Rosie’s Wife Talks Travel
No lesbian couple turned entrepreneurs have made a bigger splash than Rosie and Kelli O’Donnell, founders of R Family Cruises. The parents of four children, the O’Donnells, who married in 2004, are well aware of the trials and traumas that gay and lesbian parents can face when vacationing with their children. Rosie (seen most recently in Drop Dead Diva) recognized the potential for her beloved brood after experiencing Family Week in Provincetown, and performing on a cruise for gay men. Partnering with Norwegian Cruise Line in 2003, R Family Cruises made its maiden voyage to the Bahamas in 2004, which was documented in the Emmy-nominated film All Aboard: Rosie’s Family Cruise.
Kelli and Greg Kaminski (a veteran of gay male cruises and the man who hired the comedian to perform on that life-changing gay cruise) handle the day-to-day operations at R Family Cruises. Curve spoke with Kelli, the working mom who slipped easily back into a corporate role, after departing her job as a marketing executive at Nickelodeon to devote her time to her family.
What are you up to today?
I have my daughter’s picnic…she just finished school this morning, so Ro Rosie and I went to that, and I’ve been working the rest of the day.
How involved are you with day-to-day operations at R Family Vacations?
We’re a very small company, so it’s me and Greg Kaminski and we have a couple other people who work with us, but we still answer phones, take reservations, do the day-to-day part also.
Do you work from home?
Our offices used to be located right next door to where I live. But we ended up sort of outgrowing that space so we’re now in the city, but all four of my kids are in school full time. I basically drop them off at school and I drive to the city and go to work and then I come back in the afternoon when they’re done at school. So it works out quite nicely.
So you go to work every day?
Sometimes I work from home. I would say I’m at the office maybe three days a week, other than that, what’s so great about nowadays is with a computer and a phone you can pretty much work from anywhere. So you can still run the day-to-day and not actually have to be there so much.
What’s the biggest obstacle for gay parents who want to take a family vacation with the kids?
Well, I think this year the biggest obstacle for everybody is money. I think that we’re the first travel company to even do these sorts of vacations both for gays and lesbians. Truthfully, the obstacles have been overcome, we’ve created a space that people can feel free and open and happy, it really is a magical experience. Also, we’ve had a tremendous amount of growth with people who do not have children. For gays and lesbians who want to travel together, they want to bring their parents, they want to bring their straight friends, or their brothers or sisters or whatever, just the only environment where you can travel with gays or lesbians where it’s not all men or all women.
And you’re not finding people having sex in the sauna or in deck chairs.
It’s a lower-key vacation. We do get a lot of people who are like, for gay males who’ve been on the Atlantis experience, it’s just too much for them at some point, and they’re looking for something a little more mature and…everyone’s having a great time but there’s just not as much pressure.
Is that why you started this company, to give people an alternative between straight and wild floating gay circuit parties?
We have, probably 15 percent of our passengers are straight friends and family, we also have a more varied assortment of people onboard, so, truthfully, I always think of it as a little…utopia, it’s a reflection of what I wish the whole world would look like, and felt like. It’s a wonderful mixture of people who are so happy to be there—who are so comfortable and safe and, you know, you can sort of live your life and make new friends and, it’s a sad day when it’s over.
Do your kids go on all the cruises—there’s one per year?
Yep. For the past few years we’ve done two a year; this year we’re back to one. My kids have been on every cruise, Parker, the oldest boy, actually works on team with me. He’s 14 now, so it’s time to put him to work. Last year was his first cruise he worked.
What does he do?
We bring 20 people onboard who are our people to work on the cruise, at the parties, organize and help with the passengers, and he’s going to be doing that. And he’s young and strapping, so he’s going to be carrying a lot of boxes. [Laughs] He loves it, learning a good work ethic.
You mentioned that Parker is 14 now, what are the ages of your other 3?
Parker is 14, Chelsea is 11, Blake is 9 and Vivi is 6.
What are some of the things that kids get really excited about on these cruises?
Many of our passengers come every year, so these kids have gone through the past six years together. And a lot of them really get excited about reuniting. I also think that a lot of our families come from rural areas, where there aren’t any other gays or lesbians or gay and lesbian families near them—maybe they’re the only gay family in the whole school, so I think that the kids really look forward to sort of building themselves up that there are other families out there. And they can sort of face the world feeling a little bit better about themselves and not feel alone.
What does it mean to you personally to provide this service?
