The Walt Disney World Road Trip: Tips, Tricks and What Not to Do

Photo - Michael Dahlgren

Recently, my family decided to make a last minute trip to Disney World the week of New Year’s. Before everyone faints at the heresy of going during the busiest week of the year, my brother’s school was playing in a bowl game in Tampa, so my family decided to kill two birds with one stone. Quickly putting aside the loud warnings in the back of my head about the massive crowds, I couldn’t turn down a pseudo surprise Disney trip. The resort reservation was all set (we would be staying at a Finding Nemo Suite in Disney’s Art of Animation Resort), and I already had my annual pass, but the flight fares were absolutely insane from Baltimore, which is the closest airport to me. Being a more intelligent person than I, my girlfriend suggested a simple alternative. Why don’t we just drive down? So we did. I hope everyone who is considering the possibility of driving instead of flying finds this useful.

Pluto
Our faithful travel companion.

Before getting on the road, make sure to fill up your car, get snacks and do all those obvious road trip things. Then grab something Disney and display it prominently on your dashboard as a constant reminder of why you’re driving. Trust me. It helps after you’ve been driving for six hours then realize you’re not even half way there yet. Also, music is important for any road trip but this is a Disney road trip so of course that should be Disney too. You could do songs from your favorite Disney movies but my girlfriend loves watching Stacey, so we listened to three different Stacey videos for hours on end. Her endless enthusiasm helps driving motivation exponentially. Alternatively, I suggest a loop of park music like Main Street or Future World in Epcot.

As for tips for the actual drive, it definitely helps to have multiple drivers. As exciting as Disney World is, driving along the same highway for what seems like forever is draining. Switching to the passenger seat and catching a quick nap has amazing rejuvenating effects. Also, this next part is absolutely critical if you are going to be driving through North Carolina and South Carolina on Interstate 95: do not stop at South of the Border. I repeat. DO. NOT. STOP. AT. SOUTH. OF. THE. BORDER. Pedro is like a Siren of Greek Mythology except what awaits you is an awful tourist trap. Moving on…

With our resort reservation beginning on Tuesday night, we left early Monday morning for our thirteen hour drive. We figured that we could do the bulk of the driving on Monday, stay somewhere along the way, then do the rest Tuesday morning before checking in and starting our trip properly at one of the parks. I figured we would stop somewhere in Georgia at a Holiday Inn Express or something like that. The Problem was that the anticipation got to us. It was late, but we just kept going. Seeing that first Disney World billboard ignited a fire in us that told us to keep driving. The further we got, the less we’d have to drive the next day was our thinking. Normally, I’d say this is a good idea, but not during New Year’s week. Remember how I said it was the busiest week of the year? That goes for the greater Orlando area, as well. It was 2 am, and we got to Orlando before deciding to find a hotel. The problem was that most places were sold out. It wasn’t until after checking eight hotels that one finally had an opening. I distinctly remember the hotel employee’s face of pity after taking one look at me and seeing how haggard I appeared. I know this is a minor point to harp on, but trust me. The last thing you want to do after driving twelve hours is get turned down by a hotel because it’s filled up. Consider making prior reservations if necessary.

We made it!

After a much needed night of rest, we made our way from Orlando to Disney World, which brings me to my last and most important tip for road tripping to Disney. Take a photo of the Walt Disney World gate as you pass under it. Trust me. It’s like crossing the finish line at a marathon. I think. I’ve never run a marathon. Happy driving!

T.J. Van Fechtmann

Ever since his first trip before he could even walk, T.J. has loved Disney World more than any other vacation destination in the world. One of his goals in life is to visit every Disney theme park across the globe. Until then, you can find him making regular trips to Central Florida with the occasional trip to Disneyland as well.

17 thoughts on “The Walt Disney World Road Trip: Tips, Tricks and What Not to Do

  • January 14, 2015 at 1:16 pm
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    How was the drive on the way back? Is it absolutely unbearable? We live in Chicagoland and the trip is 19 hours (without stopping). With 3 kids it is ridiculously expensive to fly and we thought it would be nice to bring more stuff(diapers and stuff for the youngest) and not have to worry about what fits in luggage and also to have a car on property. The kids are good travelers but they have never gone more than 6 hours (nor has my husband). P.S. – I swear Pluto looks more weary in your second picture than the first.

    • January 14, 2015 at 1:25 pm
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      While you don’t have the anticipation of the trip to motivate you, I’d say the drive also felt shorter on the way back just because of that. I definitely was feeling it towards the last hour or two though. We didn’t stop on the way back but I probably would next time. Overall, for the reasons you said and more, I’d definitely say it’s worth it. I didn’t have kids with me though so I can’t speak to that. As for Pluto, that wasn’t on purpose but now I can’t stop noticing it.

    • January 14, 2015 at 2:23 pm
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      We live about 30 minutes south of Chicago. We have 2 kids and love driving to Disney. As long as you have snacks and something to keep them occupied you’ll have no problems. We always leave early early in the morning and stop in Valdosta, Ga. That only leaves 3 hrs left to drive the next day and that way your nice and refreshed to see that wonderful sign.

