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Planes, Trains, and Converted School Buses

Sometimes getting to the theme park can be more of an adventure than actually riding the rides.

From Tim Hillman
Posted December 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM
One of the Thanksgiving traditions at my house is watching the movie “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” starring John Candy and Steve Martin. My wife and I both love the movie, but for me it’s a painful reminder of the many family vacations that I had while growing up. I always looked forward to these trips because my parents tried to take us to fun and interesting places, but the anticipation was always tinged with a bit of anxiety simply because of the inevitable breakdown, encounter with the police, or the always feared “unconventional moment.”

The “unconventional moment” was a specialty of my father, who instead of marching to the beat of his own drummer had his own drum and bugle corps playing at full volume somewhere in his head. My old man never heard a bad idea or saw a piece of junk that he didn’t like or thought had some merit. (I’m not exaggerating in the least.) He bought a house 50 feet in front of a stock auction barn simply because it was next door to his veterinary practice. (Smell? What smell?) He bought an undertakers limousine for the family car because it had enough seats in the back to comfortably fit all five of us kids. (He used to joke that “they were dying to sell it to him.”) He later cut the top off of that same limousine so he could haul farm animals and hay around in it. (Kids, farm animals, what’s the difference?)

Somewhere in between investing in a rabbit farm (the 1960s version of an ostrich farm) and trying to invent a perpetual motion machine (proof that you can have an advanced degree and still not comprehend basic physics), Dad decided to convert an old flat front school bus into a camper and take the family on a 3-week trip to California to see his mother and to take us kids to Disneyland. None of us kids relished the idea of spending more than a few days with Grandma since she had sweetness and diplomacy of a marine drill instructor, but for the chance to see Disneyland, we’d walk across burning coals.

I won’t go into all of the details about what Dad did to convert the school bus into a camper, but suffice it to say that it was one step above a Conestoga wagon and far less dependable. It was as if "The Partridge Family", and "The Beverly Hillbillies" go on "National Lampoon’s Vacation." The trip was an adventure at best and an unmitigated disaster at worst. We had breakdowns or maintenance stops literally every 100 miles. Just about every part on the engine had to be replaced or repaired during the course of the trip.

When Dad wasn’t working on the bus on the side of the road or trying to find somebody to fix the bus, he was looking for tourist traps and national parks and monuments to visit. Driving through Rocky Mountain National Park was awesome (except for the part about going up the mountains at 5 MPH and going down them at 75 MPH). (I never knew that brakes could catch on fire.) Panning for gold at the side of a creek was fun (except for the part where we got chased off someone’s claim at gunpoint). Touring an inactive gold mine to learn about gold mining was educational. (I learned that a 500 foot drop in 10 seconds in a cage elevator is petrifying.) I saw a lot of the Mojave Desert (stopped every 30 miles to let the radiator cool down).

Despite the calamities, we finally made it to California and the highlight of the trip – Disneyland! (and Dad getting a rental car to take us from Palm Springs to Disneyland) To an eight-year old the whole place was magical, and it made the misadventures of the trip out there worth it. The rides in Fantasyland brought the animated movies and cartoons of my childhood to life. The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse was incredible. (I was a huge fan of the book.) Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion were scary yet awesome fun. Even the Jungle Cruise was terrific (shoot those vicious hippos!). It was easily one of the best days of my life.

Thank goodness the trip home was mostly uneventful. There was a bit of concern about overheating in Death Valley on our way to Las Vegas, but Dad made it through with a minimum number of maintenance and radiator cool down stops. We got back through the Rockies without setting the brakes on fire again, and Mom kept Dad away from the roadside tourist traps in Kansas and Missouri. (How many places can have the World’s Largest Prairie Dog?) There was that incident with the Ohio state trooper who threatened to arrest Mom for letting us set fireworks off on the side of the road while Dad repaired the engine on the bus, but he realized that it was more punishment for her to continue with us on the trip than it would be to take her to jail so he let her off with a warning. Fortunately we made it home the next day before Mom had a nervous breakdown.

