Announcing Theme Park Insider's 2009 Summer Roadtrip
I'm going on a roadtrip.
This summer, my family's loading up the Prius for an epic, 33-day trip across the country and back. Of course, we'll be visiting several theme parks along the way.
I've long believed that planning a trip can be just as fun as taking it, and I'm deep into the planning process now. An atlas lies on my nightstand, and I've used both it and Google Maps to plot the best routes to each of the nightly destinations we've planned. We'll be staying with family and friends most of the evenings during the trip, with 12 hotel nights mixed in.
My latest obsession has been trying to find good places to eat along the way. By good places, I'm trying for reasonably-priced, locally-owned and operated casual restaurants that serve locally-grown food from independent farmers and bakers. I'm trying to show my kids their country, and I'd like to show them at least a few places that are not the same old chains, or allegedly "mom and pop" joints that actually get their food off the same Sysco truck as a million other restaurants.
The best example I've found so far is Local Burger in Lawrence, Kansas, where we'll be eating for dinner on the fourth night of our trip. (We're starting in mid-July.) If anyone has any other, similar suggestions, lemme know.
The route? We'll be taking I-15 up from Los Angeles to Utah, where we'll hop on I-70. After a day in Denver, we'll proceed on I-70 to St. Louis, where we'll switch to I-64. After a detour up to Bloomington in Indiana, where Laurie and I met at IU, we'll be in Cincinnati for a week.
From there, it's back up to I-70 and over to Washington, D.C. for a long weekend. We'll then drive down to Williamsburg, Virginia for several days, then make our way to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee via I-85 and I-40, with a stop in Durham, North Carolina. We're planning taking the coastal route from the Smokies, I-26 to I-95, our on way down to Florida, where we'll spend another week in Orlando.
Finally, we'll drive up to the 10, which we will take west back across the country, with stops in New Orleans, Austin, Texas and southern New Mexico.
The theme parks we'll be visiting? Holiday World in southern Indiana, Kings Island outside Cincinnati, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Dollywood, SeaWorld Orlando and the two Universal Orlando parks. (Both the kids will have done their birthdays at Disneyland in the three weeks before our trip, so we're not feeling a huge need to add Disney World into the trip. But who knows? Schedules change.)
I will file photo-filled trip reports from each of the parks we visit, along with blog posts from several other interesting sites we find along the way.
Here's what I'd love to hear from you, Theme Park Insider readers. First, those restaurant suggestions. Next, touring plans for the four non-Orlando parks we'll be visiting. What are the can't miss rides and restaurants in each? And in which order should we see them? What are the best places to stay in or around these parks?
And finally, what stories and features would you like to read from each of these parks? (Including the Orlando ones.) I know that a lot of folks won't be in the position this summer to take the vacation they'd like to take, so I want to do what we can to tell some great stories that help folks see, hear and experience some of the sights that they might be missing.
And, yes, I recognize that we're insane for planning this. But it's gonna be fun. And I'm going to enjoy using the Blog Flume to help bring TPI readers along for the ride.
Although you won't be in my 'neck of the woods', I thought I'd share a tip we use when traveling for food options. We always try to avoid 'chain' restaurants when traveling, opting for sampling the local flavor wherever we're at. Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri (both of Food Network fame) both have traveled pretty extensively for their Food Network shows, and most of that is documented either on independent websites or on the Food Network site. We use that quite often to find small, out of the way, diners or other eating places we might not otherwise find.
Okay, if you are going to stop in Lawrence, KS, then you need to eat at
Any reason why you picked those theme parks outside of Orlando?
James pretty much wrapped up the Holiday World area so I'll move on to Cincy.
When in Orlando, check out Gatorland in Kissimmee. As the Travel Channel says, it's one of the best 1/2 day attractions in the area. The prices are reasonable and it appeals to ALL age groups. When we travel to Orlando (8-10 weekends a year) we book our hotel on www.hotwire.com I've always saved money and got a great property. Be sure to book at least a 3 star hotel in the International Drive area. Also if you have time, try to take a day and go to the Kennedy Space Center, it's only an hour away and is well worth the trip.
