12 Ways to Have a Magical Family Christmas at Disney World (Despite the Crowds!)

We just got back from spending a magical family Christmas at Disneyworld, so I thought I’d share a few things we did to make sure we experienced all the magic! 

But first, a disclaimer:  If you have never been to WDW before, in my opinion, Christmas week is not the time to go. It is by far the busiest week of the year. My husband and I both agreed that if it had been our first time there, we would never come back… and that would be such a shame, because it is so much fun at other times in the year! So save yourself some stress (and money) and schedule your trip during a less-crowded time. February and September are ideal, but Spring Break and other months work, too!

Now, since we have established that it will be CROWDED, these are some alternatives we found to the usual, everyday Disney experience. So open your mind to some new possibilities as we did (or ordinary possibilities in a new environment), and let the fun begin!

1. For Rides, Go Early/Go Late.

 If you can’t imagine going to Disney and not riding rides, then there are a few things that will make the Christmas week wait times a little less torturous. Be there for “Rope Drop”– Get up early and arrive at the Park gates before they open. You will have about an hour to squeeze in several rides before the lines stack up, so choose the rides that normally have the longest lines first. Normally, the first 2-3 hours after the Park opens have short lines, but we found this window to be much shorter during Christmas week. The same concept applies in the evening. Arrive at the Park about 2 hours before closing for your best chance at short lines, and skip the fireworks/parade/etc. We love to ride Big Thunder Railroad during the fireworks- you can almost walk right through the line, and nothing is better than viewing the fireworks as you fly around the turns! Plan your Fast Passes to coincide with your arrival times, and then fill the rest of your day with other Disney adventures!

2. Go to the Pool.

Florida weather can be unpredictable in December, but there is a good chance you will have at least one day in the upper 70’s. And if it’s chilly, just jump in the hot tub. Plus, the Vitamin D will boost your immune system!

3. Resort Hop to see the Gingerbread Houses

Several of the resorts feature real houses made of gingerbread and frosting that match the theme of the hotel! You could spend several hours going from place to place taking pictures with each of them, finding the hidden mickeys, etc. 

4. Check out the Gift Shops

While you’re resort hopping, be sure to peek into the various gift shops. We have found that many of the resorts carry different merchandise, so you might find something you love that you won’t find anywhere else!

5.  Eat your way around the world in Epcot.

This ended up being one of our most fun days! We arrived at Epcot around 11am and most of the wait times were already an hour or longer, so we headed for the World Showcase. Since we couldn’t agree on what we wanted to eat, we decided to share a variety of foods throughout the countries. We shared nachos in Mexico, some bubble tea in China, a giant pretzel and some caramel in Germany, and then opted for different desserts- shaved ice from China and gelato from France. We took our time and stopped in a few of the shops that we generally skip over, and just really enjoyed the slower pace. By the time we got past France, we were ready for our next adventure… 

6. Ride the Skyliner.

If you have not been to Disney in awhile, the Skyliner is a new form of transportation which carries people between Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and several resort hotels (Caribbean Beach, French Riviera, and All Star). The cable cars run continuously, and you can hop on at any of the stops and take a ride. It’s a fun way to get a bird’s eye view of different resorts, and it almost feels like a ride in itself! It definitely beats standing in a 2-hour line for Test Track. If you exit Epcot in between France and England, the Skyliner hub is directly on your right after you leave the Park.

7. Indulge in a Holiday Snack Hunt.

Disney rolls out several holiday treats just for the season that you don’t want to miss! Our oldest daughter follows a bunch of Disney bloggers, so she made a list of treats for us to try on our trip, and we checked one off every chance we got. The gingerbread cookie sandwich from Germany was amazing; The peppermint gelato macaroon from France left a lot to be desired. But the fun was in the trying! So google WDW holiday treats before you go, and you’ll know where to find all the goodness.

