Almost 10 months ago, Shawn Brunelle made his first payment toward a dream vacation — an eight-day Mayan Adventure cruise in the Gulf of Mexico, promoted by gay-friendly tour operators Al and Chuck Travel as a “private gay cruise.”
Brunelle, a resident of northern Ontario, chose the Grindr at Sea tour package. At the time he purchased it, cabins started at a minimum of US$599 per person based on double occupancy. Several different packages were offered, including a Drag Stars at Sea cruise featuring performances and individual meet-and-greets with stars of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
The dream vacation, he says, soured just a few hours after it started. After Brunelle boarded the Carnival Conquest — a ship over three football fields long that carries just under 3,000 passengers — on Nov 30 in Miami, he went to meet several friends in one of the ship’s nine bars.
“One guy came and put his arms around me and gave me a big, wet, sloppy kiss,” Brunelle says. “And the lady sitting beside me went: ‘that’s disgusting.’”
The cruise was not a private gay cruise. Al and Chuck, through its parent company Legendary Journeys, promoted unsold cabins on the ship for as low US$1 in ads — allegedly directed to seniors’ communities in Florida — that make no mention of it being a gay-chartered or a gay-friendly cruise
Brunelle is among several passengers of the cruise who have described incidents of homophobia to Daily Xtra. Other passengers have described a vacation that, while fun, was marred by disorganization and cancelled events.
Al Ferguson, the president of Legendary Journeys, does not deny that they sold what he estimates to be 56 remaining cabins for US$1, (plus taxes and fees) and says that he believes the complaints stem from passengers who were upset they could not purchase the cruise at the reduced price.
Ferguson spoke to Daily Xtra, but refused to be recorded for the interview. Under Florida state law, where Al and Chuck and Legendary Journeys are headquartered, all parties must consent to being recorded.
Ferguson says that the ads were always clear that the cruise was gay friendly. “Absolutely — it said it right under the banner online,” Ferguson says. However an ad for the $1 cruise found on Legendary Journeys Facebook page makes no mention of the other groups that would be on board, and describes the trip as an “eight-day Caribbean cruise.” The link now directs to a 404 error page.
Gilbert Doeve, who traveled from Whittier, California, to go on the cruise, says that he spoke to one of the elderly couples on board the ship who told him that their retirement community close to Miami had been “bombarded” with email ads for the $1 cruise.
Other ads, that show that cruise was marked down from $199, to $99, and eventually to $1, also make no mention of the other groups who would be on board. Ferguson says that it is standard within the travel industry to mark down the prices of unsold cabins as the departure date nears.
Ferguson also told Daily Xtra that Al and Chuck would never guarantee an all-gay cruise. “No place anywhere in the world says that,” he claims.
However, several ads for the Mayan Adventure Cruise posted on the Al and Chuck Facebook page display the words “private gay cruise” or “all-gay cruise.” A Facebook album filled with photos promoting the cruise is titled “Mayan Adventure – All Gay Private Cruise,” and the itinerary and booking forms that are still active on the Queer Trip travel website describe it as the first ever Al and Chuck all-gay charter.
The frequently asked questions section of Al and Chuck’s website also details that the company is presenting an all-gay charter on the 110,000 GT Carnival Conquest: “For the first time in history you can travel with every color under the RAINBOW… This Private Gay Charter will be full of Gay Organizations who will enjoy a unique itinerary and spectacular events. ALandCHUCK.travel has amazing ship wide events and parties planned for ALL!”
Some of Al and Chuck’s competitors — including Atlantis, RSVP Cruises and Olivia — also advertise all-gay, gay-positive and all-women chartered cruises.
That the trip was promoted as a private, gay-chartered cruise was a selling point for several passengers. Tom Tiboni, an avid RuPaul’s Drag Race fan from Phoenix, Arizona, who had been on two previous cruises through Al and Chuck, said that he switched his booking from a European Drag Star cruise. He lost his deposit in the process, but switched to the Al and Chuck package because it was announced as being exclusively gay. “I had never experienced a full gay cruise,” he says.