      • January 14, 2015 at 3:41 pm
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        Thanks!

    • January 14, 2015 at 8:50 pm
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      We live in Boston, which is 23 hours w/o stops, and have driven every two years for the last several years with three kids (2.5, 5, 8 the first time). We do stop overnight and sometimes we will take the Auto Train in one direction or another. I love driving … it’s true that it takes longer, but you don’t have to worry about what fits in your suitcase, you don’t have to worry about how to get home whatever you buy in the parks, and the most intangible part is that I feel like it provides enough time to mentally be on vacation by the time you get there, and mentally come home from your vacation on the way back. We’re flying this year because we got tickets at great prices, but crazy as it seems I find myself sometimes having regrets about the decision to fly instead of drive!

    • January 17, 2015 at 11:19 am
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      Stephanie,

      I pack a cooler of sandwiches, snacks and drinks. Then we stop at rest areas instead of fast food joints and there is always room to run around and let the kids burn off some energy. It helps a lot! After one epic bout of skinned knees, however, I now also keep band aids and peroxide in a first aid kit!

  • January 14, 2015 at 1:48 pm
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    We love driving to Disney! We can stop when we want, walk around, listen to whatever we want. It is hard to plan when to stop to get that room because it is so tempting to drive just a little bit more and the next thing you know, you are looking for a room in Orlando.

  • January 14, 2015 at 2:09 pm
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    We made an 18 hr drive from Dallas/Ft. Worth the week of Dec. 14th. We stopped and spent the night in Lake City, so in the morning it was 2 1/2 hrs to WDW. We had a fairly leisurely morning and arrived at Pop Century in time for lunch. We used afternoon FP+ at HS, went back to Pop to have dinner and add some layers, then enjoyed MK until 3am. It was a great start to our trip. We drove all the way home in one day. It was a very long day, got home a 12:30am, but it was so nice to sleep in our own beds. This was our first time to drive and it was worth the savings over airfare for a family of 4. And the family time in the car was actually good. Kids are 11 and 12.

  • January 14, 2015 at 3:06 pm
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    We’ve been three times, and are going again in May. We always drive. No kids to get impatient, though. Our trip from NW NC (without stops) is right at 10 hours without stops. We typically stop at either the Embassy Suites in Brunswick, GA, or Jacksonville, FL. For those who don’t know, Embassy has a free complete breakfast including made-to-order omelettes, and a Manager’s reception with unlimited alcoholic drinks from 5:30 -> 7:30 each evening (the Manager’s reception also theoretically has “snacks”, but they are nothing to write home about). Even if the room is $125/night, the true cost for us is much less when the drinks and breakfast are taken into account.

    Having our own vehicle allows us to stay off-site in a much larger place (with our own splash pool) for less money than staying on-site (typically we pay around $100-105/night for a 3bed/3 bath with splash pool, somewhat less without), yet we are still only about 10 minutes from any of the parks. This saves us further money because we eat breakfast in the room, along with several suppers over the course of a week. If you haven’t checked out VRBO.com, I strongly suggest it.

    Would we ever fly from NC to Disney? No. It’s a two hour drive to the nearest airport. Assume we arrive 1.5 hours before our flight. That’s 3.5 hours on one end. On the other end, since we don’t stay on-site, assume another 1.5 hours to claim luggage, rent a car, and get to our accommodations. Now we’re up to 5 hours. Add about 3.5 hours for the flight itself, and we’re up to 8.5 hours. For an extra 1.5 hours, I’ll take having my own vehicle any time!

  • January 14, 2015 at 4:17 pm
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    We did something similar once when we lived in Atlanta (about a 6 hour drive). I realized on a Wednesday that our kids were out of school on Monday – and that my husband had the day off as well (maybe MLK?). This was several years ago and we had a couple of days left on passes (back when days didn’t expire – on our previous trip, we had noticed that the five day pass wasn’t THAT much more expensive than the three day pass -we bought the five day and only used three – so we had two days remaining). My husband travels quite a bit and accumulates hotel points – I found a hotel that we could stay at for “free.” Friday night, we threw our elementary-aged kids in the car after school and started driving (hadn’t warned them AT ALL). We were up early Saturday and in MK. It was a holiday weekend and busy – but one of the joys of going to Disney multiple times is that we know what to expect. We know our favorites. And we know we’re coming back again. Somehow, that puts us all in a generous mood.

    So long story short – too late! – we went to Disney for almost nothing. We drove for cheap, we stayed for “free,” and used our prepaid tickets. Sure, we paid for meals (breakfast in our hotel) but we often eat out on weekends anyway – so that wasn’t much more. It felt like a free trip – and that trip was one of the best of our family life.

  • January 14, 2015 at 5:08 pm
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    Consider staying the night in Ocala. It’s close enough to Disney without spending the day driving, and small enough as not to be a big hassle finding a cheep room for one night in a decent neighborhood.

