Interview with a Travel Channel Wildman, Host Don Wildman

Part historian, part detective, part bad-ass, and “everyman expert,” that’s how the bio for Travel Channel host Don Wildman reads.  He currently hosts two Travel Channel shows – Mysteries at the Museum and Off Limits.  However, when we started chatting he led with, “if I wasn’t a host on TV, I’d be a school teacher.”  Hmmmm, bad-ass schoolteacher perhaps?  The more we talked, the more one understands Don views travel as the opportunity to learn and television as his medium to teach.  Continue reading for the highlights of my interview (you can also listen in its entirety) with explorer and history buff for the Travel Channel, Don Wildman.

Press the play arrow below to listen to the interview.

[audio:|titles=Interview with Travel Channel Host Don Wildman]

Note: Don is so gregarious, as soon as he got on the phone we broke into conversation.  5 minutes later, we realized we should start the interview, but didn’t go back for introductions.  Don Wildman is speaking at the beginning of the recording.

Vehicle for Adventure

Don Wildman grew up in small town New Jersey, in a modest household, and felt compelled to delve deeply into his surroundings, traveling as far as Philadelphia on buses.  At an early age, Don had a huge curiosity and desire to break out, explore the world, and learn how other people live.  Wildman said that travel was always a big part of his family life growing up.  He continued,

What was so great about my childhood is we had no money.  They kept it so simple and yet we still managed to have vacations.  My Dad went out and, for $300, bought a Nimrod tent trailer.  There was nothing more exciting than the day he brought that used tent trailer home and it was our vehicle for adventure.

To him, the trailer represented the outdoors, hiking, and time spent with family.  He marveled at the brilliance of his Dad’s purchase.  Don’s parents would simply say, “we’re going on vacation.”  It didn’t have to be an exotic destination – adventure could be as simple as going down the block.  Don Wildman’s parents instilled the importance of travel but yet the scale didn’t really matter.  It was more meaningful to keep your mind open, be open to new experiences, and expand as a person.

"Off Limits" host Don Wildman makes his way to the top of Washington Square Arch in New York City. Photo provided by the Travel Channel.


Travel as a Profession

Through traveling for his profession, Wildman understands how travel has great potential to make the world better.  From a journalistic point of view, he uses television to make the world more understandable and help people engage actively in their travel to learn.  He added,

America careens from being international in scope to being more domestic.  Our world is on a course of all of us being together – the eventual goal of us all learning to live together and be at peace and not fight each other – it’s a one people together “thing” in 1,000 years.  That’s inevitable – therefore, travel is an incredible cultural tool for furthering that continuum.  Travel is the most immediate thing that people have at hand to be a part of that movement.  Unconsciously, every time you get on a plane and go somewhere you are continuing this thing that started back in the age of discovery and before.

He went on to talk about his belief that humans have an innate drive to travel and explore,

You don’t have to travel – that’s the weird thing about it.  Why would you leave your home where your food and your safety is?  Because it’s a natural human instinct to go somewhere, and not necessarily for survival or food resources, but because there’s a natural curiosity to want to know what’s over that hill.

I think that’s because there’s some beautiful, universal thing that we’re all part of which is the eventual goal of us all learning to live together and be at peace and not fight each other – travel is the most immediate thing that people have at hand to be a part of that movement.

Wildman appreciates how fortunate he is to travel for a living, and experience people’s stories and the world in great depth.  We shifted gears from more philosophical discussions of the importance of travel to talk about his specific shows.

Misspent Brilliance Off Limits: Alcatraz

Don Wildman’s series “Off Limits” focuses on untold stories of the United States, and one episode this season showed how three prisoners plotted and escaped from the Alcatraz prison.  It’s a story we’ve heard before, but Wildman uncovered new pieces.

Image source Alcatraz Island National Park


It’s the 50th anniversary of the escape from Alcatraz – the only one where people believe at least one of the escapees lived.  Don re-traced the path of the escapees, attempting to fit his body into the dusty and gross holes behind their cells.  Putting himself in their place, allowed Don to appreciate the escape itself for its brave, daring, and bold choices.  He elaborated,

What I learned about the Alcatraz escape was the misspent brilliance of these men.  If you can get out of Alcatraz, then you can get a good job and make a living.  These three guys did the impossible, they couldn’t have had regular lives somewhere else and made a fortune?

James Dean’s Evil Car Mysteries at the Museum

Don Wildman’s other show, “Mysteries at the Museum,” looks at the stories behind individual artifacts kept in museums around the country.  I asked, what was the most surprising mystery he’s uncovered?  Don very quickly answered, “James Dean’s Porsche Spyder.”  The story goes as follows, noted actor Sir Alec Guinness (James Dean’s friend) saw the Porsche Spyder and told James Dean to get rid of it because it was evil – one week later James Dean was dead.  Some believe that Alec Guinness psychically predicted James Dean’s death.  Furthermore, the “evil” car continued to curse those who came in contact with it, those associated with pieces of the Spyder would mysteriously end up injured or killed.

While Don’s favorite mystery is James Dean’s Spyder, a favorite museum of his is the International Spy Museum in Washington DC.  “I love espionage,” explained Wildman.  The museum houses ordinary items like a hollow coin discovered by a young paperboy.  The kid drops the coin on the ground and it falls apart revealing a compartment inside holding a microchip.  Russian spies in Brooklyn would use the coin as a tool to pass information to each other.

Hollow Coin; Image provided by the International Spy Museum, Washington DC


The fact these items exist is the value of going down to the museum and seeing them, and Don advocates that everyone should head to their local museum.  Looking at an artifact in a museum may seem like a passive experience, but learning the story behind the artifact makes the experience a more active one.  Museums challenge you to realize what goes into the everyday items we take for granted.

Advice for Family Travelers – Keep it Simple

We ended our conversation talking about travel advice for families.

In a perfect world, you would be like a teacher with your kids, and use these opportunities to be like a classroom of the place you are going to.  If I was a parent, I’d probably be exhausted and wouldn’t necessarily want to do that day.  The beauty about my parents and what they did was they just kept it simple.  Maybe by keeping it simple, they were just being lazy, I don’t know, but they never got wrapped up too much in elaborate travel.  As a result, I had to use my imagination a lot.

My family used to joke about how many battlefields we used to go to, and it was up to us to imagine where the battle actually happened – because all that’s there is a big empty field.  I do what I do for a living because I did that so much as a kid – looking at a big field is actually interesting because I’ve trained my mind since I was a child in imagining what might have happened on that field.  My parents didn’t work so hard at “serving up” the travel.  The let us create it for ourselves.  Here’s the campground – go have fun.  It benefits the child, it simplifies the process of traveling, and it can be done cheap.

Twilight firing of a cannon at Saratoga National Historical Park


As a parent, I appreciate Don’s advice for traveling as a family, and certainly admit to overdoing it at times in our trip planning.  I want to thank Travel Channel host Don Wildman for taking the time for the interview.  “Mysteries at the Museum” currently airs Tuesdays at 9pm, and “Off Limits” can be found at 9am Sundays on the Travel Channel.  For more family travel news, reviews, and trip reports, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.