8. See a movie.

Everyone needs some downtime… maybe it’s been raining all day (or week), or you’re tired of the lines, or whatever. Disney Springs has a movie theater, and there are several other theaters off-property within a short drive. Many of the resorts also show free family-friendly movies in the evening out by the pool. We spent our first day watching the new Star Wars movie to avoid the rain, and it was a great way to start our trip! (PSA- Disney Springs has a bowling alley, too, if that’s more your thing)

9. Resort Dining. 

There are so many great restaurants at the various resorts around property! Use this time when the parks are so busy to try something new. You can view the menus online, so choose something that appeals to your family and be sure to make a reservation. We ate Christmas dinner at Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge, which is one of our favorites. We have eaten at most of the resorts, and have yet to find a restaurant we didn’t like!

10. Magic Kingdom Scavenger Hunts: Sorcerer’s of the Magic Kingdom Quests/A Pirate’s Adventure. 

When we arrived at the Magic Kingdom and saw that the line for It’s a Small World was over an hour, we knew we were not going to be riding any rides. We decided it was the perfect time to try out something we have always wanted to do- an interactive scavenger hunt! We began with the Sorcerer’s Quest (start out at the Fire Station near Main Street) and completed an entire quest, which took us through 4 areas of the park. We made a quick stop in Mickey’s Philharmagic during a rainstorm, and had to get some dole whip when the quest led us to Aloha Isle, but neither pit stop interfered with our adventure. When we finished, our kids did the Pirate’s Adventure without us, and they enjoyed that one even more, as it was more like an interactive clue hunt. I was afraid our kids would think the scavenger hunts were too babyish, but they all really had fun, even the teenagers! Our boys liked the trading cards that came with the first quest, and they were all especially happy to receive a fast pass to Pirates of the Caribbean when they completed their adventure! This turned out to be a fantastic way to spend a rainy, super crowded day at the park. And there are multiple quests, so we will definitely do it again!

11. Candlelight Processional (Dining Package). This was definitely the most magical part of Christmas at Disney for me. We usually spend our Christmas Eve morning visiting a local nursing home with our church family, followed by a candlelight worship service that evening. That is part of what helps our family keep our focus on the real meaning of Christmas, and I was concerned that we would lose that focus being at Disney. But then my sweet husband found out that Steven Curtis Chapman (my fave!) would be narrating the Christmas story at the Epcot Candlelight Processional, and bought us a “Dinner & Show” Package to make sure we would have seats for Christmas Eve. I would definitely recommend pre-purchasing the dining package, as the Processional fills up quickly and you are not likely to get a seat without it, especially on Christmas Eve. We ate hibachi in Japan, hit a few rides, and then got in line to get good seats for the service. The orchestra was amazing! And SCC was a fantastic narrator, so genuine as always. I cannot explain how it felt to be celebrating the birth of Christ (God with us!) with so many other believers in the midst of such a secular place! It definitely made Christmas for me. So a huge shout out to my hubby for making it happen! 

12.  Lastly, Close out a Park on Christmas Eve. This was not something we planned, but it turned out to be truly magical! After the Candlelight Processional, we went back to the Wilderness Lodge and opened our Christmas Eve present (matching Disney pajamas, of course!), and began to settle in for the night. Then someone mentioned that Magic Kingdom didn’t close until midnight, how fun would it be to be there on Christmas Eve? Next thing I knew, all six of us were heading toward the boat, ready for an adventure! It was crowded, but not terribly so, and we were able to ride several of our favorite rides (including Big Thunder during the fireworks! Woot!) and enjoy a Mickey bar before heading back to the resort. With our oldest daughter graduating from high school this May and heading off to college, memories like that with all of us together are not something we take for granted. It was definitely a magical way to celebrate!

Of course, there are lots of other magical things about Christmas at Disney- holiday themed rides, special parades and performances throughout the parks, etc. But these are the top 12 things that made our Disney Christmas so magical this year. If you have other suggestions, I’d love to hear them! Who knows when we might find ourselves there again… (Okay, probably not anytime soon. But still, I still love hearing ideas!)