Pancake Panty in Gatlinburg Tn, it's a short drive from Pigeon Forge but it's worth the trip. 628 Parkway, Gatlinburg, TN - (865) 436-4724. You will have to get there early because the line gets nuts mid morning.
I will second that you cannot miss Whaling Company in Williamsburg. My family and I always make time for dinner at Whaling Company when in Williamsburg.
About an hour away from Holiday World in Montgomery Indiana right off US 50 is an Amish settlement that has the BEST restaurant and food. Locally made byt the Amish, it is definitely worth the trip since you will be in the area. It is Gasthof Village Restaurant and Bakery, and they have a buffet open daily. Their website is
When you pass through Utah, you absolutly need to stop by Lagoon (Farmington, Utah)! It holds eight amazing coasters including a woodie (called Roller Coaster, and is very fun and classic), a wild mouse, a Jet Star, a Mauerer Sohone Spinning Coaster, an almost exact copy of Laser from Dorney Park (except with two loops), a Vekoma Suspended kiddie coaster, and It's Big... It's Fast... It's Wicked!, a 110 foot, 55 mph, unique launching tower coaster built by Zierer. This park is right along Hersheypark as far as family owned (or non Disney, Universal, or Six Flags) parks go. Many other great rides, and I even happened to interview the head engineer, who actually worked as the main engineer for Arrow, working on many rides including Splash Mountain, Jaws, King Kong, Magnum XL-200, Eagles Fortress, and basicly every other Arrow coaster through 80's and 90's (like Drachen Fire, among others). So Lagoon is definitely a park to go out of your way for, and at least try to stop by Maddox Family Restraunt, which has chicken arguably better than Knotts, but only if you pass by Brigham City (look it up)!
If your going to be in Austin, make time for Schlitterbahn! Your going to be so close........
We like Holiday World, it is extremely clean, with great ammenities, the free parking, free soda, free sunscreen. The food there is good, and very reasonably priced. Our 8 yr old daughter loves the rollercoasters and Splashing Safari (i guess the little daredevil in her). In Jasper their is a really good German Restraunt (Schnitzbank).
While in Pigeon Forge, If you want an excellent pizza hop over to Gatlinburg. There's a tiny restaurant called Best Italian. They make amazing pizza and garlic rolls. All their ingredients are very fresh. They are located in a small plaza called Elks Plaza. Its across the street from the TGI Fridays. Anyone can tell you how to get there.
Last time I was in the Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg area, I ate at a great steakhouse called the Peddler, I cant vouch for its quality nowadays but it was great last time I was there. They have a salad bar and they bring the raw steak right to the table and cut it right in front of you (if youre into that sort of thing!)
The St Louis Science Center is very cool, Robert, so if you get a chance, take Ben up on his offer. And Ben, do you extend this offer to all TPI visitors, or just the royalty among us? =D
Come back to your ol Illinois (ok, you went to Northwestern). We got the Lincoln Park Zoo and Six Flags Great America. Still, its a bit far out of the way for you guys!
If you're starting in late July, I will be in Orlando in late August and would go out of my way to meet you at one of the parks. Fat chance, but still worth a try.
You can get Montgomery Inn Ribs and Skyline Chili at Kings Island if you don't get them in Cincy...also Graeter's Ice Cream. My recommended places to have an actual meal at Kings Island are the Rivertown Junction Grill (indoor buffet sit down style) by Diamondback, and Festhaus (air conditioned indoor cafe with show) by Delirium. There's also a LaRosas on the right side (from the entrance) of the fountain...highly recommended on a hot day to sit by the fountains, and a good Chinese place on the other side of the fountain. If someone likes fries, I'd go to PotatoWorks. One of the wisest things you could do is visit the park on a weekday. A weekend at Kings Island means lines for everything.
Thank you, everyone, for those wonderful suggestions.
When in Pigeon Forge/Gatlinburg, if you can in the morning, go to Pancake Pantry in Gatlinburg--avoid the other 40-50 pancake house imitators!
To find good local places to eat go to foodnetwork.com and check out Diners Driveins and Dives. They visit local places and man, do they look good. Plug in the city you'll be in and see what comes up.
