By Shelly Branch

(MONEY Magazine) – To learn what you can expect from a travel pro, we asked a dozen agents to plan two vacations for a family of four (kids ages eight and 12). When shopping for an agent, you can try a similar, scaled-down audition. To test value, six were asked to find the best price for a four-night trip to Florida's Disney World. To rate creative ability, we asked the other six to plan a seven-night ski package anywhere in Colorado. The trips were to originate from New York City during the first week of February 1992. In this test of a cross section of small firms, national chains and tour packagers, we found that enthusiasm and knowledge differed sharply, even within the same company. Most agents scored well on package price but fumbled the all-important details, such as the cost of ski lessons or the exact location of a hotel. Our Disney request brought quotes ranging from $1,821 to $2,398. For Colorado, all but one agent came in on budget. Here's what else we found:

DISNEY WORLD We asked for a real bargain, including air fare, passes to area theme parks, rental car or transfers, and a moderately priced hotel as close to Disney World as possible. -- The hotel. Despite the Orlando area's 77,500 hotel rooms, four of our six agents checked us into Disney's 2,112-room, budget Caribbean Beach Resort. ''It's a good choice, but only one of several in the same category,'' says Mary Mitchell, Travel Weekly's Disney World correspondent, who reviewed the agents' picks for us. In fact, two newer Disney properties, Port Orleans and Dixie Landing, offer identical rates. The lack of options suggests that the agents ''haven't kept current,'' says Mitchell. -- Location. For Disney devotees, staying close to the Magic Kingdom is heaven. But when we asked agents about hotel proximity to the park gates, they fed us a few fantasies: one, for instance, described the Holiday Inn Lake Buena Vista as the hotel ''closest to the park.'' It's actually three miles away. -- Getting around. Only one agency, Thomas Cook, wisely advised against a rental car if we stayed at a Disney hotel. Mitchell notes: ''Disney's transport system is a master at moving people.'' The others, she says, should have at least warned us about Disney's parking charges ($4 a day) and distant lots. -- Activities. Although we asked about water theme parks, Carlson Travel Network was the only agency to point out that early February's 65 degrees F to 70 degrees F might be a little chilly for getting wet and wild.

ROCKY MOUNTAIN SKI VACATION * For our winter getaway, besides specifying a budget of $3,500 including air fare, we asked for a Colorado resort suited to downhill novices. We wanted all the features that agents could include -- such as lift tickets, lessons, rental car or transfers. -- The resort. Claire Walter, author of four ski guidebooks, approved of the five agents who suggested Steamboat (800-922-2722), Crested Butte (800-544-8448) or Silver Creek (800-448-9458). ''Each had a good idea for a family of beginners,'' notes Walter, who considered the terrain, ski schools and lift prices. The exception, from Rosenbluth Travel, was Snowmass, near Aspen, which not only came in $137 over budget but also crammed the family into a one-room condo. Responds the agency: ''The condo is quite spacious, and we thought Aspen would be fun even if the family didn't like to ski.'' -- Lifts and lessons. Only one agent managed to cover both lift tickets and lessons. And Adventures on Skis, which sells ski packages to consumers and to other agents, failed to include lift tickets at all. Explains the agency: ''Normally we don't include those extras because they don't provide commissions for the retail agents we service.'' -- Package perks. Three agents who recommended Steamboat touted the resort's ''Kids Ski Free'' program. But two of them didn't mention that only the lifts, not the lessons, are free. Since our kids were novices, reminds Walter, we would still have had to enroll them in ski school at a cost of $45 each a day.