Rosie's Fantastic Voyage

updated 04/10/2006 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/10/2006 01:00AM

When Rosie O'Donnell's cruise for gay families made a port stop in Nassau, Bahamas, during its 2004 inaugural journey, the ship's euphoric harmony was shattered by angry antigay protesters from two local church groups. And when O'Donnell's documentary about that weeklong voyage—All Aboard! Rosie's Family Cruise—premiered at January's Sundance Film Festival, she faced off with another group of malcontents: her bored four kids, who appear in the film alongside her and her partner, Kelli. Says O'Donnell: "They were like, 'Can we go get brownies in the lobby? We're gonna play hide-and-seek out where the brownies are.' Our daughter Chelsea told me last night, 'I never want to be in another movie.'"

Rosie definitely knows how Chelsea feels. After quitting her enormously successful daytime talk show in 2002 and bouncing back from the nasty 2003 lawsuit over her self-titled magazine (not to mention the failure of her Broadway labor of love Taboo), O'Donnell, 44, eagerly retreated from the spotlight. Instead she embraced a sedate life with Kelli, 38, and their kids Parker, 10, Chelsea, 8, Blake, 6, and Vivienne, 3. "My goal was to retire at 40 and to spend my life living happily ever after, married with kids," says O'Donnell, wearing a faded yellow T-shirt and a pair of purple SpongeBob SquarePants sweatpants, while holding hands with Kelli in their waterfront Nyack, N.Y., home. "But now, I've been sitting home for four years."

O'Donnell is currently emerging from hibernation to celebrate All Aboard!, which premieres on HBO April 6. The documentary, executive-produced by O'Donnell and Kelli, chronicles the 2004 voyage of the Norwegian Dawn, the first-ever cruise for gay and lesbian families in the U.S. As co-owner with O'Donnell (and travel-industry exec pal Gregg Kaminsky) of R Family Vacations, Kelli coordinated the trip after the trio first brainstormed about gay-friendly vacation packages in 2002. Though she had worried that no one would show up, O'Donnell was overjoyed to see the Dawn near capacity, with approximately 1,600 passengers (this summer's Alaska trip is already sold out). "Seeing your reality mirrored back in thousands of families," she says, "that's a pretty life-affirming experience."

At first the couple blanched when HBO suggested having a documentary crew on hand. They worried about first-time mistakes caught on film but ended up thrilled with the result. "It's not preachy. You can just see the love in all the families. That was one of the reasons we opted to do it," says Kelli. "It was 'Let's just show the normalcy of what our lives are.'" Watching it, she adds, "It's hard to deny that those are families that love each other, and why shouldn't they have the same rights as other families?"

Tell that to the Nassau protesters. O'Donnell, who remained on the ship to avoid providing fodder for eager news crews, says their venom still stings. "You can just hear them: 'Tell Rosie O'Donnell to take all of her perverts away from our nation.'" Since then Kelli has devised Nassau-free itineraries for the cruises, and their family has ceased vacationing at the nearby Ocean Club. "We've been welcomed everywhere else we've been," notes Kelli. "With open arms."

Despite the Bahamas episode the cruises have been heartwarming for O'Donnell, who spent the last four years "decompressing" after quitting her talk show. "I needed time to just be still," she says. "And to get back to the surface." So aside from her role as a mentally challenged woman in last spring's TV movie Riding the Bus with My Sister and a recent four-month gig as Tevye's wife, Golde, in Broadway's Fiddler on the Roof, she has chiefly reclaimed her mojo as a homebody. When the kids are at school, she paints in her art studio and posts on her blog (rosie.com). Because O'Donnell has maintained a low profile for the past few years, none of her kids (except for Parker) are even aware of her star status. "When I take Blake to the mall, he says, 'Why do these people know your name?'" she says. "And I'd say, 'I used to be on TV.' He'd say, 'Animal Planet? Did you have snakes? Did you have tigers?' He can't imagine a TV show that doesn't have animals."

She has no regrets about shutting down The Rosie O'Donnell Show after a six-year run in 2002, shortly after she went public about her sexuality. "More isn't always better. Sometimes you have enough," says O'Donnell, who recalls heading out to a fund-raiser when Parker was 5. "He said, 'I don't want you to go out tonight.' And I said, 'Honey, there are lots of children that don't have medicine, and mommy's going to make sure that we can take care of them.' And he said, 'Why don't you just take care of us?' And I remember just going, 'Whoa.' It's easy to focus on everything that's wrong with the world, and not spend as much time with everything that's right in your life. You have to make choices."

She made another big choice later that year, when she pulled the plug on her magazine after months of battling publisher Gruner + Jahr over editorial control. The company responded with a $100 million lawsuit, claiming that she walked away without legal justification. The ensuing court battle was "horrific," says O'Donnell, but in the end she had walked away without paying a cent. Her stress over the lawsuit was compounded by the failure of Taboo, the O'Donnell-produced musical that opened on Broadway one day after her court case concluded. It closed a mere three months later, and O'Donnell lost her entire $10 million investment. "I think I did [it] a disservice by not waiting until I was in a better place," she says, adding that "every night after testifying about whether or not I'm the scum of the earth, it rescued me. It'll always be my goal to re-do that show."

It's one of many ideas on her wish list as she contemplates her next move. Among the others: playing the evil Madame Thénadier when Les Misérables returns to Broadway in October, starring in a sitcom about "what would have happened to me if I had stayed on Long Island," creating her own weekly Ed Sullivan-like variety show and taking over the hosting duties on a certain legendary game show. "I would love to host The Price is Right," says O'Donnell. "If somebody said to me, 'Bob Barker wants to retire, and we'll move The Price is Right to New York, do you want to host?' I would say, 'Yes.'" But the truth is, O'Donnell doesn't have any firm career plans in the works. "I'm not complaining," she says. "I'm having a good time. Whenever I walk down the red carpet and people with microphones go, 'What are you doing next?' I just say, 'No idea!'"

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