Alleged Disney Vacation Scam Cheats Kids Out of More Than $60,000

Melanie Swoap of Blue Sky Journeys. Photo: FacebookA Disney World dream vacation turned into a financial nightmare for a group of 120 dance students from Tennessee.

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Blue Sky Journeys, a travel agency which claims to be Disney-authorized, has been accused of scamming the group out of more than $60,000 by accepting payments and then failing to make the agreed-upon travel arrangements, according to a Fox 17 WZTV report. Earlier this month, agency owner Melanie Swoap and her husband John Swoap were indicted on the charge—of stealing between $60,000 and $250,000, according to Nashville Scene—by a Williamson County grand jury. If convicted, they face eight to 12 years in prison.

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“I very rarely hear of an incident like this,” Ricky Brigante of Inside the Magic, a website reporting exclusively on Disney company and theme parks news, told Yahoo! Shine. “In fact, I don't remember ever hearing about such a large dollar amount being scammed like that.”

District Attorney Kim Helper told WZTV that John Swoap also faces charges related to trying to deposit a couple of the dancers' checks twice—first electronically and then in person. Reached by phone at the number for Blue Sky Journeys (whose website is currently disabled), Swoap would not talk about the incident, except to say, “My wife is the owner. But we have no comment.”

Another travel agency, Fantasy & Dreams, lists Melanie Swoap as a Disney expert on its website. Her profile reads, in part, "My job is to help families create memories that will last a lifetime. Not only that, but to make it easier for everyone to come together and just enjoy one another without the worry and stress of planning."

Calls and emails to the dance school, Ann Carroll Dance Studio in Franklin, were not returned.

The school, according to WZTV, arranged the Disney World trip as a way to expose the dancers to the realities of performing for major outlets like Broadway and Disney. The trip had been booked since August 2012 through Blue Sky, but when the families arrived in Orlando, they found that the shuttle-pass numbers provided by the Swoaps didn’t work. Then they got to the hotel only to find they had no rooms reserved—and no passes for the theme park. Several parents presented credit cards to book rooms and passes on the spot, and the trip went on as planned. The website published a glowing review.

“On our recent trip to Disney World, the Ann Carroll Dancers had the opportunity to take classes through the Disney Performing Arts program,” the site reports. “The dancers took ballet, tap, jazz, audition techniques and a special workshop called ‘Disney Magic.’ The girls learned what it takes to be a professional dancer at Disney World and on Broadway. The big finale was a performance with special guest: Goofy!”

There’s no indication of the whopping cost of it all. Cash and checks for the trip went directly to Blue Sky. That should have been a red flag to the dance school, according to a former employee of the agency, who spoke anonymously to WZTV. "I would say it is industry standard that cash does not change hands because you don't have a record of it,” she said.

It was a thought echoed by Sue Pisaturo, owner of the authorized Disney vacation planner Small World Vacations, based in New Jersey. “No, no, no, no, no,” she told Yahoo! Shine when informed of the case and of the cash involved. “I never accept any form of payment. I don’t process credit cards or accept checks,” she said, adding that, as travel agents, they will take clients’ credit card numbers over the phone and then call Disney to make arrangements. But ultimately, she said, “I don’t want to touch people’s money.”

While the official “authorized” or “earmarked” nod from Disney is something that Disney travel agents aim for, Pisaturo explained, those stamps of approval are based on sales and marketing, and not necessarily how you conduct business. “They don’t get into that,” she said. Disney was not able to immediately explain the process of authorizing travel agents to Yahoo! Shine.

So what can consumers do to protect themselves when booking trips to Disney theme parks through travel agencies? There are plenty of things to look out for, Len Testa, co-author of the “Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World,” told Yahoo! Shine.

“The advantage of booking with smaller, specialized companies is that they know a lot about Disney,” he noted. “The downside is that they don’t have the reputation of a big name like American Express or AAA.”

For each agency, “look for the social network they’ve established,” he suggested. In his book he recommends agencies including Small World Vacations and Mouse Fan Travel in his book. In addition to researching customer reviews and other accolades, he said, try to find out the following: “How long have they been involved with what they do? Do they host meets? Are they active on discussion boards? Do they host conferences?" He added, "Look for established roots in the Disney community.” If they score marks in all of that, he said, “odds are they won’t throw it all away for $60,000.”

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