  • January 14, 2015 at 5:22 pm
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    My parents took me on about three or four driving trips from Minnesota to WDW when I was probably between 10 and 20. I’m old enough now that my own two kids are elementary school age. My wife has never done that long of a trip and doesn’t believe me that it can be done without everyone going completely bonkers. We’re going very soon because we lucked out with super cheap airfare but I’m not optimistic it’ll be that cheap again next time we get the Disney bug. I’m not sure how to convince her it can be done.

  • January 14, 2015 at 8:55 pm
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    The first time I read of someone who only drives to Disney from where I live, in Toronto, Ontario, I couldn’t believe anyone could do it, let alone more than once a year! The trip is about 24 hours if you take rests and food into account. My boyfriend and I are determined to try it at least once, but probably not until we can both drive so naps can be alternated. Here’s the blog about it: http://memoriesofdisney.com/2014/06/how-we-do-the-24-hour-drive-from-toronto-to-orlando/#.VLccYSxly8A I certainly admire their stamina!

    Coming from somewhere outside the US, when you consider that you’re meant to be at the airport for about 3 hours prior to your flight, and you have to actually get to the airport from where you live, a 2.5 hour flight quickly becomes 7.5 hours, not then including the time it takes you to collect your luggage, board the Magical Express, and get to your resort. Plus, you can bring so much more without all the restrictions air travel has. I won’t know until I try it just how draining the trip there might be, but maybe it’s worth a try. 🙂

  • January 15, 2015 at 10:54 am
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    I’m from Birmingham, and it’s just not worth it to fly. (Much the same way I would think it would be from Atlanta.) It’s about seven or eight hours down, depending on how much the hubby speeds. We did fly on our honeymoon, but every other time it’s just been so much easier to drive. Pack what you want, do what you want. If you don’t feel like waiting on Disney Transport — don’t!

    We’re early risers so we usually wake up around six and have gotten into Florida by ten am, easy. Then it’s just a few more hours until Orlando. It’s especially easy without kids. I won’t fly again, if I can help it.

  • January 15, 2015 at 3:14 pm
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    There were better tips in the comments than the article. Perhaps I’m just spoiled by the typical TouringPlans post which includes facts, resources and useful information beyond, “…do all those obvious road trip things.”
    We’ve always driven I-95/I-4 from the Philadelphia area.
    A week before, the car is cleaned and tuned. Emergency supplies and trip supplies are stocked.
    A day before, the car is packed, save for everyone personal travel needs. Charger cords for all necessary electronics are in the glove box.
    The 511.org system is exceptionally useful online to plan for traffic an weather and en route for traffic conditions that arise. Invest some time pre-trip getting familiar with the webpage and phone prompts.
    The net also helps to maps out state rest stops, and with a little research cheap gas, eats and (if necessary) lodging only slightly off the more expensive off-ramp businesses.
    Don’t confuse “we’re making great time” with common sense safety. Stop every 2 to 3 hours, if only to stretch for 5 minutes.
    Out-of-state plates are a trooper’s dream come true as you blow past his speed trap. Don’t blow your souvenir budget on a speeding ticket. (I do not speak from experience.)
    Budget for a hotel stay on the way home. Everyone will be over-tired.
    Many of our favorite vacation memories have to do with enjoying the journey as much as the trip.

  • January 16, 2015 at 6:01 pm
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    Oh, SotB is so very sad. I agree, do not stop. we half did – we pulled off and drove through. But it was clear just driving around there was no reason to get out of the car.

    If you drive straight through, leave early! I am too afraid to risk the overnight drive. But leaving at 4am if you are going to drive 14 hours makes a huge difference.

  • January 20, 2015 at 1:58 pm
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    One of your tips actually did not ring all that loudly to me. If you are driving from the DC metro area or north, pick a place to stop for a good 6-8 hours sleep within less then 6 hours of Disney. The biggest mistake I see people doing is trying to push well past their normal sleeping schedule, even going earlier in the morning you will fight fatigue.

    We go and stay at Fort Wilderness, so with RV in tow we are not in the left lane passing the world. Our trip takes about 16 hours of “road time” and averages 55mph with stops to make the about 875 mile drive. We plan and stick to stopping around the southern end of SC, or Northern GA for the night. We get a solid nights sleep and on the road by 9am the following morning. This sets us to arrive at the campground by official check-in time of 3pm.

    On the subject of South of the Border is only good for one thing, their RV park, I don’t even get fuel there as I have better discounts at places like Pilot/Flying J. The RV sites are level, inexpensive at 25 a night, and full hookup. Otherwise, we bypass PedroLand every time.

    Also for those driving any sorts of vehicles, just know there are discount programs for various places. I have a discount cart valid at all Pilot and Flying J, it gives me cash price for gas or diesel, and 1c a gallon off the Cash price for gas, and 3c off for diesel. Even if I pay with a CC. It is something to consider when driving, also use apps like gas buddy and plan your fuel stops. By driving another 30 miles you can save up to 25c a gallon (I don’t really care about 1-5c a gallon, but above that is worth it to plan.)

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