- Allison Mertzman turned her Disney travel agency side hustle into a full-time job in 2018.
- She charges up to $450 to help clients book park tickets, flights, reservations, and hotels.
- She’s helped more than 250 people plan trips this year and has more than 800,000 social followers.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Allison Mertzman, a 37-year-old former elementary-school teacher who runs the travel agency Adventures with Allison Wonderland that specializes in Disney vacations and is based in Los Angeles, California. The following has been edited for length and clarity.
I’ve been to Disney World more than 50 times, and I go to Disneyland every few weeks. The first time I went to Disney World was when I was nine months old.
I have such happy memories associated with Disney throughout my life. Stepping into a Disney park, you feel the magic right away with the characters. They pump the smells of the bakery onto Main Street, so even the scent of the air is different when you go there. I’ve experienced that as a child with my parents, and now I get to visit with my two daughters, ages four and seven.
I became an expert in planning Disney trips not just through my own excursions but by planning vacations for friends and family who asked for help. When it comes to Disney vacations, you really need somebody who specializes in it because it requires covering so many details, including dinner reservations and resort locations in relation to the park and other attractions.
Many people think you can go to Disney and just wing it. It has to be planned out.
In January 2016, I posted on Facebook that I would help anyone looking to plan a Disney vacation. The first person I worked with was a referral from a friend, then it kind of spiraled from there.
This year alone, I’ve worked with 250 different clients. I plan trips for all Disney destinations, including Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani, and Adventures by Disney. I sell trips to Disney World the most simply because it’s the most popular destination, but my favorite to plan is Adventures by Disney because those clients are traveling all over the world and have really unique and fun itineraries. I have five agents that work for me part-time.
Planning Disney trips was a side hustle that became a full-time career
I got started as a travel agent just to pay for my Disney trips. It was a side hustle for a long time and became a full-time job in 2018 when I opened my travel agency. I quit teaching because we were moving from Michigan to California after my wife got a new job. We decided collectively it was too expensive to send our daughter to daycare, and my teaching salary didn’t outweigh the cost of childcare.
I’m a member of the Cruise Lines International Association. Every year since 2016, I’ve also been a graduate of the College of Disney Knowledge, which requires roughly five hours of Disney-specific training annually.
I charge a planning fee between $150 for a basic experience — which includes customizable options for hotel and flight planning — and $450 for more detail-oriented planning. Every client gets reminder emails and recommendations around what to book and when and special add-ons they can purchase 90, 67, and 37 days before their trip. I set up their bookings for hotels, help them with flight and park tickets, decide the best places for them to check out, and assist with logistics. One of the most common requests I get from clients is help with dining and picking a hotel based on their budget.
Many people think a Disney vacation will cost them $10,000, but there are so many ways to make it affordable
It’s still a luxury to visit a Disney attraction, but I can work within a client’s budget to make sure they aren’t losing a mortgage over it. My travel agency specifically keeps an eye out for any deals, and I autoapply them to any reservation I’ve made.
Weekdays are generally cheaper than the weekends. Traveling during Christmas and spring break is always more expensive, so if this is the only time you can go, reconcile with the fact that it’s going to be crowded. This year, I saw deals for Disney Plus members and Disney Visa cardholders. Many times, these deals can only be applied to packages, so I recommend booking your hotel and park tickets together.
Every room in a Disney resort has a refrigerator or cooler. I suggest having a quick breakfast in the morning in your room so you can get to the parks earlier, when it’s less crowded. (I would say the first two hours the park is open are the least crowded, as well as after the fireworks show in the evening.) Any guest staying at a Disney property is also allowed entry a half hour early. That’s the best time to go on the most sought-after rides.
I tend to recommend eating lunch in the park instead of dinner, since you never know where you’ll be by the evening, and you may be too tired to stick around. Always have reservations in advance for your meals at the park.
If you need to find the nearest restroom, ask a Disney cast member. They’re very prevalent throughout the park and usually have that information.
I really enjoy the after-hours events that start around 9 or 10 p.m., especially if you’re a night owl. You have fewer crowds then, so you can get on the more popular rides more easily.
Despite some hiccups, this is something I plan to continue doing full-time
Besides COVID-19 lockdowns, the biggest challenges I’ve had to deal with have to do with the weather, like hurricanes and tropical storms in Florida. I take care of all of the rescheduling in these types of circumstances, which is baked into my planning fee.
I work really hard to set expectations around what I can do for people so they know what to expect when they work with me. I’ve passed on people right out the gate.
One person in particular sent me an email three pages long with every single thing she wanted. I knew immediately she was a person who would be consistently unhappy if things didn’t go her way (which happens often on vacation). When one of my other agents offered to take her, I forwarded the email with about a paragraph introduction, to which she replied angrily that I was impersonal and couldn’t believe I passed her off. I then sent a longer email reply apologizing and explaining that we wouldn’t be a good fit — to which she replied with bullet points about everything I’d done wrong in the interaction. I’m just happy I trusted my instincts on that one.
But I love the challenge of making families magical, multigenerational vacations, and I can’t imagine stopping any time soon. When someone comes back to me and says, “Allison, this trip was so amazing. Your recommendations were spot on. My kids had a great time. Thank you” — that’s everything to me.