Growing Up a Travel Brat

From a Travel Pulse Column Published Aug. 30, 2010

56This column was supposed to be published in April and titled “Our California Adventure,” a personal recap of my family of four’s February vacation. It was my children’s first visit to California, so we had planned a whirlwind adventure to four theme parks between Los Angeles and San Diego. Indeed, it was a wonderful trip, with the anchor being a three-night stay at the impressive Grand Californian in Disneyland.

I was going to write about how girl reared on Disney World in Florida adapted to the smaller, original park in California, and actually ended up preferring it because at Disneyland I somehow felt more connected to Walt and his vision. I wanted to share our first experience with Disney’s California Adventure and relay all of the exciting new developments there, such as the World of Color, which made its illuminating debut in May, and reminisce over the panting, beaming faces of my son and husband as they proudly conquered their fears and rode the California Screamin’ roller coaster — twice!

I wanted to share my 12-year-old daughter’s dream come true at the Disney 365 store in Downtown Disney, adjacent and so convenient to the Grand Californian. We got her the “star treatment” makeover, which ended up being a private affair on a quiet Tuesday morning, so the entire staff was focused on helping her pick out a new outfit and appropriate “in” accessories, and doing her make-up and hair while one crew member tested her on Disney TV trivia knowledge (she aced it!).

But I just couldn’t manage to get all these wonderful memories into a column that April weekend because my father had been admitted to the hospital for emergency abdominal surgery, the beginning of 26 days of tests, doctor consults, Internet research and anxiety before the unthinkable end on May 13.

My father’s life and death is inextricably entwined in my work because I grew up in the travel business and have in some way been working with him since the early 1990s. My father was Bob Whitley, president of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA) for 32 years.

He took the job when I was just 10 years old, the age my son is now, so most of my memories of growing up involve Dad and USTOA. It was like family to him and to us. In the early days, I remember helping him do the scheduling for USTOA Marketplace in our basement in New York, pouring over hand-written requests trying to match up appointments.

Then there were the USTOA conferences themselves. Many Decembers saw all of the Whitley family at that annual conference, lending a hand wherever we could. I was always so impressed watching my father at each function. Speaking in front of a few people or a few hundred came so naturally to him. And when it came to travel, there was never a topic to which he couldn’t add a personal anecdote. He knew and loved the world of travel.

My two brothers and I clearly inherited this love; we have all followed in his footsteps into the industry. From our earliest years we witnessed the magnetism of travel and tourism. Dad began his career at the Virginia Beach Chamber of Commerce, but then moved his family to Pennsylvania and Florida where he was director of tourism before joining USTOA in 1978.

We grew up enjoying the perks of the industry — bicentennial celebrations in Pennsylvania and numerous trips to Disney World while living in Tallahassee. I remember one private event at Disney World over Christmas when the entire park was closed just for our group and we had carte blanche on all the rides. I think my brother and I rode the Grand Prix a hundred times — we weren’t old enough to tackle Space Mountain yet!

Dad also had promised each of us the chance to go to the USTOA out-of-country meeting when we turned 16. The meeting for my sweet 16 was in the Netherlands and Denmark. There were several other children of USTOA members on that trip — other “travel brats” who also followed their fathers into the industry. The Tauck kids, Ueberroth kids and I had a great time exploring Amsterdam and Copenhagen. When I was cleaning out my father’s office last month, I found a blue and white Delft plate, a souvenir of that trip so long ago.

Indeed, those memories of travel — the places, the people and the experiences — are a reflection of my childhood. I wax poetic about a USTOA conference the same way I do about Dad teaching me how to drive a stick-shift. There’s no other industry I’d rather work in, and though I seem to have it in my blood, I wager you all feel the same way. Contributing to another person’s lifelong memories is something not a lot of people can do as their profession.

So cherish your job, its perks and its power to change lives. I know I do. And I hope to continue the Whitley tradition by instilling this love of travel in my children. Our recent trip to California and Disneyland has already become an often referred to mile-marker of their youth, and they thoroughly enjoyed relating their experiences to “Pop-Pop” — as did I. I loved talking shop with Dad and sharing my travel plans and experiences, and he always listened to every word and looked at every picture.

I am so proud of what he accomplished in this industry and am so humbled by the outpouring of sentiment from those of you who knew him. As a “travel brat,” I thank my father from the bottom of my heart for all that he gave to me, and I hope I make him proud by continuing to promote travel in his honor.

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