Festivals at Sea (and More!) with Performing Arts Consultants!

Mike Lawson • Features • August 30, 2018

Getting a large group of students to any destination of any distance for any kind of event is a challenge.

In SBO, we frequently cover the world of student travel, performances, workshops, adjudicated festivals, and all things related. Since becoming editor a few years ago, so far, I’ve traveled the U.S.A. from New York to Virginia to Florida to see festivals, parades, theme parks, workshops, concert halls, and more. I haven’t yet, however, seen the world of student festival cruises on ships bound for foreign ports.

Bringing the world of cruise ships to students for international travel was something I assumed would be much more expensive than it turns out to be. Cruises provide students a unique experience that combines performances (with or without a festival component) with the chance to take in the luxury of a cruise, and the rich cultural experience of visiting ports in countries such as Mexico, the Bahamas, and others. And, that can all take place in as little as a few days, depending largely on how far away from the port your journey begins.

One of the pioneers of student festivals cruises is Dr. Mike Mazzarisi, president of Performing Arts Consultants. This family-run business in New Jersey has been providing innovative student travel solutions since 1984 for junior high, senior high, and college- level students, providing the opportunity to perform in excellent concert facilities, with adjudicators and music clinicians, parade marches, sightseeing, social events, and more.

In the May 2008 issue of SBO, I wrote about the astounding experience students have attending the Virginia International Tattoo and marching in the Parade of Nations with bands from NATO, which I live-streamed to SBO’s Facebook page. Performing Arts Consultants manages the selection of all student bands marching in that parade. That trip and opportunity for your students is amazingly culturally and educationally relevant in so many areas, that I said then and I’ll say now, it should be on your must-do bucket list for your music program. And it was at that event that I got the chance to first meet members of the Mazzarisi family, learn a bit more about Performing Arts Consultants, and decided it was time for SBO to explore the world of cruises for band students. I had the chance to do a Q&A with Mazzarisi recently, which helped me learn all I didn’t know about this exciting option for student musician travel.

How long has Performing Arts Consultants been around? What were you doing prior to that?

Since 1984. I was a band director for 13 years, had a championship marching band that I was very proud of and I thought I would be a band director for the rest of my life because I absolutely loved it. I asked myself one day, what was my favorite part about being a teacher? It was watching the kids when we went on a trip. I got a firsthand view of what travel through music meant to young people. The first event we had was in Wildwood, New Jersey just a little bit north of Atlantic City. We had something like 16 schools attend. At that point, I handed in my resignation and then we added New York City, we added cruises, and we were on our way.

What are some of your popular festival locations?

We have many festivals, in Atlanta, Carnegie Hall events, or in Chicago. One of my most exciting events is the Virginia International Music Festival in Norfolk. New York has always been popular, and the Florida area, plus New Orleans. Nashville has been coming back very strong. Toronto, Canada and Washington, D.C. — these are all cities that year after year people want to go to and perform in that area.

What services do you provide student groups performing for marching in major parades?

We have groups that perform in the Macy’s Day Parade or the Tournament of Roses Parade. I have nothing to do with the selection of the groups, but they will call us to do their travel arrangements. We have a couple of parades that we totally manage. One is the Parade of Nations, that you’ve experienced in Norfolk, and the other one is a new one for us, which is America’s Hometown Thanksgiving Celebration, and that’s in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

That parade always takes place the Saturday before Thanksgiving, in Plymouth where pilgrims came ashore. That parade is very popular, and a lot of groups are making their plans now.

Tell me about the Parade of Nations.

We do the parade lineup for all of the out-of-town marching bands. That same evening is when they all get to see the Virginia International Tattoo. They’ll all come out waving the flag. I couldn’t think of a better way to end the weekend in Norfolk than to have them see the tattoo and leave that as their memory to go home with. They come from all over the country to participate. And all of these groups right now came to me from travel agents

because half of our business comes from tour operators that want to be involved with the event, and we’re happy to partner with tour operators. We want a relationship with tour operators and travel companies. It’s all about the music experience and the events that we produce. Yes, we have a travel department, and yes, I want the best hotels, the best attractions, the best meals for the groups, but that is not the most important thing to our company.

It’s all about the musical experience that the kids have, and that’s why we totally accept and welcome travel agents to buy into our events.

When I was a kid, I never heard of a band going on a cruise ship, and I grew up in Florida.