Heath Fam Goes West: Part 3

MOAB, UTAH

Well friends, the adventure continues! After several days visiting friends and family in Colorado, we loaded up our rental vehicle and headed towards our next destination: 

Travel Day 6: Moab, Utah

It was a beautiful drive; we couldn’t get over the beauty of the snow-capped mountains in the middle of June! We kept an eye out for various wildlife as we traveled through ski-resort towns, and were rewarded with glimpsing a bald eagle and a few antelope./We were hoping to see some bighorn sheep, too, but no such luck. Still, I found myself taking an abundance of photos as the scenery continued to change around us.

Several hours later, we made it to Canyonlands National Park. We decided to do some hiking before checking into our hotel since CNP was on the way. That turned out to be a great decision!

Canyonlands is HUGE, and we only had a few hours to spend there, so we chose to spend it at Islands in the Sky . We made a quick stop by the Visitor Center to use the restrooms and get a map before driving to the end of the road to Grand View Point, a 2-ish mile hike that led us around the top of a ridge with canyon views as far as we could see. It was unlike anything we had seen before! The boys loved it because there were lots of rocks to climb on, and the girls loved it because the hike was pretty flat and the views were amazing.  There were small towers of rocks, called cairns, marking the trail, which the boys enjoyed scouting to ensure we were still on the right path.

We hiked for just under an hour, before we saw the thunderstorm rolling in. We hurried back around the edge of the canyon towards our car, stopping only to take a quick photo of the beautiful double rainbow that arched across the sky. 

Next, we made our way to another small trail leading up to the Mesa arch. We didn’t realize it at the time, but this was our first of MANY encounters with arches in the coming weeks (which continues to be a family joke: I get texts from my girls in random places, “Look Mom, another arch!”) The short hike was fun and there were only a few other people on the trail (probably because of that previously mentioned thunderstorm!).

When we got to the arch, we asked another hiker to take a photo of our family, and he obviously knew what he was doing. He suggested we turn around and look out through the arch while he took our photo from behind. It turned out to be one of my favorites from the trip! So, thank you, kind stranger! The kids took a few minutes to scamper up the nearest pile of rocks, and then we raced back to the car just before the rain began.

Since it was getting close to sundown, we decided to head on to the hotel, even though we had only seen a small fraction of what Canyonlands has to offer.  Next time!

In Moab, we stayed at the Homewood Suites. We had reserved a “1 King Bed Studio with 2 twin bunk beds” room so we would all be in one room, and I had no idea what to expect. It was fantastic! There was plenty of room for all of us, and we could have stayed there comfortably for much longer than 2 nights.

The bunk beds were tucked away in a little nook, so they didn’t take up any extra room. There was a sitting area with a fold-out couch, which is where the boys slept. There was also a little kitchenette with a full-size fridge. On top of that, breakfast was included, and it was delicious, with lots of options for everyone, including Texas-shaped waffles! There is a guest laundromat available for those who need to wash clothes, which came in handy for us. I cannot recommend this hotel enough!

Day 7: Arches National Park  

After fueling up with a yummy breakfast at the hotel, we made a quick stop by Sweet Cravings Bakery to pick up some sandwiches for a picnic lunch in the park. There was a short line, and you can actually order online and then pick it up, which I would recommend. However, the servers were very friendly and our order came out surprisingly quickly; more on that later…

It only takes a few minutes to drive from Moab to the entrance of Arches National Park. However, be prepared for a really long line to get through the gate! I think it took us about 20 minutes, which we spent making family karaoke videos in the car.

Once inside the park, guests can stop by the Visitor’s Center to get a map, visit the bathroom and gift shop, fill up water bottles, and talk to a ranger. We picked up a Junior Ranger booklet for Noah and the staff helped us select a few hikes that would be good for our various age ranges.

Our first stop was at several rock formations with fitting titles: Three Gossips, the Courthouse, etc. There was an area for cars to pull off, so we jumped out and the boys immediately took off towards the other hikers who were climbing around the base of the formations. To our surprise, an older park ranger approached us and informed us that although there was an area for cars to pull off, we were not actually allowed to access those particular formations due to the nature of the fragile soil surrounding the rocks.

