It’s a Small World After All

I am a graduate of the College of Disney Knowledge. I have a certificate to prove it too. While others aspire to Vassar, Harvard or Yale, I chose to matriculate with The Mouse.  I do indeed hold a degree from a traditional college but I also have a certificate indicating that I passed my Disney classes and have had on site experience.  The reason is simple. In my office we arrange a lot of trips to Walt Disney World. Having a good solid background about the magical product is essential and admittedly, fun work. Sure, you might be thinking that the homework assignments involve spinning around in oversize tea cups or hurtling through Space Mountain, but Disney actually takes the whole process pretty seriously. The pursuit of knowledge is a noble one. Surely, it’s a path to success. Fortunately, Disney is an enjoyable subject to study.

While Disney’s version of higher education can include getting to the top of the Tower of Terror, the College of Disney Knowledge also provides a most extensive learning opportunity. It is a series of online courses that agents can navigate at their own pace with a final exam that must be successfully completed. Travel Agents may also be eligible to attend on-site agent education programs to experience Disney’s theme parks and resorts for themselves.

To celebrate my completion, I received a diploma which is now framed. I also received a graduation cap but no gown. The cap looked like any other traditional mortarboard, but with the distinctive addition of the familiar Mickey Mouse ears.

Walt Disney World is not the only company that offers educational opportunities for Travel Agents.  Ongoing education is critical to becoming familiar with destinations that people will want to visit. I can hear you now; sure go ahead, send me to Spain to experience the country. I can suffer for a long weekend in Barbados to learn about the islands. But, before you pull out your hanky to wipe away the tears of sympathy for me, please know that I spend long hours in classrooms watching others have a good time outside my window. I see people on the beach enjoying the sun and surf while I trudge from hotel to hotel (in business attire) looking at a hotel room here and another hotel room there. Fortunately learning on site at Walt Disney World is a lot more fun.

Some have questioned why I would choose to go to Walt Disney World when I can actually travel and have the whole “real” world to choose from. Travel purists will question the artificial atmosphere of the manufactured building fronts and the larger than life characters roaming through EPCOT, which is an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. I see it as an opportunity for those who will never get to travel, for whatever reasons. I recognize that this may be their only chance to experience the food, music and culture of another nation. Eleven countries are represented in World Showcase. Sort of a cultural quilt, if you will. I think that it’s amazing that in the United Kingdom Pavilion they have a version of one of the classic red telephone booths that dot the streets of London. They also have an authentic British Pub in case you’re in the mood for bangers and mash or fish and chips. Usually this simple meal is accompanied by some sort of local entertainment to support the British theme. The main building in the Canada Pavilion is a replica of the Chateau Laurier in Ontario with a companion replica of the famous Butchart Gardens. They serve a killer Cheddar Cheese soup in Le Cellier, the onsite Canadian restaurant!  Families can actually “visit” exotic Morocco and see foliage from the North African country, view a minaret and even enjoy a belly dancing show. Best of all, all of the countries represented in World Showcase are staffed by people who actually reside in the host country. That allows us to get more of a local flavor in addition to the privilege of meeting people from a distant land that we might never visit in person. The pavilion hosts get to be ambassadors for each of their respective nations and spend time in America. It’s cultural exchange at its finest. We get to know each other a little bit better and maybe seem a little less “strange” to one another. Hopefully, we come to understand that we are all “neighbors” in one very big neighborhood. Sure, it’s not the same as visiting the real destination, but for some, it may be the closest they ever get to travel. That’s good enough for me.

What did I learn from the College of Disney Knowledge? I learned about the designs of each pavilion. I learned about meal options, hotel options and ticket pass options. We also covered future plans and on site Weddings. But, most of all I learned that it really is a small world after all.

