Over the course of about six years, two of my sisters and I participated in the Disney College Program, and all three of us decided to remain seasonal after our programs finished. With the perks of having a Disney Cast Member for family – such as free tickets and discounted rooms – plus getting to visit one of her daughters, my mother became something of an expert at impromptu road trips. The road to Disney became a well-worn path, and it was always a welcome sight to see “Pop Century” saved as a favorite on our GPS.
My mom never complained about driving 18 hours so that we could work the hours required to maintain our “seasonal” Cast Member status. I happily designated myself as my mother’s “traveling buddy”. We took so many long weekend trips together that my high school teachers stopped reading my excuse notes. “So, you were at Disney again, huh?” they would ask. I have such fond memories of mother/daughter breakfasts at Kona Café (Can you say Pineapple Macadamia Nut Pancakes people?) and late night ice cream stops at L’Artisan des Glaces in Epcot.
Since I have never actually done the driving to Florida, I thought it would be fun to do a “he said/she said” style article, but from a “driver said/passenger said” perspective and include our Top 3 Tips, featuring none other than my mom herself!
As a passenger, I say…
1. Bring something to do: Whatever your estimated time in the car will be, plan something to do. You may think you love staring out the window watching the state lines go by, but that plan could be foiled when you are backed up on I-4. Trust me on this one. I have been stuck 45 minutes away from Disney property for 5 hours with nothing but a dead phone and a fuzzy radio station (Top that off with an empty 44 oz Diet Coke cup sitting next to you, and it is a complete disaster!). Whatever you like to do, bring it with you! It could be a book, an audio book, a podcast (I hear this guy named Lou Mongello has a pretty great podcast about Walt Disney World. Maybe you’ve heard of him?). Even something as simple as a small craft project like knitting, crocheting, or adult coloring books (Disney coloring books are available here!) can be a great, stress-free way to start your vacation.
2. Pack Snacks: Packing snacks not only saves time by not having to stop on the road, it will also save you money and most likely a calorie or two. I like to bring healthier options such as fruit, fresh vegetables, cheese and crackers, and trail mix. Make sure you bring plenty of water bottles and a big cooler. Eating fruits and vegetables gives me a lot more energy and keeps me from feeling sluggish when I arrive at my resort. More energy + Disney = getting more done and seeing more sights (which equals a happier me).
3. Wear Comfy Clothes: I have seen quite the sights at 3 a.m. travel stops–from baggy, holey sweat pants to bare feet in a gas station bathroom. You want to be as comfortable as possible, while still remembering you will see other people during your trip. Taking the weather into account, I opt for some type of comfortable pants like leggings, linen pants, or yoga pants; a t-shirt; and a pair of shoes that are easy to slip on and off, such as sandals or Toms. It’s also a great idea to wear layers depending on the time of year. If you’re driving from the north to the south in the winter time you will notice the temperatures can vary greatly. While it may have been 32 degrees and snowing at your house that morning, lunch time in the Carolinas can be 75 and sunny and you’re totally regretting wearing your Uggs.
Mom, the driver, says…
1. Rest up BEFORE the trip: I wish I were one of those people who could survive on a few hours sleep, but I’m not. (Yep, even when it comes to a Disney trip.) Since I want to hit the parks running, I aim to get 6-7 hours of sleep before I get behind the wheel (though that means taking a Tylenol PM and going to bed right after dinner the night before we leave). With an 18-hour trip ahead of us, I pop out of bed at [1:30] AM (ok, maybe “pop” is not quite the right word, but at least my feet end up on the floor). I aim to have everyone out the door, suitcases in hand, by 2 AM. Sometimes my kids stay awake until we leave (which makes for a nice quiet ride a good part of the way).
2. Sail smoothly: It’s impossible to avoid all traffic problems, but there are a couple of things I do to keep us moving along. First, I try to plan our departure time according to when I am least likely to hit rush hour traffic in the major cities on the route. Second, I travel on a weekend if possible. Also, I got a Sun Pass, which is Florida’s version of the EZ Pass pre-paid toll device used in my state. Traffic near Walt Disney World can be nightmarish, which can make the longest part of the trip that much longer. The Sun Pass has saved us a lot of time, allowing us to take alternate routes when necessary and to do so without wasting time in tollbooth lines.
3. Create a “stop strategy:” If you travel with a GPS you know how quickly those minutes add onto your ETA. Stops can cause you to lose valuable Disney minutes, even hours. Think about it this way…would you rather spend your time at a gas station or Disney Springs? This is what I do:
Give a 10-minute warning: “Wake up if you need a bathroom break, and yes, you better try or plan to hold it for 2 more hours. Make sure you can find both shoes and they are on your feet when we stop.”
Stop for gas, food, and bathrooms all at once (preferably before the emergency stage in any of those categories). I stop only if the gas station is visible from the exit. (Been on a few too many wild goose chases, trusting a sign with a little “1” below the gas icon.) If there’s a fast food restaurant attached or at least right next door, that’s a big plus.
My passengers are old enough for someone to order the fast food while another uses the bathroom, and I pump gas. When the first person finishes in the bathroom, she takes over the gas pumping, and I get to run in. (When it comes to fast food, we have noticed that the drive-thru usually has quicker service than going inside to order, so sometimes we just wait and do that after the gas/bathroom part of the stop.)
I have to add some tips I think are important for safety reasons. To be as alert in hour #10 as I am in hour #1, here are some things that seem to help…
- Drive at a safe speed. I avoid the time and expense of a ticket (as well as stress, knowing those flashing blue lights in your rear view mirror are not for me). And, (though I’ve been accused of driving like a grandma) I feel certain I have avoided more than a few accidents over the years.
- Plan to do a quick stretch stop at least every two hours, or whenever you find yourself starting to lose alertness.
- Sip on a drink throughout the trip. (A 44-ounce Diet Coke keeps me going for quite awhile. And, though I am reluctant to admit this because it is something I never do any other time except on my long trips to Disney, I down one of those little energy shots first thing in the morning or after lunch. They really do help me to be awake and alert during the low-energy parts of the trip.)
- Munch on crunchy snacks like pretzels, nuts, or carrot sticks.
- I move my eyes slightly from side to side rather than staring straight ahead, trance-like.
- If I begin to get tired, I stop! The main goal is to get to Disney, so we want be safe—even if it means adding a little extra time to the trip.
(Photo from the author’s personal collection.)
What are some of your tips for driving to Disney? What are some of your “must pack” snacks and to-do items? Let us know in the comments below!
Elysabethe is a Disney addict and Disney College Program Alum. Her first visit to the parks was when she was just three months old, and her most recent visit was on her honeymoon last June. When she is not in the parks she can usually be found carrying her resort mug full of diet coke and singing to Disney music on her drive to work, trying to bring some of the “magic” back home.