I’ve wanted to write about our trip to Disney World at Christmas from this past year for quite a while, but times seems to be a precious commodity these days. So, here goes!
Day 1 (Dec 18), departure
Our plan was to leave at 10pm, so we were right on schedule with a 11pm departure on December 18th. My my wife and kids sleeping for the night as soon as we got into the truck (I slept from 3pm-10pm) and got headed in the right direction. The directions and route were easy- we’re only about 15 minutes off of I-95 and then we were to drive south for the next 900+ miles.
(Technically Day 2- since I drove through the night) The night was uneventful and around 8am, we arranged to catch up to my in-laws who left a couple of days ahead of us in southern North Carolina. We stopped for a long breakfast (when I say long, I mean it- it was a good 1 1/2-hour stop!). After some driver/passenger re-arranging, my wife took over the drive and drove until we stopped for a late lunch. I got back into the driver’s seat for the Jacksonville International Speedway that is I-95. I’ve never experienced that kind of race car wannabes in my years of driving (DC beltway included!). It didn’t help that I was at about my “ok, time to find fuel” when we got into the city limits and truck stops became non-existent. We pushed on and were successful- we didn’t run out of fuel and no one rammed us! We arrived at our destination about 6:15pm…
A Hotel? How weird!
Yep, our first night was spent in a hotel with the camper parked out in the parking lot. The thing is- Thousand Trails parks are all first come, first served when it comes to getting a site. Given my “big rig” status, I didn’t want to be driving around a new to me, dark campground, looking for a site. SO- we got a hotel. I will admit, we had to run out to the camper many times to grab stuff that we needed for the night.
Day 3 (Dec 20), Arriving at Thousand Trails Orlando Preserve
The check-in process for Orlando was different than any other TT park that I’ve experienced. Instead of being set loose by the ranger to wander around aimlessly, you go into the office and pick your site off of a wall-sized campground map with the assistance of the ranger (based on your size, position of slides and preference for camping styles). The kid who helped us really knew the park well and helped us pick 2 different sites that he thought would work for us. Turns out we ended up in a 3rd one, but called him once we got the camper parked so that they knew it was taken.
The Orlando Preserve is a pretty big park that will be worthy of its own review in another blog post. But, my first broad stroke review is it was nice. There were camping areas that were fairly wooded with vegetation around and between the sites for privacy and there were camping areas that were fairly wide open with paved pads giving you the choice of what kind of camping that you wanted. Two pools and a variety of amenities. My daughter, father-in-law and I enjoyed playing duck pin bowling. My only complaint was that the 50amp sites were fairly limited and especially so in the “D”-loop where we were. In the winter, it wasn’t a problem. In the middle of summer, it could be a challenge.
First Park Day- Magic Kingdom
I’ll admit now, we’re kind of frequent flyers to the house of mouse starting with our honeymoon in 2001. We were going over Christmas to see it all decorated up and that started with an evening at Magic Kingdom for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. We did this because it was a separate entrance fee from your park tickets for the day- we figured crowds would be lighter and we were right! We were able to visit some of the attractions in the new Fantasyland that usually have quite long waits. My son road his first ride, Dumbo’s Flying Elephant ride with us and daughter rode Goofy’s Barnstormer 3 or 4 times in a row. She and I got to be in Belle’s story time. I was a knight! The only big disappointment came with a turn in the weather and the evening parade was cancelled. Dinner that night was at The Plaza Restaurant in the park (pretty expensive for what it was – pretty “meh”; nothing to get excited about).
Day 4 (Dec 21), Camp Day
This was a pretty quiet day. We hung out, decorated the camper with some Christmas decorations and went up to play the aforementioned Duck Pin bowling. In hindsight, we definitely didn’t have enough down-days as we would have liked. We even put up a skinny Christmas tree!
I do have to admit, late this evening that we ran completely out of propane. I still didn’t quite know how to read my automatic changeover. There was nowhere open that I could get my tanks refilled, so we went to a nearby gas station and bought an 18 pound propane tank and hooked that up instead.
Day 5 & 6 (Dec 22 & 23), Universal Studios
The nice part about not staying on Disney property is that you feel more free to go visit the other parks and stuff in the area and we definitely did that. Day 5 and 6 were spent playing at Universal Studios. The crowds definitely increased with the Christmas holiday and it being a weekend. We chose not to upgrade to their cut-the-line type of tickets, so we spent a lot of time in lines. Surprisingly, it was really cold- like winter jacket cold in the mornings. The day time warmed up nicely but then dark got cold again.
