Theme Park of the Day: Islands of Adventure

Surviving I-95 on Your Way to Orlando

March 11, 2016, 11:41 AM · Whoever said "Getting there is half the fun" never drove Interstate 95 to Orlando. As the main way to get there by car from most east coast communities, I-95 has been ranked the worst U.S. interstate highway. It's bad particularly south of Petersburg, Virginia, where the highway becomes just four lanes through the Carolinas — through flat, sparsely populated areas (just five cities off I-95 have more than 20,000 people in the two states). It doesn't get much better in Georgia and Florida either.

Take it from someone who's been going this route to Walt Disney World since the early 1970s, when you had to use U.S. 17 while I-95 remained under construction — plan where to get food, gas and lodging in advance to reduce your headaches. Even a speed limit of 70 mph can seem like an eternity when you consider there are at least 34 gaps of seven miles between exits for these essentials in these four states, by my calculations.

With that in mind, here are my overviews and recommendations on where to stop going south on I-95 with the least amount of hassle.

North Carolina

Get what you need 10 miles or so into the Old North State, or you'll run into trouble. In particular, after Exit 173 at Roanoke Rapids with the popular Ralph's Barbecue and other offerings, you have a single place to eat or relax (if that) until Exit 145 (Battleboro). For the next 66 miles after that, there's just two rest areas (Exits 142 and 99); only more than one restaurant and hotel available at Exits 121 (U.S. 264, Wilson), 107 and 106 (both Kenly), 97 (Selma) and 95 (Smithfield); and no gas for 11 miles after Exit 90.

Six exits within 10 miles after the Interstate 40 interchange at Exit 81 provide plenty of choices off each. Options are slim again until Exits 61 (Wade) and 49 (Fayetteville) and a nice rest area at Exit 48. Then it's a desert for anything except gas until Exit 31 (St. Pauls/Raeford).Try to wait until Lumberton, which has a good selection at its Exits 22 (the first hotels since Exit 49), 20 (Fuller's BBQ) and 17. After that is nothing until South of the Border at Exit 1. Avoid this tourist trap unless you must stop for food, gas or lodging.

Bottom line: Either plan stops in Roanoke Rapids and Lumberton, or if you've filled up in southern Virginia, aim for Selma or Smithfield and plan to stop in South Carolina.

South Carolina

If needed, take the welcome center at Exit 195 or the stops at Exit 193 or 190, both in Dillon (there are no hotels at 190). From there, it's 20 miles of nothing except multiple restaurant/gas station combos and one hotel at Exit 181 (S.C. 38, Oak Grove) and a rest area at Exit 172. As I-95 widens to six lanes for 10 miles, five exits with many amenities off each lie in the Florence area through Exits 160A/B (the Interstate 20 interchange). I'm partial to Exit 169 (TV Road), with two clean travel plazas with little traffic. Exit 164 (U.S. 52) is popular with dozens of options, but it can be crowded getting around there.

From Exit 157, there's no food for 22 miles save a rest area at Exit 139 and just a few gas stations and hotels. Exit 135 offers everything, but then it's basically barren for 16 miles. Then over a 21-mile stretch, Exits 119, 115, 108, 102 and 98 have lots of stuff. The last is best because it's Santee near scenic Lake Marion, so it's a pleasant view on a highway sorely lacking interesting sights.

Next you'll endure basically 16 miles of nothing except the Interstate 26 intersection at Exit 86, where traffic can build up. You'll find relief at Exits 82 and 77, then there's essentially a 20-mile gap until more options at Exits 57 and 53. After a rest area at Exit 47, there's nothing until essentials can be found at Exits 38, 33, 28 and 22. Then it's 13 miles until more at Exits 8 and 5 and finally the Georgia border.

Bottom line: Load up around Florence, then drive until Georgia. If you must stop before then, do Santee at Exit 98. Georgia gas, food and lodging apart from the welcome center don't start until four miles inside the border, so take Exit 8 or 5 if you can't wait.


Good news: you have three lanes each direction now through Florida, and you're in Georgia less than an hour and a half! Bad news: there are few exits amid large gaps. The Georgia welcome center is a beautiful rest stop located two miles north of Exit 109 (the first one to Savannah). It has all the necessities, as do Exits 104 and 102, but after that is nothing for eight miles save for the Interstate 16 interchange at Exit 99. If you don't use what Exit 94 provides, it's another seven miles until more of the same. Then it gets hairy.