Dad later sold that bus to a bunch of hippies who paid for it with cash that they made from growing and selling marijuana. According to Dad, they wanted a camper that they could keep on the marijuana patch so they could keep people from harvesting their crop. (no honor amongst potheads) Unfortunately for Mom, Dad took the money from that sale and bought an old greyhound bus that had already been professionally converted into a camper, and oddly enough the “unconventional moments” continued with that vehicle.

So I’m curious. Who else has or had a parent who makes Clark Griswold look conventional? Have any of you had any misadventures while traveling to or from a theme park? Please share your horror stories about planes, trains, automobiles, encounters with police officers, and traveling with a parent who views life from a different aspect than the rest of us.


Comments in chronological order. Most recent at the bottom. Scroll down to respond.

From Mike Gallagher
Posted December 4, 2012 at 1:16 PM
I have no answer to the overall question, but your opening reminded me of seeing Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in a theater on Thanksgiving Day the year it came out. I had a bud who worked at the theater, so I didn't pay. I seriously doubt they made much money that day..besides me, there were four people in the theater.

From Brian Emery
Posted December 5, 2012 at 12:17 PM
Where is your Hand…?

Where is your other hand?

Those aren’t pillows ….

From Melanie Howe
Posted December 5, 2012 at 1:32 PM
Oh, Tim, that was hilarious!! No doubt much more so now than when you had to live it ;-).

Your father sounds a bit like mine was.... Particularly in regards to taking long trips in questionable vehicles. I lost count of the number of times I was stuck on the side of the road with him -- probably one of the reasons I always travelled with a book :-).

Oddly enough, whenever he took me to theme parks there never seemed to be any vehicle mishaps.... But there was the night, two days before a trip to SeaWorld, when we got chased off by a cop for sleeping in the car on Daytona Beach 'cause we couldn't afford a hotel room.

From Tim Hillman
Posted December 5, 2012 at 2:00 PM
Sitting on the side of the road....

I think my Dad had a goal to break down or get pulled over by the police in every state of the union. He even got pulled over in Canada once!

From Philip Buchanan
Posted December 5, 2012 at 3:00 PM
Challenge Park Xtreme near Joliet, Il chose to use a refurbished school bus in a slightly differnent manner... to shuttle players to different fields of competition in their complex. The retrofit was very unique...Inspiration from Mad Max, the movie.

From N B
Posted December 5, 2012 at 10:08 PM
Philip, Challenge Park is about 20 minutes from me and I have played there a few times. We rode the bus to the junkyard field (I think they called it Wasteland). Haven't played paintball in a while, but I tend to be the nut who runs right up the middle with guns blazing.

From James Rao
Posted December 9, 2012 at 5:26 AM
Tim, great post. Thanks for sharing.

And in a general answer to your specific questions: I am THAT dad - sans the Family Truckster (I just drive a conventional Toyota Sienna on those long road trips). I firmly believe that the journey is very much a part of the vacation, and almost always plan extra days at stops along the way to our final destination just to get a little more family togetherness into the excursion. The kids don't seem to mind, and my wife has been gracious enough to keep any misgivings silent... I am sure she would much rather visit a National Park than a world renown theme park, but so far she's been a good sport! Not sure how she'll be over the course of the next 21 years, though....

Anyway, coming in May 2013: Disneyland Resort! The kids will finally get to ride the original Pirates of the Caribbean, and I'll get to visit Radiator Springs. 24 hours of driving without any stops along the route...oh, but there will be stops, there will definitely be stops! This trip is going to be my Griswold Family Adventure for sure!

From cynthia henisey
Posted January 18, 2013 at 2:49 PM
James: Be sure to either get to Radiator Springs Racers first thing for fast passes (they run out very early in the day) or plan on waiting in the single rider line (still long but about one third the wait time.)

From Jay R.
Posted January 18, 2013 at 3:14 PM
Yeah, fast passes for RSR are gone (for the entire day) quickly, so that should be the first thing you do...

UNLESS, you take advantage of magic mornings OR you take a chance & head straight to RSR upon opening (even then you might have a slight wait, but it's nothing compared to the rest of the day)

If you are going to be there more than 1 day, as tough as it might seem, try to ride RSR during the day & night (it's a bit different at night with all the neon around you)

Have fun!

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