At Universal, we did get to check out the new Wizarding World of Harry Potter. We got back there in the late morning (we’re not early risers and try getting a 9 year old through a park without her stopping hundreds of times!). By the time we got there, there were signs and talks of 1-2 *hour* waits for rides. When I asked a cast member what the wait was for Ollivanders Wand Shop, the cast member told me it was 60-90 minutes but then gave me the greatest tip- if you wait until after dark (6pm), that area back there pretty empty. We immediately left there and went and played in Suessland for Grinchmas. Again the lines were pretty long, but bearable. We spent the most time waiting for photos with the Grinch who was absolutely hilarious!
Dinner must have been unexceptional because I don’t recall what we had or where we ate. But, after dark- we did head back to the Harry Potter area with our winter coats on. As promised, the crowds were really light. I was able to ride each roller coaster with minimal waits and darling daughter was able to go into Ollivanders Wand Shop. She didn’t get picked for the wand choosing and was pretty bummed, but a cast member helped her pick out a wand in the shop and made it really special. In the end, we ended up with a really expensive stick. 🙂
We spent about 30-45 minutes still waiting for the main attraction- the Hogwarts Castle and the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride. All told, the entire Harry Potter world is pretty spectacular and you can really imagine you’re there. The Castle itself was amazing to see- like rooms right out of the books and movies. The ride, however- very amazing, very awesome, very motion sickness inducing AND for my daughter, very overwhelming and rather scary at spots.
WHEW! You’d think that was all there was to Universal, but we hit the variety of rides in both parks. I still say that hands-down, my most favorite roller coaster ever is the Incredible Hulk Coaster. I rode it when daughter was still in her Momma’s belly and hadn’t been back since and let me tell you- it was everything that I hoped for. It’s fast, but smooth. Fantastic, all around!
Days 7 & 8 (Dec 24 and 25) – Camp Days
We had decided ahead of time that we wanted Christmas Eve and Christmas Day to be low stress & simple days. Christmas Eve, we hung out at the campground and didn’t do a whole lot of anything. We did go out to Ohana’s for dinner on Christmas Eve. It’s a Brazilian steakhouse and all you can eat and eat we did! (Note, we love it here- this is on our “must do” list when we go to Disney.) Afterwards, we took the Monorail to some of the other Disney properties to see their decorations. The Grand Floridian was amazingly beautiful, as you’d expect. We did pictures with Mickey and Minnie dressed up in winter/Christmas-style clothes (we lost a LOT of time waiting in line for them). We made it over to the Contemporary and got to poke around. We wanted to get to Fort Wilderness but ran out of time and energy. A little disappointing- I’ve heard nothing but good about it there.
For Christmas Day, Santa used a note left at home and found us at the campground. When the kids got up in the morning, the tree was surrounded by gifts from Santa, Mom and Dad and Grandma and Grandpa. We even made our traditional cinnamon rolls for breakfast. Dinner was a full fledge Christmas dinner- ham, mashed potatoes, gravy. It was just all cooked a little different than our normal – for instance, we used instant microwave mashed potatoes instead of making them from scratch. When it came time to sit down for the meal, it tasted all just as yummy!
Day 9 (Dec 26) – SeaWorld
Now that Christmas was over, we were ready to get back into our park days. Up next was SeaWorld. This day started with torrential downpours on our way there, but luckily it started to clear up as we were getting parked. We checked radar and decided to eat lunch in the truck before heading into the park. It worked well, as we got out to the sun just starting to peak out. We had a good day at the park and stayed until it got dark and they closed. Feeding the different animals (dolphins and stingrays) is always a treat. Darling daughter liked that she was able to send a diver down to pick an oyster with a pearl in it just for her. And, I have to admit the Manta ride was wickedly cool with how you hung from it. Oh, and they made it snow- that was a nice touch.
Day 10 (Dec 27) – Hollywood Studios
Truth be told, it was Hollywood Studios and “The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights” was the real reason why my wife wanted to go to Disney for Christmas. She had read, heard and wanted to see what these Christmas lights were all about. Her disappointment, she wanted to be in shorts and t-shirts checking it out, but it was chilly and we were in pants and coats! BUT- holy wow- it was a lot of lights! Pretty neat to see them timed and dancing to the music. And, like SeaWorld, they made is snow, too. (Pro-tip: don’t catch the snow on your tongue, it tastes awful.)