You can't go to Orlando and miss Walt Disney World...what about Everest, Rock and Roller Coaster, The new version of Space Mountain, etc, etc....
Cincinnati for a week? Where should I start with Kings Island?
If you drive through Memphis (which I highly suggest being my hometown) hit up one of our BBQ places. There are some great ones here, Corky's and Tops BBQ are my two favorites and are right off the interstate, for Tops take the Sycamore View Road Exit, for Corky's take Germantown Road South exit. For Pigeon Forge you guys must, MUST go to the Applebarn Restaurant for one of your meals or even snacks. The homemade applebutter, applefritters, and appledoughnuts are to die for. They have great breakfasts and dinners. Plus you overlook a beautiful apple orchard growing along some mountains.
One exit down from Kings Island (take the highway entrance just past the waterpark end of the Kings Island's parking lot) there is a phenomenal local sushi bar named "Kyoto" (website: http://www.kyotosushibar.com/).
Well I don't know how old your kids are, but Kings Island has won the Golden Ticket Award for Best Kid's Area 8 years in a row. It is a really good kids area. Also, near Dollywood is Gatlinburg where there is a ton of stuff to do. You probably should go to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park, which is a great place to view wildlife and hike. You should stay in a cabin in Tennessee because when we did we saw multiple black bears right on the deck of our cabin! That's an amazing experience.
Dude, if you're not stopping over in Philly, I'm not participating in the sharing here on the site. ;-)
If you're in D.C., you should probably go to SFA... I mean, why not? Also, Kensington, MD is pretty close to D.C. Kensington is like 15 minutes from Silver Spring, where I live, which is practically 20 minutes from D.C. Both my parents go to D.C. for work everyday! Anyway, Kensington has this really great pizza resturant: continental pizza. I don't think they have a website (they're that local!), but you can look them up in google. Hope this helps!
This sounds awesome! Have fun!
We did a similar trek, but only two weeks, in 1997 with our three kids. Precious memories.
While in DC, you obviously have to go to Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, which has certainly gained a lot of popularity since the administration change and integration into the concessions at the new baseball stadium. Also, staying with the chili theme (you can compare with the Cincy chili chains), there's Hard Times Cafe, which is one of my favorite places for a meal, especially since it's difficult to beat sit-down dinner and drinks for two for under $20. For burgers, the best local chain (not really very local anymore since they've been franchised along the entire east coast) is Five Guys--try to go to one of the original five restaurants in Northern Virginia if you can. For the truely "greasy spoon" experience, there's the Tastee Diner with locations in Silver Spring, Bethesda, and Laurel.
This recommendation has nothing to do with either food or themeparks, but in Austin, TX one of the coolest things you might ever see in your life is about 3 million free-tailed bats flying out from under the Congress Avenue Bridge each night in the summer. It's more or less right downtown, and they've turned this very cool biological thing into almost a carnival-like atmosphere.
What a great trip! Well I have some GREAT advice for you (and anyone) who is coming to ORLANDO. PLAces to eat
If your kids aren't easily impressionable, I would recommend the Heart Attack Grill just south of Phoenix. The fries are cooked in pure lard, they serve 4000 calorie burgers, and pure cane sugar. They admit you as though you are a patient, and the waitresses dress as sexy nurses who make you fill out a medical history before you eat. www.heartattackgrill.com
That's hilarious. Not, uh, what we're looking for on this trip, but a great laugh anyway.
Long time reader and first time commenter but I live in DC and in many of the places your are visiting so I had to post.
Thanks, Elizabeth. Welcome to Theme Park Insider.
For the record you can tell your wife I am not a huge fan of Skyline either. Like I said it, is more of an obligation. IMHO Hard Times Cafe here in DC has a much better cincy chili on the menu. I prefer the 4 way.
Sounds like fun, Robert! I can't speak for everyone, but I'd be interested in a meet-n-greet at Kings Island for all your faithful readers. Something simple...nothing that'll eat your whole day -- maybe a photo op at the base of the tower...? I'm always looking for a good excuse to use my annual...
when are you going to be at Kings Island? The group meet is a good idea.
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