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By Erica Colmenares
People make the decision to drive to Disney for all sorts of reasons. For the lucky ones, it’s because it takes less time to drive than it would to fly. For others, it’s cheaper to drive down the whole family than to buy round-trip tickets into Orlando for everyone. There are also Disney fans who like the adventure (or flexibility) of the road trip. Some just plain don’t like to fly. Whatever the reason, there are ways to turn the miles on the road into a fun and enjoyable start (and end) to a Disney vacation.
We consulted some experts on long-distance driving trips, people who had real experience on the haul to and from Disney World. Below, we’ve compiled the best of their road-trip advice and tips. Thanks to Kathy, Sandra, Susan, Dawnie, Crystal, Suzy, Karen, Lindsey, and Teresa for their wonderful wisdom.
First Things First: The Vehicle
It may seem obvious, but have your vehicle serviced before you go. Change the oil, rotate the tires, check the fluids, make sure your spare has air. Consider joining AAA or similar if you are not already a member. Even new vehicles can break down, and you’ll be grateful to have towing coverage.
Make sure the car is vacuumed and spotless inside and out. This way you start your trip feeling and looking good!
Planning Your Route
Get any detailed guidebooks you can find. Teresa shared, “We always drive down on the I-75 because we have a wonderful book called ‘Along the I-75‘ that tells you what hotels, gas stations, restaurants, playgrounds, large stores such as Super Targets and Meijers, and points of interest are at every single exit. It also gives bypass routes for major cities. That helps us plan our drive and know what’s coming up. (If people are hungry, we can look ahead a few exits to see what options there are for restaurants or groceries, for example.)”
Type the words “exit guide” into your search engine and you will find information about the various interstates, including services at exits and even the all-important construction updates. Allow for traffic delays, especially in major cities like Washington, D.C. Look at your maps ahead of time to see what alternative routes there might be (saved us once!) and to plan possible stopping points for gas and breaks.
Sandra shared her experience: “We enjoy reading about the history of the places we are driving by. Have an older child read out the information from the guide as you approach it. We discovered a wonderful short walking trail in South Carolina (Blue Heron Nature Trail, exit 21). It’s perfect for a 20-minute stretch and there are places to eat nearby.”
If you’re driving down I-95, South of the Border is an interesting little “tourist town” at the border of North and South Carolina, pretty much at the half-way point between Boston and The World!
Don’t just have maps for yourself. Older kids like to follow your route during the drive, and younger kids will just enjoy having their own “big person” map. AAA is a great source, or you can print stuff online.
Packing the Car
Let everyone have a backpack, plastic container, or tote bag to fill with books, music, snacks, stuffed animals, spare T-shirts, and other comfort items for the trip.
Beach towels make great blankets or lap cloths when eating in the car, and can be rolled up to use as pillows.
Be sure to pack any needed medications where you can reach them. Carry a few plastic bags for litter control and just in case the travel doesn’t agree with someone’s tummy.
Pack everything you’ll need during the drive (toiletries, a change of clothes, PJs, swimsuits) in one suitcase, and make sure that it is easily accessible during stops. Consider bundling each kid’s change of clothes together so no one has to root through an entire bag for an outfit. Many people use large Ziploc bags for this.
For clean-up, have these things on hand: wipes, paper towels, plastic bags for all the trash, and Ziplocs for the partially eaten snacks (or to protect those precious crafts or finds from rest areas).
For comfort, pack your kid’s favorite stuffed animal, and have a blanket for everyone — great to sleep with or if the driver wants the car cooler than everyone else. Baby blankets work great in the car — even for the kids who aren’t “babies” any more!
Starting and Stopping (or Not)
We heard various outlooks on the best plan of attack. Karen advised, “Always leave in the wee hours of the morning! We usually go to bed early the night before (7:00 p.m.). We leave at 1:30 or 2:00 a.m. at the latest. We are able to last till 8:00 p.m. (Georgia/Florida line). Go to bed by 9:00 p.m., so you can get an early start the next day. You can arrive at Disney quickly, but you are not exhausted when you get there. The trick is getting to bed early before leaving, and heading out early. It is great!”
Teresa shared, “If you have youngish kids, and more than one driver, drive as much at night as possible (while the kids are sleeping). Be sure to plan some “working off energy” stops for the kids — at a restaurant with a play area or at a mall, if it’s winter.” For really long road trips with kids especially make sure you plan a play break. Bring a Frisbee and stop at a rest area where there’s an open field and play for a while. This will help everyone to stretch their legs and wear down the kids’ built-up energy. Crystal suggested taking a shopping break — there are outlet malls all over the place.
Another viewpoint was offered by Karen: “Rule of thumb: unless there is an emergency, we do bathroom breaks only when we get gas. And we only do drive-thru meals — we just want to get there! Luckily we have children that are used to driving long distances so we do not need to take breaks to exercise!”
Consider breaking up your trip with an overnight stay along the way rather than driving all night. Teresa shared her usual approach: “We try to get close to Walt Disney World the night before, and stay in an offsite hotel (say in Ocala or even Kissimmee if we’ve made it that far). Then we’re well rested and can go to our Disney hotel, register, and head off to the parks!” Sandra expanded on that idea: “Pick an interesting place to stop and make it part of the adventure. Plan ahead and make a reservation online, or ask for assistance at the Welcome Center of the state where you plan to stop. We reserve ahead and stop at South Carolina’s exit 98, which has lots of hotels and eateries. Many hotel chains offer free breakfast, which is a cost and time saver. We are able to arrive in Florida refreshed and not half-dead from driving.”