Well, back then the cruise industry was in its infantile stages. Carnival was just being born. Dolphin Cruise Line was out. They don’t even exist anymore. We were the first company to offer cruises to students, and that was back in 1984. I want to give people an experience and I think the experience on the ship is unlike any other.

I know it’s great to experience Carnegie Hall. I know it’s great to experience the streets of New York City, but it’s also great to experience this magnificent vessel. And the stages on these ships, nowadays, they look like you’re in a Broadway theater.

There are balconies. They’re phenomenal performance venues. Our first cruise was on a Dolphin ship that held 650 passengers total. Of course, now you have ships that hold 6,000 passengers.

But the Dolphin ship is where it all started with me in 1984. I was in our office and as I said, we just finished our first festival in Wildwood, New Jersey, and along comes a rep who talked to us about the Dolphin Cruise Line. She invited us on the ship to see what it was all about because I was never on a ship. I had my first group from Ohio to book a cruise.

They were a show choir, and back then, the theaters weren’t anything like what they are today on ships. They were more like a lounge. And the boys were lifting the girls and their heads were hitting the ceiling and I’m going, “Oh, dear.” Then you had a little bit of the rocking on the ship, and I could just see all this movement on stage that I didn’t envision when I first started. Now at least I know when groups perform, I like the ship to be at a dock and not out to sea.

There’s a lot of things we learned when it comes to cruising. I’m probably on 20 ships a year, or 20 cruises a year myself, but we have a staff that is out to sea as well because every time there’s a group, one of our staff members will be on the ship with them. Ships are so different than any other type of festival. It starts with passports, it starts with listing all your instruments with the serial numbers and, you know, you have to have proper names spelled. You can’t use P.J. Thomas. It has to be the proper name, and there’s a lot that goes into groups that are wanting to cruise just to prepare.

Then the day you get on the ship, one of my favorite parts is seeing the kids’ eyes practically fall out of their head because they’re seeing this totally amazing monster of a piece of machinery in front of them. People from the Midwest, they don’t even see the ocean, yet alone an ocean liner. And the food has always been an amazing experience. We tell them, “Be adventurous, order escargot.” The escargot gets delivered to the table and the kids are taking pictures because these are foods and culinary items that they’ve never seen in their life and here they are. [Tables are set with] four forks, four spoons. Nobody knows what to do with that! There’s just so much they learn when they board a ship.

The program is called Festivals at Sea, but are these typically performance opportunities or festival opportunities when they choose a cruise?

It’s both, again. We have half of the people want us to put on an adjudicator for them, and then they’ll have a private workshop with the adjudicator. They’ll get to know the adjudicator because he or she will have dinner with the director and talk shop over dinner every night.

But then you have some that, again, don’t really care for the feedback. They want their kids to perform in a venue entirely different from anything they’ve ever experienced.

So, half that go for the adjudication process, and the other half that want an opportunity to perform on a ship and of course, when we dock at whatever port the ship is headed for many of them have the opportunity to perform in a foreign country as well.

Are all cruises international?

The ships are mandated to visit at least one foreign port due to something called the Jones Act. Our biggest port is in Florida. Most of the ships are out of Miami, Port Canaveral, Jacksonville, Tampa. There are more departures out of Florida than any other state. They’re all slightly different itineraries and the ships are similar, but Port Canaveral’s starting to get some bigger ships. And the two lines that we work with mostly would be Carnival Cruise Line and Royal Caribbean Cruise Line. Those two lines are very popular with our groups. The most popular itinerary is Port Canaveral to the Bahamas.

So, I’m a band director and I say, “Hey. This looks fun.” I call and say, “I want to take my kids on a cruise.” Is this first thing you ask, “Do they all have passports?”

You have to allow enough time to get passports, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. On a ship, they really do not need a passport. The ship and the cruise lines do not mandate that. However, we would like a passport because most of our staff being educators we are always on the side of caution. We want them to get passports, so they have flexibility.

If there was a medical issue and we had to fly a person home, we don’t want any hassles at an airport. So that’s why we like them all to get passports. Plus, it’s good for 10 years.

That isn’t an issue disembarking when they get to Mexico or the Bahamas?

No, because at that point they’re working off of the ship documents. They don’t need to take their passports every time we’re at a foreign port.

So, it’s really for coming back into the U.S.A?