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The Five Senses

I recently hit the “play” button on my compact disc player without knowing what disc would play. I was pleased when it turned out to be a CD by a little known artist named Robert Miles. It’s unlikely you’ve heard of him, but he had a hit song that was huge abroad. Music has a way of framing a moment and marking a period in your life. There is always one particular song that instantly transports you back to an earlier time. For me, that song is by Robert Miles and called “Children.” It was very popular during my visit and it seemed that I heard it every place I went. When the song served as the background music for a spectacular, huge fireworks show it earned a permanent and fond place in my memory.  Every city has a unique sound where you can close your eyes and just listen for clues. It could be the clang of the cable cars in San Francisco, the whoosh of the bullet train in Japan or the cacophony of taxi cab horns and traffic in New York City. In the islands they tell you that you can hold a conch shell to your ear and hear the ocean. The rhythm of the waves rushing in and sliding out is a soothing sound, but really it’s just the echo of your own blood pumping through your veins. A far less romantic perspective, however it is reassuring to have confirmation that your heart is doing its job.  Once you become familiar with a certain sound, it tends to fade into the background, much like white noise. But when a location is fresh and new, the background sounds enhance your experience and often provide an aural reminder of your visit in future memories. Sight is also a very powerful sense and one of the main reasons that people travel is to see new sights. No doubt, you’re familiar with the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but I’ve found that sometimes the opposite is true. To stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon and watch the colors of the rock change as the sun shifts leaves many viewers without any words. They will be equally impressed with the beauty of the mountains and national parks. The silence you encounter has less to do with respect for nature and more because they are often left speechless. They will gaze at the cerulean waters of the South Pacific, the design of exotic Asian temples and be hypnotized by the intricate patterns of Middle Eastern tiled buildings. They will seek out artwork in museums and will take many photos so they can remember what they’ve seen. And yet, while sight is very compelling we shouldn’t underestimate the power of engaging the other senses when traveling. The sense of smell can be both subtle and at the same time one of the most dynamic memory triggers. A scent might seem familiar without recognizing where and when you first encountered it. If vision is the main show, scent often acts as the soundtrack that plays in the background. If you’ve ever visited an ocean or a sea, you are familiar with the pungent smell of a shoreline. When you close your eyes and inhale, you’ll detect the unique odor of the area, an interesting blend of “fishy” dampness and salty-air freshness. For many, it will summon fond childhood memories of family trips or perhaps a honeymoon at the beach. In Europe you can walk through the Latin Quarter of Paris where the smell of freshly baked bread entices you, no seduces you into a doughy relationship with the first Patisserie you meet. Even though you might regret it in the morning, I promise, it will be worth it. Surely if paradise had a scent it would be that of warm bread. But this slice of heaven also engages your sense of taste. There are entire tours and vacation companies solely dedicated to the pleasure of wining and dining. If you like it hot and spicy you can head east. Some of the world’s hottest peppers can be found in India and hot peppers also are the basis of many South American dishes. The piquant kimchee of Korea has many variations as the recipes are often unique to individual families, but all are fermented, many are hot and unfortunately, I never found a variety that I enjoyed. Science has mapped out the tastes of the tongue and of the 4 main tastes I definitely have a preference for either sweet or salty. As a pretzel enthusiast, I had my own Willy Wonka moment when I encountered freshly baked and salted pretzels that were so large my head could fit through the center to allow it to be worn around my neck like a doughy collar. I wish I could say that I brought one home to use as an example, but between the battle of temptation and resistance, temptation definitely won. The pretzel was consumed as a single serving without regret. As the fifth sense, I would have to say that “touch” is probably the least recognized. Yet, a touch can convey warmth and a handshake can be the beginning of an international friendship. A tangible memory is formed when you feel the bristle of the woven blankets in a local market or stroke the fur of a cheetah in a rescue sanctuary. It can be the touch of a young boy orphaned by AIDS as he grabs my hand and swings it back and forth, smiling up at me. It can be the accidental sharp sting of a cactus needle on the island of Aruba. The best part is even though vacation time is limited, memories are infinite. After I returned home from my trip to Hong Kong, I found that I couldn’t get the Robert Miles song out of my head. Luckily, I was able to locate the CD , bought it, and it still gets played on a regular basis. Each and every time I hear that one particular song it never fails to transport me back to that one very special evening in Hong Kong and it always makes me smile.

