More Holidays at Disney Stories

Disney Cast Member Experiences Holiday Markets with National Geographic Expeditions

Kami Ellender

by , Editorial Content Manager, Disney Signature Experiences

Season’s greetings from Germany, Austria and Vienna! We may be in the heat of summer, but I’m dreaming of a winter wonderland. And Jessica Van Gessel, destination manager for National Geographic Expeditions, recently told us about a Central European trip filled with holiday cheer.

Jessica in front of a tree and a tree in a city

Last year, Jessica explored Christmas markets from Budapest to Munich on the Danube Christmas Markets River Cruise. She took the trip because she loves traveling, and although she’s been to Europe, she had never experienced the crisp winter air of the holidays abroad.

“Christmas is my favorite season,” Jessica said. “It celebrates family traditions and customs passed down through generations.”

Christmas ornaments, pastries and cookies

The Christmas markets were lined with intricate handmade ornaments, nutcrackers and toys, and traditional treats that called out to her as she strolled along.

In Budapest she tried lángos, a flatbread with sour cream, cheese and smoked salmon. And when it came to sweets, she couldn’t resist the wide variety of chimney cakes, which are fresh pastries, covered in cinnamon sugar or sometimes filled with cream or chocolate.

“The culture is so different from ours,” Jessica said. “The depth of the stories they carry behind their traditions is absolutely magical.”

But some traditions cross borders. During the cruise she enjoyed a familiar custom passed down from her great grandparents, honoring Saint Nicholas Day.

“We grew up putting out our stockings over the fireplace and getting small treats, fruits, or toys on December 6,” Jessica remembers. “For my family, this really was the beginning of Christmas and made us so excited for the rest of the season.”

On her National Geographic Expedition, the tradition carried over to the river cruise where they put their shoes outside the door for St. Nick to visit overnight.

“We woke up to find our shoes filled with candies and chocolate,” Jessica said. “This was so much fun and a great way to celebrate very traditional customs.”

Jessica drinks out of a mug and poses in front of gate

With all of the festive fun, Jessica also had to take advantage of the stop in Salzburg, Austria. She grew up watching “The Sound of Music,” her mom’s favorite movie, so exploring the iconic locations made the trip even more memorable.

“Growing up watching the movie and then seeing the places where it took place, you have the mountains behind you… It looks fake, but it’s not,” Jessica explained. “That was probably my favorite day.”

Jessica aboard a ship and a city skyline

Jessica’s traveled plenty on her own, but she notes that traveling with Disney is a league of its own.

“You’re gliding along the Danube River through different countries,” Jessica explained. “Anything you could possibly want to see is laid out for you to experience. It’s worth it to leave your cares behind.” Which is a big part of her job when she’s not on vacation.

If you look at Jessica’s Disney journey, National Geographic Expeditions was always a natural fit. She started at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge working with cultural representatives from Africa, and with a background in marine biology, eventually moved into animal care. In leadership positions at EPCOT, she learned even more from cast about their rich cultures.

“Getting to know the cast members coming over from all those different parts of the world, was so rewarding,” Jessica shared.

On the operations side of National Geographic Expeditions, she now works with international partners to make sure guest itineraries are buttoned up. From flights and passports to payments and negotiating dates for future experiences, the job serves her love of travel, culture and staying busy!

“We have different trips going all over the world every day,” Jessica explained. “This role speaks to who I am at my core. I’m learning a new part of the world every day.”