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Archive for Saturday, August 16, 2003

Families get creative with reunions

Disneyland, cruise ships popular places for get-togethers

August 16, 2003

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— For 30 years, Kathy Zago dreamed of having a family reunion. Though she and her husband, Tony, never had children of their own, they had nieces and neighborhood kids they'd taken under their wings in Ticonderoga, N.Y.

As the years passed, though, and the family members spread all over the country -- their nieces live in Colorado -- Zago knew that arranging such a reunion wouldn't be easy.

Then last year, she received a small inheritance, and Zago knew precisely how she'd spend it -- paying for 30 members of her unusual extended family to congregate at Walt Disney World.

"It was always my dream," says Zago, 64, a retired kindergarten teacher who now lives in Merritt Island, Fla., but spends much of the year traveling across the country in a motor home. "I've been thinking about this since 1965."

Though the Zagos are not your typical family, they represent a growing number of families opting for reunions rather than standard vacations. And today's family reunion is not the staid affair that it used to be. Increasingly, families are moving away from the reunion at the old homestead and heading for the open road.

They're traveling everywhere from New Orleans to Las Vegas to Orlando, taking cruises together, flying to resorts in the Caribbean. Some families reunite in the motherland, be it Ireland or Italy, while others convene at dude ranches out West.

One of the hottest destinations for family reunions is Disney World. The reason, says Kathy Zago, is obvious.

"We've got an age range from 6 to 74," she says. "There was no place else that would make everyone happy."

Instead of dragging grumbling teenagers along to a reunion where they wouldn't have much to do, the Zagos and their extended clan chatted poolside at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge each night, while the children and teens played in the pool.

While the younger families roamed the park, the others could browse, shop and play at their own pace, meeting up at restaurants for meals together.

"More and more, families are beginning to travel," says Edith Wagner, editor of Reunions magazine. She estimates that 200,000 family reunions are held each year in the United States--and half of those families meet annually.

In June, the American Society of Travel Agents surveyed 400 members and discovered that more than 60 percent had witnessed an uptick in family-reunion business in the past five years--with 9 percent experiencing a large increase.

Cruise lines are the most popular option for family-reunion travelers, followed by "all-inclusive" resorts such as Club Med, where a flat rate pays for all food and expenses, according to the travel agents. Disney World ranked third.

That comes as no surprise at Disney, which estimates that the reunion business has tripled in the past three years.

George Aguel, Disney's vice president of meeting planning, attributes the increase to a change in attitude after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Families want to spend more time together," he says.

To capitalize on the trend, Disney soon will launch an initiative focusing on the reunion business.

Although Aguel declined to provide details, others in the reunion industry say it's at the heart of Disney's new "Magical Gatherings" marketing campaign.

For the family member who winds up planning the reunion, times have certainly changed--thanks primarily to the Internet.

Although family members once groaned at the expense of calling all the relatives long distance, now they can simply e-mail the clan. And family members can go online and check out hotels, meeting places and tourist attractions they may want to visit.

"Now every family's reunion planner is trying to figure out how to communicate with people who don't have e-mail," says Wagner. "Until five years ago, that was never a consideration."

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