From Exit 87, there's 29 miles for food and lodging and only two exits for gas. Exit 58 provides you with everything, as does the next exit nine miles later and the next two exits 11 and 13 miles after that one (got all that?), plus a rest area at Exit 41. After Exit 36, there's more gas/food/lodging seven miles further at Exit 29, your last shot for lodging until Exit 3. You have meager selections for gas and food at Exits 26, 14, 7 and 6 before getting more at Exits 3 and 1, but you may prefer to wait for Florida by then.

Bottom line: Do the welcome center or get everything in the Savannah stops (if it's rush hour, hold out for Exits 94 or 87 if possible). It will feel good psychologically to get into Florida ASAP, so try not to stop unless you're driving a gas guzzler.


This is tricky, given the immense Jacksonville metropolitan area, 20 miles into the drive. I prefer to take Exit 362 south and get on Interstate 295 (on the loop's western side, as it's more scenic) and return at Exit 337. It easily beats driving I-95's slower speed limit and tight curves in downtown Jacksonville. Nonetheless, let's assume you stay on I-95 all the way until Interstate 4.

From the border is four miles to the Florida welcome center or nine miles to Exit 373. The latter marks seven miles from the first gas and lodging in Florida too. Then it's another seven miles for gas and 10 for food and lodging. You're now within Jacksonville, with two different eight-mile stretches without gas or lodging until shortly before the southern interchange with I-295. It is congested getting off and on exits within Jacksonville, some of which have limited access and only one or two amenities. Best bets are Exits 360, 356, 344, 341 and 339 prior to I-295.

After Exit 339, it's another 10 miles gas and food and 21 miles to lodging. There's also a rest area at Exit 331. Miss Exit 329, and it's another 11 miles for food. Exit 318 has everything as does the next one, Exit 311, but after that is no lodging for 22 miles, and there's a seven-mile gap between Exits 305 and 298 and a nine-mile one between Exits 298 and 289 for gas and food (there is a rest area at Exit 302, however). The only gap after Exit 289 is between Exits 268 and 261 for food and lodging prior to Exit 260 for I-4.

Bottom line: Take a break at the welcome center and/or get what you need shortly before or after I-295 for fewer crowds. Exits 318 and 311 in St. Augustine are especially plentiful with options and provide a real "Florida feel" with places offering fresh oranges and such. Remember, it's 122 miles until I-4, and you'll need a break before navigating that final hour stretch or so. And that survey that ranked I-95 the worst interstate put I-4 as second worst, so consider that as well.

What are your thoughts about going down big, bad I-95? Please share. I'd love to hear them.

Wesley Hyatt is a freelance writer and author of eight books, based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He has driven to Walt Disney World, Universal, SeaWorld and many other Orlando attractions that he'd rather not mention.

Replies (15)

March 11, 2016 at 12:00 PM · When my family lived in Jacksonville, we went to Disney World a few times (usually off-season when crowds are lower). We tried our best to avoid I-95 as we knew what a mess it was, took the alternate route you described and usually worked well. But yeah, I remember the late lamented Adventurer's Club talking of how driving that was "the highest daring achievement of any Adventurer" and wasn't that far off.
March 11, 2016 at 12:05 PM · Biggest issue is I95 in Florida. Speed limit is 70MPH. If you are not doing 80, you will get run over. Look out for Florida drivers all along I95. They are by far the worst drivers in the country.
March 11, 2016 at 12:06 PM · I enjoyed reading this because whenever I go to Orlando I drive on I-95 from Richmond, Virginia. I used to drive straight through Jacksonville on I-95 but the roads in Jacksonville are just destroyed with construction. I usually take I-295 East towards Jax Beaches to drive over this really cool bridge. And for stopping for places to eat I just stop whenever I get low on gas and just eat something quick and keep driving. And I always stop in Daytona Beach just to hang out on the beach because I'm usually way ahead in when I can check in to my hotel in Orlando.
March 11, 2016 at 12:47 PM · The only thing I disagree with is to always stop at Exit 1 in Georgia to gas up.

Gas is always cheaper in Georgia compared to Florida.

Then gas up again at the speedways (Formerly Hess) on Disney property. They tend to be cheaper than the gas stations off disney property for some reason.

