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Discover Disney’s Best Meetings and Events Offerings With Expert Planner Jonathan Alder

Jonathan Alder at a themed Disney dinner

Jonathan Alder can still remember what it smelled like when he walked into the doors of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort at 10 years old.  

“It’s a lasting memory in my head that I’ll never forget: Chlorine and plastic tiki,” said Alder, CEO of Jonathan’s Travels and a die-hard Disney enthusiast. “That was a memory-that-lasts-forever moment.” 

Jonathan Alder
Jonathan Alder

His love for exploring Disney’s magic sparked in that hotel lobby, but his passion for planning meetings and travel began at EPCOT Theme Park’s World Showcase, a 1.3-mile-long exhibit of 11 pavilions, each themed after a different country and offering native food and drinks as well as souvenir shops. 

“World Showcase is what I give credit to for making me the traveler that I am today,” Alder said. “It wasn’t just going and seeing the little versions of all these countries, but meeting the people, trying the food and the drinks, the shopping, everything that comes with it.” 

Back then, he said, the Italy Pavilion had the best food and dining options, like L'Originale Alfredo di Roma Ristorante, which became one of the very few locations of the restaurant that originated in Rome and is credited for inventing fettucine alfredo. 

“There’s now, I think, two left in the world,” Alder said. “At one point, there was one at EPCOT, and you got to try the real thing. These are the memories that, for some kids, would be meeting the characters like Mickey Mouse. I was always the kid hiding under a table, terrified. 

“It was the travel experience part of Disney that made those magic memories for me,” Alder continued. “The second I got to experience the [World Showcase] scene at 10 years old, I was like, ‘This is meant for me.’” 

Destination Discovery 

Alder knew he was born to be a traveler, but the path he took to get to where he is today was one full of twists and turns. 

Jonathan Alder poses with Dale at a Disney Character Breakfast
Jonathan Alder poses with Dale at a Disney Character Breakfast

Growing up, most of the trips he went on were local to areas like San Diego and Las Vegas with his “high-roller grandparents.” In 1992, Alder took his first trip to Europe with his mom, “and my entire existence changed after that,” he said.  

He was 14 years old and living in Santa Monica, California, when the magnitude 6.7 Northridge earthquake rattled the San Fernando Valley region of Los Angeles in 1994. Alder and his family lived out of a hotel for three months while their house was repaired, then later moved to Arizona, where Alder struggled to feel at home.  

“I wanted to travel more and see more of the world. I was dying to get back out there after going to Europe,” Alder said. “The closest I could get to seeing Europe again at that time was Disney World, and the first FIT I ever planned—which is foreign independent travel—was pitching my mom on a three-week Disney World vacation.” 

Alder put together a day-to-day itinerary, listing every event and tour he wanted to attend, scheduling lunch and dinner reservations and completing a “massively in-depth study of Disney” to ensure he wasn’t missing out on anything. Walt Disney World Resort is twice the size of Manhattan and bigger than San Francisco, and Alder was determined to see it all. 

“That trip alone helped put me on the course I am on today,” Alder said. 

[Related: Meet the Sand Sculptor Behind The Reach Key West and Casa Marina’s Beachy Masterpieces]

Creating Jonathan’s Travels 

When Alder was 15 years old, he started reading global travel data provider OAG’s flight reports in every paper. He subscribed to Travel Weekly and had “every Fodor’s guidebook imaginable,” and once he became more aware of the business side of travel, Alder knew he wanted to own a travel agency. 

“At that time, the industry really changed,” Alder said. “That’s when more airlines came in, starting with Delta, and business was dropping left and right, so it just wasn’t the right time.” 

Jonathan Alder poses with a Stormtrooper at a Star Wars-themed Disney event
Jonathan Alder poses with a Stormtrooper at a Star Wars-themed Disney event

Alder put his travel agency dreams on pause as he spent the next 15 years of his life training in fencing and becoming an Olympic ice skater, but he knew he would one day find his way back to his passion for planning. After almost two decades in athletics with a stint in healthcare, Alder made a phone call to his old travel agent, Robbie Hanna, master travel planner at TravelStore Platinum, for advice.  

“She said, ‘You know, we’re about to start a travel school. You should really come and do this with us’—and the rest is history,” Alder said.  

Alder became an independent contractor at TravelStore, where he started planning group travel for groups between 30 to 60 people all around the world. While doing so, he continued his “study” of Disney, visiting multiple times a year to uncover theme park secrets and surprises, try hidden and unique experiences and bring interesting new ideas back with him to work into trips he’d plan for clients. 

Alder’s business as an independent contractor at TravelStore started to grow, and eventually, the time was right for him to start his own travel agency. He went full-time with his company Jonathan’s Travels in March 2011, and for more than a decade (even through the Covid pandemic), the agency’s numbers have increased year after year. 

“We don’t turn off for our clients. We don’t have a Christmas Day or New Years. We don’t have holidays,” Alder said. “I worked on my wedding day, all day. If we see an emergency, we take care of things. Our clients expect us, and they get us.” 

[Related: Megan Henshall on Designing Inclusive Events and Attracting the Next Generation]

Developing Disney Expertise 

It’s not too difficult to find a passionate planner, Jonathan said, or to find someone who knows meetings, events and travel like the back of their hand, from air travel to hotel accommodations and industry logistics. What’s harder is finding someone who is “so utterly passionate about Disney and the experiences that you’re not getting someone who’s just planning to plan,” he said. 

