What It's Like To Work As A Cruise Ship DJ

Cruise ship DJ

Want to DJ all over the world? Maybe getting a job as a cruise ship DJ would be just the ticket. Today an experienced cruise ship DJ reveals what it's really like playing onboard a luxury cruise liner.

I've DJed on three cruise ships for four separate stints with the job title of "celebrity guest DJ". Of all the cruise ship jobs, it's got to be one of the best! For me, it's been a great experience to travel the world and meet people from so many different places. And like with wedding DJing, it's an underrated way of really improving your DJ skills.

Cruise ship DJing has taken me to places that I don't think I would ever have visited on my own. Places like Cozumel and Costa Maya in Mexico; Roattan, Honduras, Great Stirrup Cay and Nassau in the Bahamas; Puerto Rico, Halifax and Nova Scotia in Canada - and that’s just some of my favourites.

What’s more, as a cruise ship DJ, you get “dual status”. You experience all the perks of the entertainment, food and hospitality, just like the guests do. But you also you have access to everything behind the scenes. You get benefits like discounts on liquor, gifts, land excursions and so on. And obviously, you get to DJ for four to six hours a day, every day.

Of course, there are downsides: You have to leave your life for four weeks at a time, and you'll almost certainly gain weight from all that lovely food. Plus if I'm being honest, it’s sometimes hard to wake up in the morning feeling excited about playing 50s, 60s, 70s theme nights, etc. And actually, there's also the fact that there’s a lot of downtime and being alone to contend with.

But overall, it's really a DJing experience like nothing I've done before - and I’ve done a lot in my full-time, 15-year DJing career! So if the idea of being a cruise ship DJ interests you, this week - in part one of this two-part guide - I’m going to reveal for you in detail what it’s like to be a cruise ship DJ.

The challenge of cruise ship DJing

DJing a cruise ship cannot fail to make you a better, more rounded DJ - with a thicker skin! If you think about it, a cruise is probably the only gig where you have to play to the same people day after day on a three to seven-day basis. At any other type of gig, whether it be a club/bar, wedding, and/or corporate event, you are “one and done”, and most likely will never see those people again. The only time most DJs have to worry about seeing the same patrons/guests is probably at weekly residencies.

Cruise ship partygoers

A cruise is probably the only gig where you have to play to the same people day after day...

Next you have to take into account that cruises attract a huge variety and diversity of guests. They can be couples (especially newly weds), but tend to be more groups of family and friends. They are literally from all around the world, and can range in age from 10 to 100. I hope you can see that doing this is no easy ask! Indeed, doing it well is a challenge not every DJ is up to.

A typical cruise ship DJ set

It’s early doors in the onboard venue you’re assigned to be playing in tonight. Picture a group of 10 guys and girls from South America sitting on one side of the dancefloor. Sitting across from them, a family of eight from Germany. Also, there's a 12-person group of college kids from Penn State University, on Spring break.

Each group will send their one or two representatives to approach the DJ and request their song. No problem, that's what most DJs deal with on a regular basis. So starting with the South Americans, they request Latin music (salsa, merengue, bachata, reggaeton). No worries, most Latin songs aren’t mixed by the DJ, and you play the whole song – although you must play two at the very least. That is, unless you want dirty looks and unruly guests for the rest of the night...

Next the German family - who range between all ages - are into top 40 pop music. Again, no worries there, you would figure that would cover most of the crowd in attendance too. So next you play the safe top 40 hits – Lady Gaga, Black Eyed Peas, etc. (Not anything brand new yet, as you’re trying to fill the gaps on the dancefloor left by all of the people who abruptly left it when the Latin music ended...)

Keeping a cruise ship dancefloor happy

Keeping a cruise ship dancefloor happy is a bit like DJing a wedding where the bride and groom come from very different backgrounds...

