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Kelli O’Donnell stands at the front door of her upstate New York home with a sunny grin to match her bright blond locks. Seven-month-old “Vivvy” sits just as sweetly on her right hip, trying to figure out waving. “Look, look who’s here,” Kelli points and encourages. Since Vivienne Rose was in Mama Kelli’s tummy the last time I was here, this can’t mean much to her. She stares at me blankly, and I laugh. She looks like a teeny, tiny Kelli.
Inside, the O’Donnell residence is in full throttle: Contractors are receiving tomorrow’s instructions on what they’ll be doing to the house several doors down. The O’Donnell mothers now own three homes on the Hudson River—one they live in, one they rent to friends, and the latest—in two parts—is being turned into offices for R Family Vacations as well as a large painting studio for Rosie.
In the living room, Gregg Kaminsky, Kelli’s business partner in R Family vacations, stares out at the steel-blue river rushing by the large window. “I could never understand how some cruise lines can run their businesses from places where they don’t even see the water,” he says. “I need the inspiration.” With Rosie investing the money and, as she puts it, “bringing the pizzazz, the Broadway stuff, the showbiz,” Kelli and Gregg are the cofounders and co-owners. In other words, a gay man and a lesbian are running a travel business. This is a first.
“I knew nothing about cruises,” Rosie admits, pulling pieces of paint off her T-shirt. “Then my business partner, Dan MacDonald, started dating Gregg, and Gregg worked for Atlantis Cruises.” Actually, Gregg did more than just work for Atlantis; he was the number 2 man in the company, the vice president of sales and production. “One night there was a cancellation in the entertainment,” Rosie continues, “and Gregg asked me if I’d fill in. Kelli and I thought it would be fun, so I did 20 minutes of stand-up. It was so fantastic! I felt like I was at adult gay-boy camp.”
With this experience in tow, Rosie took her son Parker on a cruise and found it to be a bonding experience. Slowly, things were beginning to click. For Kelli, cruises have always clicked. “My parents took us kids on cruises for our regular family vacations all the time,” she says. “I loved it. And we know our kids are looking to find other kids like them to vacation with, so there must be others in our situation.”
“And our cruise is not just gay parents and their kids,” Gregg jumps in. “This is about extended families too—gay aunts, uncles, brothers. You can be a grandmother with gay children who have their own children on the cruise. It can be three generations of family. Also, gay couples can take their parents on the cruise.”
Obviously, Kelli and Gregg dreamed of creating a business around gay family vacations the moment they met. But Rosie still had the enormous challenge of coming out before she could see anything clearly. Once that finally happened, something else followed that really cleared the way.
“Everything changed when I went to P-town,” Rosie says about Provincetown, Mass. “Coming out wasn’t so big, but going to P-town changed my life as a gay person. I always thought P-town was going to be like the Village, where everybody’s gay and trendy and cool but not friendly. I started painting more; I saw all these gay families walking around with their kids with rainbow things, and couples and grandparents. That feeling…” she says, smiling, “we want to take that feeling and put it on the boat!”
So here’s how they’re doing it: RFV is leasing an entire ship, the Norwegian Dawn, which will leave from New York City July 11, 2004. Passengers will cruise down the coast, out to the Bahamas, and back to New York. It will take a week—at the height of summer so that parents will not have to take their kids out of school to go. “The ship we’re leasing comes with its own programming. We’re going to take that infrastructure and tailor it to the needs of gay families,” Gregg explains.
“There are already some great kids’ programs on the ship,” Kelli continues. “For adults, in addition to a lot of relaxation opportunities, we’re working with Provincetown’s Family Pride education programs to help us host discussion groups on adoption, insemination, surrogacy, and everything else that would be helpful to gay parenting.” As for educational stuff for the kids, it isn’t going to be a big factor for RFV because they just want the kids to have the experience of playing with other kids like them.
“That’s pretty educational by itself,” Rosie points out. “This is going to be fantastic for our kids. Although what my kids really need is a yacht for the kids of celebrities. Me being famous is much more of a catastrophe for them than me being a gay mother.”
While RFV intends to do smaller, less expensive trips for gay families—like ski vacations, fishing trips, and even safaris—Gregg and Kelli admit they’re “going out with the Super Bowl.” There are 10 restaurants, a Broadway-size theater that Rosie says is the same size as the theater Taboo will play in (the Broadway show Rosie is producing of Boy George’s imaginative London musical), movie theaters, and gigantic pools. “It’s a floating Vegas with 22,000 passengers,” Gregg concludes.
As for live theater shows, stand-up comics, movies, and other entertainment, well, “That’s where my connections are going to come in handy,” Rosie laughs. But it’s no joke. “Nathan Lane and my other buddies, they’ll have a kick doing it.” But it will always be a surprise, they caution. It will never be billed in advance. It’s the “icing on the cake.”
While they easily bat about Rosie’s enormous celebrity-ness and what a great benefit it is to the project, Kelli is proud to report that in all the gay pride festivals RFV had a booth at last summer, no one ever came up to her and asked if Rosie would be aboard the cruise. “That’s just not the ultimate selling point,” she says. “It’s that we’re offering a safe, fun place for gay families to vacation together.”
But with long-established, reliable gay or lesbian vacation leaders like Olivia—which also has gone into the family vacation business—as well as Atlantis and RSVP, what makes RFV think the waters won’t be choppy? Is this just some whim of Rosie’s?
There’s a great commotion at the table. (Rightfully so.) “We are going to have even more safety counselors than the ship provides because we will add a staff of 25 to 30 youth counselors who will supplement their staff,” Gregg assures us.
Kelli is quick to add, “Gregg has seven years experience in the gay vacation business. And I have been on the other end of it all my life, plus I’m a gay parent. Nothing means more to me.”
When Rosie cuts in, her voice quakes as she tries not to take the question personally: “This is not something I am just trying! People say this stuff to me all the time. I never did a talk show before. Was I just ‘trying to do a talk show’? I never produced a Broadway show before. Am I just trying? I’m putting my own money into the show, and everyone says you should never do that. Look, I have gotten myself into a position where I’m allowed to do great, fun, lovely things. And R Family Vacations is one of them! My partner’s running a new business. I am supporting her. She has supported me for six years.” Then she adds, with the twinkle back in her eye, “Often in silence.”
Finally, when asked about the R in R Family Vacations, Rosie rolls into a long story about how she’s always loved Toys R Us—with the backward R. “As a kid, I was obsessed with the R,” she says. “I always write ‘How R you?’ It’s like Prince’s fascination with using letters instead of words.”
So what does this mean?
Does it mean that the R in RFV doesn’t stand for Rosie? “Um,
no, but, yeah, it could.”
For more information about R Family Vacations, visit http://www.rfamilyvacations.com/.
The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans. Please feel free to e-mail us at email@example.com if you have any new information.