The Grackle

Observations, Reflections and Miscellany from the Wacoan

Deaf Influencer Explores Hidden Gems in Waco

How Waco Visitor’s Bureau partners with content creators to showcase the city

3 months ago

By Avery Ballmann

Lily Yu has touched all 50 states, trekked the Rainbow Mountain in Peru, hiked under the towering saguaro cactuses in Scottsdale, Arizona, cliff-jumped off a waterfall in Jamaica and has now crossed Waco off her travel bucket list. Yu is a Deaf travel content creator from Riverside, California and visited Waco this past November. Her Instagram @deafjourney has 39,000 followers, something that wasn’t even remotely on her radar when she started her venture.

In 2018, Yu made her Instagram account to share her and her husband’s travels with her friends and family. At the time, the account was private, but Yu’s trips piqued the interest of her family and friends as she always found hidden gems around the country and the world. A buzz was created, and Yu was receiving questions left and right about her travels. Yu’s husband, Daniel Heidemeyer, suggested that she make the account public to share their tips with others. Over the years, her account gained popularity and now, it is Yu’s passion to make traveling more accessible to people with disabilities.

“A lot of what I like to do is from an educational standpoint,” Yu said. “Bringing those places out and making them accessible for people to find and showing my life as a Deaf content creator.”

Through her social media, Heidemeyer and Yu create videos in American Sign Language of attractions that they visit with detailed captions of what to expect on excursions and where they stayed. Before Yu packs her bags, a lot goes into the planning process for her trips, such as finding hotels with accommodations, arranging ASL interpreters for shows and finding attractions she wants to visit.

However, the burden to plan isn’t all on Yu — she often partners with a travel agency who then arranges a travel writing/content deal with the city she visits. Carla Pendergraft, assistant director of tourism for Waco’s Visitors Bureau, said Waco has been using tourism marketing, where they pay travel creators to visit and make content about the city they are in, to encourage tourism.

“We ended up being able to afford our travels and we’re just so blessed because in the past we were like ‘Yes! We really want to be able to live the dream and travel and check out all the places and maybe work for travel,” Yu said. “It came true. And being paid to travel, it’s been amazing.”

Yu said she loves being a content creator because she gets to represent the Deaf and Asian American communities which are often not portrayed on social media. After finding Yu online, Pendergraft reached out and asked Yu to come to Waco because she had high engagement with her followers. Pendergraft wants tourists to know that Waco is an accessible city.

While she hardly ever meets travel content creators as most of their communication is online, she still provides an attraction pass that is valid at the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame & Museum, Waco Mammoth National Monument, Dr Pepper Museum, Cameron Park Zoo, Mayborn Museum and the Texas Sports Hall of Fame.

“I try not to guide them too much because every person has their own interests,” Pendergraft said. “Some people love museums; other people love to walk around town and see what they discover. And you get better writing when they’re just able to follow what they like to do.”

Yu visited iconic Waco attractions such as the Waco Mammoth National Monument, Homestead Heritage, the Dr Pepper Museum and Magnolia Market. She also ventured off the beaten path and found herself at the top of Brazos Bluffs Ranch riding horseback just before sunset. It’s the hidden, intimate moments like these where Yu is reminded of why she travels.

While Yu was experiencing the wonders of Waco from a tourist standpoint, Pendergraft has always seen and loved these qualities of her town even when Waco was experiencing turmoil. When the Waco Siege occurred in 1993, it took over people’s perception of Waco. Pendergraft said she remembers how frightening that day was and how it continued to negatively affect her job in tourism. But ever since Magnolia Market revamped the silos and small businesses prospered downtown, Pendergraft noticed a change in Waco’s reputation.

According to the Attractions Attendance Summary Report by the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau, which tracks attendance at popular tourist attractions listed here, in 2013 Waco had approximately 500,000 visitors at these attraction sites throughout the year. As of 2023, Waco tracked approximately 1.8 million visitors per year, doubling itself in a 10-year period. Pendergraft said these statistics include all types of visitors at these sites — including Waco residents — but these numbers provide a good estimate of how many tourists are coming to Waco.

City officials estimate that Waco will be expecting 100,000 visitors on April 8 for the solar eclipse. Pendergraft said the tourism department has made special efforts to accommodate all visitors. To view parking and event details, visit their website.

“People started to see Waco in a different way,” Pendergraft said. “Other people are sharing how I feel about Waco; they’re starting to feel that same way.”

Because of creators and writers like Yu, Waco is now being seen in a positive light, which is why Yu has a passion for finding hidden gems and sharing what she experiences as she travels across the world. Her next destination is Puerto Rico, and she will return to Texas at the end of April to visit Georgetown.

“I would highly recommend Waco to anyone that would want to visit,” Yu said. “My husband and I have been to Texas so many times, we’ve visited so many different cities in Texas. I think our favorite city so far is Waco.”