While waiting in the VIP lounge to board the ship on the Nov 30, Tiboni alleges that he overheard an elderly straight couple refer to another passenger as “a fairy.”
Doeve alleges that another passenger called two men holding hands on the ship “faggots.” “I was pretty stunned by that kind of language,” Doeve says, adding that he approached Ferguson and asked him what kind of people he had sold cabins too. He claims that Ferguson never offered an adequate response.
Passengers on the Drag Stars at Sea cruise also included straight fans of RuPaul’s Drag Race who had come as allies. Michele Harris, a travel agent from Utica, New York, traveled with her family, including her gay cousin — all fans of the show. Though she didn’t feel she could speak to specific incidents of homophobia, she said that she did see and hear straight couples saying not-so-nice things about LGBT passengers on board.
Ferguson told Daily Xtra there was not a single report of homophobic incidents on the cruise, adding that he, along with 42 staff, were on board. However, Ferguson says he left the cruise when it stopped at its first port in Key West.
“Why would we even allow something like that to go on?” he says, though he adds that if there were homophobic incidents, it would make him very sad. Ferguson also says that his company was at the forefront of many LGBT-rights campaigns, including the fight to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, which gave states the choice not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.
None of the passengers Daily Xtra spoke to denied that they were upset that spots on the ship were sold for far less than they initially paid. Some, like James Rice, had spent slightly over US$1300 on the cruise. He says he had a good time on the cruise, but feels he didn’t get what he paid for. “I was more concerned that what I booked was a private charter, and that’s not what I ended up getting.”
Bryan Hilton, from Austin, Texas, says he paid close to US$2,000 total for his trip, which was supposed to include meet-and-greet cocktails with the drag queen of his choice and fireworks as the ship left port in Miami. Neither happened. “It was the most disorganization I had ever seen of my entire life,” he says, noting that he was credited somewhere in between $10 and $20 for each of the cancelled events (other passengers said they were compensated similar amounts). The individual meet-and-greets were replaced with a mass meet-and-greet with all the drag queens.
Brunelle and Angel Rosario, who both sailed with the Grindr at Sea group, also say that a social event at the start of the cruise was poorly put together, with Al and Chuck representatives appearing late.
According to Ferguson, a technical issue prevented the fireworks from occurring, and the cocktail parties with individual drag queens could not be physically managed aboard the ship. In response, Al and Chuck “dramatically enhanced” access to the drag queens and ended up with 14 shows on board. He also says that people were fairly compensated for the cancelled events.
Other Facebook messages left on the Mayan Adventure event page found by Daily Xtra showed several cruisers frustrated that a policy was enacted shortly before the cruise left that banned passengers from wearing only underwear while on board.
In 2012, Al and Chuck and Carnival Cruises came under fire after Carnival issued a ban on costumes outside of private events on that year’s Drag Stars at Sea cruise. At the time, New York magazine reported that the cruise was originally supposed to have been just for Drag Race fans, but because they sold more tickets than expected, Carnival moved them to a bigger boat that was mixed with other groups. Eventually Carnival Cruises reversed its decision.
Both Al and Chuck Travel and Legendary Journeys are unrated by the Better Business Bureau, but both have had a number of complaints about problems with service, advertising and sales issues. A Facebook group called Al & Shady Travel has also sprung up, with about 80 members who had issues with the Mayan Adventure cruise. Several allege that they were deleted out of the Al and Chuck Facebook group for the cruise after raising their concerns.
Some passengers, like Harris, hope to book directly through the cruise line and simply purchase tickets to the drag events separately. However, new ads for Al and Chuck’s cruises in 2015 and 2016 specifically state that only people who reserve through Al and Chuck in the Drag Stars at Sea group will be granted reservations to the Drag Stars at Sea events.
All of the passengers that spoke to Daily Xtra did share one sentiment — they will never book a trip through Al and Chuck again.