7,000 miles, 33 days, 25 states, 4 people, 1 Prius

August 23, 2009, 10:41 PM · Our Theme Park Insider Summer Roadtrip was just part of my family's summer vacation this year. With Laurie and I working from home, we didn't have any employment commitments keeping in town for the summer. Anywhere we can find an Internet connection, we can work. So we decided to take advantage and plan an ambitious roadtrip, one that would take us to each of our parents' homes for a week, so the kids could spend some time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles and two baby cousins (whom they'd not yet met).

The Niles family Prius
The Niles family Prius

So we'd spend one week in Cincinnati (where Laurie's parents live), and one week in Orlando (with my parents). From there, we played a giant game of connect-the-dots, to craft an itinerary that would get us to both cities, taking through to friends' hometowns and theme parks along the way.

Ultimately, we had to trim our plans a bit. We couldn't leave until after Natalie's birthday (July 10) and had to be back in town for me to attend an AYSO referee course (Aug. 14). Reserving a day to pack and prepare after Natalie's birthday, that left us with July 12 - August 13.

Our roadtrip was scheduled.

Even though we had just over a month on the road, we couldn't get to all the parks along the way. I cut planned visits to Worlds of Fun (and its new coaster, Prowler), Six Flags St. Louis and Kings Dominion, opting instead for Holiday World, Kings Island, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Dollywood, Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld Orlando. As it turns out, we skipped Universal as well, since Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit hadn't opened when we visited and there was nothing new at the park since our week-long visit last year.

We wanted to expose our California-dwelling kids to some history, as well, on this trip, so we included stays in Washington, D.C. and Williamsburg, Va. (an easy combo with Busch Gardens).

A prairie dog in Lakewood, Colorado
Natalie shot this picture of a prairie dog, along the trail by our old home outside Denver.

To add to the degree of difficulty, I like to avoid eating at most fast-food and chain restaurants (I haven't eaten at a McDonald's in more than a decade), so we wanted to time our meal stops for towns where we could find alternatives. College towns turned out to be our solution, allowing us some nice locally-owned options.

We would take the trip in our Prius, making the trip more affordable with its great gas mileage. (We made it from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, all the way across Missouri and Illinois, to Indiana University in Bloomington, on one, 11-gallon tank of gas.) But we wouldn't have much room in the car or for luggage.

So I decreed that no one could pack a suitcase. We'd go with duffle and backpacks, easier to cram in the Prius' hatchback, without blocking the driver's view out the back. We each packed six days' worth of clothes, based on the longest we'd be traveling between stops where we knew we could laundry. Still, our luggage became a jigsaw puzzle, which could be placed in the back only one way that would allow me to draw the horizontal Tonneau cover across it. That became my job at the end of each stop.

We saw some great signs during the trip:

Give it to us, but don't blame us
Um... kinda having it both ways there, aren't they?

Don't even think of breaking this rule
I guess they're serious about this rule, huh?

People in DC really want a rep in Congress
People in D.C. *really* want some representation in Congress.

To save food costs (and our waistlines), we decided to split all meals, which worked fine. The only bad experiences we had with food were the few times we strayed and ordered a third, or fourth, meal. U.S. restaurant portions are huge, and there's no way to take a doggie bag on the road. Most times the grown-ups split one meal and the kids the other, but we often switched off based on the menu options, with one kid sharing with a parent.

Brian, where Dr. King was the I Have a Dream Speech
I took this shot of a boy standing at the same spot on the Lincoln Memorial steps where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, delivered the "I Have a Dream Speech." If you look for it, you can find the marker, too.

The oddest restaurant moment? In Austin, we ate an an outstanding restaurant called El Chile. It did not yet have a liquor license, so in lieu of selling margaritas, the restaurant was giving them away. Apparently, in Texas, if you don't have a liquor license, you cannot sell alcohol, but there's nothing stopping you from giving it away. I will allow you to draw whatever conclusion you wish about what this might say about the state of Texas.

Kermit the Frog
*The* Kermit the Frog, at the Smithsonian in Washington.

FWIW, at that same dinner, Brian discovered he really likes jalapenos. The boy might try to kill you if you place a tomato or slice of cheese within the vicinity of his sandwich, but you can load on all the jalapenos, guacamole and salsa you want.

