As you know by now, our family is “all in” when it comes to Disney. A year hasn’t gone by that we haven’t gone to Disneyland at least once. Until this year.
This summer, my family did something decidedly uncharacteristic for us. We did a “nature” trip. But we told our girls that it was a “mystery trip”, so every day of the trip was a surprise as we woke them up and told them a little about their day. It all started last summer when we drove to Terrace, BC (basically Alaska people… it’s literally completely across British Columbia, all 17 hours of it) to see my sister Danielle and her husband and their BRAND SPANKIN’ NEW BABY Kel. Along the way we discovered that our girls LOVED having new experiences every day. Whether it was driving through a new city, a walk through a park, or a historical village, the girls ate it up. We realized there are SO many things our girls have never seen, and they are at the perfect age to explore.
So we decided for the first time EVER since our oldest was born (she’s 11) NOT to do Disney. We started to map out a plan where we would do 9 states in 12 days. Well, it ended up being 7 states in 4 days, and then a few days recovery in California, and then the coast home. I don’t regret it… even though it was an exceptional amount of driving (6700 km, which is 4163.187 miles). We saw things we will likely never see again: Yellowstone National Park, Arches National Park, the Las Vegas Strip, Salt Lake City, and the Grand Canyon to name a few.
My husband and I spent more than a few Saturday mornings in bed with our lattes figuring out what we wanted to do. We knew that this was going to be a once-in-a-life-time trip and we wanted to make sure everything was as well planned as possible. We looked up each destination on Pinterest and found things we definitely would’ve missed otherwise.
I recommend pre-booking all of the hotels for peace of mind. I printed them in a binder, along with a minute to minute, hour by hour itinerary for what the days would look like.
We also looked into the costs for the National Parks, and looked up cheaper options. One of the things we found was a park pass called “America the Beautiful.” For $80 USD it allowed us access to nearly all of the National Parks in America for a fraction of the cost. The pass lasts a year. You can purchase it and see what’s included here.
Here’s an example of what a daily itinerary looked like in my binder:
Friday, June 29th Surrey, BC to Missoula, Montana (580 miles: 10 hours of driving)
6:30 am leave home
8:30 am rest stop in Everett area
11:00 am arrive in Leavenworth, have lunch (Nutcracker museum store? Argonaut espresso bar?)
12:30 pm leave Leavenworth
4:00 pm park and dinner stop in Spokane area
5:00 pm leave Spokane area
8:00 pm arrive in Missoula, Montana
BOOKED: ECONOLODGE $90.80 USD (free cancellation up to June 28th)
4953 N Reserve St, Missoula MT (breakfast, free internet and parking, non-smoking)
As I mentioned, it was a VERY ambitious trip. Because we are Canadian, we made sure to have data on Danny’s phone. There were a few times we found ourselves in areas without any service, but overall it helped. It’s also helpful to have a print out of all confirmations, as well as directions, in case you are in a dead zone. If you have a fancy-schmancy car, you might have GPS. We did not.
If you don’t care about what we did each day, skip on over to the next section where you will find lots of tips. If you’d like a detailed schedule of the entire trip, here you go!
Day One: Surrey, British Columbia to Missoula, Montana (580 miles, 10 hours of driving)
– Leavenworth for lunch
Day Two: Missoula, Montana to Rexburg, Idaho (522 miles, 10.5 hours of driving)
– Yellowstone National Park (Old Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs and Prismatic Pools)
– Jackson, Wyoming for a park after dinner
Day Three: Rexburg, Idaho to Moab, Utah (472 miles, 7 hours of driving)
– Salt Lake City for lunch (fun coffee stop)
– Seeing the “real” Up house (more about that below)
– Arches National Park (note: I would’ve liked to have seen this in the morning instead of the night as it was very, very hot)
It was Canada Day, so naturally we themed our clothes for that day. On Pinterest I keep a running tab of coffee shops recommended by chef’s I admire, and this was one I discovered in my Food Network Magazine called “La Barba”. It was amazing!
That night we had a chance to go in the pool, which was very needed considering the heat after the walk up to see the arch.
Day Four: Moab, Utah to Las Vegas, Nevada (603 miles, 10 hours of driving)
– Grand Canyon (entire south rim)
– Hoover Dam
– Las Vegas Strip (note: even though I CALLED the hotel and asked them, the pool closed at 6 pm which was a disappointment for everyone… we chose to stay in the hotel at night and then do the strip the next morning; a really wise choice with kids)
Day Five: Las Vegas, Nevada to San Diego, California (315 miles, 4.5 hours of driving)
– The Venetian, Las Vegas
– The Cosmopolitan, Las Vegas
– Caesars Palace, Las Vegas
– Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips, Las Vegas
– Driving on Historic Route 66
We were able to do the lobbies of the hotels, the M&M store and the Coca-Cola store. Not to mention some really good food! We asked for a late check-out so we could swim before leaving. If going with kids, I would recommend checking out one of the seven hotels I found that are entirely gambling and smoke free.