March 11, 2016 at 1:34 PM · Florida drivers aren't the problem. It's people driving the speed limit on the left lane of the highway. People driving the speed limit should stay in the middle and right lanes of I-95 and allow the people who want to go faster unrestricted lanes. It's not rocket science.
March 11, 2016 at 2:21 PM · Yeah, I95 through Jacksonville is a mess. It's confusing, hectic, ugly and one of the most nerve wracking areas you'll ever drive through. Avoid it, at all costs, during morning or afternoon rush times.
March 11, 2016 at 2:57 PM · Usually I take the 77 down until it merges into the 95 in SC. This year I'm thinking of taking the 75 down instead.
March 11, 2016 at 3:00 PM · Not that bad up here in the North East. Going from DC to Maine is a nice drive. In Maine it is a very easy drive because of the 70 mph speed limit, 3-4 lanes per direction, and low traffic.
March 11, 2016 at 3:36 PM · One
March 11, 2016 at 7:47 PM · As a native Jaxon, and Floridian, this authors' preference is the best suggestion. he said:

* (I prefer to take Exit 362 south and get on Interstate 295 (on the loop's western side, as it's more scenic) and return at Exit 337. It easily beats driving I-95's slower speed limit and tight curves in downtown Jacksonville.)

Essentially there are 3 ways thru Jacksonville ie:

* drive down the EAST side of town via the I-295 Beltway East.
* drive thru the Center of Downtown via I-95.
* drive thru the West side of town via the I-295 Beltway West.

The WORST choice is to drive thru the Downtown via i-95, as the traffic congestion is terrible, and there is much road construction taking place until mid 2017.

The BEST choice is to drive thru the West side of town via the I-295 Wast Beltway (exit 362 south) as the WEST BELTWAY HAS 3 LANES OF TRAFFIC, AND THERE IS HARDLY ANY TRAFFIC, AS THE WESTSIDE IS MOSTLY FOREST. VERY SCENIC.

The Second-BEST choice is to drive thru the East side of town via the I-295 East Beltway. The East Beltway HAS ONLY 2 LANES OF TRAFFIC, AND IS HIGHLY CONGESTED, AS IT TRAVELS THRU HUGE OFFICE PARKS AND RESIDENTIAL AREAS.


In conclusion, GAS up at the St Mary's exit in Georgia for the cheaper gas, then cross into Florida, and after 20 miles, when you hit Jacksonville, take EXIT 362 SOUTH (I-295 WEST BELTWAY) TO ESSENTIALLY "BYPASS" JACKSONVILLE, AND HOOK BACK INTO i-95 ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE CITY AT EXIT 337.

March 12, 2016 at 5:03 AM · I'm with Derek on this one. After years and years of driving from Nashville to WDW the family and I are flying down to MOC. Roundtrip tickets for 4 on SouthWest were just over $800 from BNA, which is incredibly cheap. And since we are staying at the Polynesian Resort we are availing ourselves of the Magic Express service. And not having to worry about the long, slog of a drive back (13 hrs) will be a huge weight off my shoulders. Thanks, SW.
March 12, 2016 at 12:13 PM · Coming from New Jersey, the only area of I-95 that I really don't like is from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA. There is always traffic, no matter the day or the time. It is extremely annoying. I have never really had a problem with the rest of I-95.
March 12, 2016 at 12:33 PM · I have to concur with Thomas Caselli. South of Richmond, I-95 moves pretty quickly. Of course, if you're only going to do 70 MPH, you're going to need to stay in the right lane. Get as much gas as you can in SC, especially in the center of the state. It's the cheapest gas on the East Coast. Fuller's in Lumberton has a darn good Southern-style buffet for only about $11 per person, so if you like Southern cooking, it's a great place to stop. Also, if you're planning to stop for the night instead of driving straight through, there's a Super 8 in Yemassee that has rooms cheap. Get the coupon in the hotel booklet you find at the first rest stop in SC. The hotel is attached to the local Denny's, and for breakfast you get a coupon for that Denny's. It's not rated very highly, but I've found the rooms to be clean and comfortable, especially at the price. Happy motoring.
March 12, 2016 at 8:58 PM · Um...yeah, Florida drivers are pretty bad. I guess we do have quite a bit of good drivers, but there's always that one idiot who seems to not know or care about traffic laws. And don't think
your traffic nightmares are over once you finally reach Orlando. The roads are honestly designed so poorly, which is made worse by the fact that the city is home to some of the world's biggest tourist magnets.
March 16, 2016 at 7:27 AM · i-95 over near the I-4 interchange is terrifying to drive, it's my least favorite road and I only drive it when I absolutely have to. With the speeders, road ragers and lost tourists looking at maps, I cringe in that area and there's good reason why it gets shut down so often for massive accidents.

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