MIAMI — The Carnival Destiny cruise ship hasn't even left port, and half the ship's guests are already wasted.
Passengers pack the lobby bar, balancing luggage with buckets of ice-soaked beer bottles, and flashing room keys that double as charge cards to keep the drinks flowing.
When it's time for a mandatory safety drill, the life-saving instructions playing over the vessel's intercom can barely be heard over sounds of drunken guests stumbling over one another, spewing obscenities, cheering, slapping high-fives and yelling chants like "Ain't no party like a ... Kid Rock party."
And it's still two hours before Kid Rock — the rapper turned country-rock star — officially launches his "Chillin' the Most" cruise with a kickoff concert.
For the next four nights, 2,650 of Kid Rock's biggest fans will wander the 12 decks of the nearly 900-foot-long ship in various stages of undress, toting giant inflatable penises, downing the musician's own Badass American Lager out of breast-shaped beer bongs and consuming more than three times the amount of alcohol than a typical Carnival voyage. Onboard the cruise from Miami to the Bahamas' Half Moon Cay are also 12 other acts, including Southern rapper-Eminem protege Yelawolf, Uncle Kracker and brazen folk singer-songwriter Roger Alan Wade.
As the ship pulls out of port, guests finally make it to the outdoor deck to watch Kid Rock perform, leaving behind a Dumpster's worth of beer bottles in the lobby. Scantily clad women gyrate to the pre-show music while a guy with a pack of condoms dangling from a lanyard around his neck watches. A few fans juggle buckets of brews as they climb up the pool's slide for a better view. Someone's scribbled "Kid Rock Rules" in blue marker on a window overlooking the deck.
The Detroit rocker, born Robert Ritchie, has just finished posing for 1,400 photos with fans (the photo op is part of the cruise package) and takes the stage to raucous cheers. He launches into a set far more akin to a monster truck rally than a Caribbean cruise. "(The night before it departed) I couldn't sleep," says Ritchie in the middle of his hit "All Summer Long," the city skyline fading in the distance. "Then I realized this cruise has become my adult Christmas. I get so ... excited this time of year."
Cruises have quietly gone from depositories for has-been entertainers to floating music festivals for current-day platinum-selling artists. For the younger crowd these voyages now prove worthy alternatives to multi-day, landlocked festivals such as Coachella, Lollapalooza and Bonnaroo, which charge upward of $350 for general admission passes. Dedicated fans such as Ritchie's who shell out between $800 and $4,000 for a ticket (minus airfare, fees and drinks) get a more intimate experience with the artists they love and a vacation out of the deal.
Since his breakout 1998 album, "Devil Without a Cause," Ritchie's blend of rap metal, Southern rock, blues and country has helped him sell more than 23 million records — without iTunes, which he doesn't support — and made him a force in today's country rock. His last album, "Born Free," spawned the hit title track that Mitt Romney has used during his presidential campaign theme.
Ritchie's outing, his third, kicks off this year's music cruise season where Kelly, Blake Shelton, Backstreet Boys, New Kids on the Block, Rick Springfield and KISS will also sail before the year's end.
Promoters such as Sixthman (which is behind Ritchie's cruise), Entertainment Cruise Productions and Rose Tours have built genre-specific voyages around themes including malt shop pop (Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Ronnie Spector), jazz (George Benson, Boney James), "Soul Train" (Patti LaBelle, Kool & the Gang, the O'Jays) and hard rock (Anthrax, Lamb of God).
"It was difficult to get artists on board. But now it's getting easy, and some are calling us," says Dane Butcher, director of operations/programming for Entertainment Cruise. "First when you hear a cruise ship, (the thought was) your career was on its way out. Now they realize they have a captured audience."
Ritchie's cruise is headed for 55 acres of a Carnival-owned private island in Half Moon Cay, Bahamas, that he's christened "Redneck Paradise."
There, crisp blue water and white sand will compete for attention with a special-made beachfront stage, a giant inflatable bottle of Badass beer and a shipwrecked boat transformed into, what else, a bar. Paradise for "Chillin' the Most" guests means chugging beers while sunbathing, wading in the ocean or watching Ritchie play a two-hour concert. As for other activities? A bikini contest that bans actual swimwear but encourages ladies to parade in makeshift bikinis and a men's Speedo competition where many participants stuff their swimwear with plastic appendages to compete for a crown and cloak.
(Unlike concerts, where star-adoring fans can only cheer and sing along, on the cruise they become drinking buddies with their heroes. "I get paid to go on vacation and take all my favorite bands. If that's not a sell, I don't know what is," Ritchie says after the cruise. "Usually you try to find the negative in this business, because somebody's always got an angle. But there's no angle on this."
Back on the boat, it's easy to spot an act, including Ritchie, buying booze for fans (and vice versa) or chatting it up with passengers at the casino. One late night he dropped by to play a round of craps before taking the party back to his suite. "I played them my new record," he recalled. "Just those 40 to 50 people were packed into the room. The story spread through the boat like wildfire, so there's a lottery factor for fans knowing moments like those can happen."
Though music cruises such as Ritchie's are successes, they aren't cash cows for artists. Acts can make anywhere from a couple of hundred thousand to more than $1 million for an act of Rock's stature. "We're not paying what these bands would make (on the road), but we probably pay them about 1.5 times what they would make in one night," Andy Levine, Sixthman's chief executive and founder, says.
"I remember thinking, 'This is it: The bands and the fans on vacation.' Screw radio, screw the record business, screw the lawyers and the publishing companies," says Levine, who along with his staffers were treated like rock stars on the ship, often posing for pictures and hugging guests. "This is the essence of the music business — the bands and the fans with no distractions."
Fans who pay for these cruises are getting real value when compared with some traditional VIP packages. For instance, on KISS' current tour there's a deluxe VIP package for $1,250 that includes the ticket, sound check access, an autograph and photo with the band. The base price for its October cruise is $750 and features two KISS shows (one without its signature makeup) and a variety of perks, including a meet-and-greet.The last day of the cruise, Ritchie offers up a Q&A session with fans. With a Coors Light in one hand and cigar in the other, he fields an hour's worth of questions from bleary-eyed fans suffering the consequences of four days of debauchery and rock music.
As the ship coasts back toward Miami, one fan nicknamed Double D asks Ritchie if he would return to the high seas. He pretends to ponder, then answers "yes," but with more profanity.