Thanks for your thoughts, etcetera. I'm sure that's an accurate portrayal of some of the jobs, but the agency I looked at had various job openings available, for various amounts of pay. The lowest paying is, as I said, solo piano as background music in a lobby or bar. There is no conductor. Above that there are various options, from singing/piano combination up to larger ensemble work. It sounds like the one you're describing is this kind of ensemble job.
Scepticalforumguy, thanks for that really interesting information. I hadn't thought about the possibility that they don't want you in some areas of the ship; that's very interesting but understandable.
I used to work with a very experienced guitar player who could read and write musical charts and arrangements in Finale, play jazz, oldies, blues, standards and rock. He decided the only work he wanted to do was play 5-6 nights a week anywhere that had a steady gig. He found out the only way to do that was contact the cruise ship agencies and set up a live audition for the show band which requires heavy duty sight reading. He had also played in a big band and was used to charts on the spot.
Anyway, he got his audition time set up near Los Angeles and was called in. He brought in his guitar and plugged into an amp already provided. The music director set some charts up on the music stand and turned on an Aebersold style backing track and gave a 4 count, 1-2-3-4 at about 250 bpm! Well, as good of a reader he was, he couldn't lay that down, so after 3 charts, the audition for the show band was history for him. But the director said that one of the lounge bands had just lost their guitar player and asked him if he was interested in that gig. He was, and the director just randomly called some lounge standards, Knock on Wood, Mustang Sally, Heart of Rock N Roll, Sweet Home Alabama and he played them all. That impressed the director enough that the guitar player was on the ship working full time with the lounge band in a month. That lasted on and off about 10 years.
Although he didn't have the sight reading ability requirement down enough for the show bands, he had the skills to cut it for the lounge band. All the players in the lounge bands were experienced and good enough regardless of their reading skills. Most of the tunes they did on the set list were takedowns anyway from the original records.
There are sites online and blogs written about cruise ship gigs, working conditions, rates, etc. by musicians who actually worked them and their opinions pro and con about the work. Some musicians can hack it, some hate it and leave after their first contract is over. My friend also had a lot of free time to practice, go to the crew gym, hang out, tour port cities, read, whatever. A ship can sometimes not avoid rough weather and the seas are choppy, despite the ship's stabilizers and sea sickness can come on. But ships have doctors and nurses to treat it. Take the patch or pill and you're cured.
He asked me several times if I was interested in playing keyboards in the lounge band and I turned it down because I didn't want to be on a ship full-time.
But the best advice for any musician considering a cruise ship gig is to first, book a 3 day cruise to see how you like travel on the open seas, get online and read the comments and blogs by cruise ship players, talk to some agencies. If you are cut out for this type of work, it can be great, if not, you will know your first week of the tour if you can cut it. There are rumors out there that some cats have had nervous breakdowns after a few weeks on the gig, got freaked out when the ship was out of sight and range of land, like that Kevin Costner flick, "WaterWorld" and had to break the contract or got fired and left off at the next port and had to get back home on their own. Heard one cat hated the gig and ship so much, flipped out and literally jumped off the ship into the water, but was rescued and taken to the hospital.
Now these are worse case scenarios and could be stories and rumors, but many people flip out in a variety of occupations, not just cruise ship gigs. Even some airline attendants have made their own exits off the jet down the slide after a meltdown.