ERLANGER, Ky. -- It's a big mouse. These days, however, there are cheerful, passionate and knowledgeable folks to help families tame it.
Walt Disney World Resort calls its flagship Magic Kingdom theme park “the most magical place on Earth,” and more than 20 million visitors flock to the 107-acre park each year. Guests can soak up even more magic at Disney’s neighboring Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios theme parks, which are all just a quick monorail ride away. And that’s just the lineup at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando.
There’s also Disneyland in California, which offers two theme parks, and the Aulani resort in Hawaii. Additional Disney parks and resorts have cropped up in Paris, Tokyo, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Then there is Castaway Cay. It’s Disney’s private island, reserved exclusively for guests of the media and entertainment giant’s very own cruise line that sails to countries around the world.
Collectively, Disney’s array of destinations lures an estimated 140 million visitors per year, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.
As the empire of Mickey Mouse grows, ticket prices surge -- and its main theme parks’ ever-changing barrage of rides, restaurants and other attractions evolve -- it’s getting more labor-intensive to plan the “perfect” Disney vacation. Not surprisingly, more and more magic-seekers are getting help these days to plan their trip. As a result, an industry that most of us thought the birth of the internet had nearly wiped out may be getting a boost.
Travel agents are certainly not as prevalent as they were 20 years ago, but type the words “Disney vacation planner” into your favorite online search engine and it will yield millions of hits.
Admittedly, that long listing of search results will link you to countless websites, blogs and online forums dedicated to helping families meticulously map out a Disney trip on their own, but countless websites on the list will connect you to a growing number of travel agents here in the U.S. who handle Disney vacations exclusively.
Many are self-professed super fans who have turned their love of all things Disney into a job. Some are full-time agents, others work part-time, but Disney ensures they all know their stuff. In order to earn the company’s “Authorized Disney Vacation Planner” designation (and earn a commission), agents go through a vetting process and even take courses through its College of Disney Knowledge online education program.
For agents who make the cut, business is booming right now, according to Geri Preisser.
Preisser launched House of Mouse Travel in Northern Kentucky nearly 10 years ago. As the name implies, her travel business specializes in Disney destinations. A steady stream of clients keeps her and 11 additional authorized Disney travel planners (who are independent contractors based in six different states) hopping year-round.
In just the past five years, she said their client list has doubled.
“People come to us for our Disney expertise,” Preisser explained. “We know all the parks inside and out and which (vacation) packages best fit the needs of each individual family.”
Anyone with internet access and a credit card can book those same Disney vacation packages online, Preisser admits. But it’s not an easy process for everyone, especially first-timers.
“It’s getting harder to navigate Disney,” she explained. “There’s so much information. It can get overwhelming.”
A case in point: At Walt Disney World Resort, vacationers can choose from any number of “build-your-own” packages and must decide on which resorts, rooms, theme park tickets, entertainment and dining plans are best for their family and budget. Careful planning is required to make the most of extras like Disney’s personalized MagicBand system for resort guests and its FastPass program that allows guests to skip the standby line for certain attractions. Families also have to plan ahead (and often make reservations) for specific restaurants, shows or character experiences.
Additionally, Disney offers a variety of discounts and promotions throughout the year, and you have to stay up-to-date on them in order to get the best deal.
Preisser said authorized Disney travel planners make all of those plans and reservations for clients and put together packages based on families’ interests and budget. They can’t get you any additional discounts or extras beyond what Disney offers everyone, but they work to get families the biggest bang for their buck. Since they get a commission from Disney, their services are free for clients.
“In nine years I’ve never booked the same package twice,” she noted. “Every family is different.”
Making sure families have a "magical" time at Disney parks is why Preisser got into the travel industry. She is a Disney fan through and through and has made more than 100 trips, including her honeymoon, to all the company’s various parks and resorts in the U.S.
Her love of Disney theme parks began back in 1980 when she first stepped onto Main Street USA at Magic Kingdom. She says it was love at first sight.
“I saw Cinderella’s castle at the end of the street, and I was in awe,” she said. “I kept that passion for Disney throughout my life and was able to turn it into a business. That’s how a lot of us start.”
Jared and Gina Powers have a similar passion. The Erlanger couple plan Disney vacations together through an agency called Wish Upon a Star with Us Travel.
The Powers have made multiple trips to Disney destinations over the past 10 years with their two sons and decided to help others do the same a few years ago. Both have full-time jobs and work as authorized Disney vacation planners in their spare time.
“We both really liked Disney when we were young, but after we took our first son, we were hooked,” said Jared Powers, an Independence firefighter. “It’s something we all enjoy as a family.”
They’re not looking to turn their passion into a business. But even as a side gig, Powers said the couple have experienced a surge in business in the past year.
“It has really taken off,” he noted. “The number of trips we’ve booked for 2017 has already surpassed everything we did in 2016.”
Both Powers and Preisser said they get the majority of their clients the old fashioned way.
“It’s mostly word of mouth,” said Powers. “I think most people don’t realize that we’re free. It doesn’t cost them any extra. But we can make the planning process a lot more relaxing.”
Lucky for their clients, most Disney vacation planners have something else in common: They love to share all the insider tips and tricks they have picked up during their many visits to see their favorite mouse, Preisser said.
“We’ve stayed at all the resorts, visited all the parks and eaten at all the restaurants,” she said. “We can answer almost any question. And if we can’t, we know exactly who to call to get the answer.”