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The nine-month cruise that took over TikTok

On the high seas, it’s content creators versus the other passengers.

A large cruise ship in the water.
Serenade of the Seas in 2016.
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

On December 10, the Serenade of the Seas departed the Miami harbor. It is not a normal cruise: On board were hundreds of passengers who, for the ensuing nine months, will live aboard the ship as it travels to 150 ports of call, 60 countries, and seven continents. “All four corners, one epic voyage,” reads Royal Caribbean’s marketing materials for “The Ultimate World Cruise,” where prices range from around $54,000 to $117,000 per person.

There have been round-the-world cruises before, the first almost exactly 100 years ago. There has not, however, been a world cruise that has captivated the internet as this one has, creating what many people online are referring to as its own real-time “reality show.” More than a dozen passengers and crew members have begun documenting their travels via TikTok and posting updates from the ship, while a handful of loyal recap accounts distill all the information into bite-size news updates. A few of the passengers came aboard with existing followings, like South African influencer Amike Oosthuizen, whose mother was a cast member on The Real Housewives of Pretoria, or University of Alabama graduate student Brooklyn Schwetje, who was already posting travel content prior to the cruise. For the most part, though, those who started posting about their journeys on the cruise watched their TikTok follower counts jump from basically zero to more than 100,000 in the span of a few weeks. On #cruisetok, the passengers are characters, the updates are “plot,” and the actual destinations are simply backgrounds on which to project the maximum amount of drama. As of January 22, videos hashtagged with #ultimateworldcruise have garnered a combined more than 340 million views.

It began just as the Serenade of the Seas embarked on its journey in December, when multiple videos about the cruise went viral. Among them: a video called “things that stress me out the 9mo cruise,” in which the poster listed everything from “alcoholism” to “serial killers” as potential threats, and a bingo card that included both a first and a second Covid outbreak, a pirate takeover, a wedding, mass STDs, a mental breakdown, and, naturally, a podcast upon return. One creator started a series called “Ship Happens” where she meticulously documents everything that happens on the boat, such as when a scheduled stop at the Falkland Islands was canceled due to rough seas or when the passengers spotted some whales; another has christened herself the “Sea Tea Director.”

This, obviously, is sort of an uncanny way to discuss regular people who are simply living their lives and going on a (yes, very extravagant) vacation. But it is an increasingly familiar one, as TikTok continues to determine what millions of people are looking at, and when. The Ultimate World Cruise’s closest relative might be the annual ritual of Bama Rush, where every August since 2021, first-year students at the University of Alabama show off their outfits on TikTok for different sorority recruitment events. After a handful of those videos went viral, the women in them became brief celebrities, as did the people commenting on the phenomenon. Whether they were telling their own inside stories of Bama Rush, sharing which girls they were “rooting for,” or wondering how they ended up watching these videos to begin with, once the topic took off, more and more people started fighting for a sliver of that attention. The result was a media frenzy that lasted for about two weeks before the algorithm moved on.

Because what said algorithm constantly seeks is novelty with a healthy dose of timeliness, precisely what a nine-month cruise can best provide. Consider Joe Martucci, a 67-year-old retired CFO from St. Cloud, Florida, who boarded the cruise as a retirement celebration along with his wife, Audrey. “I was sending videos to my children, and they said, ‘Hey, Dad, put these on TikTok so we can let our friends see them too.’ I didn’t know ‘their friends’ were 90,000 people,” he tells me over video chat while the ship is docked in Ushuaia, at the southern tip of Argentina. His first cruise post, under the account @spendingourkidsmoney, hit 1.5 million views, and within weeks, fellow passengers started coming up to him to say they saw him online. Because he begins all his videos with, “Hey, kids!” his followers have come to see him like their own dad (sample comment: “just know that you’re also healing a little piece for those of us that never had a dad. enjoy your vaca, love you guys! - daughter”).

He says he’s honored by the sentiment and it’s the reason he keeps it up. People are so charmed by Martucci that they’ve scheduled a meetup with him when the ship arrives at Southampton, England, on July 26 (after a TikTok of his itinerary revealed that he planned to shop at Primark that day, fans decided they would come along).

Or consider 23-year-old Little Rat Brain, who grew her account to nearly 150,000 followers and is a “fan favorite” on the cruise. (Little Rat Brain keeps her identity private from the internet and goes only by her username.) She posts funny, sometimes surreal, chaotically edited videos of what it’s like to live on a ship, even though she’d never used social media much before the trip. While she says she never aimed to get famous, she understands why people are fascinated. “We’re a very small group of people on an enclosed ship that you can’t leave,” she said. “And alcoholic drinks are free. It’s a perfect setup for drama.”