Better the heat on the food than in the car, though. For the most part, we lucked out on weather, enjoying below-average temperatures throughout the south. Our drive through desolate west Texas, from Austin to El Paso on Aug. 12, was under mostly overcast skies, with temperatures in the 80s. We dodged a big bullet there.

Hiking the Appalachian Trail
Laurie and Natalie, on the Appalachian Trail. Still no sign of any Republican Governors!

And the Prius held up great. We'd driven so far by the time we reached Orlando that the car hit its scheduled maintenance mark. So we dropped the car at a Toyota dealership for an oil change and tire rotation. No hassle; no worries.

Indeed, we had no problems throughout the trip. The kids behaved splendidly, treating the kids and grown-ups they met with kindness and patience, and laughing at the "Get Smart" and other old TV show DVDs they watched in the backseat when they needed a break from the endless road. Yeah, everyone hates listening to selfish parents gloat, but... my kids rock.

Pot people at Dollywood
The best, and most inappropriate, joke on the trip? Laurie, upon spotting these, remarked, 'I can't believe they let a couple of potheads in Dollywood.' Classic.

So, we'll do this again. We're trying to decide between a "northern route" roadtrip that would take us up to Seattle and over to Chicago and then to Cleveland and Cedar Point, or... a European roadtrip, that would allow us to hit some top theme parks as well as some violin-related sites for Laurie's website.

But we need a bit of a break before we make that decision!

For those interested, here was our itinerary:

Sun., July 12; Pasadena, CA to Palisade, CO (Stayed at the Wine Country Inn. Highly recommended.)

Mon., July 13; Palisade to Denver

Tues., July 14; Denver

Wed., July 15; Denver to Lawrence, KS (Stop at La Prima Tazza for coffee.)

Thur., July 16; Lawrence to Bloomington, IN (Don't miss Mother Bear's Pizza. Get the breadsticks with spicy cheese.)

Fri., July 17; Bloomington

Sat., July 18; Bloomington to Holiday World, Santa Claus, IN, to Hebron, KY (Laurie's sister's home).

Sun., July 19 - Thur., July 23; Cincinnati area (Kings Island on July 21)

Fri., July 24; Hebron to Fairfax, VA

Sat., July 25 - Mon., July 27; Washington D.C. area

Tues., July 28; Washington to Williamsburg, VA

Wed., July 29; Colonial Williamsburg

Thurs., July 30; Busch Gardens Williamsburg

Fri., July 31; Williamsburg to Durham, NC

Sat., Aug 1; Durham to Pigeon Forge, TN

Sun., Aug 2; Dollywood

Mon., Aug 3; Pigeon Forge to Orlando (via South Carolina and Georgia coast)

Tues., Aug 4 - Sun., Aug 9; Orlando (SeaWorld on Aug. 9)

Mon., Aug 10; Orlando to New Orleans

Tues., Aug 11; New Orleans to Austin, TX (Dinner at El Chile)

Wed., Aug 12; Austin to Las Cruces, NM

Thurs. Aug 13; Las Cruces to Pasadena

Happy travels, and thanks for following along.

Replies (16)

August 23, 2009 at 11:10 PM · That sounds like it was a fun trip. It will definitely be one your kids will enjoy. One of these years I want to make a cross country trip and take at least a month to do it in.
August 24, 2009 at 2:47 AM · Nice summary, Robert. I had a lot of fun following along on your summer journey and look forward to next year's adventure.

Funny thing about kids - my kids anyway - they will sit still in a car for 8 - 12 hours at a time (chatting, sleeping, watching the occasional DVD, reading, listening to their Shuffles, or playing their Nintendos for no more than 45 minutes without a break), but ask then to be patient during a 45 minute school or church lesson, and you'd think you were pulling teeth.

Must be something about the lure of the open road...

August 24, 2009 at 2:52 AM · Nice work if you can get it Robert. I'm a Theme Park nut and I'd love to do the USA as I have a brother out there.

You should check out the Pepsi Max Big One we have over here on The Pleasure Beach.

Yours Jealously


August 24, 2009 at 4:59 AM · While reading this....I couldn't help but hum the tune in my head.

Holiday Rooooooooooad.......Holiday Rooooooad

The pictures at the Grand Canyon, stopping to see the relatives, traveling to amusement parks....you didn't have to take Aunt Edna home did you?