Otherwise, the crowds were pretty oppressive. My wife got hit by a lady on an electric scooter incredibly hard. The woman barely stopped and then blamed my wife (who was standing still when she got hit). That buggered her night and caused her pain for the rest of the days. They gave out all of the Fast Passes for the Toy Story ride before we were able to get any and even late at night, the line for it was still an hour+ wait. We did get to ride both the Rockin’ Rollercoaster and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (which is a favorite of my daughter’s; in fact, we may have timed it right before they closed and rode it 2 or more times). We had dinner at Mama Melrose which was expensive but tasty.
Days 11 & 12 (Dec 28 & 29) – Camp and Travel
Day 11 was a pretty quiet day spent around camp. We did start some of the close up activities for the camper to get ready for departure on Saturday, the 29th.
We got on the road on Saturday, the 29th with Whispering Pines RV Park in Rincon, GA as our first night stop. It was about 315 miles. With the lateness of our start, traffic on I-4 (SOO PAINFUL) then stopping for lunch and dinner, we didn’t get to the campground until after 9pm. The route there off of the highway wasn’t too bad, but follow their signs and not your GPS. The GPS was stupid. It didn’t help that little man decided he was DONE with traveling and screamed for the last 30 minutes of the ride. Fortunately, the campground was well setup for overnight travelers with level pull through spots where we were able to leave the truck hitched up.
The next evening, the plan was to stay at a hotel again. That meant, though that I needed to start the winterizing process of the camper which was making sure that the tanks were fully flushed and emptied. I used the sewer hookup at Whispering Pines for that.
A trip up or down I-95 isn’t complete without stopping at South Of The Border. I had never been and my wife hadn’t been there since she was a kid, so we planned our lunchtime stop around it. All told, it’s kitschy, gaudy and filled to the brim with tourist trap crap. We parked at the truck stop at the south end. Pedroland was closed, but would have been fun for killing some time. We had a Mexican lunch at one of their restaurants and were thoroughly unimpressed. We did go into the reptile house, which I expected about 6 minutes for our money, but we ended up stopping and checking things out- mostly because their was a large snake swallowing a rabbit whole! I tried to get pictures, but none turned out well. 🙁
Days 13 and 14 (Dec 30 and 31) – Travel and HOME!
We had 2 choices of Holiday Inn Expresses as the next stop for us to make- in Emporia, VA at 402 miles from Whispering Pines or Petersburg, VA at 436 miles. Both are longer than I prefer to drive in a day (given my druthers, 200-250 miles is my ideal; 300-350 miles my maximum). Looking at aerial views of the 2 hotels and their parking lots, we opted for the further of the two. With our typical late starts, flushing tanks in the morning and getting on the road- it was again after at or after 10pm when we finally pulled into the parking lot. Both times, I explained to the clerk at the desk that I have a tractor trailer sized truck and camper and asked where they preferred I park it. The first hotel had me move it, this one said I was just fine where I was.
The final leg of the drive was 170 miles to home. Other than stopping for food at lunch time, it was a quick drive home. The lunch stop was at exit 92B off of I-95 in Virginia. On one side of the road is a truck stop with convenient diesel fuel. On the other, around the back of a McDonalds are big rig parking spots where our truck and camper fit nicely. We’ve stopped here twice now and both times, the place was clean with decent bathrooms.
Getting home, we started the daunting task of unpacking. A few days later, we started the winterization process…
- Disney had the best parking for a dually truck- they put me on an end spot and had me park over 2 spots.
- Universal Studios wasn’t worth the money for the upgraded parking, it only got you a slight bit closer.
- SeaWorld was well worth the money for upgraded parking.
- Just before closing can be the best time to catch popular rides- if you don’t mind missing the various fireworks/shows that the parks offer.
- Traffic in the area is painful. What should have been a 15 minute drive usually took 45.
- A dually in Downtown Disney’s parking lot was “tricky”- doable, but not fun.
- We had a couple of occasions where we thought getting on the toll roads would have helped, but we hadn’t bought the Sunpass. I’ll get one before our next trip.
- Being away for Christmas was good and bad- good to do something different and exciting, bad to not be in the area for family gatherings and events.