Plush buses are the going thing for pleasure-seeking travelers

HOLIDAY ON WHEELS

November 06, 1994|By Carolyn Spencer Brown

In this jolliest of seasons, the search for holiday spirit sometimes can be daunting. Shopping malls are jammed, parking lots are packed and tempers are short.

One solution is to hop on a bus for a carefree getaway. We're not talking a ride on the average city bus, but rather, a trip on one of Baltimore's luxury motor-coach lines. These buses feature concierge-style service, plush reclining seats, tickets to sought-after Broadway shows and even gourmet treats.

An out-of-town bus adventure can be a treat any time of the year, but during the winter holidays, the motor-coach companies add extra attractions for what is usually their busiest time of the year. Tickets usually go on sale the summer before, so popular are these seasonal events.

During the holidays, luxury motor-coach tour companies such as Diversions, Art Lovers League and Hunt Valley Motor Coach still shuttle people to year-round attractions, from Broadway to art museums, from craft events to historic-houses tours. The expanded holiday menu, however, includes such places as once-a-year hot spots like Bethlehem (Pa.), dubbed Christmas City USA, and the Three Little Bakers Dinner Theater in Wilmington, Del., which annually showcases an original holiday-oriented musical. And then there's Wheeling, W.Va.

"A lot of people ask why go to Wheeling?" says Ed Royston, owner of the Hunt Valley Motor Coach.

They go for the lights -- more than 1 million colored lights creating scenes ranging from the Christ child in a manger to the Cinderella story. It's the major outdoor light show in the United States, attracting more than 1.5 million visitors to Wheeling in just a few short months.

And every motor-coach touring company in town has Radio City Music Hall's Christmas spectacular on its holiday itinerary.

What is it about the holidays that inspires this bus rush?

"I wish I knew," Mr. Royston says, estimating he will take more than 1,000 people to New York for Radio City shows this season -- not to mention his other destinations. "I wish we had December 12 months of the year."

It may well be that the same elements that are spurring growth of motor-coach touring -- the gourmet meals on-board, VIP seats and no-hassle travel -- inspire a sense of adventure. If it's as easy to visit Wheeling as it is to shop at Owings Mills Mall, what do you have to lose?

"For people who travel a lot you'll appreciate how hassle-free these trips are," says Lucy Samorodin, a retired stress-management consultant. A self-described travel adventurer, she has no problem with driving herself to New York to see Broadway shows or visit art galleries. She just prefers the motor coach.

"I don't mind the bus mentality," she says. "People don't always like the 'herd concept' but I don't care. I'm going for what's offered."

It took a bit of persuasion to get Marc Gertner, an Owings Mills surgeon, to make his first motor coach tour. Now, he's a devotee.

"I had no desire to go anywhere by bus, but it doesn't seem like you are on one," he says. "It feels like a party from the time you get on till the time you get off."

It's exactly that emphasis on luxury, convenience and pampering that has drawn large numbers of unlikely customers into the world of bus touring. No longer is a motor coach merely a method of transport. It's become an experience.

A typical trip begins with a welcome aboard and then a breakfast of muffins, scones or bagels and beverages. Then passengers are invited to relax with magazines or travel brochures or watch videos. Sometimes there is a presentation on the trip destination, and on some coach lines games like bingo are played. Before arrival, there is usually a snack. On the return trip, there are cocktails, dinner and then quiet time for unwinding or sleeping. Meal service usually depends on the length of trip.

Trip prices vary from $49 for a day trip to Christmas Village in Bernville, Pa., on a Hunt Valley Motor Coach to $214 for an overnight trip to Christmas City USA in Bethlehem on Rohrbaugh's Tour. A bus tour to Radio City Music Hall on a Diversions coach is $159.

Creating an enchanting experience -- whether on a trip to a theater, cultural event or a museum trip -- comes naturally to Lenny Shapiro. The owner of Diversions, one of the area's most established planners of silk-stocking motor-coach trips, Ms. Shapiro lives her work. From her home in Baltimore County, she oversees a staff of 15 full-time employees. They organize an average of 100 motor-coach trips to cultural hot spots from Washington, D.C., to New York City.

With 2,500 members who each pay $35 a year simply to receive a newsletter filled with enticingly described bus trips, Diversions has definitely carved out a niche. Broadway theater, major museum exhibitions and pro sports championship events are among its offerings.

"Our customer's wishes are simple," Ms. Shapiro says. "They only desire excellence. We deliver it."

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