Before Holland America Line's Nieuw Amsterdam even pulled out of its port in Fort Lauderdale, my teenage girls and I had put on swimsuits and claimed lounge chairs by the pool.
They were plugged into their iPods, scrolling through their social media accounts one final time before turning off their smartphones for the week (the agony!) while I'd already settled into the first chapter of a new paperback, pina colada in hand.
We weren't the only ones who had left luggage strewn around a cabin with the promise to deal with it when it didn't interfere with sucking up the sun, the humid South Florida air sticking to our shoulders.
I set my book down and looked at the guest sprawled on the chair next to my daughter. She, too, was in a bikini, a bottle of sunscreen in her hand, her hair messily pulled back from her face. It was singer and actress Sabrina Bryan, the former Cheetah Girl who appeared on the fifth season of "Dancing With the Stars." At the time, she and her professional dance partner, Mark Ballas, pulled in some of the highest scores of any contestant on the show to date … and here she was relaxing by the pool on the Nieuw Amsterdam, just like the rest of us.
In all fairness, I knew Bryan was going to be on this sailing, but I didn't expect to see her relaxing so … simply. This particular cruise was the culmination of Holland America's inaugural Dancing With the Stars: At Sea competition, and Bryan, along with 'N Sync singer Joey Fatone and TV personality Carson Kressley as well as professional dancers Derek Hough, Kym Johnson, Sharna Burgess, Emma Slater and Tristan MacManus would all call the Nieuw Amsterdam their home for the week.
Over the next seven days, guests onboard would see all of these people perform on stage and participate in the Dancing With the Stars: At Sea final competition, which featured passengers representing the 15 ships in the Holland America Line fleet. They'd also have the chance to rub elbows with them at dance classes, autograph sessions and photo shoots. And that doesn't even include casual encounters like bumping into Hough at the bar or hearing Fatone belt out "Bye Bye Bye" at the nightclub.
'Young at heart'
Every cruise line has its own selection of entertainment options, but the fact that we lounged at the pool with Bryan before even leaving Florida clearly demonstrates one thing that sets Holland America apart from other cruise lines, beckoning a burgeoning demographic of passengers.
"We're still attracting the clientele we've always had, but we're attracting new guests, as well, now," said Jason Venner, Holland America cruise director and Dancing With the Stars: At Sea host.
"Our guests are younger, not necessarily by age but definitely young at heart," said Eric Dowis, cruise director on the Nieuw Amsterdam. "Holland America is moving forward and growing with our guests. The company doesn't just assume that our guests are a certain age and they want to see the same Rat Pack theme show."
As such, Holland America has embarked on an ambitious entertainment lineup that aligns cruising with exclusive access to world-class entertainment. In 2013, Holland America forged its largest and most prominent partnership to date with the "Dancing With the Stars" TV show. This partnership, which will run at least through 2014, has given Holland America the opportunity to offer themed cruises that feature dance lessons and competitions without cutting out the features people love most about the cruise line, including its culinary arts program, hands-on activities, consistent dining selections, Digital Workshop series and highly regarded crew.
Like 2013, the 2014 schedule will continue to feature Dancing With the Stars: At Sea programming on all sailings throughout the year, and six special Dancing With the Stars theme cruises will feature the show's professional dancers and celebrities.
Additionally, Holland America has expanded its partnership with the B.B. King's Blues Club with open-ended runs on the Eurodam, Noordam, Nieuw Amsterdam, Westerdam and Zuiderdam and the Oosterdam being added in January. Brought to the ship directly from Beale Street in Memphis, the B.B. King's Blues Club Band performs for guests five nights a week.
When the band is onboard, the club is absolutely packed, and the same is true for this, and every, Dancing With the Stars: At Sea cruise. Each evening, the girls and I dressed up and headed for the dance floor, where guests of various ages were doing the foxtrot, jive and samba. By comparison, we looked like we were just flailing our arms around, but we had a ridiculous amount of fun, especially because we were surrounded by people who were thrilled to be onboard.
Because, ultimately, we were on a Holland America cruise, and though the "Dancing With the Stars" theme definitely added something to the experience, we were all still on vacation, enjoying all the things that came with cruising on the Nieuw Amsterdam.
"You don't lose anything when you cruise with us," Venner said. "You just get added bonuses when you sail during a theme cruise or when we have something special going on."
I'll raise a fruity cocktail to that.