WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – A travel company that assists school groups with organizing musical performances at Central Florida’s theme parks is accused of failing to refund students’ payments after the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the cancellation of their trips, News 6 has learned.
Musical Destinations Inc., based in Winter Garden, arranges transportation, hotels, dining, theme park tickets and activities for youth groups performing at Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, according to the company’s website.
When the theme parks temporarily closed in March 2020 to mitigate the spread of the virus, several school bands learned their scheduled trips to Central Florida would be canceled.
Eleven months later, hundreds of families across the southeastern U.S. are still waiting for Musical Destinations to issue refunds.
As the travel company faces potential litigation, a local theme park operator announced it will no longer do business with Musical Destinations.
“I’ve got a whole town of mad parents. They’re hurting,” said John Rea, an attorney who represents an Alabama school district in a planned lawsuit against Musical Destinations. “I’m trying my best to recoup the money.”
Musical Destinations owes Springville High School in St. Clair County more than $105,000 after the band’s scheduled trip to Walt Disney World in March was called off due to the virus, according to Rea.
“(Musical Destinations) promised a refund within a few weeks,” Rea said. “But the line of communication simply stopped.”
Nearly 100 students and 70 chaperones had been planning to make the trip from the Alabama high school when the pandemic brought Central Florida’s tourism industry to a halt.
Thousands of hospitality workers lost their jobs and numerous tourism-related businesses suffered as travel to Central Florida plummeted following the virus outbreak.
“My folks are reasonable. We realize bad things have happened to a lot of people,” Rea said. “We just need communication.”
Musical Destinations has been operated by Joseph “Jody” Cooper since 1995, state records show.
Cooper initially agreed to speak with News 6 but then failed to answer his phone at the time of the scheduled appointment.
After Cooper did not respond to multiple emails, voicemails and text messages, a News 6 reporter visited an address for Musical Destinations listed on state records.
Cooper walked inside the home without commenting about his company.
“Parents are frustrated like I am,” said Jeremy McFall, the band director at Dora High School in Dora, Alabama. “For a lot of our students, they just don’t have the financial ability to do a whole lot of traveling.”
Although Musical Destinations returned a $21,000 check it had not yet deposited, McFall said the company still owes his school $22,000.
“I was promised a refund agreement form to get the process started, and I never received that,” said the band director.
Based on emails he received from Cooper, McFall believes Musical Destinations successfully recouped nearly all the school’s money that the company had paid out to third-party vendors like hotels and restaurants.
“I got some Universal refunds today on my credit cards,” Cooper reportedly wrote in a May 6, 2020 email message that McFall provided to News 6.
But Universal Orlando did not collect any money from the travel company on behalf of McFall’s students prior to the band trip’s cancellation, according to a resort representative.
“Our policy and practice has been to quickly refund any student group with an event impacted by the pandemic,” a Universal Orlando spokesperson said. “That said, we never received payment from Musical Destinations on behalf of (Dora High School) and we are no longer doing business with this company.”
“Oh my God. Wow,” McFall said in response to the theme park operator’s statement. “Where did the money go? I mean, straight up, that’s the only question I have.”
Universal Orlando announced on March 12, 2020 that it would temporarily close its theme parks starting March 16, 2020, three days before Dora High School’s scheduled trip to Central Florida.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey declared a state of emergency on March 13, 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic and closed public schools for more than two weeks.
On that same day, McFall said his school’s band trip was formally canceled.
According to Dora High School’s contract with Musical Destinations, “if the group cancels” three months prior to the trip, all monies are refundable.
The agreement states that no refunds would be issued if the entire group tour was canceled less than one month prior to the trip.
The contract does not specifically address cancellations prompted by the closure of theme parks or hotels.
The school group’s package included travel insurance for “post departure student protection,” according to the contract, but it is not clear whether the insurance policy covered trip cancellation expenses.
“My understanding, from Musical Destinations, is that we would be getting our money back for everything,” said McFall, who claims the company never asserted that the payments were non-refundable following the pandemic-related cancellation.
Harlem Middle School, a Title I school in Georgia where more than 40% of students receive free or reduced meals, is awaiting more than $34,000 in refunds from Musical Destinations following a canceled trip to Central Florida, according to the Columbia County School District.
The Columbia County Sheriff’s Office recently received a complaint about Musical Destinations related to its arrangement with Harlem Middle School, according to law enforcement officials, but the agency has not yet launched a formal criminal investigation.
At least two Alabama schools successfully obtained refunds from Musical Destinations, News 6 has learned, including one where Cooper’s brother works as band director.
Homewood High School’s marching band had been planning to travel to the Tournament of Roses Parade in California before the pandemic forced the cancellation of the New Year’s Day event.
Musical Destinations issued a partial refund to the school since some of the deposits were non-refundable.
“Homewood High School went through the appropriate process of requesting a refund from Musical Destinations,” a school district spokesperson said. “Homewood High’s agreement to use Musical Destinations for travel arrangements for the Tournament of Roses parade was made prior to the hire of (the school’s) current band director.”
Cooper’s brother did not respond to emails offering an opportunity to comment.
In nearby Shelby County, Musical Destinations issued a refund to one school but families at two other schools, Chelsea High and Chelsea Middle, are still waiting to get money back.
“It’s extreme frustration,” said Barry Lovette, a parent whose two daughters were planning to dance alongside the Chelsea High School marching band at Universal Orlando while his wife served as a chaperone.
Lovette told News 6 his family paid about $2,500 for the trip, which had been scheduled for the week of April 1, 2020.
Lovette said he and other parents have repeatedly tried to contact Musical Destinations without success.
“I’m trying to enlist help to get this money, not just for our family, but for all the families,” Lovette said. “And not just for our Chelsea High School, but for all the schools impacted by this situation.”
Universal Orlando never received payment from Musical Destinations on behalf of Chelsea High School, according to a Universal spokesperson.
News 6 requested a copy of Chelsea High School’s contract with Musical Destinations under Alabama’s public records law, but administrators with the Shelby County Board of Education refused to provide it.
“In an effort to resolve the situation, our attorneys would like us to keep matters confidential between the School Board and Musical Destinations at this point in time,” said John Gwin, the school board’s chief financial officer.
In a Dec. 16, 2020 letter addressed to parents, Gwin indicated that the school board had not been in contact with Musical Destinations since September 2020, despite leaving voicemails and emails with the company every day.
The Shelby County Board of Education determined it was not feasible to file a lawsuit against Musical Destinations, according to the letter.
“Parents are irate and it’s hurting the school,” said Kattie Curiel, who paid $565 for her daughter to travel to Orlando with the Chelsea Middle School band. “I don’t know how the owner (of Musical Destinations) sleeps at night.”