Do stop at the Florida Welcome Center. Fresh orange and grapefruit juice samples are free, there are lots of clean restrooms, and you can pick up coupons and information about Florida attractions, including Disney brochures. Take a picture of your kids in front of the Welcome to Florida sign!
Lindsey said, “Since we travel with two small children (currently 3 years and 11 months old), we have found that planning a couple of longer breaks in fun locations is helpful. It’s sort of a mini-vacation in a vacation. For example, this past October, we stopped for lunch at USS Alabama Battleship Park in Mobile, Alabama (a favorite of ours). While we didn’t tour the ship, the kids did get to see the planes and tanks on the grounds as well as play in the large grassy area (a great place for a picnic lunch). Also, we stopped at a new destination —Ponce de Leon State Park in Ponce de Leon, Florida. Our youngest enjoyed a stroll down the many trails while our oldest splashed in the creek.”
Teresa wrote, “We don’t book hotel rooms ahead of time for the driving part, although I know some people do. We’ve never had a problem — but I should add that we don’t usually go at peak vacation times. A hotel that includes a free breakfast can save you some money and also some time in the morning. Grab a few extra pieces of fruit and muffins on your way out and you have a mid-morning snack too.”
Speaking of Food
Pack easy-to-eat snacks for your trip, like pre-cut cheese, crackers, fruit, bottled drinks, etc. Put together sandwiches or bring stuff to fix them and stop at one of the state welcome centers to pick up maps and eat lunch. It’s a nice break and saves getting on and off the interstate as well as being cheaper and healthier than eating fast food.
Pack an assortment of finger foods and small cups to hold things like dry cereal or mini-vanilla wafers. Susan cautions: “We stay away from chocolate, but you can do Tootsie Rolls or granola bars with chocolate chips if you need a chocolate fix.”
Minimize the number of “sticky” foods, but pack wipes to clean those fingers.
Have cold water for everyone to start out the day, and have at least one or two frozen waters (if possible) for the rest of the day. Susan, speaking from experience, wrote, “We don’t pack drinks other than water since our kids are still prone to spills.”
During the first couple hours, if your kids aren’t sleeping, don’t immediately bring out the DVDs or new toys. Dawnie reminded us that the excitement of starting a road trip to Disney is usually enough to keep children entertained at the beginning of the drive.
Kathy wrote, “We’ve gone over 30 times and have tried a lot of different things, from books to activity books to coloring books, taking the laptop and DVD player to watch movies, etc. Now, with the grandkids, we do all of the above and more. We give them “state” gifts. Every time we get into a new state, they get to pick a gift. Each grandkid has their own wrapping paper, so they get a gift that works for them. We also give each grandkid a roll of quarters, and if they ask “Are we there yet?” they lose a quarter. They know that will cut into their spending money, so they don’t often whine.”
Bring headphones and music/movie devices for kids and restless grown-ups. Borrow books from your local library on CD as well as paper; this could be a good time for the whole family to enjoy a classic. Don’t forget batteries for your electronics!
Don’t underestimate the fun of old-style games like spotting license plates from various states. Bring pencils and paper to record these. Play Disney trivia with your Passporter or other Disney guide book.
Print out free Disney sheets online that let you make a journal, color pages, or activity pages.
Dole out toys and games from the dollar store or saved from kids’ fast food meals every 100–200 miles to stifle the bored whining from the backseat.
Kathy had a tip for avoiding squabbles over whose songs get played on the drive: “Next trip, we are going to have everyone make a ‘song list’ of 10–15 songs, and load that on the iPod. We will then listen to the music in random order.” Disney music is another good, neutral choice.
Pack age-appropriate books — unless your children are prone to motion sickness. Or play a book on CD relevant to your trip.
A portable DVD player is an invaluable tool when traveling with little ones. How did our parents do without them?
This isn’t exactly entertainment, but older kids should do homework if traveling during school time. They will not want to do it once at Disney, so do it while riding!
Other entertainment ideas for the car:
sketchbook/notepad and pencils (stay away from crayons in hot weather)
card games and car games
DVD/iPod/Nintendo DS games
magnetic board games
Hidden Mickey books
Disney park maps
There are a number of good travel pages on TheMouseForLess.com. The Ins & Outs of Travel: Driving includes information on strategies for saving on gasoline, locating the cheapest gas, and Orlando and Walt Disney World information for motorists. https://www.themouseforless.com/tripplanning/wdwsavings/TravelDriving.shtml
The transportation page includes links to pages with travel tips from Disney Family Travel (with information on healthy snacks and meals on the road, tantrum tips, backseat fun, keeping the car tidy), Traffic.com (to help you avoid traffic jams along the way), and momsminivan.com (with lots of fun road trip ideas). https://www.themouseforless.com/tripplanning/links/Transportation.shtml
The Road Trip Home
The least magical part of any Disney vacation is its end. A long drive home can prolong the agony, but if you plan ahead, your drive home can also feel like part of your vacation. If you can only swing a hotel stay on one of your legs, use it on the way home. You’ll be tired from your fun Disney visit — enjoy taking some extra time to make it home, safe and sound. Remember to reserve some new, special toys, particularly for the youngest travelers. Stop at a grocery store to replenish your supply of healthy snacks. And use the time on your way home to relive the best parts of your vacation, and maybe even start planning your next drive down to Disney.
Thanks again to Kathy, Sandra, Susan, Dawnie, Crystal, Suzy, Karen, Lindsey, and Teresa for sharing this wonderful information with us.