The problem, or so it would seem to the TikTokers recapping what’s going on on the ship, is that the stars of their reality show aren’t really posting much drama. There’s a pretty obvious explanation why, per Little Rat Brain: “I don’t think many people will create drama because they don’t want to put their vacation at risk. Like, you have to go to the buffet at breakfast and someone could be staring at you. They could be sitting next to you on the bus ride for an excursion for two hours. You cannot escape everyone who’s on this cruise.” Instead, the TikTokers on board have leaned into the absurdity, hosting a meetup where all the “cast members” get together and introduce themselves in a talk show format, even referring to themselves as “characters.” So far, most of the content has been deliberately anodyne.

That doesn’t mean there haven’t been the kind of hiccups you’d expect on a nine-month cruise. There was, at one point, a flood (it’s fine now). One cruiser was temporarily banned from reboarding the boat for 12 days after he took an unauthorized trip to Brazil. Some guests were upset at the difference in treatment for Royal Caribbean loyalty program members versus regular passengers (which is … the point of joining a loyalty program). The originally scheduled stops in Russia, Ukraine, and Israel were relocated, for obvious reasons. One guest was accused of being a swinger because she had a pineapple decoration on her cabin door (“Sorry to disappoint you,” she said in a response video).

When I asked if anyone was flirting or hooking up, Little Rat Brain says she attended one of Royal Caribbean’s singles’ mixers but promptly left because no one else showed up. “Literally no one. I walked in, looked around, walked out to double-check I was in the right location, and went back up, got a drink, sat there for two minutes, and was like, I’m leaving. Love Island is not happening.” Perhaps most tragic, the ship briefly ran out of red wine; they’ve since stocked up.


The way i would have loved to be on that boat!!! Also there was no announcement that it was on board?? . #ultimateworldcruise2023 #9monthcruise #9monthcruisetok #ultimateworldcruise #antartica

♬ original sound - Little Rat Brain

The bulk of the intrigue is the meta-drama between the TikTokers on the ship and the non-TikTokers. The real shit is going down in private Facebook groups, of which the cruise has at least five. Apparently, many of the non-TikTokers are becoming annoyed about the amount of filming on board and don’t want their faces included in background shots. While the TikTokers I spoke to say they’re very aware not to post anything with other people on camera, Martucci says that tensions have spilled over onto the ship. “I saw an incident the other day where some guy went off on someone and said, ‘Are you one of those TikTokers? Don’t you point that camera toward me! I’ll be mad if you point that camera toward me!’” Martucci says. “I felt sorry for the kid. He wasn’t pointing the camera at him.”

Then came the arrival of a TikToker who had zero problem making enemies on board. After model and influencer Marc Sebastian made a video pleading for someone to pay for him to go on the cruise — “I’ll go cause chaos, I’ll wreak havoc, and I’ll record everything” — Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, took him up on the offer and booked him an 18-night leg beginning January 5. (The deal: He’d read one of the eight books they sent him and post about it.) Within days, he’d become Enemy No. 1 for a certain segment of cruisers, like the people who yelled at him for swearing or the lengthy hate threads in one of the Facebook groups. At one point, he was escorted out of an exclusive lounge area for club members after livestreaming when one of his viewers called the ship to rat him out.

One would imagine Royal Caribbean isn’t pleased with his presence either — he’s been calling out the company for their low worker pay while also making the experience of actually being on the ship seem … kind of miserable.

That the social media spectacle of the Ultimate World Cruise has spilled offscreen and onto the actual boat is maybe more interesting than the understandable highs and lows of living at sea with hundreds of other people. Americans have always taken a special liking to cruises; ever since the birth of the industry in the 1970s, there’s been an enormous market, perhaps because cruise companies have gamified vacation in the form of points and loyalty rewards, or perhaps because Americans love all-you-can-eat buffets and also the freedom from having to make any decisions. Cruises are indeed getting longer, though mishaps can certainly occur — just ask the would-be passengers who are now suing the three-year cruise that was abruptly canceled mere days before it was scheduled to depart.

It’s no wonder, then, that the passengers aboard such a voyage would become objects of fascination for those of us without the means or desire to be on such a vacation, or why the TikTok algorithm has boosted so many of their videos. The Ultimate World Cruise falls perfectly into the platform’s recipe for viral gold: niche with universal appeal, timely, and a little bit controversial. Yet now, the cruise TikTokers are becoming objects of fascination — and frustration — for their own fellow passengers. Those I spoke to said that since they went viral, more people from the ship are opening TikTok accounts in the hopes that they too might become one of its “main characters.” Even though Sebastian is, by my count, the only influencer who’s done a sponsored content deal on the ship so far, it doesn’t mean that more brand money couldn’t be infiltrating the cruise soon.

As for the TikTokers on the boat themselves, most of them view their newfound attention as funny happenstance — as long as it isn’t too mean. “We have some that we really love,” says Jenny Hunnicutt, a 34-year-old who’s running her writing consulting agency from the boat, of the drama recappers. “The positivity has outweighed any negativity.” As long as the other half of the ship doesn’t mutiny against the TikTokers, hopefully that will stay the case.

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