We quickly called the boys back over and climbed back in the car, resuming our quest for arches. However, I must admit, while we totally understand the need to protect and preserve the Park, we spent a lot of time giggling and cautioning each other about the “fragile soil” over the next couple weeks!

The park seemed pretty busy that day- all the parking areas were full at the first few formations, so we decided to drive out to our farthest hiking destination (parked at Devil’s Garden Trailhead) and then work our way back in. This worked out much better for us, so I would recommend that, unless you are trying to hit a specific arch at a specific time for photos. 

Our first hike was to the Landscape Arch, which I loved! The trail was very easy and the way the arch framed the natural landscape behind it made it look like a picture frame.

From there, we started hiking to the Double O arch, but this trail was much more difficult and required a lot of steep rock climbing. Our boys were super excited about that, but for time’s sake we decided to turn around and make our way to some of the other arches. If you’re wondering how our boys reacted to that news, a picture paints a thousand words… it’s one of my favorite photos from our trip!

Landscape Arch
(*If you can stop looking at the boys’ faces long enough (haha!),
notice the rock behind us… that is a sample of the trail to Double O Arch)

After that, most of the arches were only a short walk from the road, so we stopped by Skyline Arch and Broken Arch, Fiery Furnace Viewpoint (which is supposed to be spectacular at sunset), the Delicate Arch viewpoints, Balanced Rock, and the Windows Section. If you are passing through and only have an hour or two at Arches, the Windows Section is a great place to see several different arches and rock formations in a short amount of time. It is an easy walk to the arches, and then you can climb up into them if you want. The views were so beautiful and just so different from what we see in the Southeast, and our little monkeys were in heaven with all the climbing.

At some point, we pulled out our lunch, only to find that the reason our order came out so quickly was because they had given us someone else’s lunch! Since we were starving and there is no place in the park to get food, we just made the best of it and shared whatever happened to be in the bag, which turned out to be a ham and cheese sandwich, a veggie wrap, and a bagel. Fortunately, the sandwich was loaded with ham, so we spread it out among the other sandwiches, and when we added a few cookies from our car-stash, everyone had just enough to keep us going! 

Once we made the round of all the arches, we drove back to the Visitor’s Center so Noah could turn in his booklet and be sworn in as a Junior Ranger. Participating in the Junior Ranger programs was one of the highlights of his trip!

After that, we headed back into town and found someplace to eat dinner. There are a lot of great local restaurants in Moab. We ended up eating at Eddie McStiff’s just because it was close to where we parked (and we were SO hungry after our shared lunch meal). The food was good, but not exceptional. There were several other places we passed later that I think we would have enjoyed more.

After stopping in a few of the little shops on main street, we stopped at The Garage for some ice cream- it was a super cute venue and the ice cream was yummy! Everyone was pretty worn out from a long day, so we went back to the hotel and played a little Uno before going to bed.

 

The next morning we enjoyed another great breakfast, loaded up the car, and stopped back by Sweet Cravings Bakery before leaving town. When Jeff walked in, the cashier remembered him from the day before and told him they had tried to track us down, even posting on their Facebook page once they realized their mistake! They offered us free sandwiches for the road (which were absolutely delicious and definitely came in handy) and threw in some free baked goods when Jeff insisted on paying for at least a few of them. Everyone makes mistakes; but how they handled the situation was fantastic customer service, and their food was definitely worth a second visit. If you find yourself in Moab, make sure to stop by and pick something up! 

We really enjoyed our time in Moab, and hope to go back someday. But it was time to set off on our next adventure… 

Grand Canyon, here we come!!

