A reality star’s death exposed the dangerous party culture on gay cruises

Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.
Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas.
Image: Reuters/Peter Nicholls
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One of the cardinal rules of cruise ship life is that the fun never stops. This is true both as a PR slogan, and as a business strategy. After all, cruise ships don’t make money if they’re sitting in port.

But the death of the American reality TV star Joel Taylor has shone a light on an open secret in this non-stop fun atmosphere: party drugs. For some, it has raised questions about whether certain cruise lines and charters are doing everything they can to reduce party drug use at sea—and to ensure the proper care to those who have potentially overdosed.

The results of Taylor’s autopsy have not yet been released, but the FBI handed their investigation back to local authorities in Puerto Rico where the ship docked, noting no signs of foul play. Law enforcement have been quoted as saying the death appeared to be due to an accidental overdose. Media reports and comment boards cite two other reportedly fatal overdoses on Atlantis cruises since 2009 (though accounts differ regarding the causes of death), as well as an arrest in 2011 for a massive quantity of drugs sold onboard.

That’s been enough for some people to speculate that Royal Caribbean and Atlantis Events—which bills itself as the “world’s largest producer of gay and lesbian cruises and resort vacations” and regularly charters Royal Caribbean’s mega ships for its party-centric cruises—have not adequately addressed the issue of drug use on their cruises.

One of those critics is Jim Key, a LGBTQ activist and formerly the chief marketing officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Key has been on several Atlantis cruises himself and, in 2009, his friend Spencer Yu died of a cardiac event on an Atlantis-chartered cruise on a Royal Caribbean ship. Based on the accounts of friends who were with Yu, Key believes his death was prompted by drug use. In an open letter to the head of Royal Caribbean after Joel Taylor’s suspected overdose, he wrote: “If three people had died from drug overdoses at a nightclub on land, that club would be shut down, but on Atlantis-chartered ships, the parties continue and the number of deaths keep growing.”

Key told Quartz that party cruises like the ones Atlantis advertises to an all-gay demographic create a “perfect storm” for potentially fatal drug use. First, party-goers’ inhibitions are lowered and their reasons to stop the fun are diminished (after all, they don’t have to worry about how to get home or working the next day).

Second, unlike many nightclubs on land which have a harm reduction approach—where partiers are encouraged to seek help, no questions asked—the blanket “zero tolerance” policy for cruise ship drug use means partiers fear being detained, punished, or kicked off the ship should they seek medical help for an overdose.

“The comments online say people need to take responsibility for their own actions—if they use drugs, they’re responsible—and I completely agree with that,” Key told Quartz. “But because the promoters know that there are people at their parties who are going to be doing drugs, they share some responsibility there. If you say you have zero tolerance for drugs, that’s not going to stop people from using drugs—but it is going to stop people from seeking treatment.”

TMZ reported, citing a fellow passenger, that Taylor was returned to his room by friends, rather than to a medical facility, after taking a dose of GHB (a common party drug). This fear of reprisal was detailed in a post by an emergency room doctor, Travis Cosban, who was a passenger on the January cruise and noted that Atlantis failed to “[create] an environment where party-goers felt comfortable seeking medical attention.”

Atlantis CEO Rich Campbell insisted in an email exchange with Quartz that the company goes to every length to ensure the safety of its guests, both in terms of security and pre-screening before boarding. He also says Atlantis provides full medical facilities, including an intensive care unit, on every ship. He reiterated the company’s zero-tolerance policy, and noted that guests caught using or in possession of drugs are removed from the ship and turned over to authorities. But if they seek medical attention, he said, medical staff do not share the information with authorities.

“Atlantis has hosted over 180 full-ship charter and resort vacations with virtually no serious incidents for 26 years. Last week’s tragic death was an unfortunate isolated event, that is not representative of the 5200 guests who had a safe and enjoyable holiday. ” Campbell wrote in an email. “Guests seeking any type of medical treatment are treated appropriately without any fear of reprisal in any manner. Medical services onboard operate independently with the same ethical standards as a land hospital, and do not share patient records with any other entity.”

Key says Campbell shared the same information with him as well, but he remains unconvinced that this promise of nondisclosure is enough to encourage passengers to seek medical help in drug-related episode. “How would anyone know that on a ship that explicitly prohibits drug use?”

It’s hard to deny that Atlantis’s all-night “legendary parties”—accompanied by popular DJs, major headline acts, and electronic music—would be synonymous with party drug culture if they were held on land. (The debut album of Swedish electric pop duo Galantis, who played on the cruise Taylor died on, is called “Pharmacy.”) Online comment boards and Facebook comment sections discussing Atlantis cruises describe some level of drug use as more or less expected on board. And while the all-LGBT crowd cultivates a judgement-free atmosphere that many gay cruisers desire—it also means many let their guards down.

Jim Walker is a Miami-based maritime lawyer who has represented more than 1,000 passengers and crew members involved in cruise ship injuries, crimes, and incidents over the past two decades. Prior to that, he represented cruise lines as a defense attorney. He notes that not all cruise lines or charters share this party drug culture—it largely depends on the demographics they market to and attract—but the ones that do are both enabling and profiting off of this hard-partying atmosphere.

“Royal Caribbean has a very gay-friendly culture, and that’s fine and good, but they cater to the extreme of the hardcore partiers and they don’t want to make a scene and slow the fun down—they want to be the fun ships,” Walker said. “What we’ve heard anecdotally [from passengers and crew who have been clients or potential clients] is that security guards on Royal Caribbean are told with a wink and a nod that this is what’s going to happen—if you see people taking drugs, don’t intervene and don’t make a scandal.”

Royal Caribbean responded to questions from Quartz about the allegations that there is a pattern of drug use on its ships with a statement reiterating the company’s zero-tolerance policy, noting that it holds any charter to the same standard to “operate with the health and safety of our guests and crew as our highest priority.”

And what about the fallout from these fatalities? Walker points out that all wrongful deaths which occur outside of U.S. territorial waters are subject to 1920s-era legislation (called the “Death on the High Seas Act”) that limits the damages that dependents are entitled to when a fatality occurs. Legislation was introduced in the US Senate to change this last year—but it faced strong resistance from the cruise industry lobby, and as it stands now, says Walker, “there is very little, if any, legal or financial accountability of the cruise lines when a passenger dies in international waters.”

Despite his efforts to get Atlantis to change their ways, Key says the onboard parties have continued unabated since his friend passed away. “That bad PR lasts a while and then it goes away,” he said. “It’s only because Joel Taylor is a celebrity that it even made as much news as it did this time.”