Wish List

I bet everybody’s got some sort of wish list when it comes to travel. For some, that wish might simply be “to travel.” Others might have more specific dreams. Honeymooners may yearn for a bit of privacy or something romantic, while families might want entertainment to keep the young ones busy and out of trouble. Some people hear the call of ancestral lands and wish to walk the ground where their forebears walked. In extreme cases a few having received a bad diagnosis decide to finally take the trip they always wanted to take or choose just to spend some precious time relaxing in a special spot with their loved ones. Those trips are the hardest to arrange because you know that this might be the last gathering of the family in its current state. Worse, sometimes they never get to take that trip. I’m always struck by the sadness of that last unfulfilled wish. If only they had decided to travel sooner, they might have shared the joy of family time and the making of new memories that the family could reflect upon during a time of sorrow.

 

I’m often asked what my favorite destination has been. That’s a tough question to answer because each trip is unique with its own special experiences. Even time can temper the memory of a bad trip or at least it makes for good cocktail party chatter as you retell the story of how you survived whatever unplanned event upset your travel apple cart.   But then there are the destinations that seem to call to you. Perhaps you saw it in a movie or read about it in a novel or are just plain fascinated with the country or its people or the food. I imagine that the movie Eat, Pray, Love was a tremendous boost to the tourist industries of both Italy and India.  I’m a list maker so I naturally have a list of places that I want to visit. Here is my current list. It’s definitely subject to change.

 

  1. Cambodia, Southeast Asia. More specifically, Angkor Wat. If you’re of a certain age, the mention of Cambodia is sure to stir memories, none of them pleasant. After the end of the Viet Nam War, the Khmer Rouge Communist party rose to power in neighboring Cambodia and ruled from 1975-1979. During that time more than two million Cambodians lost their lives and the country was inaccessible to tourism. Built in the 1100’s A.D. Angkor Wat covers approximately 500 acres and is one of the largest religious monuments ever built. Ironically I was not familiar with Angkor Wat until the first of the Lara Croft Tomb Raider movies starring Angelina Jolie. The film was shot on site at Ankgor Wat and I was fascinated by both the design and the back story of the structure. It still amazes me that something so ancient remained hidden for so long. When it was rediscovered in the late 1800’s it had been reclaimed by the jungle and was covered in enormous vines but mostly intact. Today, it remains one of the largest temples ever discovered. The history of this structure is amazing and the architecture is beautiful and definitely worth a “Google.”
  2. Madagascar, made the list for one reason and one reason only. Lemurs! Considered a primate and probably a second cousin to a monkey, or perhaps a monkey’s uncle, these primates are endemic to Madagascar. The island of Madagascar lies off the coast of Africa in the Indian Ocean. It’s the fourth largest island in the world, with incredible biodiversity but I still want to see the lemurs.
  3. Namibia, Africa. Continuing with the Angelina Jolie influence, which is purely coincidental, Namibia makes my list. Usually when I think of African countries I think of the animals I might possibly see. Namibia is located on the Western coast of Africa, and shares a border with Botswana. The country is best known for its giant red sand dunes. There’s something about the shapes and the shifting colors of the dunes that just calls to me. Apparently it called to Ms. Jolie as well as she chose this African nation to be the birth place of her third child, Shiloh. Perhaps she was seeking privacy in a 319,000 square mile country that has ¼ of the population that New York City houses in 468 square miles.

So, that’s my current top three destinations, current being the operative word. My list is always changing. When I cross one country off my list I get to add another. In other words, if I’m lucky, I’ll never complete my list. After all, what is life without dreams? Hollywood has long promoted the concept of having a bucket list. But far too often those dreams remain in the bucket that’s just waiting to be kicked. Sometimes, it really is just as easy as deciding to go. Pick a date, pick a spot, apply for that passport and start saving money. Even if it takes you 3 years to save that money, 3 years are going to pass anyway so you might as well have a fabulous trip to look forward to and an item to cross off your Wish List.