Now, after half an hour of top 40, the guests are getting well liquored up, and the requests start pouring in. The college students from Penn State want hip-hop, dubstep, electro and so on. As this is not so family friendly, your job is to start weaving this stuff in towards the end of the night. That's because this is when most of the older guests and couples have gone to their cabins.

This is the kind of music policy that is encouraged by the Cruise Director, and the kind of DJ set you’ll have to get good at in order to keep everyone happy. And you do need to keep everyone happy: The bottom line is that the DJ has to keep the dancefloor full.

It’s a general truth that whatever you’re doing, some guests will be dancing and like the current music that you’re playing and some won’t. But as the DJ, you always have to look out for the greater good of the crowd. Learning to do this well is one thing cruise ship DJing can teach you. This is why I say you are guaranteed to become a better DJ after a four-week contract on a cruise line.

In this way, DJing on a cruise is actually a little like DJing a wedding. Especially, it's like a wedding where the bride and grooms’ families are from different ethnic backgrounds and most likely haver never met the other side! Any wedding DJ who has dealt with this different kind of wedding will know the fall-back cliched music like YMCA, Chicken Dance, Electric Slide, etc. will not be the greatest selection for the night. No, you have to be cleverer than that.

The truth is that it is hard enough to know what to play at your local club/bar, but at least you know what kind of crowd is going to be there. On a cruise, you never know what crowd is coming that night, and you have to be prepared to switch tracks in an instant. Otherwise, guests will lose their trust in you and become hesitant about approaching the dancefloor. So it's important to showcase your mixing skills by blending a lot of different genres of music in a short amount of time. You usually do this at the beginning of the club night.

By doing this, the crowd can see that you are catering to all kinds of groups (by the different genre selection). They'll learn to stay patient with you, because they realise there’s going to be something for them just around the corner. And this is just day one of a typical seven-day cruise! By the third or fourth day, the guests start getting comfortable with you and have no problem standing by you all night requesting songs. This is a situation that the majority of the full-time DJs elsewhere don't have to deal with. Even playing five nights a week, full-time, most DJs you usually spin at one bar/club one night and then spin at a different bar/club the next night. You don't have to see the same drunk party people for seven days straight!

Why I find cruise ship DJing so rewarding

Apart from the perks discussed earlier, there’s one big DJing reason why I find cruise ship DJing so rewarding. I’ve touched on it a little in the DJ set outline above. Think about it this way: An average day on a cruise for the guests involves a couple of visits to the all-you-can-eat buffets, some lounging by the pool, a more formal dinner. Then if they’re not too tired or stuffed by the end of the night, there's a visit to the bar/lounge/nightclub.

Disney cruise ship

It's satisfying to know you're helping a shipful of people from all over the world to 'break the ice" and have a great holiday together.

But apart from possibly poolside, at no point in a cruiser's average day are they required to communicate or interact with a fellow guest. Only at the nightclub and on the dancefloor is this likely to really happen - if the DJ is doing his job right, that is.

With groups requesting music from you, and sharing the dancefloor as they enjoy that music, you’re helping to breaking down these barriers. You're getting the guests to interact with each other. It’s really rewarding to use your DJing skills and clever programming to do this, knowing that you’ve added a lot to peoples’ holidays - whatever they’re into, and wherever they’re from.

Next week...

So having now looked closely at what it’s like to have a cruise ship jobs as a DJ, next week I’ll give you some hot tips for how to get a cruise ship DJ job. I'll also give you some invaluable insider advice for when you’re on your first cruise as a DJ...

• DJ Ollie aka Oliver Santa Maria has been DJing for over 15 years, first as a battle DJ, and later for Scratch Academy, Norwegian Cruiselines, Disney Cruiselines, and as an wedding and events DJ. Visit his website, or catch him on Twitter, YouTube and SoundCloud.

Have you ever DJed on a cruise ship? Is this something you'd consider doing - especially now you've read what it's like to be a cruise ship DJ? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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  1. I definitely would be up for it...how do you go about applying for jobs like this?