Heath Fam Goes West: Part 2

Well, this second blog post in this series has taken much longer than I hoped. I actually had it almost finished before I published the first one, but I have been having some computer issues and somehow it disappeared. At first, I just lost part of it, but now the entire file is nowhere to be found. Ugh!! So I shall begin again…

PART 2: COLORADO

Day 1: Travel Day

Day 1 started out with us flying from Atlanta to Denver, Colorado. Since we do not usually fly anywhere (3 of the 4 kids have only flown once!), even the plane ride was a somewhat new adventure. The boys were super excited to be able to play games and watch movies on the plane, and the girls were glad they brought their own headphones because apparently they work much better than the complimentary ones provided by Delta. Ha! So after parking our car at Peachy Airport Parking and then navigating the airport security lines, we boarded the plane. We had no idea that our “adventures” would start so soon… due to a very large hailstorm over Colorado, our plane was diverted to Salt Lake City, Utah. The kids were actually super excited about this because they had asked me multiple times to add Salt Lake City to our itinerary for the sole purpose of visiting East High, the high school where the High School Musical movies were filmed. The girls quickly informed us that we were only 10 miles from East High, and we seriously considered getting an uber just to take some pictures! Unfortunately, our layover was less than an hour, so we were not able to make it happen. However, we did get an unplanned aerial view of the Great Salt Lake, so that was pretty cool!

We arrived in Denver late that night and made our way over to Avis to collect our rental car. Thankfully, we had signed up as “preferred members” online before making our reservation; this ended up saving us some money on insurance “extras” that were included for preferred members, as well as helping us secure a 2019 Yukon XL for our extended road trip, versus whatever vehicle the customer representative had initially selected for us. The process was very smooth and easy (especially once he realized we were “preferred” customers), and we were on the road to Colorado Springs in no time. It was an easy drive that late at night, and we were grateful to be settled in by midnight!

Colorado was the longest portion of our trip and the most time we spent in one place. My younger brother, Sonny, and his sweet wife, Courtney, live in Colorado Springs with their 2 children, and so do Courtney’s parents, so our lodging was taken care of for this part of our trip. However, if you are looking for a unique place to stay in Colorado Springs, check out this Country Cottage I found on airbnb. The owners are super nice and very easy to work with, and it looks like a great place for a family to spend a few days! In addition to my brother’s family, we have some close family friends who live in the Springs, so our goal was to spend as much time with all of them as possible while experiencing some of the many fun things to do in Colorado Springs. Mission accomplished!

Days 2 & 3:  Reconnecting with Family & Friends, Garden of the Gods

Our 2nd day brought some rainy weather, and since we were pretty tired from our late night travel adventure, we spent most of the day relaxing at home and enjoying time with our family and friends. Jeff was able to play some golf with Sue (Courtney’s mom) while the rest of us chatted, worked on a Lego space shuttle, and played some football in the yard. It was fun to be reunited with our friends after several years apart and for the boys to get to play with their cousins!

On Day 3, we headed over to explore Garden of the Gods with my brother’s family. First, we rode around the big loop looking at all the different rock formations. Parking along the loop was extremely limited, so we made our way to the Trading Post for a map and some ice cream! It was delicious… I highly recommend the Pikes Peak flavor, because, well, how often do you find Pikes Peak flavored ice cream in Georgia? For our first adventure, we decided to trek over to the Balanced Rock area, which was a quick, easy walk from the Trading Post. We spent an hour there and everyone loved it! The boys were in heaven, climbing and scampering over the rocks like little monkeys, while the girls found it to be a great spot for some Instagram pics.  As we were finishing up with our group photos and deciding where to hike next, the clouds rolled in, along with the thunder. 

Fortunately, we made it back to the Trading Post just as the downpour began! We used it as an opportunity to try out their café menu and browse the enormous gift shop. By the time the rain stopped, we decided to make a quick stop by the Visitor’s Center for some great rooftop photos with the rocks, and a stroll through the museum. The highlight was definitely the “Poop Quiz” (which I aced, by the way. Apparently, I’m an expert on various types of poop. Who knew?). We spent the evening with our friends, the Locke family, eating a yummy dinner and reminiscing about old times.  What a blessing to watch our kids, who first became friends many years ago in preschool, all back together again, now as teenagers! They ended the night collapsed on the floor in a pile of laughter, so I’d say they had a good time (and no one is a better Magical Harp than Jessie, just saying)!

