The ‘Golden Girls’-themed cruise was the pre-lockdown party I still miss

(CNN) — Picture it: Miami. February 2020. A time before the year became a litmus test for the human spirit.
I planned to go on the trip of a lifetime: a five-night cruise celebrating all things “The Golden Girls.”
If the trip sounds familiar, you likely saw headlines when it was announced in 2019. Or you heard about it from an enthusiastic fan of the show. Or both.
It was certainly all I could talk about until our booking was confirmed, and even long afterward.
My travel excitement continued because my pitch to write about the cruise was accepted, and I was proud of the article I wrote on it immediately after returning home.
But this isn’t that story.
This is the story of going on a dream vacation on the cusp of a global pandemic.
“The Golden Girls” was an iconic 1980s sitcom starring Betty White, Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan and Estelle Getty, that remains wildly popular with today’s audiences. Here are some of the show’s top moments.

A fly on the cheesecake

Hundreds gathered on board the Celebrity Infinity cruise ship anticipating an homage to the very thing that brought us all together: “The Golden Girls.”
Most were strangers of varying backgrounds but were united in celebration of the iconic ’80s TV show.
There was excitement, palm trees, glitter, caftans, wigs and, obviously, cheesecake. And that was just the welcome party.
By that point the world was fairly familiar with the novel coronavirus. We knew it was somewhat contagious, and the crew emphasized the importance of good hygiene habits.
The ship has a 2,170-person occupancy, and most were not concerned with face masks or social distancing. They were not yet part of the public’s vocabulary.
As far as we knew, it was no bigger threat than the flu. It did not seem a big deal to casually ignore what we were all leaving ashore.
The second sail returned March 5 and within days, the World Health Organization would declare the Covid-19 outbreak a pandemic.

And if you threw a party …

The Golden Fans at Sea adventure featured a shoulder pad formal, performances by The Golden Gays NYC, a costume contest, bingo, trivia and karaoke at The Rusty Anchor, Blanche’s go-to bar for meeting men. Many, many men.
The gentlemen behind drag comedy trio The Golden Gays NYC incorporate live music in their performances inspired by “The Golden Girls.” They sat down with CNN to discuss the iconic TV show, its impact on the LGBTQIA+ community and the art of drag.
The two weeklong themed cruises were fashioned by Minnesota-based travel and event company Flip Phone Events.
The experience began in Miami — where main characters Rose Nylund, Blanche Devereaux, Dorothy Zbornak and Sophia Petrillo lived — with stops in Key West, Florida, and Cozumel, Mexico.
The first sail mingled 600 show fans among other general cruise passengers; the second voyage carrying nearly 1,000.
Chad Kampe, owner of Flip Phone Events, told CNN Travel that when the cruise was first announced they expected around 100 people to sign up. It did not take long before their waiting list filled with 9,000 hopeful travelers.
Plans for another cruise were already in the works for 2021, but Covid-19 took things in a different direction.
The party may not continue next year, but Kampe anticipates interest in the 2022 experience will be just as strong. Fans will set sail on Celebrity’s new Apex ship.

Invited everyone you knew

Stan Zimmerman, one of the writers from season 1, judged the glitzy costume contests and enjoyed mingling with fans after the events.
“It’s a sad thing that the ladies couldn’t be here to appreciate this,” Zimmerman told CNN Travel. “I could imagine Bea Arthur getting her martini and belting out ‘Bosom Buddies.’ I could see Estelle sitting here with a table full of 20 gay men and feeling right at home. She would have been adorable in a colorful caftan.”
In hindsight, it’s probably best that Betty White wasn’t able to join the shoulder pad-clad revelers this year. Being such a beloved icon, White’s representative had to reassure concerned fans in the spring that she was as healthy as ever.
Author Jim Colucci led a challenging game of trivia and signed autographs for his book “Golden Girls Forever.”
Melinda McClanahan, the younger sister of Rue McClanahan, met the late actor’s adoring fans and participated, alongside Zimmerman and Colucci, in a panel discussion on the show’s legacy.
The family of Rue McClanahan, who portrayed Blanche Devereaux on “The Golden Girls,” sat down with CNN to talk about her work on the show, how she got her start and shared funny memories of the late actress.
McClanahan also brought her family and close friends on the second voyage to celebrate a milestone.
“I got invited to come on the ship, and I said, by golly I turned 80 this year! I’d like to have a birthday party with my family.”
The hilarious and talented gentlemen of drag trio The Golden Gays NYC interacted with audience members throughout their musical productions. For now, they have to take their talents to the virtual stage until theaters reopen.
Additionally, “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Tempest DuJour, “The Daily Show’s” Frank DeCaro and entertainer Tygra Slarii emceed other events saluting the show.

Thank you for being a friend

The fond memories from this last voyage abroad helped sustained me amid the stresses of our new way of life. In a time when everything is changing, the Girls still provide laughter.
Fans know the show’s timelessness, and reliable comfort is nothing new.
Zimmerman said seeing it touch so many generations year after year has been greatly rewarding.
Stan Zimmerman, a screenwriter from season one of “The Golden Girls,” sat down with CNN to talk about working on the show, how he got his start writing for the 1980s sitcom and what keeps the show alive in younger audiences.
The love for the show is always there, but the beauty lies in how each viewer connected with it.
Many reminisced about spending their Saturday nights watching with close family or friends. Others formed friendships later in life, not unlike the show, that began through shared interest in the Girls.
“You see yourself in that surrogate family,” Colucci said. “These women of a certain age were finding their tribe, and years later we’re doing that here.”
The sitcom redefined what family could mean and some in the LGBTQ+ community found that bond deeply relatable.
Patrick Holt, who performs as Tempest DuJour, said he was deeply closeted while attending Brigham Young University in the early ’90s and found hope watching the episodes.
“In a strange way it kept me sane knowing that there was a world where I wasn’t considered a sinner or mentally ill because of my sexuality.”
New York City Hospice social worker Robin Goldberg was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer three years ago, which spread to her liver and spine. For her, the Girls bring her peace as she embraces her difficult journey ahead.
A chance to reconnect, a reason to celebrate, a moment of peace — these “Golden” journeys lived both on board and ashore long after the cruise.
Fans demonstrated the show’s spirit of family and warmth, a last gesture of humanity I think of fondly throughout our shared reality.
Of the fans with whom I had the pleasure of sailing alongside, Dorothy Zbornak said it best: “You’re angels. All of you.”