  2. Don't like the idea of djing to the same crowd every night, at all.

    i'm out! lol

  3. Great story Ollie - talk about DJ boot camp! That's about 1 years worth of experience in one month.

  4. Very nice article. Cruise ship DJing is a field that is very roughly documented yet even though it is for sure a nice niche. In general it's a more US thing as cruise ships in Europe still have the 60+ attitude but they are trying to change this at least.
    I had the chance to be on a cruise in the US earlier this year and can fully recommend it. Making a living there would be even better but for sure shouldn't become your sole income as like Oliver says it can be very boring out there without proper internet and other DJs.

  5. Klaus Mogensen says:

    Great article

    I'm not sure I want the job, though :)


  6. In 2001 I did a stint on the QE2. I met some lovely people, some of whom I remain friends with to this day, yet it was also one of the most solitary and annoying experiences of my life. My advice is to research the line you will be working for, see exactly whose department you fall into and what their policies are before you sign up. I got my work schedule from the music department but my actual boss turned out to be the cruise director which meant I spent the entire time in uniform. This awkward and nonsensical arrangement meant that I was unable to perform at my best due to conflicting rules and regulations between each department.
    I found myself in hot water on occasion simply due to me appearing to be having more fun than the passengers were. That said I saw some amazing places and as far as I know I'm still the only DJ to have played Slipknot and The Prodigy on the QE2 and get away with it (don't ask). It was something I'm glad I did, but I won't be repeating it. Maybe I was just working for the wrong line.

  7. very good article..thanks.

    would love to experience this once but i heard that if you "sleep" with one of the guest you are fired... is that true ?!?

    • That happened to a photographer friend of mine on a cruise, he got dumped in some far flung port and had to make his own way home...

    • Completely true for the line I worked on, but any misconduct deemed serious enough carried the same penalty: abandoned at the next port and a good chance they'll forget to pay you any outstanding wages too.
      Not that this stopped anyone, of course. They were just very careful 😉

    • I worked with Norwegian for 4 months. While sleeping with passengers was strictly frowned upon, there were 800 crew with a high percentage of girls so there's really no need to. Besides, the crew entrance to the medical office had a bin with all you could take of advil, cough drops, and protection for free, no questions asked. 😛

  8. Foldabledisco says:

    Hee, I miss the cheesy "love boat" stories. Nice article though,
    I didn't even realize that cruises needs DJ's. No job for me, I suck at weddings etc. Not my piece of cookie, besides here (Holland) we're not that familiar with 'wedding' dj's, or am I wrong?

  9. Eeer, i could m a y b e take up the challenge, play to the same folk everyday for a week. especially, doing different genres for different tastes offers countless possibilities but could never put up with the cruise ship lifestyle. the fact that you are confined there and have to follow their strict lines, rules and regulations is like never leaving work....for a month. and that's the part i couldnt cope with.

  10. I'm in the Navy, getting out soon. This sounds a lot like my job! You know, except the not being on a submarine part! 😉
    I think of be well prepared for the downsides of this experience. Can't wait for the next article.

  11. Love the article. Living in Florida, I'm an hour's drive away from Port Canaveral, a spot where cruise ship's come and go. This looks interesting.

    • That's actually where we stopped every Tuesday in Port Canaveral on our Bahamas run... and since I used to live in Otown, I would get guest passes for a couple of my friends and family on the ship - and just go swimming, eat for free and I even took em behind the scenes in the crew area... It was crazy fun, because I got to visit my old friends and fam every week for 4 weeks because we had a 8 hour stop in Cocoa Beach...

  12. Excellent article! It reminds me of a great experience I once had with ships and DJing, wow!

    Late in the 90´s I was doing a few weddings and corporate parties while trying for a club residency. At one of those parties was this big shot, CEO or something from a cruise line. He was spanish and was spending some time in Brazil in some sort of a business-and-pleasure timeout, or so he said.