Jonathan Alder poses with a client group in front of Disney's Magic Kingdom castle
Jonathan Alder poses with a client group in front of Disney's Magic Kingdom castle

“It’s not just about getting the event done and making sure it’s amazing,” Alder continued. “It’s about them really seeing the Disney experience and putting my passion into it that I hope and like to say is like no other, because there’s not many people that love planning a Disney event as much as I do.  

“The only way to get to that point with Disney is from years of experience and building knowledge from just going and doing things, and making sure that you spend the time reading and researching before trying things to see if it works,” Alder said. “Meeting the right people, finding the right resources and networking is really the only way to get the knowledge, and it’s taken years. There’s no definitive moment. It’s an accumulative knowledge I have now held for 30 years.” 

Alder’s Disney planning process starts with a simple conversation, typically beginning with a group’s interests and learning which area of Walt Disney World Resort they want to be closest to. For most adults, Alder said, being based around Disney’s Beach Club Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort or Disney’s Boardwalk Resort is ideal, as they offer easily accessible nightlife and event spaces, and the Boardwalk Resort is the only hotel that’s walkable to two theme parks, he added.  

“It’s 18 minutes to Hollywood Studios and two minutes to Epcot,” Alder said. “And Flying Fish [at Boardwalk] is the only restaurant at Disney that has a permanent table for the [Disney] CEO, and they have some beautiful private dining rooms there. The chef’s team will customize a menu for you, you can do an amazing dinner there and then catch pontoon boats right in front of the restaurant that will sail you under EPCOT’s recreation of the English Channel and right in front of the fireworks.” 

From a private evening surrounded by animals at the Asian temple on the Maharajah Jungle Trek at Animal Kingdom, to a total takeover of Expedition Everest with Tibetan musicians, cuisine and private access to one of the theme park’s most popular rides, Alder has experience planning it all. 

Jonathan Alder and a client pose in front of Disney's Tron ride
Jonathan Alder and a client pose in front of Disney's Tron ride

He even put together and titled his own signature event called Biking for Beignets, in which groups rented two- and four-person Surrey bikes at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, rode through the “swamps of Mississippi over to New Orleans” in a teambuilding race and ended up at Scat Cat’s Club, where they enjoyed live jazz music and Disney’s iconic Mickey Mouse-shaped beignets.  

“These are the things they don’t really talk about, but they do so much outside of the parks—teambuilding experiences where everyone is together getting to make Spanish tile mosaics, or Sangria University, which is a lecture on the history of preserving wine in the Roman Empire,” Alder said. 

“One time, we pulled off private reserved VIP bench space for Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios, so at the very top, where it’s the best views of the firework show,” he continued. “[Disney is] actually very difficult with that one. It’s not on the official list of things they ever do, so a lot of begging and pleading and approvals went into that.” 

When it comes to his clients, Alder said, he is the kind of person who doesn’t take no for an answer. After all, everything is possible with faith, trust, and a little bit of pixie dust—and the help of an expert Disney planner—and Alder has enough to make the Disney world go around.  

[Related: Naomi Hollas Shares Her Steps to Success in the Events Industry]

Around the World at EPCOT with Jonathan Alder 

Unlike most Disney lovers, who often get swept away by the Disney magic upon seeing Cinderella’s castle for the first time or watching Tinkerbell fly overhead during the fireworks show, Jonathan Alder, CEO of Jonathan’s Travels, fell in love with Disney when he realized he could experience cultures from all around the world at EPCOT alone.  

As a self-proclaimed Disney expert, Alder knows the best spots for a quick treat and something to drink at every one of EPCOT’s World Showcase pavilions. Here are his favorite bites and brews to pick up at all 11 countries: 

  • Mexico: Sopa Azteca at San Angel Inn and blood orange margaritas at La Cava Tequila  
  • Norway: School bread at Kringle Bakeri Og Kafe and Aquavit at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall 
  • China: Egg rolls at Lotus Blossom Cafe and Tipsy in Love (bourbon, black tea, coffee, cream and chocolate) at Joy of Tea 
  • Germany: Lunch at Biergarten and apple shots at Weinkeller 
  • Italy: Lasagne at Tutto Gusto and a wine flight next to the Gelateria 
  • America: Funnel cake at the Funnel Cake Stand and beer at Block and Hans 
  • Japan: Dinner at Takumi-Tei and the sake flight at Teppan Edo 
  • Morocco: Pomegranate-chili crispy cauliflower at Spice Road Cafe and fig cocktail at Tangerine Cafe 
  • France: Dinner at Monsieur Paul or a large Dom Perignon (Yes, they serve it large and small!) 
  • United Kingdom: Fish and chips at Rose and Crown Dining Room and a pint of cider at The Rose and Crown Pub 
  • Canada: The Canadian filet mignon at the Marketplace stand and Kahlua Tini at the Joffrey Coffee cart  

Read this next: Kainoa Daines Turns to His Roots to Educate the Hospitality Industry on Hawaiian Culture

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About the author
Taylor Smith | Content Developer, Destinations and Features

Taylor Smith joined Stamats in May 2022 as a content developer, destinations and features for Meetings Today. Smith has experience covering everything from travel to breaking news and graduated from Ball State University with a bachelor’s degree in news and magazine journalism. Previously, she’s written for St. Louis Magazine and worked as an editorial assistant and apprentice for Aubree Nichols, who has been published in premier publications such as The New York TimesELLE and The Los Angeles Times.