July 13, 2024

Adventure Awaits Journeyers

Discovering the World Anew

Mr. Disney: Founder of massive online Disney group builds custom travel business in Sioux Falls

7 min read

June 27, 2024

There was a moment as the Welsh family Disney World vacation approached when it didn’t feel anything like an actual vacation.

“I am not great at planning trips. I don’t like it. I don’t like researching it,” said Annie Welsh, a mother of three and real estate agent.

“It’s like almost a second job to figure everything out with Disney, so it was such a relief to have someone help with that process.”

She found that “someone” in Eric Martinson, a travel agent referred by a friend and who appropriately holds the title of “chief travel genie” for Genie Travel Co., an offshoot of Riverdale Travel that was formed in late 2022.

Martinson has lived and breathed Disney since he joined a college program at Walt Disney World in 2000.

“I really became a Disney guy,” he said. “Fast-forward a few more years down the road, and people would come to me and ask for advice.”

After a career in leadership at Verizon Wireless in South Dakota and earning an MBA at the University of Sioux Falls, he pursued his dream of working as a travel agent eight years ago.

“So I started a Facebook group for planning Disney trips, just a place where I could put my clients if they had a question and maybe someone else could answer it,” he said.

What began as “a small little Q&A” space has evolved into WDW Tips and Tricks, a Facebook group with more than 1.6 million members.

“When we first started communicating, I assumed he was somewhere far away — East Coast, West Coast,” Welsh said. “Then, he asked if I wanted to meet, and I was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, you’re in Sioux Falls?’ It shocked me.”

Building the brand

In fact, Martinson has lived in Sioux Falls for more than 20 years. From a home office, he helps lead an agency focused on Disney travel that spun out of his employer, Riverdale Travel.

“In the last year and a half, we’ve brought on about 150 agents underneath Genie Travel,” he said. “And a lot of this is recruiting people from the (Facebook) group, recruiting agents and clients and just people who love Disney and love planning people’s vacations. And they’re probably a lot like I was — the guy that loves Disney, so let’s ask him a question. Some people are doing it as a second income and some are saying, ‘I want to pursue this as a full-time job.’”

The Facebook group itself is at least a solid part-time job for Martinson, who has a “small team” helping him run it.

“In a typical week, we get 12,000 to 15,000 people joining and 900-ish posts per day, so there’s a lot of traffic,” he said.

“We’ve had posts get 10 to 15 million views. I’ve had days where you look and I have 2,000 people who want to join and someone has to go through and approve them. The group itself is, kid not, like a labor of love … and the goal is to continuing to build up Genie Travel and find agents and clients.”

As “chief travel genie,” Martinson’s role involves attracting agents and clients and helping build the brand. But, as an agent, “I want to help people in my community,” he said. “I’m not trying to help people all over the world plan their travel.”

Guiding guests

Like any genie granting wishes, Martinson starts by learning more about a traveler. With Sioux Falls client Steven Weber, Martinson helped plan a husband-and-wife trip after previously organizing one for the Webers with their daughter and grandchildren.

“We told him what we wanted, and he set everything up and booked everything,” Weber said.

“He was just professional the whole way and courteous, and you felt like not a client but more like he was concerned and wanted you to have the best experience you could have.”

He helped the Webers find special offers and book meals with Disney characters at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom.

For the grandkids, he helped coordinate tickets to a special Christmas-themed party.

“Especially with the dining, he took it upon himself to reserve everything, call ahead for us so we didn’t have to, and he laid out the whole package,” Weber said.

“The first day, he said, ‘Did you get checked in OK, is everything going OK, is there anything I can do?’ I sent a couple pictures and said we were having fun, and he said: ‘Wonderful, glad I could be part of it. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to make your experience better.’ I would highly recommend him to anybody.”

For the Welsh family, Martinson helped serve as an invaluable guide to the parks.

“You just can’t get a ticket to the park and go. That’s not how it works anymore,” Welsh said. “You have to plan it and know about Genie+ and Lightning Lanes and virtual queues.”

Head spinning faster than the iconic teacup ride yet? That’s where Martinson picks it up.

“We sat at a Starbucks and … he said, ‘This is what you want to do first,’ and laid it out, and ‘These are the ones that are going to get really busy, so you want these right away in the day.’ We didn’t know a whole lot about Disney before we went,” Welsh said. “But we went into it with his recommendations.”

With Martinson’s strategy — including helping them find a resort, Disney’s Boardwalk Resort, within walking distances of two parks — they snagged spots on Guardians of the Galaxy, a roller coaster at Epcot Center, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

“He was really great at giving us options,” Welsh said, adding a $150 “memory maker” add-on was especially helpful.

“There’s photographers placed all around the park — every few turns, there’s another professional photographer — and they take all these incredible pictures of your family.”

Outfitted with matching shirts and Mickey Mouse ears — “we were those people” — the overall trip “was an amazing experience,” she said. “Everyone had such a great time, and Disney truly is as magical as everyone says it is.”

And — in an extra dose of Disney magic — Martinson’s services are free.

“There’s no additional charge,” he said. “Disney pays the agency, and the agency pays the agent. You’re paying the same price, so have a person help you with the planning process and be your advocate if things go wrong.”

Expert perspective

Martinson’s own family includes 11-year-old twins, a 6-year-old and a 3-year old.

He estimates they visit a Disney park every other year. He went to Orlando three times last year, was in California’s Disneyland last month and returned to Disney World this month. He also has gone on Disney cruises.

“From an influencer perspective, I’ve not had anybody reach out to me, but we know they’re watching us,” he said. “We have a duty to uphold Disney as well and their rules and policies.”

Here are a few of his own tips for travelers:

  • Allow enough time: Martinson recommends at least four full days in Orlando. “That gives the ability to do each park once or do three and have a down day.” Consider booking eight to 10 months before traveling to Disney World and two or three months before Disneyland.
  • When to go: Visit during the middle of the week while school is in session, and you’ll probably find fewer crowds. But summer isn’t as busy as you might expect because “people are realizing they don’t want to deal with the heat.” Stay away from holiday times unless you’re ready to brave crowds.
  • Adjust expectations: Even with a solid plan, don’t expect to be able to fit in every ride. But do take advantage of technology, and turn scheduling your rides into a game. “Then it becomes fun, and you can knock off a lot of rides if you know what you’re doing.”
  • Don’t forget the extras: Book a princess or pirate makeover, have a meal with the characters, take a fireworks cruise. And don’t forget to explore outside the parks, where everything from golf and horseback riding to boat rentals and fishing await. “That’s why a non-park day is a good thing to have,” he said.

Ironically, Martinson himself is less enthralled by the rides or the characters. For him, the draw is the deeper feeling he gets in the parks, watching a child’s fantasy take on a touch of reality, even after the decades he has been immersed in Disney.

“Anytime I walk through Main Street USA and I can see the castle, I’m still like, ‘Oh, that’s cool,’” he said. “Give me a park bench and a Mickey bar, and I could stare at the castle for an hour.”


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