    It was a great party, and he and his wife seemed to enjoy my DJing along their guests. So he comes to me at some point in the night and invites me to play a 5-day cruise he was putting on for some high rollers, bankers and their families. "I won´t take no for an answer!" he said, I remember clearly. He dumped the DJ and I took his place to play twice a day in what felt like a non-stop party boat.

    It was the best week of my life, or close. I got a good paying, made even better by incredible tipping - that´s still an exclusive to cruise DJing as far as I´m concerned ´cos I never again got tips from anyone, anywhere. I played like crazy at the pool and the ship club, and even a few aerobic classes in the gym. Everyone treated me like a star, I got friends with the ship crew and some travelers, really cool.

    But what really made it shine was that I got more women than I could handle - even at the height of my 20´s (LOL). Amazing women. I got hit like many, many times a day, and I´m far from being a Brad Pitt. Serious, Ibiza doesn´t come close. That job was the only time for me so I can´t say it´s always like that, but there wasn´t a single downside or bad situation. I even landed some invitations to play gigs, resorts (beach and mountain), parties and even clubs.

    Looking at it in hindsight, I should´ve started a mobile or DJ agency business on top of that trip to seize the momentum - I´m saying that so anyone considering cruise DJing as a way to higher plans, definitelly GO. It´s been a while and I can´t say how competitive or professional it is nowadays but it´s a good kickstart if you can pull it off as I did.

    Now I´m 42 with a wife and a company, and that´s all memories but I´d still recommend for anyone in their 20´s or even 30´s without a family, job or other big constraints to really give it a try. If you´re not shy, if you like to be around with people, make them dance, if you love music regardless of style, if you don´t mind a request or two (and if you´re not seasick), above all if you love women hitting you like flyes on a windscreen - just go.

  13. I think it would a fun to do DJing on a cruise. I enjoy cruises to begin with & having the possibility of being paid to be there & have fun as well, I'm totally in.

  14. I can relate to this in a way. I work on a cruise ship for the last 5 years actually, and I'm a crew DJ in my off time. I have also DJ'd for the guests a few times. It's a lot of fun, but can be quite challenging for crew and guests alike! Trying to please co many different nationalities, and ages at the same time is no easy task! I've had my fair share of occasions when trying to please one group of people by playing their requests, I ended up making some others unhappy.

    An idea that I came up with was hosting theme nights, that way the crew/guests knew what genre of music they were going to be listening to. I would host a latin night, then a top 40 night, hip hop night etc, and then I'd host a house night where I'd then get a chance to play the music I liked and get away with it! It's been a rewarding experience so far, and I can say I've learnt a lot from reading people, what they music and styles they like, and how to keep the dance floor full no matter what the age, or nationality.

  15. Chris Mihas says:

    I worked as a DJ for Carnival Cruise Lines for one year. It was a learning experience and probably the best DJ gig I ever had. I was on the biggest ship in the world (at the time) DJ'ing for 2000 different passengers every week. My job was to DJ and nothing else - I'm told nowadays DJ's have other duties to attend too alongside DJ'ing. I remember Mambo #5 was HUGE when I was DJ'ing out on the high seas. I was getting so many requests for that song it was ridiculous, so my buddy (there were two of us DJ'ing on this ship)made an extended 12 minute mix of Mambo #5 and played the song in it's entirety and not one single person left the Dance floor. We couldn't stop laughing - it was actually quite funny. The formal nights were my favorite in the Discotheque by far. People were dressed very smart and some of the Ships staff (casino, Dancers, Spa, Cruise Director etc...) would usually come out and party, making those nights extra fun to DJ. I have tons of stories from my days on the Cruise Ship and many of them include mingling with passengers afterhours:)Nice article, looking forward to the next installment.

