Stephanie Bernhagen and her husband Paul lived the American dream. Good jobs, a new home in the shadow of Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, and all the trappings that go with successful careers. The missing ingredient was free time to enjoy the fruits of their labor.
With no children to support, the Bernhagens worked long hours and set the stage for optimum burnout. Individually, Stephanie and Paul achieved successful careers as engineers with separate Colorado companies. Together, after work hours and on weekends, they built custom homes.
One lazy Sunday afternoon, the former Iowa residents read the newspaper in their spacious mountainside home. Paul looked over his sports page and suggested that they take a year off and see the United States. His idea took root as they started to plan a year-long odyssey from motel to motel. Stephanie’s reservations about living out of a suitcase led to research on the comfort and convenience of RV travel. In their heads, the sabbatical grew to two years, and eventually, to a journey that goes on and on….
At first,the Bernhagens devised a five-year-plan to take back their lives. One year shy of completing their financial plan, Paul had an opportunity for a voluntary lay-off. The housing market in Denver hit its prime for sellers. Paul checked their investments. All factors lined up as a signal to start their new lives.
The energetic twosome had moved into their Denver residence in three of the largest U-haul moving vans. They moved out in two pick-up loads. “We had never RVed a day in our lives,” Paul says. “Yet, we loaded furry, four-legged Tiffany and all our belongings into a five-by-eight trailer and the truck. We traveled from Denver to Oregon where we bought our first fifth-wheel.” Free at last from jobs, Paul and Stephanie were ages 38 and 36, respectively.
The Bernhagens looked at their newfound lifestyle in themes. For the first two years, they read every tourist information book they could find and highlighted the places they wanted to visit. Then they formed travel plans. “We also tried to incorporate visits to relatives,” Stephanie adds. “While working, we never had much time at family reunions with our kin back in Iowa.”
Paul says. “Next, we burned ourselves out visiting amusement parks. Then, we toured caves.” In their fifth theme, they worked two winters for “The Mouse” at Disney World in Florida. Paul notes that some “boomer” friends from Escapees had worked there for a number of years. Their enthusiasm encouraged the Bernhagens to join about 32 other boomers for the first winter.
“Because we went to Disney to meet people and have fun, we chose to work one or two days a week in ten hour shifts—enough to get all the perks,” Paul says. Perks included admission for cast members (the official title for employees at Disney) to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney MGM, and Animal Kingdom. Cast members hired before the end of October typically receive a Christmas package that includes significant discounts in stores and restaurants on Disney properties, plus passes to bring three guests into the park. Throughout the year, there are also specials for cast members, including discounts or free entrance to the water parks and other Disney attractions.
For the first year, Stephanie and Paul both primarily worked crowd control for the Indiana Jones Epic Stunts Show. “That meant getting 2,000 people in and out eight times a day,” Paul says. “The second winter the show was under renovation and ran for only two months. We worked there again, and then we started training in different areas.”
Stephanie adds: “They bounced us around the second year to different positions; it was fun to have diversity.” Initially, Stephanie and Paul both trained for Honey, I Shrunk the Kids Playground. Their next show was The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a Broadway-type musical presentation. Again, they worked crowd control, getting about 1,300 people in and out five times a day. They also did a holiday special, Beauty and the Beast. But after they worked Hats and Horns on New Year’s Eve, passing out hats and noise makers to some 40,000 people, Stephanie retreated to their trailer to work seven days a week on the book she had been researching.
Despite skills limited to technical writing, early into their adventure Stephanie had entertained thoughts about writing a book. “But I didn’t want to write from our perspective only,” she says. “About two years into our journey, we hooked up with ‘Boomers’ in Escapees and I had broader resources on full-timers who were too young to retire.”
Stephanie admits that writing on the road is hard because she prefers to be out visiting instead of sitting at her keyboard. But in that spring while Paul continued to work shifts at Disney World, she finished Take Back Your Life! Travel Full Time in an RV, which is now out of print.
While working for Disney, Paul and Stephanie also signed up as volunteers for a Habitat Build in Kissimmee. With their background in custom home building, they knew they could help put a Habitat house together. Paul’s experience as an engineer-turned-building contractor quickly put him in a leadership position. The next year the Bernhagens signed on for a long-term build in Tucson, Arizona. While at a Boomer Rally they recruited five other couples to join them on the Tucson build. “Spending at least a month on a project allowed us to contribute a continuity that’s lost when different volunteers show up each day,” Stephanie says. “We saw huge accomplishments in a very short time. The opportunity to be with other RVers made the work fun!”
However, Stephanie says she had to “Take Back Her Life,” and she and Paul settled for a while in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Despite loving the RVing lifestyle and the comfort of having one’s home with them in travel, they determined that an RV was too big an investment to have just sitting and depreciating if they were going to live in one spot. They built a beautiful Southwest-styled home. Stephanie became a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) volunteer for children in foster care. Over four and a half years, she advocated for four boys. The last two and a half years, she advocated for a deaf/blind boy who could not communicate. Stephanie says he is now communicating and doing well.
In Las Cruces, Paul started a handyman and solar installation business. The solar side quickly turned into a seven-day-a-week, 12 hours-a-day job, so he gave that business away. Even then the handyman business is more work than he wants and he is ready to play again. Thus, the Bernhagens are selling their lovely home and moving to The Villages in Florida. And so the journey goes on and on….