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Fans Turn Love Of Disney Into Income As Travel Agents

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

Kristy Ouellette remembers the words that changed the course of her career.

“I was a complete Disney World addict, and at one point my husband looked at me and said, we’re not going any more unless you get Mickey to pay you,”‘ said Ouellette, 39, of Merrimack, N.H. “He just said it off the cuff, but I looked at it as a challenge.”

So Ouellette became a travel agent specializing in Disney World trips. She ended up leaving her job with the state of New Hampshire to run her own agency, Mickey Guru Travel Co., which has 26 agents around the country.

Ouellette is one of many Disney fans-turned-travel agents. They set up everything from FastPass times to hotel reservations. In return they earn commissions from Disney, and some enjoy perks such as annual free tickets and discounted hotel rooms.

There are a number of agencies across the nation with names such as Off to Neverland Travel, Key to the World Travel and Kingdom Magic Vacations that focus on Disney vacations.

“The Disney travel agent business, I would think it would be a pretty good business,” said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive who now teaches at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “You’re spending a lot of money and you want to get the most for your buck while you’re here. Why not hire someone who knows what they’re doing?”

Many people want to get in on the action. Ouellette says social media and the lure of the perks has fueled interest in the business.

“I probably get three to four emails a week from people who want to become an agent,” she said. “I have a really heavy screening process to figure out why they want to become agents. They don’t realize that there’s so much work that goes into it.”

Ouellette, for instance, is on call for her clients if they have questions once they get to the resort. One even texted Ouellette to ask where the nearest restroom was near the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.

Agents often do not charge clients for their services because they earn commissions from Disney.

Agents said the commissions they earn are generally between 10 to 15 percent. That is split between the company and the agents. Agents whose employers register them with either the Cruise Lines International Association or the International Air Transport Association can also get free tickets — one park-hopper each year to Disney World or Disneyland — and hotel discounts.

Disney originally didn’t pay commissions, but that changed as the resort began building more hotels, Dickson said. Disney decided the cost would be worth it, Dickson said, because travel agents could steer business toward its own lodging.

Some of the benefits have decreased over time. Some agents cried foul earlier this year when Disney Cruise Lines reduced its commissions for future cruises booked by customers already on board one of its ships.

Agent Joe DeFazio of Houston said some items such as the Memory Maker photo package can no longer be included in what’s eligible for a commission. “Sometimes you wonder where that’s going to go in the future,” said DeFazio, who has considered charging clients for planning services.

Some agencies are “earmarked,” meaning Disney considers them authorized vacation planners.

Many agents also go through an online College of Disney Knowledge program to learn as much as possible about helping people get the most out of their vacations.

To work at Key to the World Travel, Stephen Juliano of Mechanicsburg, Pa. said he had to take a test showing he knew everything from which moderate resorts would be best for a family of five to when advanced dining reservations open online.

Like Ouellette, Juliano was a big Disney fan before he decided to try making some money off his knowledge of the resort.

Juliano, 27, has been a travel agent for about eight months and still has a full-time gig working in marketing for a credit union. He made a few thousand dollars this year, but “I’m really trying to find more and more clients. I would love to earn enough to turn this into my full-time job.”

DeFazio, a 46-year-old stay-at-home dad, also hopes to ramp up his work as a “Magic Maker” for Off to Neverland Travel.

He decided to get into the business because friends and family kept asking him for advice on planning their trips, knowing that he and his wife “were kind of Disney crazy. Eventually I started to say, there’s got to be a way to make some money.”

©2016 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Sleeping Beauty’s Castle is pictured during Disneyland’s Diamond Celebration in Anaheim, California May 23, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Seaworld Thinks Smaller With Regional Approach

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — As it reinvents itself, SeaWorld is pursuing strategies more typical of a smaller regional theme park than an international tourist destination.

SeaWorld last month acknowledged its daily prices can’t keep matching those of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando. The Orlando park’s planned Mako roller coaster is considered an attraction more typical of a smaller theme park than a Disney and Universal. And SeaWorld is marketing more heavily to people within a 300-mile radius of its theme parks, which also include Busch Gardens.

“We’re trying to play where we know we can win,” Chief Executive Officer Joel Manby recently told analysts. “You have to make choices, and I’m not saying we’re not giving up on the international visitor, a long-vacation visitor, but we’re competing where we can compete the best.”

Executives were not available for an interview. During two talks with investors last month, Manby said SeaWorld will stress price to stand out among its increasingly expensive neighbors. The gap in pricing with Disney and SeaWorld, he said, will likely widen over time.

“I think being a strong-value player in Orlando and even in Southern California is a great opportunity for us, because our competitors are increasing their prices dramatically,” he said.

Several theme-park experts and analysts said Manby’s comments are acknowledging that without the same deep pockets as Disney and Universal, SeaWorld has to be satisfied with a lower caliber of offerings.

“It is SeaWorld really saying, ‘We’re a second-tier park, but, boy, we’re the best second-tier park out there,’ ” said Scott Smith, an assistant hospitality professor with the University of South Carolina.