  16. Nice article, we need to do one about strip clubs as well. Might have to be closed forum though lol

    • I second that! 😀

      • DJ'd in strip clubs for about 9 years.
        Lots of crazyness mixed with psycho strippers, packed houses, dead nights, good pay, bad pay and unmentionable situations.
        Got my MC skills razor sharp though!
        (I never wanted to be the cheesy strip club dj so I figured out how to project my voice without shaping it into douchey mcdoucherson.)
        If I ever do go back to djing in the strip clubs,
        the only demand I would have is I would have final say on the music. Requests from the customers is fine but the strippers need to worry about working the pole and not what shitty r&b song they want to hear.

  17. How much does a cruise ship gig pay???

    • That's right, no one has even touched that question. I'd like to know as well.

    • Yes I'm sure that is the case but, What is the Price Range?? meaning from novice to experienced.

      • Well, getting to DJ on a Cruise for me, I first had to prove myself with the company by working for a couple of years for them doing Corporate Events (Macy's, Bloomingdales, Dr.'s Conventions, Mountain Dew Sports Tour, etc.) after that, not only did I have to prove that my scratching, mixing, music library was up to par - The most important trait that will automatically get you onto a Cruiseline contract is working all those forementioned events without any incidents. An incident can be defined as a negative comment/feedback from client events (ex. Being rude to customers, Showing up late, not dressed appropriately, Texting on your phone while DJing, Playing Dirty versions of songs when you should play the Radio edit, etc.)
        That obviously proves not only can you Spin, but you can deal w/ people and any situation.

        Long story - Short... You can get anywhere from $900/week - $1500/week. This of course coincides w/ how many Cruises you have DJ'd on - also w/o any incidents... Hope this helps...

  18. I've heard horror stories. You are required to do all sorts of other work, you only get to eat certain foods take it or leave it, no perks and stay in the bowels of the ship with a roommate. If the Captain doesn't like you you can find yourself at some port getting home on your own at his whim.

  19. worked on a south Atlantic cruise in the early 80s top req song was i am sailing by Rod Stewart but some Latino pilots tried to bomb the party.

  20. Ive always thought about doing cruise ships... Seems like a lot of fun. I specialize in "club-style" wedding receptions so this could really be up my alley.

  21. DJing on a cruise ship sounds like the perfect job, travelling the world and getting payed for it. It might be boring playing the same kind of music every night but there are worse DJ jobs out there. I think I'm going to have to look into this in my home town of Hull(UK) our ferries travel to Holland and Belgium daily. Thank you for inspiring a DJ.

    • After a "disco" on a night ferry going to Holland many years ago, I woke up on the deck with a pack of 200 cigarettes in a plastic bag as a pillow, badly hungover and cold. I looked through the big glass pane to my right, to see my friend who I was travelling with on the other side. There he was in a 5-star restaurant, eating breakfast with a beautiful girl he'd pulled the night before. Bastard.

  22. hey....i am from Northern Ireland and 25 years old, i have read your articles and on the pros/cons of dj'n on a cruise ship and i really do feel that this is exactly what im looking for at this time. I have been dj'n back here at home in a very successful group called Insanity DJ crew, you will find us on Facebook. I have done the club scene, birthdays, weddings, clubs and student nights and i would love a new challenge, something new to learn and gain more experience from. I would love to know how or where to start sending my CV or any info required. Any help that anyone could offer me with this would be greatly appreciated. Thanks in advance and hope to hear from you soon.

  23. Candice says:

    Hi there

    Thank for this post. It was really helpful! I'm wondering how I getting a booking. My profile suites everything you have suggested. I find it somewhat hard to find jobs online thou. Have you got any contacts or suggestions for me please. Thanks candice

  24. Stupid question, is there Internet on a cruise boat generally ? 😀

  25. colin reed says:

    Great article!How about drink&tattoo policy,like they like tattooed dj's?

  26. Hey,
    I'm a Brazilian and I got my first contract to be a cruise DJ on MSC. I'm boarding by the 20th Jan and I very excited .
    Also, your article helped me a lot on the interview.
    Thank you!

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