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Phila. musician's contest win sent him all over the world

In January 2009, noted Philadelphia musician Bill Jolly wrote in his journal that he wanted to be able to "travel anywhere at the drop of a dime, and not have to worry about the cost."

Bill Jolly at the Coliseum in Rome. He's visited nearly 50 destinations around the world - all for free.
Bill Jolly at the Coliseum in Rome. He's visited nearly 50 destinations around the world - all for free.Read more

In January 2009, noted Philadelphia musician Bill Jolly wrote in his journal that he wanted to be able to "travel anywhere at the drop of a dime, and not have to worry about the cost."

"Don't ask me why I wrote that. I just wanted to be able to go," Jolly said.

And with a little wit, planning, and the use of his musical skills, Jolly made that bold dream a reality. Nearly five years later, Jolly has traveled to close to 50 destinations around the world, from Aruba to Beijing to Johannesburg and Sydney - all free.

"I'm still pinching myself," said Jolly, who won Hyatt Hotels' "The Big Welcome" contest with a grand prize of 365 nights at Hyatt Hotels around the world and a million airline miles.

A member of the Hyatt Hotels rewards program, Jolly learned about the contest via an e-mail to members.

The contest, now discontinued, called for contestants to make a creative video expressing their desire to travel around the world. As a musician, he wanted to use music in the video, but the contest rules prohibited it, he said. "I asked if I could use my own music, and they said yes."

For the video, he used four crude hand puppets and a few other items he bought at Toys R Us, Jolly said. "I wanted to write a jingle that was a mixture between the Black-Eyed Peas and the Beatles," he said.

The video included the puppets "flying on toy airplanes to Hyatts around the world while singing these songs. I sent it in," he said.

After a few months, Jolly got the news that he had won.

"I remember the phone call," he said, still clearly elated. "They said the only thing left was that they had to do a criminal background check. And that was it."

Contest rules required him to select one airline for all his travels. He said he chose Delta Airlines "because in 2009, Delta went to the most international places."

Through his work as a keyboardist and musical director, Jolly has traveled far and wide, and shared the stage with such artists as Teddy Pendergrass, Celine Dion, Usher, and Aretha Franklin. But he wanted to see Asia, Africa, South America, and many other places.

"After music, traveling the world has always been a passion of mine, and when I learned about this contest, I knew it was something I couldn't pass up," Jolly told contest officials in 2009.

A resident of Philadelphia's Wynnefield section and a graduate of West Chester University, Jolly, 54, is a single father who has never been married. He said he was trying to find balance in his life when he won the contest. "So I worked really hard to take care of my family, then I'm going to do what I want to do," said Jolly, who describes his family as "my daughter, my dad, and a nephew."

His first trip was to Hawaii with his teenage daughter, Bianca, in 2009. He said he took a few trips with her, including visits to Disney World and the Grand Canyon.

On subsequent trips, however, he went alone, "because the travel is grueling unless you're really a road guy and used to traveling 20 hours on this flight and getting on a bus to go there, which is what I was doing."

He has since been to many places, including Bangkok, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Sydney, London, Athens, Dubai, Tokyo, and about 40 other cities. Jolly has used the prize to hit every continent except Antarctica. "It's just too cold, man," he said with a laugh.

"I've been so many places that I almost have to look it up myself," he said. "I don't know how many miles I've traveled, but I've been completely around the world."

Many of his visits have been whirlwinds of one to three days, much like the traveling he does as a musician.

"I went around the world in 17 days last year. Most people would say that's not enough time. They'd like to spend a week in one place," Jolly said. "My background is I am a touring musician, so I am used to being on the road. When we go into a city, we may spend a couple of hours and get on the bus to the next place. So for me to be in a city for a whole day, that's a lot of time."

He smiled, took a deep breath, and rapidly described that around-the-world journey.

"I started by going to the Grand Canyon. Then I went to San Francisco and Alcatraz Island. From there, I went to Beijing. From Beijing, I went to Shanghai. I left Shanghai and went to Sydney, Australia; then to Singapore and the Maldives Islands. From the Maldives to Johannesburg; from Johannesburg to Cape Town to Frankfurt, Germany, and from Frankfurt home. That's 17 days."

He said going from Singapore to the Maldives involved two flights and a frightful, middle-of-the-night boat ride. "It was one of the scariest rides I've ever taken," he said.

Asked how he fared on such a rigorous trip, he said, "Really, really well. And the only reason I can say really, really well was because I have been through worse. I did a tour back in the 1990s, and we did one country a day in Europe. It was about as grueling as anything I have ever done."

His travels have had to be wedged into his busy schedule as a musician, doing what he described as a lot of production work. In November, Jolly, known for wearing a piano-key print scarf, was musical director of Philadelphia's annual Marian Anderson Award Gala Dinner and Concert at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, his second year in that post.

On his latest whirlwind, he spent the last few days of October on a trip to Machu Picchu, "the Lost City of the Incas" in the Andes Mountains of Peru. "It took me two days to get there. I stayed the night there and came back home. That's really all I wanted to see."

He said that even though the prize expires at the end of December, he will continue to take international trips through 2015 because of the many frequent flier miles he's accumulated.

Jolly has advice for anyone making long trips over brief periods. "You have to be in great shape to do this. . . . I tell most people, if you want to go around the world, do it when you have the energy."

He also advises travelers to have a Plan B. He said that on the trip to Disney World with his daughter, he lost a large amount of cash from his wallet and the weather was chilly and rainy.

"I went to a dollar store down the road and bought two plastic parkas," he said. "I made boots out of plastic bags and rubber bands to keep our feet dry. We layered our clothes and did Disney in the pouring rain. We had the time of our lives, and the upside: no lines."

Asked which trip was his favorite, he said it was Sydney. "The most exciting thing was swimming with sharks without a cage. I conquered two of my fears - that was scuba diving, because I had never done that, and then the sharks."

He said the scariest trip was to Athens last year. "They were in the middle of unrest. The cab let me off five blocks from my hotel and I had to walk past police in riot gear," he said.

Jolly urges travelers to get out there and take in the sights. "There are so many things that are out there for us to see," he said. "If you get the chance to do it, do it, because the reality of it is, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow, I don't have a single regret."