Last summer we had planned to take a family vacation to Universal Studios in Orlando Florida, but when we gained custody of our nephews in March of 2015 who were 1 and 3 at the time, this put the adventure on hold. Now, a little over a year later they are 3 and 4 and we decided we could drive to Orlando Florida to visit Universal Studios for a super fun vacation for all.
Why Drive To Orlando?
Flying for us isn’t a good option. Even if the tickets were free, Mrs. C. has no desire to get on a plane and travelling on a plane with 4 children does not seem like a fun endeavor to me. We also would have had to rent a car while in Florida, or get a hotel on Universal’s property, which would have been much more expensive. Driving was less expensive, and since Mrs. C. has a very flexible job and I am off work for the summer, taking an extra day on each end of the trip for driving is not a big problem.
Preparing For Our Drive To Orlando Florida:
We live in southwest Michigan about 1,150 miles from Orlando Florida. This means the total time in the car including traffic congestion, food stops and restroom breaks will easily total 24 hours. It was essential to make a plan for how to manage this to result in the most comfortable journey possible.
Having a van certainly helps, because it gives the kids more space. Yes, I know a family of 6 couldn’t fit in a standard car, but their are SUVs and other vehicles that fit 6, but not very comfortably. We took all of our kid movies on DVD, arranged them in a DVD travel book, and we purchased a two screen DVD player. One of the problems we ran into with selecting a DVD player was the length of the cords. We ended up getting this RCA one and buying a longer HDMI cord to go between the screens.
In addition to the DVD players we also had an array of coloring books/ activity books, and small travel pillows that Mrs. C. made for the kids. Each kid had a small bag to put their stuff in that they took along on the trip.
One thing I wish I had done when planning this trip was look for playgrounds off of the highway. I know they exist, but it is difficult to find one while driving and the last thing you want is to go on a wild goose chase off the highway. Where I live I can name a park within a mile of the exit for at least a half dozen exits on a 20 mile stretch of I-94. An actual playground is strongly preferred to a McDonald’s playplace. There are usually more toys to play on, less people, and the kids can actually run around.
Packing For Our Drive To Orlando Florida:
When leaving home for a week, it is important to make sure you have literally everything you could possible need to avoid duplicate expenses. A family trip to Universal Studios is expensive enough as it is without adding extra costs.
Things to pack:
Water bottles for all of the kids: We didn’t put too much in these on the drive to Orlando to avoid extra restroom breaks, but these are a necessity at Universal Studios. They have Coke Freestyle machines all over the park and ice and water are free at these locations, with how hot it is there it is easy to get dehydrated. Make sure every kid has a different water bottle design or at least label them to avoid fights. We got ours at the dollar store for a buck each.
Medications: Medications may be the one thing you can’t replace. Make sure you have everyone’s medications. It is a good idea to also bring along medications form home that you might need.
Double Stroller: If you have young kids a stroller is essential. Universal studios kindly rents out double stroller for $28 a day, however these are poorly designed in my opinion. The kids sit side by side, which means they are more likely to fight. I greatly prefer the strollers with 1 kid in front and one in back. We found one at our local Goodwill thrift store for $30 right before the trip. Another downfall of the rented strollers is that there are a lot of them, making it really easy for someone to accidentally take your stroller. If we only used it for this trip we saved $60. Many people who go to Universal or Disney stay for a full week. 6 days of stroller rentals would then add up to $180. You can buy a really nice double stroller brand new from Amazon for less than that. The really nice thing about the one we have is that it has storage underneath the stroller big enough for water bottles, hats, glasses, and my backpack. There is just too much walking involved to have kids under 6 without a stroller. I actually reclined the back seat in ours and put our 7 year old in there with one of the little kids to push all 3 at once in it to give him a break for a while.
Electronics + Chargers: We have two old generation ipads and a kindle tablet for the kids to play games on. These, along with the DVD players helped keep the kids entertained. Children are not designed to sit still in a car for long journeys. Chargers are really easy to forget, so I made sure to double check that I had them all, plus extras. The battery life on all of these devices are phenomenal, We charged them at home and they lasted all day. granted, the kids weren’t on them the entire time, but it was still impressive.
Sleeping bags: These are nice because they give you a lot of options. We used them in the van to cover up the kids when they wanted to take a nap. It’s also nice to have them when we are visiting other people and for the hotel as well.
socks and shoes: Bring sandles if you want them as well, but you want the most comfortable footwear possible when going to a theme park. I normally wear work boots as my primary shoes, so it was a bit of an adjustment going to normal shoes.
swimwear: Most hotels in the area have pools.
sunscreen: We remembered to bring this with us, but forgot it the first day at the park. All of these kids are pretty darn pale, and the Florida sun is relentless. We had to buy a $15 bottle of sun screen at the park. Always have sunscreen with you and reapply a couple times throughout the day. While walking around I saw several people who had severe sunburns. That’s certainly not how I want to remember my vacation. I highly recommend light colored hats and if possible a bandanna for your neck. Even with sunscreen my neck got burned.
camera with batteries and memory cards: You don’t want to miss out on taking pictures of your trip because the batteries died or your memory card was full. Memory cards are super cheap now, I just got a 32 GB SD card for under $10.
