parents, discussed plans, shore excursions, and other options for these younger cruisers, and maybe arranged smaller playdates for later in the week.

Parties and Special Events

R Family also put on a few specialty parties and barbecues during the week, often coinciding with theme days, such as the Hometown Howdy/State Fair barbecue ("wear outfits representing your hometown") or the '70s family tea dance ("dress in 70s/disco wear). In fact, almost every night had a theme: Hometown howdy, Go green (St. Patrick's day), Wear your recent Mexico purchases (?), I need a hero (dress as your favorite hero), Mix and match day (dress like your group), and 70s - before we left, there was a bit of angst over exactly what to wear for theme days/nights, and I searched high and low for some pics of what folks had done on past cruises. In the end we ended up going with a variation on t-shirts for all the themes, and that was just fine. Some people went all out- full batman and robin costumes for hero night, a family dressed like the village people for 70s night- and some people didn't dress up at all.

These events were fun, but despite a gallant effort by R Family, they turned out to be perhaps the weakest aspect of the programming, although I think it was due more to the setup of the ship than any shortcomings by R Family. The Lide Pool deck, where these events were held, was a bit small for the number of people on board. We found out after coming fashionably late to the sailaway party because of Gus's nap that you need to get to the party at or before it starts to get any kind of seating where you can see and hear the party (let alone participate). This was not as big of a deal for non-meal parties where standing up (and dancing) was fine. But for parties with meals (the barbecues) it meant most people waited in line outside for their food but then ended up sitting inside away from the music and entertainment in order to be able to sit down. It made things generally hectic and busy. I'm not really sure if there is any alternative given the venues available, but this was a little disappointing. We still had fun people watching, dancing, and admiring all of the clever costumes and outfits.

Kids' Programming

For us, the kids' programming truly was a highlight. In addition to the kid-specific programs, almost all the programming on board was kid-friendly or kid-welcoming, with the late shows and some smaller late night shows being the only exceptions, and that was because of the racier content of the shows (Clay was in attendance and slept through several late night shows and it was not an issue). This was fantastic- it meant we not only could but were encouraged bring our toddler and infant to these first rate shows. For many shows, kids were welcome to come to the front of the theater and sit up close, invited up to the stage to sing the night the show was kids' songs from broadway (Gus's FAVORITE part of the trip), etc. I think I saw the perfect example of how wonderful this was for kids and families on the second-to-last night- we sat next to a family with a 13-month old son- he was very well behaved throughout the show, and at the end of each number he would jump up and clap his hands. The dad leaned over to me and said "He's never been to any kind of show before, but after this week, he knows exactly what to do!" It was great that anywhere we went, the kids were welcome.

In addition to being welcomed to all the activities, kids had their own activities too. Neither of our kids were old enough for the formal HAL program, but Gus still found plenty to do. In addition to the Daddy Machine musical, they had performances by Dottie and the puppets from Dottie's Magic Pockets, Baby Abuelita, and storytime with Stonewall from the musical. There was a broadway performance class (split up into 10 and older and 10 and younger) and the kids performed on stage the last night, kids sing alongs, and art classes. R Family also created a playroom with toys for the kids who were not old enough to be in the formal program, and even brought along child care workers who provided free group babysitting for under-twos and two-year olds in the evenings.

All in all, it was a wonderful trip.

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