Correct. Every time they’re back into the U.S.A., they go through customs just like you would if you flew in from Great Britain. You have to go through customs at the airports, you have to go through customs at the cruise ports.

They would definitely need a passport at that point, wouldn’t they?

Well, not with the ships though because the ships will let you on with a birth certificate with a raised seal and that would suffice. But, again, we tell everybody, “Get a passport.”

How many students do you put typically put in a cabin?

Like a hotel, it’s single, double, triple or quad. The students are mostly quad. And the adults are pretty much in doubles. It’s really a floating hotel.

What are some of the most surprising things that I’m gonna find out when I take my group on a cruise?

It’s relatively inexpensive. For the most part, you leave on a Friday and come back Monday, or leave on a Thursday and come back Sunday. The three-night cruise is by far the most popular. I’m looking at some of our prices and the three-night cruise is around $500 a person. That includes everything, because we don’t want any surprises, so we put in the prepaid gratuities.

We include all the taxes and port charges. As a comparison to land destinations, I think that you get a much greater value for your dollar on a ship than you would at any of our land destinations. I mean, you’ve got meals, you have first class entertainment, you arrive at different destinations.

The food quality is a whole lot better. Many of our groups hire security guards in their various destinations. Well, the ship has it. Everything is built in. It’s got everything you want all under one roof. And the entertainment! But if I put my band director hat on and think about what’s gonna surprise me, good or bad, well, the type of food is always a surprise, how good it is. And the fact that it’s unlimited surprises people because they ask, “Well, am I allowed to reorder if I don’t like something?” The different cultures that they meet [are great] because a lot of the groups get off the ship and perform in Nassau, and some of them see a Junkanoo Parade for the first time. And in my opinion, Junkanoo is probably the raunchiest sounding music, yet it is so contagious, it’s so rhythmic and people love it. I love it. A Junkanoo Parade is nothing like what you would experience in the United States. So, seeing that would be a pretty good surprise. The shows on the ships are fabulous and the groups love that.

What about the cost of getting to and from the port from the home city?

By chartered bus, I would say it’s probably about another $100 a person, but it all depends on where you’re coming

And if they’re flying?

The $500 can almost double. This job would be easy if we didn’t have to deal with airline pricing. It’s constantly changing. You have to hit it just right. Sometimes, you can get lucky and get them down for $250 a person. We often wait until Southwest publishes their prices and Jet Blue publishes their prices because they’re always cheaper than the major carriers like United, American, or Delta.

How do you get the instruments there when flying?

What typically happens, and even when we do a Universal or Disney trip, is we have a group from the northeast coming and the group’s gonna fly down. We recommend they rent a truck and get the band instruments and even the luggage down. We often have an ambitious parent that drives the truck down and it’s so much more economical to do it that way.

How do you to deal with a bunch of queasy students on a boat for the first time?

When the seas are rough, you’re gonna get queasy. There is a full-time doctor on the ship, and they have a method to get rid of the queasiness. It is a shot, and you’ll feel perfectly fine. Most of the people wear patches or wear the wristband. They have that on them the whole time, and they won’t feel a thing. They’ll feel perfectly fine. A lot of people don’t get sick at all. But, there is a doctor if anybody is super sick. I tell people the best thing to do, “If you do feel sick at all, go out on the deck and look at the horizon. Do not go to your cabin. And 9 out of 10 times you’ll feel fine.”

PAC’s Checklist for First Time Cruisers

• Passport (must be valid for 6 months after date of cruise) or valid government issued photo ID and birth certificate

• Sunscreen

• Jacket and or other weather-related attire depending on your port(s) of call

• Formal attire for formal night—three to four-night cruises include one formal dinner; cruises of six nights or more include two

• Informal/casual attire for dinner (No shorts/tank tops)

• Reading material

• Prescription medications in original containers (if applicable)

• Alert your bank/credit cards that you will be traveling

• Check phone service coverage

• Small bills for porter’s gratuities

• Small bills for spending while in ports

• Complete online check in

• Print boarding pass

• Print luggage tags

• Complete rooming list

• Complete performance forms including performance information, seating/stage set up, detailed equipment list, group arrival information and property release form

• If bringing instruments onboard: a CBP Form 4455 signed and stamped by a US customs agent

• Complete parent permission forms

• Complete chaperone forms

• Special needs or dietary requests/food allergies forms (if applicable)

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