Our surprise road trip from Virginia to Orlando

For Spring Break this year, I did something I swore I would never do—I went to a major theme park for the week.

It was an impulse purchase a few months ago because the deal was too good to pass up, and I paid an extra $100 a person for “cancel for any reason” insurance, so COVID didn’t stress me out.

The times I’ve been to Disney in the past, we always go after Thanksgiving when the crowds are light and it’s easy to get onto rides and visit with characters. But last year, we had to cancel our trip, and when I heard that Universal was capped (in theory, don’t know that I believe it now) at 35% capacity, I decided it was the perfect time to try a Spring Break trip.

The entire thing was a surprise because I had no idea if it would even happen. My husband and I both got our first vaccine dose, and everyone was healthy, so it was looking good by March. Then on Good Friday, my kids thought they were just hopping in the car with me to drop off our new puppy for a week of training camp, but secretly, dad was packing up the car while we were gone and we were sending the dog to be boarded (and trained?)!

We’re in Virginia, so we planned a layover in Savannah and didn’t even tell the kids where we were heading. As I mentioned in the last blog post, the big kids had iPads that I preloaded with movies from my MoviesAnywhere account (no internet required) and I got a portable DVD player to strap on the headrest for our toddler. Both worked really well! Plus, lots of snacks of course.

Other than a lot of bathroom breaks and diaper changes in the front seat, we had a pretty smooth trip. It was leisurely, which made it less stressful too. We spent over an hour at South of the Border, on the NC/SC border, and if you have never been, I don’t really know how to describe it to you. It’s a rundown tourist trap, and when we told the kids that we were staying for the week, they were THRILLED. Clearly, their expectations were low.

We ended up getting to Savannah around bedtime, and we stayed at a gorgeous hotel on the water thanks to a friend who had some Marriott points to spare. It was beyond anything we could have imagined and not like any place we’d stay on our own. But if you find yourself in Savannah, you need to at least stop in to the JW Marriott at River Street and check out their rock and dinosaur exhibits. It was like a mini-museum. And now I KNEW it was going to be hard to tell this kids this wasn’t actually where were were spending the week.

So the next morning, I told them we had to pack up and change rooms because our friend only gifted us one night in this room, and we went to Forsyth Park to enjoy the gorgeous views. I told them if they humored me, I’d give them their next surprise.

Ok, so technically my kids had no clue what Harry Potter World was and hadn’t heard of Universal, so this needed a bit of explanation. Once they got it though, THEY GOT IT.

I’m not sure it would have been possible to have more traffic on 95 than we did during the two days down, but our 4 hour drive on day two turned into 6, so we didn’t get check in to our hotel until dinner that evening.

I’m a big believer in looking for two bedroom suites for trips like this, especially with babies and toddlers. Both Disney and Universal offer value properties (Art of Animation for Disney and Dockside/Endless Summer for Universal), so it can be totally reasonable to go this route. My toddler transitioned to his own bed last month, so we packed bedrails, and he and I slept in the bedroom during week while the kids and dad stayed in the two queen beds in the main living area.

The benefit to having Caleb in a separate room meant he could nap mid-day, and when he woke up super early, only I had to suffer through!

It was a bit challenging when my husband and I wanted to stay up after the big kids’ bedtime, but overall, it was fine. We let them fall asleep to Shrek or another themed movie, and then we’d sit in the “kitchen” area for a night cap or just to relax for a few minutes.

I used AmazonPrime for a grocery delivery for fruit, water, beer, and other snacks to get us through the week, and it was perfect! It was nice having snack and drink choices other than $12 platters from the hotel’s dining hall and gave us stuff to take into the parks that we couldn’t bring in our car with us.

Some of these things may be a result of COVID, but a few things I learned from our first trip to Universal:

  1. Make dining reservations whenever you can. I had booked only 2 dinners (NBC Grill and Cowfish) at City Walk in advance, and those were the only meals we could get if we didn’t want a 3pm or 930pm!
  2. Come home mid-day when crowds are at their peak. We were at the parks by 7:30 most mornings and could ride a lot. Then suddenly the waits were 90-120 minutes by 1030 or 11. We made our way out of the parks and back on the shuttles for lunch/snacks at the hotel. Caleb took a nap and the kids either went to the pool or played on tablets. We would head back around 3 and had no issues!
  3. Consider if the dining plan actually works for you. I’m glad we didn’t purchase one. The lines were SO LONG in the park for quick serve meals. The only thing that saved us was that Mardi Gras was still going on, so there were food stands all around, and we were able to do that for dinners one night.
  4. Get the Photopass and USE IT. This isn’t remotely close to the Disney one, but for $100 or less, you can easily get your money’s worth. I didn’t learn until the LAST evening though that there are a ton of places that have fun photo experiences that are included with your pass. It’s not just ride photos and photographers at the entrances! My kids did a green screen shoot on our last night that I stumbled on by accident. They are some of my favorite pics from the trip!
  5. Buy the refillable Freestyle cups (the 12.99 ones, not the $25 ones). The Coke Freestyle stations are all over the parks. You can get water, lemonade, powerade, and even slushies! So don’t worry if you aren’t a soda drinker. You can refill every 10 minutes! We accidentally bought a fancy insulated cup for $25 before we entered the park, so don’t make that mistake.
  6. For the virtual queue, keep hitting that blue button. A few rides right now (esp. Hagrid’s Motorbike) are available via a virtual spot in line. Don’t mistake this as an express pass. For Hagrid’s, it was still a 90 minute wait (!!!) once we snagged this spot. If you can make it to the screen where you’re reserving the number of people for the ride and it tells you no times are available, just keep clicking. It took me about 10 minutes of trying to finally get a time reserved.

We spent one final night at a friend’s house on the water an hour north of Orlando, so it was a great way to unwind from a hectic trip, AND I got all of our laundry done! We decided we wanted to attempt the full drive home in one day, so I packaged up bags of snacks for each kid. That is what they had for the full trip, and they could eat them whenever. It kept them super quiet!

For the little guy, I bought him one of those $5 DVDs from Walmart that has 4 hours of various cartoons. He did much better than I thought on the drive down, so I wanted to double down on the DVD situation. 4 hours was awesome and kept us from having to change the DVD 10 times during the trip!

We timed our departure so we could get in 2 hours, have lunch, and then he could nap. Then we did another couple of bathroom breaks, and dinner later. Somehow, we made it from South Carolina to VA without a stop. The kids fell asleep and my bladder cooperated!

All in all, a great trip and now I know we can do road trips successfully! DM me with any other tips you have to make these trips go smoothly next time.

Published by Ashley Adams

Author, former single mom, lover of Cherry Coke Zero and Taylor Swift. Here to coach and support and love on women in challenging relationships.

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