Spring break will be here before you know it. If you haven’t made plans yet, there’s no reason to panic, but it’s time to start thinking about how your family would enjoy filling those cherished days off from school. While road trips can sound intimidating to some, I’m a big fan of the flexibility they offer traveling families. Planning a certain number of set adventures and activities along the route is a given, but being able to wing it and take advantage of the unexpected is where family road trips shine.
Road trips are also easy to pull off at the last minute. My college freshman and I had what we thought were set plans to head to the Bahamas for her first extended university break. When the trip fell apart, we refused to sit at home. Craving sunshine and warmth, we set our sights on Florida. Within a couple of days, a bargain airfare and a wish list quickly turned into a basic itinerary with something to be excited about every day.
Rough weather and a number of delays meant it was nearing lunch by the time our redeye flight touched down in Orlando and we were on the move in our rental car. Headed toward Universal Orlando, visions of Harry Potter in our heads, our energy level was impressively high. We hit the ground running and never really looked back. Although she’s now 18, my daughter devoured the popular book series growing up, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter still hits its mark.
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Universal Orlando has two side-by-side theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure, and the Wizarding World is split between them. The Hogwarts Express train ride connects the parks, but that also means you need to buy tickets to both parks to see everything. We started in Hogsmeade, at Islands of Adventure, working our way through Hogwarts and taking advantage of the solo riders’ line to hop on favorite attractions more than once. When the Hogwarts Express delivered us to Diagon Alley, we split a frozen Butterbeer, using the sugar rush to keep us going just a little bit longer.
By 6p we were back in the rental car, headed for our next stop, Crystal River, about a 90-minute drive from Orlando. Chances are you’ve never heard of it, but it has its own way of enchanting visitors.
Crystal River’s warm, spring-fed waters serve as the winter home for North America’s largest gathering of wild manatees, and Florida’s Citrus County is the only place in the United States where you can legally swim with these creatures, sometimes called sea cows. By the time we pulled up to the Plantation on Crystal River, it was so dark we could barely make out the water from our room, but we could clearly see the nearby Plantation Adventure Center. Check-in was at 7:15a, so sleeping in would have to wait for another day.
The sun wasn’t quite up yet, but steam was rising off the water as the large pontoon boat left the dock. By the time we arrived at Three Sisters Springs, our Plantation Adventure Center guide, Captain Ross Files, had us well-prepped that maximizing our odds of meeting a manatee meant being “slow, still and quiet” in the water.
In a wetsuit and snorkel gear — but no fins, because the splashing they make can scare away manatees — we climbed down the ladder into the murky water. For about 10 minutes, there wasn’t much to be excited about. Then there was one manatee, and another, and another. It was like manatee soup. They aren’t afraid to get up close and personal with swimmers, and once they decide they like you (if you’re quiet and still, they usually do), they’ll let you know it. Some wanted their nuzzles scratched, others wanted their bellies rubbed. Our two hours in the water went by fast. Back onboard the boat, my daughter and I were plotting another trip before we’d had a chance to dry off.
After long, hot showers, we checked out of the Plantation on Crystal River and started on the longest stretch of our road trip. From here, it takes about four hours to drive to Marco Island straight through. But Florida rest stops have perks you don’t often find other places — like beach access, which we happily took advantage of.
We were right around Bradenton when food became a priority. Cracker Barrel restaurants are a fairly common sight along Florida’s roadways, and after listening to folks rave about them for years, I went for it and pulled in. It’s a great fit for families on the road, much better than fast food. The restaurant serves breakfast all day; every table has a peg game on it to entertain you while you wait; and there’s a huge gift shop, which comes in handy for parents in need of additional behind-the-wheel entertainment. They also make a Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola® Cake. More on that later.
After crossing the bridge onto Little Hickory Island, the entrance to Bonita Beach Park is tough to miss. On the border of Lee and Collier counties, this stretch of sand sports a nice variety of amenities, from tables and grills to restrooms, a playground and a sand volleyball court. It’s also a great spot to take a walk and swim. Along with a towel, you’ll want a bag or container of some sort, because no matter which direction you head, shells will be plentiful.
Reaching Marco Island signified the end of our drive, but not the end of our trip. After a fun stretch on the go, I wanted to make sure we had time to slow down and simply relax. I couldn’t have found a better spot to do it than at the JW Marriott Marco Island Beach Resort. It’s not often I recommended arriving at a property and staying put, but along with being loaded with amenities, the resort knows how to show off its neighborhood, without guests having to do any work to soak it in.
Located on the Gulf of Mexico in southwest Florida, Marco Island is the largest of Florida’s Ten Thousand Islands. Think long stretches of sand, and warm blue water that’s home to a variety of wildlife. Just steps off the beach, the JW Marriott shows off its backyard by offering sailing and shelling tours aboard six-passenger catamarans. From sailing alongside dolphins and pelicans to shelling on uninhabited islands, these two-and-a-half-hour tours are loaded with a nice balance of history, surf and sunshine. Kids age 5 and up are welcome.
Beach umbrellas are covered by the property’s resort fee, and Beach Chickee Huts rentals are available. If your brood needs a break from the sand, there are two pools to choose from: Quinn’s Pool (the main pool) and the kid-friendly Tiki Pool, complete with water slide and splash area. Along with eight restaurants, the JW Marriott is also home to one of the only two Spas by JW in the United States.
Our last morning on Marco Island was spent sleeping in and walking on the beach. The drive to Southwest Florida International Airport (RSW) took a little under an hour, but before returning the rental car, we spotted an iconic sign towering off the highway and couldn’t resist one last, quick stop. We were somewhere high above the Rockies when my teenager and I split a piece of Double Chocolate Fudge Coca-Cola® Cake, easily packaged to go. Mother-daughter road trips don’t often end much sweeter than that.
Editor’s Note: Dana received media pricing and complimentary accommodations during her Florida road trip. As always, our thoughts and opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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