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Highway to Happiness

May 03, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

PALM SPRINGS — Think young.

This is the siren song of a tour agency that's dedicated to putting the bounce back in the footsteps of seniors, as well as hope in their hearts.

Their motto: You're never too old.

To prove the point, the leader of Gadabout Tours tells about 85-year-old Vince Bannister, who has logged 200-plus trips since sailing to Alaska with Gadabout in 1967.

"Like it?" Bannister asks. "Why, I love it!"

Love, indeed, has played a major role in Bannister's adventures with Gadabout. It was on one of Gadabout's tours that Bannister met his future wife, Alyce, 82. At the time she was married. So was he. Later when Alyce lost her husband and Bannister became a widower, they met again--touring.

It occurred to them that they had a lot in common, particularly their incurable cases of wanderlust. So mightn't it be a good idea to get married? Bannister popped the question. Of course, said Alyce, and they've been a steady traveling team ever since. But back to the Bannisters later.

Traveling with Gadabout means almost never having to say goodby. The reason is simply that nearly anyone can afford to tag along with Gadabout. Rich or poor, the common denominator is the lure of the open road, even if the traveler is low on income.

As a result, Gadabout posts this sign: Wanted: Seniors. Opportunity: Travel. (They even get a few starry-eyed young couples.)

In the beginning, happiness for the traveler was nurtured by an ex-florist from Tennessee, affable Al Anderson, who insisted that seniors were never too old to get up and go. That's how he happened to stop making corsages and began pinning his hopes on tourists.

Since his death in 1978, his widow, ex-schoolteacher Lois Anderson, has turned their small mom 'n' pop agency into one of Southern California's busiest tour operations, offering everything from one-day trips to San Diego to lengthy tours of New England, the Caribbean, Alaska, Europe and elsewhere.

Lois Anderson tells her travelers that a small bank roll is no excuse to sit home and brood. Not with budget tours that cost as little as $17 for a one-day journey to visit the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Or a $43 tour to Lawrence Welk Village in Escondido that includes both a brunch and show ("travel down memory lane").

There are one-day whale-watching trips ($28) to San Diego and Baja, plus outings to Lake Arrowhead ($27) and Santa Anita (as little as $20).

Only recently, one of Gadabout's happy wanderers (he drives a cab in his spare time) came home from Santa Anita $3,000 richer.

Travelers from every economic level trip off with Gadabout. Nancy Pfannuche, 47, who operates The Groomer for pets in Palm Desert, took in the Oktoberfest last autumn at Mammoth and is making plans to tour Alaska and possibly Mexico in '87.

Generally, everything goes smoothly on Gadabout's excursions, but there are exceptions. Lois Anderson recalls with chagrin an incident several years ago when Gadabout dispatched eight busloads of seniors to Chinatown in Los Angeles to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

A few hours later, Gadabout got a frantic call from one of the bus drivers. "We're having dinner and it's going smoothly. Everybody's enjoying themselves, only we have a problem. This isn't Chinese New Year's. It starts next week!"

In Palm Springs, the office swung into high gear to book another attraction. By coincidence, Disneyland was closed that particular evening. So was Knott's Berry Farm. Gadabout tried without luck to make a deal with one of the TV shows in Hollywood. Finally the company rerouted its eight buses to an outdoor play at Padua Hills.

No one complained. Everyone was delighted.

In the end, Gadabout lost money on the deal. But Lois Anderson doesn't intend to make a profit on the one-day tours. She's grateful just to break even. The one-day excursions are offered primarily to whet the appetite for longer trips.

Graduating upscale, Gadabout had on its books recently a three-day tour to Las Vegas for $139 that included the bus ride, a couple of nights at the Golden Nugget, a continental breakfast and a buffet lunch or dinner.

Gadabout got its start after Al and Lois Anderson operated the Greyhound bus station in Palm Springs. (They'd really intended to grab off a fast-food franchise.)

Opened in a Gallery

After divorcing themselves from the bus business, they opened Gadabout in an ex-art gallery. Today Gadabout does business in a handsome suite of offices in a building it owns in downtown Palm Springs. In addition, the company owns four buses and charters as many as a dozen others. Passengers are picked up in Redlands, Hemet and San Diego. The company has another office in Sun City, Ariz.

Travelers join Gadabout's tours from every corner of California. Some come from as far away as Chicago and Detroit. The idea, always, is for groups to think young.

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