Sounds like a blast..even if it was in a Prius. James is right about kids too. Mine will roadtrip for hours with the assistance of a DVD every now and again, but they can't sit in the same place for more than 30 minutes anywhere else

August 24, 2009 at 5:54 AM · Great report Robert. I'm so jealous. Be sure to save all these pics, you're kids will get a kick out of looking at them when the get older.

I will have to keep that restaurant in mind next time I'm in Austin.

Not sure if you have mentioned this before, but are there any ride types you can't / don't ride when you go to these parks? I used to be able to ride anything, but now, I can't ride the spinning ones (teacups, etc). If I am having a good day, I can ride Alpengeist in the front, but usually not.

August 24, 2009 at 6:33 AM · 4 People in a Prius?

Congrats on coming home alive!

Good pictures though! Sad you didn't come and visit me in SFGA, but its sounds that you had an action packed trip and most of the places you went were MUCH cooler than SFGA. I just feel it perhaps is the best that SF can offer.

August 24, 2009 at 8:42 AM · Hmm, what won't I ride in a theme park?

Well, if it is not rated highly by Theme Park Insider readers, I skip it. ;-)

I tend to skip the carnival rides, the teacup spinners, etc. I'm really trying to find the very best that a park has to offer, so I tend toward the top roller coasters, dark rides and shows. Very rarely does a carny-style ride rate well. Yeah, they're cheap for parks to install, but... you get what you pay for.

August 24, 2009 at 9:15 AM · ^Agreed. Common midway rides blow.

And, thanks, Derek, now I can't get that song out of my head!

August 24, 2009 at 10:08 AM · Great report.

We enjoy our cross-country road trips, too, but in a big Chevy Suburban or GM Savannah. Gas guzzlin' fun.

August 24, 2009 at 12:07 PM · That is so true about alcohol here in the great state of TX. Even in Dallas. In fact, usually those restaurants will let you bring in your own for good measure.
August 24, 2009 at 12:31 PM · I'm glad to hear you had a great time on your road trip. Hopefully one day when time permits I can also go on a road trip like this. You got real lucky with the temperatures in West Texas. Man it was scorching here in El Paso later that week.
August 24, 2009 at 12:42 PM · Sounds like an awesome trip! And that picture of the sign in the smokey mountains, I saw that same one and have a picture of it from when we drove through the mountains. :)
August 24, 2009 at 3:58 PM · Very good trip reports!!!!!

I dont think my family would do as well in such a small car!!!!

I know this is a vacation for you and your family, but have you ever considered a get-together with guests to your web site when you visit a park??

August 26, 2009 at 6:51 AM · Ahey! You were in my home city of DC! I live out in Arlington, which is basically considered the border city to DC. Glad you guys got to see it. When you were in the Smithsonian, did you guys get a chance to see the original [literally the first] American flag? Also sounds like you guys had a hell of a blast, I need to get some money saved up for Amusement Park Mayhem 2010. I do something similar to what you guys do, get a lot of money together, pile into a car with some buddies and hit up a bunch of favorites or popular amusement parks. It was supposed to have happened in 2006 but it never happened and the date kept getting pushed back. Hoping next year is smooth and fluid.
August 26, 2009 at 6:42 PM · Glad you enjoyed your trip. You've set a mark others must now attempt to best. A bus, 50 park enthusiasts, 30 days, with 30 parks perhaps...
August 27, 2009 at 10:22 AM · Congratulations. We just finished our 16-day theme park trip. 2 adults, two teens, 1 prius.

My kids only "behave" when I've got a book on CD playing -- if I turn it off for 5 minutes, I'll hear an "OW" followed by things flying around the car.

Our trip skipped BGW and KD, since they are our local parks. We did Carowinds, Dollywood, Kings Island, Cedar Point, Michigan's Adventure, and Kennywood.

My only regret was not being able to make it to Holiday World. Instead, we did the Kentucky Reptile Zoo.

Oddly, we missed the pot-heads in Dollywood -- we walked that park for several days, so maybe by the time we got there they were gone, or we simply weren't being observant (we got season passes to Dollywood and spent a week in the area doing siteseeing, plus we've been to Dollywood last christmas and in april, so maybe we were inattentive).

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