As late as 2013, SeaWorld was emphasizing higher pricing, saying it was willing to sacrifice some attendance for visitors who would spend more money. Also that year it opened Antarctica, following a trend set by Disney and Universal of building entire lands around one theme.

Manby unveiled SeaWorld’s new path in November, seven months after joining the company from Herschend Family Entertainment, the operator of theme parks including Dollywood.

SeaWorld has lost attendance in the wake of controversy over its killer whales, fanned by the 2013 anti-captivity documentary Blackfish.

However, SeaWorld has a competition problem, too. Universal Orlando, which opened in 1990, has become much stronger, especially during the past five years as it has opened its Harry Potter lands. In 2009, industry estimates showed SeaWorld was Central Florida’s busiest non-Disney park. Now, those same estimates show SeaWorld lagging far behind Universal, with 3 million fewer annual visitors than either of its parks.

As Disney’s and Universal’s attendance has grown, so have their prices, with both crossing the $100 barrier this spring. One-day tickets cost $102 at Universal. Disney charges $105 at Magic Kingdom and $97 for its other parks. SeaWorld tickets cost $99 at the gate.

SeaWorld offers discounts to buy advance tickets online. Those cost $70 for weekday admission, $89 for weekends. Next month, SeaWorld will charge $79 for advance tickets both weekdays and weekends.

Daily rates might come down, Manby said, but SeaWorld is trying to shift people to options such as multiday tickets and passes.

Now its own publicly traded company, SeaWorld finds itself without the same financial resources as Disney and Universal, both part of huge media conglomerates: the Walt Disney Co. and Comcast Corp., respectively.

Both have television networks that provide promotional opportunities, such as an hourlong special NBC ran last year on Universal’s newest Harry Potter area. Both Disney and Comcast created or have purchased rights to popular movie franchises such as Harry Potter and Frozen, big draws in theme parks.

Without such blockbusters to rely on, “I don’t see where they really have any other choice but to become more of a regionally focused chain,” said Robert Niles, editor of the ThemeParkInsider.com blog.

SeaWorld is still investing, with plans to open a new attraction annually for the next five years in Orlando. SeaWorld described the new attractions in a statement as “experiences of exploration, where we can touch the heart, teach the mind, and inspire positive action.”

Opening this summer is Mako, a 200-foot-tall shark-themed coaster expected to be taller and faster than any other in Central Florida, for now. Manby earlier this year described it as “just a classic thrill ride that is more typical of a regional park.”

The investment in the coaster is likely between $20 million and $30 million, said Credit Suisse analyst Joel Simkins — “significant, but not on the scale of a Harry Potter.”

Manby told investors this year that Harry Potter has been a major reason SeaWorld has lost international visitors. Focusing heavily on visitors from 300 and fewer miles away, SeaWorld has been trying to drive visits from pass holders.

“Particularly targeted to our local market, we will continue to always be accessible but with scope unlike our regional competitors,” Manby said.

Some analysts describe SeaWorld as a sort of hybrid between a destination theme park and a regional one. With so many visitors from around the world here in Orlando, they say, SeaWorld needs to keep drawing from them.

“I think there’s definitely room for, let’s call it a premium regional park,” Niles said. “You’re not just trying to compete on cost and frills but get the type of person who would go to Universal on a summer vacation … for a weekend getaway. I think there’s space in the market.”

©2015 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Christian Benseler via Flickr

 

USDA Looking Into Dolphin Deaths At SeaWorld

By Sandra Pedicini, Orlando Sentinel (TNS)

ORLANDO, Fla. — A division of the United States Department of Agriculture is looking into two dolphin deaths at SeaWorld, including one earlier this week, a spokeswoman for the agency said.

The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service looks into certain deaths –- such as if an animal is young and dies unexpectedly — to see if there were any Animal Welfare Act violations.

Lagos, a 7-year-old bottlenose dolphin, died suddenly Monday of what appeared to be pneumonia. It had previously shown no signs of illness but late Sunday became reluctant to eat.

In March, another bottlenose dolphin died of what was deemed “acute intestinal necrosis.” That dolphin was 22. SeaWorld spokeswoman Becca Bides said in an email that “diseases that can cause this unfortunate condition have a rapid on-set and also are found in wild marine mammals.”

“We care for more than 89,000 animals, including 88 bottlenose dolphins here in Orlando,” Bides wrote. “We have dolphins in our parks that are nearly 50 and some, unfortunately, pass away at an earlier age.”

Bides went on to say that “the animals in our care all benefit from world-class veterinary care that is highly regulated by the federal government and reaffirmed by the strict accreditation process of two professional zoological organizations.”

APHIS also probed the February death of a beluga whale at SeaWorld that died of an infection of the jaw tissues. It had fractured the jaw during an “interaction” with another beluga, according to SeaWorld. APHIS found no Animal Welfare Act violations.

Photo: This is one sad dolphin. Christine A. via Flickr