It’s a dream job for me, it’s really unbelievable. To be a part of that experience for so many people, and to be able to provide it so that so many people can have it is really just a blessing. I couldn’t have a better [job].
This was Rosie’s idea initially, after a gay cruise she went on.
Yeah. We had also gone together as a family to Provincetown for family week there and, you know, sort of was really touched by the other families. It was a tremendous experience for other gay families. And a cruise ship is a bigger, larger experience.
You and Gregg do the day-to-day. What is Rosie’s role?
Ro has performed on a number of the cruises and the brand was developed with her and her show brand in mind. The inclusion of Broadway, comedy and piano bars are all influenced by her and her passion for those forms of entertainment.
Are there things to do just for adults only?
Yes. There’s an entire nightlife that happens…we bring a ton of cabaret singers from New York City, and we have really great piano bars at night and there’s a host of things that happen sort of without kids that people really enjoy onboard.
Is there a daycare?
Yeah, there’s a kids program, you can check your kids into the kids program and you can go have a night out. Norwegian Cruise Line has an amazing kids program that includes games, crafts and theme nights. We add to the programming with other performers and themed activities that we bring onboard.
What stands out from the places you’ve gone?
Well, our first cruise in the Bahamas was a pretty tremendous experience. To see the faces of these children when people were yelling and protesting, it was a powerful experience. I think everybody handled it with such dignity, that I felt so proud of our families onboard…the experience of biting your tongue and having your dignity and walking through that and still participating, it was pretty amazing. Every cruise has moments of such glory. I would say that my favorite moment is the first night, Greg and I welcome everybody, and to look out into the audience and…and see everybody’s faces and to see the camaraderie amongst people, it really is so rewarding. It's a very rewarding job.
What exactly happened in the Bahamas?
The arrival of our ship was protested by a number of church groups in Nassau. The protests were all legally arranged, however, they were loud and frightening to the children onboard.
You’ve been a bit of an activist. What do you think of gays who are uncomfortable with being out at work?
Everybody has to move at their own pace. I think when people are ready they know the best-case scenario that can happen and the worst-case scenario that can happen and they can accept either of those. And some fall somewhere in the middle. They have to be ready; if somebody is not ready, you can’t force it. You can’t force a flower to bloom, it does it in its own time. I’ve never been a proponent of the outing process, all that stuff, you’ve got to let people make choices that they feel like are safe and healthy for them. Somebody doesn’t feel ready to do it, they’re not ready to do it. Whatever repercussions will come, if there would be, they’re actually saying they can’t handle that. So I support people’s decision to do that. To me it’s just a shame that people still have to feel like that. It’s just people living in fear, and maybe it’s not a realistic fear, but it’s a fear that’s been ingrained in them since when they were young…that it’s not right and they could lose something, you can be harmed…probably nothing negative would happen but, you know, it’s just been a part of what they’ve been taught for so long.
Being in a high-profile relationship, you didn’t have much of a choice to be out or not.
[Laughs] No. It was like a tidal wave had hit my life, but you know, I think that it subsides and then it becomes sort of, well, it doesn’t feel so chaotic and so crazy. It’s OK. I think the most important thing is you that you love and respect each other. Having a private life and then it becoming a very public life just took a lot of adjusting to. But, you adjust, and with it comes a lot of wonderful things and with it comes challenging things.
R Family cruises came out of it.
That’s a wonderful thing that came out of it!
What about the theater company, Rosie’s Broadway Kids?
That’s nonprofit, it’s a school in New York City, and it’s also a program that’s in many underprivileged [elementary] schools across New York City. It brings arts and theater programs to the schools. It’s really a wonderful program. They come onboard the cruise, they work with the kids onboard, dance numbers and things like that; but it’s two separate groups, one’s a nonprofit.
Where you going next?
We haven’t announced it yet, next year I’m so excited about, we’re going to be expanding outside of the United States and doing some international trips, so I’m very excited about announcing that, but we’re not quite announcing it yet, we don’t have a deal finalized. But it’s going to be expanding, so it’s very exciting. Norwegian Cruise Lines has been an amazing partner for us; we could not have this company without them. They are a tremendous partner and a great ally to the gay community.
How many people go on an average cruise?
Right around 2,200
What's your idea of a great vacation?
I just took my two older children to Europe for 10 days. It is amazing to see everything there through a child’s eyes and feel the magic for the first time again. I also enjoy traveling alone and having no schedule whatsoever.