Written by Art Petrosemolo
I met Ryan Bomgardner by accident when an Amish friend told me about this conservative Christian ventriloquist who hosted cruise vacations for the Plain Community. “Come on,” I said… “stop teasing me!” He assured me it was true, so what could I do but take a closer look and turn it into a feature story for one of the Lancaster weekly newspapers?
Bomgardner is an Ephrata native and starting at age 12, he performed at local churches with his puppets before small audiences, later performing before thousands at Christian festivals before he was 21!
Today, at 35, Bomgardner averages about 130 shows yearly and the young entrepreneur has built a niche travel business—organizing and hosting cruise vacations for Amish and Mennonites—that is growing yearly. A lifelong Mennonite, he serves as an associate pastor at Metzler Mennonite Church.
Following the urging of fellow performers who he met on cruise ships and on the entertainment circuit, he organized his first cruise for conservative Christians in 2012. It attracted some 400 travelers to the Caribbean and included appropriate Christian programming for the group. Many of the first time cruisers were ready to sign-up for a second trip as they left the first.
Bomgardner calls his cruise program Sail and Sing and he works hard on the itinerary for both on-ship entertainment and tours. He invites well-known Christian entertainers and speakers—personal friends of his—to perform. Their word-of-mouth advertising has helped Sail and Sing grow quickly and now it attracts groups of more than 700.
His cruise schedule includes Christian musical concerts and hymn sings, religious chalk talks, devotional programs and religious speakers. Any question about whether it would catch on was answered quickly as the cruise to the Caribbean, Alaska and the Mediterranean filled up quickly. Although it is a vacation for everyone, Bomgardner feels Sail and Sing passengers come back feeling spiritually refreshed.
As an entertainer, Bomgardner works with a puppet-dummy partner, sometimes several, and the popular ventriloquist has traveled the world with them. His shows are appropriate for both adults and children and he gets raves as a family entertainer. Before he married his wife Gail and they started a family, Bomgardner was a regular cruise line performer and saw no reason why cruises would not be attractive for the conservative Christian community.
Bomgardner’s enthusiasm, wholesome family humor, network of entertainers and a strong Christian faith made him a natural to plan programs for a segment of the community that had been overlooked by a burgeoning cruise industry looking for passengers on mega-ships.
Although the early cruises focused on pure vacation locations, Bomgardner took a natural step forward—at the suggestion of his repeat travelers—in 2019 and scheduled a cruise with a religious focus. The trip was a 12-day Mediterranean cruise that followed the journeys of Paul with stops in Athens, Corinth, Malta and Sicily where Christ’s Apostle (Paul) preached the new Christian religion. For 2023, Bomgardner already is planning a Holy Land cruise including stops in Israel, Egypt and Ephesus that even a modest Bomgardner says will be pretty unique; it will include musical programs by his Christian entertainers at many of the biblical sites.
Sail and Sing grows with each cruise and the groups can literally fill a quarter of a large cruise ship! For Plain Community members who don’t fly, buses to the cruise site in Florida or on the West Coast are arranged with stops along the way. Bomgardner says he has partnered with Royal Caribbean Cruises and they have welcomed his guests and provided him with the support to make the vacation unique for Christian travelers.
“We’re such a large group now,” Bomgardner says, adding, “other passengers ask the crew about us and wonder if we’re on an Amish Spring Break.” He says, “We actually hold one open performance where other passengers are welcome to join us to see what we’re about. We’re not missionaries,” he emphasizes, “but we don’t hide the fact that we all have a strong, Christian faith regardless of what church or what tradition we come from.”