Let’s face it: Family travel is tough. Influencers and vloggers make it look easy—even glamorous—but in reality, multi-generation trips are dense with competing interests, complicated logistics, and countless tears (not always the baby’s). That’s where Heather Killingbeck comes in. With a team of experienced travelers at Adventures by Disney, she develops culturally immersive itineraries for families.
Though the outfitter is run by the Walt Disney Company, don’t expect breakfast with Goofy or guides in Mickey Mouse costumes. On an Adventures by Disney trip to Ireland, kids may go searching for shamrocks while the adults go on a distillery tour; or in Beijing, the whole family may spend the afternoon roaming through a hutong neighborhood to learn from local craftsmen; in Egypt, guests will tour Old Cairo with an Egyptologist.
We spoke to Heather to find out how she and her team put together such impressive trips.
How did you become a trip developer?
“My career in travel started shortly after college at a large travel agency in Boston. I was able to get experience in various aspects of the travel agency world: retail, corporate, groups, and incentives. Around 1990, when the idea of ‘soft adventure travel’ was just gaining popularity, I began working for small, upscale tour operators in various roles, mostly in trip development and operations. I became fully dedicated to trip development when I came to Adventures by Disney in 2005, just as the business was getting started.
“I was really excited about what Disney had planned for this new venture—we were revolutionizing the way guided group vacations were curated, designing trips through a family lens and leveraging the brand’s incredible gift of storytelling. . . . That family-focused approach has been the biggest differentiator about Adventures by Disney from the very beginning, and it allows us as trip developers to curate versatile, engaging itineraries.”
What are the main factors you consider when scouting new destinations?
“From the very beginning of the trip development process, we are looking through the lens of the child, the teenager, the parent, the grandparent. It is incredibly important that the places and experiences we offer to our guests are really fun . . . for everyone. When researching a new destination, we also focus on the availability of content that lends itself to authentic, immersive storytelling, which is the cornerstone of any Adventures by Disney vacation.
“Our trips are so much more than city tours—we want our guests to truly interact with the culture and stories of destinations, so we spend considerable time developing those opportunities. These can include physical activities—like bike riding, horseback riding, and river rafting—but also have a storytelling component such as history, architecture, or nature. They can be cultural experiences such as making Andean pan flutes in Ecuador, painting boomerangs in Australia, and building komboloi beads in Greece. These are all fun activities for families of all ages that bring to life the cultural stories of the destinations.
“And of course, logistics play a big role in the creation of a new Adventures by Disney itinerary. In every destination, we have to ensure that everything our guests will experience—including hotels, restaurants, motor coaches, etcetera—are the best fit for our audience, and that they meet our standards of service and safety.”
How do you research new destinations and develop itineraries?
“It takes about 12 to 18 months to develop a new Adventures by Disney itinerary, from initial research until the trip becomes available for booking. When considering potential new destinations, we look at what’s trending in family travel and which new places our guests are telling us they want to go. We also seek out destinations that have ties to beloved Disney films and franchises, which offer us the unique opportunity to immerse our guests in the real-world places that inspired the fantasy worlds we’ve created.
“We conduct preliminary research to narrow it down to the destinations that are the most relevant and exciting, and then we do a ton more research—not just to understand the logistics of traveling there, but to get a clear sense of the types and availability of activities and experiences we can offer to our guests there.
“We typically conduct two site inspections as part of an extremely rigorous vetting process. We taste, see, touch, experience every single component of a new itinerary before we offer it to guests—we stay in the hotels, we eat at the local restaurants, we go on the excursions and meet the local experts. We start to define what stories will be told, how they will be told, and who will tell them. And we spend a considerable amount of time with those local suppliers, both in person and remotely, to ensure that we haven’t missed a single detail. Our guests expect an Adventures by Disney trip to be seamless, comprehensive, and special.”
That sounds like a lot—I imagine it takes a village to launch a new itinerary.
“Our Trip Development team is passionate about travel. And they’re passionate about traveling with their families. Here, we’re grandparents, parents, aunts, and uncles, and I think we can all easily say that some of the best adventures we’ve had have been alongside our families.
“And trip development is definitely a group effort. With more than 200 years of combined experience in the travel industry, we’re able to rely on each other to share best practices and curate itineraries that blend the authenticity of a destination with the Disney level of service and storytelling.
“I also want to mention our amazing Adventure Guides. We curate and design the travel experience, but our Guides bring it to life for our guests. It’s really that partnership between our teams that makes our trips successful.”
How does planning with Disney differ from planning for another outfitter?
“The biggest differentiator . . . is that we are able to leverage Disney’s expertise in family entertainment to create vacations that are truly fun for everyone in the family. For example, we consult with the animal science experts at Disney’s Animal Kingdom on any in-destination animal experiences, and we synergized with the Walt Disney Studios when designing our Scotland and Norway itineraries, which have ties to the inspiration behind our Brave and Frozen films.”
Has the trip planning process changed since you joined Adventures by Disney, or even since you entered the travel industry?
“Ours is a tight-knit team, and most of us have been with Adventures by Disney since the early days, so we’ve really honed in on our process over the years. But we’re still focusing on families, still doing the same rigorous research and vetting, still spending extra time engaging with new suppliers to ensure they understand what makes Adventures by Disney unique and different, in order to create the best vacations possible.
“That said, while the details and methods for creating our vacations are essentially the same as always, we do have the advantage of new tools. Even platforms like Instagram and Pinterest now play a role in our research phase.
“Over time, we did realize just how important those special, ‘VIP access’ experiences are to our guests, so identifying those opportunities became even more of a focus for our team. For example, we added one of our most incredible exclusive experiences—a private, after-hours tour of the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel—to our Italy itinerary a few years after introducing the trip, and it remains one of the most raved about experiences of all our vacations. From the very early planning stages, we’re always actively seeking ways to create activities that go the extra mile for our guests.”
How often are existing itineraries updated like this?
“We mostly modify trips based on their feedback. If our guests are still loving a hotel or activity that has been on the itinerary from the start, that’s great—we’ll continue to go there and do that! We listen to our guests and our Adventure Guides and make changes when needed. We also pay attention to trends, read trade journals, and keep up with the emerging cities and activities within the destinations we visit, and all that information feeds our decision-making.”
Where and how do you travel when you’re not on a work trip?
“I crave travel to places that are off the beaten path, very nature-focused types of experiences, and new ways to get away from it all. I tend to stay in very small, boutique hotels, places that might have only five or six rooms. I often find myself walking a lot, and I love animal experiences. And, similar to an Adventures by Disney trip, I really try to tap into the local scene. Whether it’s hanging out at a café or just getting to know people, the more authentically local experiences I can build into my own travels, the better.
“For the most part, I’m taking one-week vacations or long weekends. I find that a quick getaway is often just as rewarding and recharging as a longer trip. Even though I’ve traveled a lot in my life, I have not come close to exhausting the list of places I want to go. I’m really drawn to sub-Saharan Africa.”
About how many flights do you take each year? How many countries do you visit?
“There is a misconception that all we do is travel, but much of our work is done from the office. When we do travel, our trips are relatively long. Especially when researching a new itinerary, we often spend up to three weeks becoming completely immersed in the destination—seeing, doing, tasting, and experiencing everything in the region that can possibly make its way into our final trips.”
Sounds like you have a dream job!
“I can’t argue with that! I say this all the time and really do believe it: I won the job lotto.”