Day Six and Day Seven: LEGOLAND (read about it here)
Day Eight: San Diego to Buena Park, California (under 100 miles, approx. 2 hours of driving)
– Newport Beach (read about beach days in California here)
– Visiting Downtown Disney (three hours of free parking if you spend a minimum of $20 at one of the stores, restaurants, or kiosks… if you go to a sit-down restaurant it goes up to five hours of free parking)
Day Nine: Knott’s Berry Farm (read about it here)
Day Ten: Buena Park to San Mateo, California (389 miles, 7 hours of driving)
– San Francisco for dinner (Fisherman’s Wharf)
Day Eleven: San Mateo, California to Grants Pass, Oregon (392 miles, 6 hours of driving)
– Jelly Belly Candy Company (Factory Tour)
– Redwood National and State Parks
Day Twelve: Grants Pass, Oregon to Surrey, British Columbia (550 miles, 9 hours of driving)
– Outlet shopping in Oregon (no tax!)
It was a LOT of driving and a LOT of fun! We tried to do something special every day, and sometimes it was more than one thing.
Keeping the Kids Sane
We like to do a lot of things to make road trips special. We often will do a “car gift” for first thing in the morning, or after lunch. Our general rule is no screens ’til lunch (they can read, look out the window, play with dry erase pens or toys, do some extra homework, etc.) and then after lunch until our destination, they can be on a Nintendo DS, or iPod, or iPad, or the DVD players. We like to visit the library before we leave, and get some good new books, books on CD, and movies. (note: We use both of our library cards in order to double the amount of movies we can take out… from 10 to 20!)
Here’s an example of a car gift. This time around, we did one larger gift on the first day to keep them busy the whole trip. Their favourite was the emoji sucker holder that we bought Dum Dums (lollipops) for!
Another thing we did was pre-pack movies that had to do with what we had planned for some of ours days. So for Yellowstone they watched “Yogi Bear”, and for Knott’s Berry Farm, “The Peanuts Movie” and so on. That was a really fun way to tie things in.
Build in physical activity. And it doesn’t have to cost anything! Frisbee, bubbles, swimming at the hotel…
Because we were doing so many new things, I also had special colouring sheets that had to do with the day. With it being a “mystery trip”, I had them in my binder and then gave it to the kids each day.
This is an example of the activities binder they all received. My friend made it for them last spring when we drove to DL. We switched out the Disney colouring sheets for places we would be seeing on the trip. The pouch holds all of their colors and everything they need, and the back pages are laminated. We found crayons that are dry erase as that tends to work better for kids than felts, (it eliminates “Mom, I dropped the felt lid!”).
Lastly, we always have lots and lots of snacks. We do limit liquids (seems cruel but so is getting in at 11 pm cause you had to stop every hour). One of the favourite snacks is always dried cereal like Lucky Charms or Cinnamon Toast Crunch… something special they normally don’t get at home. Apple sauce pouches, fresh fruit, beef jerky, dried fruit, popcorn (microwave in the hotel)… you get the idea. We pack dollar store cups and a box of Ziploc bags in order to easily hand out the snacks while on the road. One of the best times to get the kids snacks is as we pull out of a rest stop.
Adding a Disney Touch
Even though it wasn’t a Disney trip, we managed to squeeze in some Disney. About 20 minutes outside of Salt Lake City you’ll find this house, which is an EXACT REPLICA of the house from “Up”! This was a fun stop to surprise them with, and it had a cute little park by it too! How FUN is this?
When we were in Arches National Park, we couldn’t get over how much the landscape reminded us of Cars Land in DCA. So we popped on the Disney Parks album (naturally) and drove into the park to the sounds of Radiator Springs Racers… it was such a fun memory. We also accidentally ended up on Route 66, which was obviously amazing.
We also, after some debating, decided to go to Downtown Disney. This was hard, because in the beginning stages of planning the trip, we had hoped to add a day at Disneyland. But we stuck to our guns and didn’t do it. We chose Knott’s Berry Farm and LEGOLAND instead this time. It was a MIGHTY hot day (we are talking a whooping 118 degrees). A lot of Downtown Disney was boarded up, which was really sad. But we squeezed in some beignets to share, and a mint julep. Also, the newly renovated World of Disney store is still worth seeing. We definitely miss the Rainforest Cafe, as that was such a highlight for the kids, but there’s still so much to see and do that it’s worth popping into the Downtown district for the Disney feels even if you’re just driving by the gates.
Money Saving Tips
I learned a lot from my mom in regards to saving money and doing things inexpensively while not compromising quality on family vacations. Some of the best memories I have as a kid is just stopping at a rest stop along the I-5 and getting out a frisbee or football and having a picnic lunch.
On this past road trip, we stopped at Target on one of the days and let the girls have one of the larger Lunchable-type meals. It came with a juice box and a treat, and the girls were in their glory! Another great tip is to keep an ice cream scoop and cones in your car, and then when it’s time for an ice cream treat, get a pint or a litre for $4 at a grocery store. We even found a store that sold ice cream pints in the middle of a mountain on the coast of California. The other thing we do is pack muffins, oatmeal, granola bars, etc. for breakfasts. Eating breakfast in the vehicle saves valuable time on a road trip, plus the kids need things to do in the van anyway.
Our last tip is for coffee drinkers: we pack our own travel french press and ground coffee (with that kettle previously mentioned) and a litre of cold brew. We freeze a gallon of milk before leaving, and that becomes the “ice” in the cooler to keep soda, yogurt tubes, etc. cold (we also brought the ice packs into the hotel rooms with fridges to refreeze each night). I’m telling you, in the middle of nowhere, this is a total game changer. I had people offer us money for our coffee up on the top of the Grand Canyon!
We had SO much fun on this road trip. We will definitely be doing something like it again. It was the perfect balance of spontaneous and planned!
Hope this helps you out on your next trip!
Have a magical day!