SPRING HILL — The trip was set. The itinerary finalized. The money paid, in full, months ago.
Richard Mellinger, commander of Korean War Veterans Legion 5053 in Spring Hill, was looking forward to a two-day December excursion to St. Augustine with his wife and a dozen others affiliated with the veterans group to see the city's magnificent Nights of Lights Christmas light display.
Many had never seen it before. Everyone was excited.
"They said it's one of the best in country," the 79-year-old Spring Hill man said.
The group had an oceanfront hotel. Their meals were planned. They even had narrated trolley tickets.
But that all changed Monday.
Suddenly and unexpectedly, the tour company that organized the trip closed its doors, canceling any trip planned after that date.
"Due to unforeseen circumstances we are sorry to inform you that as of Monday, November 12th Hollywood Tours is no longer in business," reads a sign taped to the door of the business at 1221 Kass Circle in Spring Hill.
Garrett Bode said he and his wife, Nina, who have owned the business since earlier this year, are filing for bankruptcy. He declined to comment further, referring all calls to his attorney, Elena Ketchum of Tampa. Ketchum did not return calls on Friday.
The closure means more than a dozen bus tours have been called off and that hundreds of mostly senior citizens who had paid for their tickets are out of a trip, employees told the Tampa Bay Times.
Many customers want to know just one thing: Where's our money?
"I think it's terrible," Mellinger said. "I think it's absolutely awful that they would do this."
Mellinger said he and his wife paid nearly $300 for the St. Augustine trip.
"Most of these people can't afford to lose that kind of money," he said.
On Monday, he got a call from a person going on the trip who told him that Hollywood Tours' phone had been disconnected.
Mellinger tried calling himself, then went to the Hollywood Tours office in an attempt to get some answers. That's when he found the handwritten note on the door.
Aside from informing him that the business was closed, it said all trips would be canceled and that customers would be receiving information by mail from Hollywood's legal representation.
"I don't know if you can believe that or not," Mellinger said.
He said nobody from the company had tried to contact him. As of Friday, he hadn't received any notification from the company.
"We didn't even know they canceled," he said.
Karen Plotkin, a 72-year-old Timber Pines resident, had a four-day, three-night trip to the Smoky Mountains planned with her husband in December.
It cost them $732.
She, too, hasn't gotten her money back and never heard about the cancellation from Hollywood Tours.
Plotkin was taken by surprise when she heard about the situation from a friend.
She said she has gone on numerous trips using the tour company and never had any problems.
In fact, she and her husband just got back last weekend from a trip to see the Biltmore mansion in Asheville, N.C. — the day before the company closed.
"I couldn't believe it," she said.
Plotkin said the tour guide and driver didn't give any indication the company would be closing.
"They were raving about the new owners," she said. "They're going to get new buses. They're going to do this; they're going to do that."
She said she filed a claim with the Hernando County Sheriff's Office last week to try and get her money back for the Smoky Mountains trip.
She said she was concerned for other customers.
"People are going to be waiting for a bus that never shows up," she said.
Sandra Pacileo, a deacon with Spirit of Grace Lutheran Church in New Port Richey, set up a trip for 36 people to go to St. Augustine at the end of November to see the Christmas lights.
Collectively, they spent $5,080. Nobody's gotten their money back.
"Well, everyone would like to get it back, but we don't know how and where to apply, or what to do," Pacileo said.
She too was not contacted about the closure and only found out about it after she called an employee.
"I was just lucky enough to have her number," she said.
Employees at Hollywood Tours contacted by the Times said they were taken off guard by the closure just like the customers. They said they were told last Sunday about the decision. They declined to provide their names for publication for fear of retribution from angry customers.
Hollywood Tours was sold in June to the Bodes, who live in Oldsmar.
Garrett Bode, a chiropractor, is the registered agent, with his wife, Nina, serving as president of the company. Neither have criminal records in the state of Florida, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Reached by phone Friday, Garrett Bode said his attorney had advised him not to speak.
"Honestly," he said, "I'd love to talk to you."
Danny Valentine can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1432. Tweet him @HernandoTimes.