Day 4:  Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs Cliff Dwellings, Edelweiss Restaurant

This was our boys’ favorite day in Colorado. We spent the whole day with their cousins, which meant it would be fun no matter what!  Our first stop was Cave of the Winds, near Manitou Springs.  This place was awesome! We started with a Discovery Tour of the cave, which took about an hour and was super fun. Our guide, Tatiana, had a great sense of humor and really made it enjoyable for all ages. I think the teens and adults would have definitely enjoyed the Lantern tour, but with younger children, the basic tour was perfect. When we finished, there was a large seating area with picnic tables and beautiful views where we sat to eat lunch. Sonny and Courtney had packed lunches for all of us, but there was also a snack bar available for those who wanted to purchase food. After lunch, we purchased the “Pioneer Package” for all the kids, which included the Wind Walker Challenge Course (high ropes course on the edge of Williams Canyon), Cliffhanger Climbing Wall, Geronimo’s Leap, Bat-a-pault, and Magic Lantern Theater (Virtual Reality rides).  They spent most of their time on the Challenge Course and Climbing Wall, but once the girls found the virtual reality theater, they all spent the last half hour there. We had planned to spend about an hour at Cave of the Winds and then make the drive up to Pike’s Peak, but since the kids were having so much fun (and we weren’t sure the high altitude and long drive were going to be worth our time on this trip), we decided to stay and let them enjoy it. We definitely got our money’s worth out of it, and it was an overall trip highlight for the boys!

Since we didn’t go to Pikes Peak, we had an hour or two to kill before our dinner reservations, and Courtney suggested we stop by the Cliff Dwellings in Manitou Springs. I am so glad we did! I had originally planned for us to make a stop in Mesa Verde on the way to the Grand Canyon, but ultimately decided that was a lot of extra driving just for some cliff dwellings, so this was perfect! We all had a great time exploring all the different rooms and marveling at the architecture and history of a simpler time. The museum part of the gift shop had some really interesting photos and history as well, so if you go there, make sure to spend a few minutes inside. After the obligatory photo by the teepees, we headed to Edelweiss for dinner, a German restaurant Sonny and Courtney really like. Since our family lived in Germany when we were growing up, they thought we would enjoy it, and they were right! My sweet college friend, Michelle, and her boys were able to join us, which made it extra special. The food was authentic and amazing, and our boys all became fast friends. It was a great ending to a wonderful day!

Day 5: USAFA, Teen hike, Laundry & Packing, Birthday Dinner

Our last day in Colorado was a special treat.  Both my dad and Sonny graduated from the Air Force Academy, and my dad taught there for a few years when I was a child, so it was definitely something I wanted our kids to experience. Courtney’s father, Gary, was one of my dad’s best friends when they were at the Academy together and while we were growing up, so it was a real treat to have him give us a tour. He was able to show us the chapel, which is soon to be renovated, as well as various other buildings around campus. Gary shared details and stories of all the planes scattered around the quad; the kids favorite story was about the hot-shot pilot who flew his plane over the quad, hitting the speed of sound just a smidge too early, causing ALL THE GLASS on the windows to suck in and then shatter outwards onto everyone marching to the Mess Hall! While they all enjoyed the tour, I’m not sure they realize yet what a privilege it was to have a former astronaut for a tour guide… to him, he’s just their “Uncle Snake”/“Grandpa”!  

While the rest of us headed home to do laundry and pack, the teens headed out for a fun afternoon together, climbing some big rock (this turned out to be a theme of our trip!) and seeing where Carson and Jess spend their days. I know they treasure the chance to reconnect with their friends!

Sonny and Courtney were kind enough to host all of us at their house that night for dinner, and we were excited to be together to celebrate Courtney’s and Gary’s birthdays. We had a fantastic time and soaked up every minute of being together! Unfortunately, Joe & Erin’s youngest son, Garrett, was at camp for the week, so our boys missed out on seeing their buddy. We’ll make sure they catch up next time! Overall, our time in Colorado was everything we had hoped, and our Western Adventure was off to a great start!

STAY TUNED FOR PART 3… (if you’re lucky, it will be out by Christmas! LOL!)

Heath Fam Goes West!