Backpack(s): You will need at least 1 bag to carry all the stuff you need to the park in, and a backpack is the most efficient way to do so. Ideally it will be one that can fit under your stroller as well so you don’t have to wear it the whole day. I highly recommend bringing the least amount of stuff with you into the park. I didn’t think of this until we left, but Ideally I would have left my wallet and Mrs. C’s purse at the hotel and only brought in 1 photo ID and 1 credit card. On the third day my mom had set down her purse and we had walked maybe a quarter mile through the crowds before she noticed. Thankfully it had been turned into a nearby shop.
Drive To Orlando Part 1: Michigan To Kentucky:
The first leg of our journey was to drive to my parents house in Kentucky. This gave us a free place to stay and provided some visiting time for the kids with their grandparents. The total mileage on this leg was right at 400 miles, and we were able to make it on one tank of gas. We left home around 8 am and arrived in Kentucky around 6 pm. We stopped for restroom breaks about every hour and a half, about when a movie would finish up. We also stopped at a McDonalds with a playplace for about an hour to let the kids run out some energy. There’s no way we could have drove straight through to Orlando, it’s just too far.
We spent the next day in Kentucky and had a relaxing day. We slept in a little and played at the local park. We also went shopping for shoes for the two big kids because we had originally brought only their sandals. Doh!
Drive To Orlando Part 2: Kentucky To Florida
The second leg of our journey was about 750 miles. Making the drive feel longer is the fact that we were switching from the central time zone to the eastern time zone. We left at around 5 AM and arrived at our hotel at around 10 pm that night. My mom came with us on the trip, which took away a bit of the space we had, but it was still manageable. It actually probably helped with settling problems with the children because Mrs. C moved to the back and from there she could regulate on the children better.
We made sure that when we stopped for lunch and for dinner we stopped at a restaurant with a play place. This gave me a break from driving and let the kids run out some energy. We took more pre-emptive restroom breaks as well. It is extremely stressful to wait until a 4 year old says he has to go to the bathroom, because your window of time to stop is generally under 5 minutes. Stopping before any of the kids have to ask makes them feel like they aren’t delaying the trip and takes a lot of stress off of the driver.
Be aware when driving to Florida that Georgia is a police state. On the I-75 drive I bet we passed at least a dozen cop cars if not more. They sit on top of overpasses, under bridges, and right over hills. They are waiting everywhere to pull someone over. There are also camera and speed radars installed all along the highway. Despite all of this traffic is FLYING. With the exception of the gridlocked Atlanta area, traffic on I-75 was moving in excess of 80 MPH. I try my best to keep it under 80 because I have the Allstate drive-wise program and I get dinged if I go over 80. Of course I get dinged on high mileage too. I was being passed consistently by cars that had to be pushing 90. They also have several billboards advertising the click it or tick it program.
Billboards in Georgia and Florida must be extremely low cost. There are tons of billboards and there are often many for the same thing. We drove past dozens of religious billboards that were often followed by billboards for strippers. Some of the tourist attractions like Ruby falls also had dozens of billboards.
Avoid Atlanta: I’m not sure of a good route heading south from Michigan to Florida that bypasses Atlanta, but if you plan to go, I HIGHLY recommend looking in to a way to do so. I bet we lost 2 hours of time in Atlanta traffic.
Driving In Orlando:
I’m sure I will find out soon enough, but I am expecting to receive several hundred dollars of fines in the mail. There are stop lights everywhere, traffic is fairly rough in places and there are red light cameras attached to the stop lights at many intersections. The fine for running a red is $250. There were 2 times that I can recollect that the light was yellow when I was halfway through the intersection, but would have been red by the time my car was all the way through. It sure seems as if the yellow lights don’t last as long as they do elsewhere.
I also was blindly listening to my GPS which told me to take a certain exit. That exit however had no way for me to pay the toll, it was a ‘Sunpass’ only exit. Goodbye $100. Just to avoid the stress of having to worry about paying these outrageous fines, I highly recommend stopping at every yellow light, driving slower than the rest of traffic and spending $20 on a sunpass before arriving to Florida.
Always schedule more time than you think you need: While we were in Orlando I had planned to drive down to Titusville to watch the Space X rocket launch. Google maps told me it was 1 hour from the hotel, so I thought leaving 1.5 hours early would be sufficient. I was wrong. This was the most stressful drive I can remember having in my life. I was stuck in traffic for probably 20 miles of the journey and I watched as our buffer eroded away on the GPS and eventually went to T + 10 minutes. We actually made it to Titusville, but were about 10 minutes shy of the park. We pulled over on the side of the road and were able to see the rocket launch, but it was no where near as impressive as it would have been if we were 5 miles closer at Space View Park. Bottom line, if you have a time frame, double it for a decent buffer.
Overall driving to Orlando wasn’t that horrible of an experience, and it was fairly inexpensive. At roughly 25 MPG and $2.25 per gallon of gas, our round trip total of 2,300 miles cost $207 in gas, less than the plane ticket cost for 1 person.
Coming soon: How we got an amazing deal on a hotel in Orlando, and a detailed account of our visit to Universal Studios.
Have you ever embarked on a 1,000+ mile road trip with small children? What did you do to survive it?