Our East-coast family of six just returned from a 17 day trip out West, which included 3 plane rides, 2,000 driving miles, 5 states, 4 hotels (plus 3 relatives’ homes), 3 National Parks, 2 theme parks, 1 elk, and lots of hiking. Whew!! As our oldest daughter begins her Senior year of high school, I cannot express how thankful I am for this time together. Yes, there were a few squabbles along the way, as you can imagine with 4 kids in tight quarters! But, overall, everyone kept a great attitude and we created life-long memories that we already cherish.

Several friends have asked about our itinerary. Since I know firsthand how much planning and preparation goes into a trip like this, I decided to share some details from our trip in the hopes that it may help some of you plan your own adventure! So this first post will be about how we went about planning our trip. Over the next couple weeks, I will share details from each portion of our trip for those of you who are interested!

PART 1: The Planning Process

This trip has actually been in the works for more than 5 years. What I mean by that is that we have talked about “going out West” for much of our married life (22 years), and more intentionally over the last 5 years as our boys got older and our girls approached high school.  Jeff and I both knew this was a trip we wanted to take all together as a family, but to be honest, the logistics of planning a trip like this scared and overwhelmed me. There were so many unknowns; I wasn’t even sure where to start! So every year we would sit down and dream about what we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it, and I would write it all down. I would google a few things, get overwhelmed, and walk away.  Sounds like a great planning process, right? Ha! So take heart- this trip does not require 5 years of planning! It just requires making the decision to actually do it.

Last Fall, as Sarah began her Junior year of high school, Jeff and I knew it was now or never, so I got serious about planning.  We had been told you need to reserve lodging at the Grand Canyon a year in advance, which is where I usually got derailed. So this time I was determined to make a plan and stick to it! 

Stage 1:  Dream

Our first step was to dream of everything we wanted to see and how we wanted to see it. This stage for us began with our “5 years of planning” and gradually evolved into what you will see on our itinerary. Our original dream was to rent an RV and travel from Georgia out West, seeing everything we could possibly see along the way. The idea of living together in a small space for a long time was both exciting and terrifying. Can’t you just picture us as the Griswalds? LOL!

We made a bucket list of everything we wanted to experience along the way: The St. Louis Arch, Mt. Rushmore, Yellowstone, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon, Colorado, Cliff Dwellings, Las Vegas, Disneyland… the list went on and on. It only took a little research for me to determine that our dream trip would require at least 3 months for us to accomplish if we wanted to see everything! Wow!! So if you are interested in this trip, sit down together and start your list. Ask questions like: What do we want to see and do? Do we want to camp or stay in hotels? Do we want to drive or fly? Do we have friends or family we want to visit along the way? Don’t be afraid to dream big! Write it all down, even if you doubt you will include it. It may be part of a future trip!

Stage 2: Funnel

Next, I began research on the RV. After talking to a few friends who had taken RV trips, we quickly determined that we liked the IDEA of a long RV trip better than we would like the actual trip. Originally we were thinking it would be more cost effective, but once you figure in the overall rental plus gas, mileage, and site rentals, that was not the case. Also, with as much as we wanted to see, the slower travel involved would be counter-productive for us. I still think an RV trip would be really fun! But for this particular trip, we decided to just drive our own car. 

From there, we began to funnel down our “dream list” and cross things off until we were a little more centrally focused.  This was one of the most difficult processes for me (because I want to see everything!!) and took a lot of time and research. I decided to pull out a map and start with the family and friends we hoped to visit along the way. Since my brother lives in Colorado Springs, along with a few other very close friends, Colorado became a priority destination for us.  (If you have no reason to go to Colorado, I would recommend possibly starting in Arizona instead). I also have an aunt and uncle in St. George, Utah that we hoped to visit along the way.  With those 2 stops on the map, it just made sense for us to focus on the Grand Canyon as our primary destination and plan our other adventures around it. That decision alone eliminated nearly half of our dream list… so we will save those adventures for another time!  

In this stage, you should take out a map and prioritize your dream list. Make sure to ask questions like: How long can we realistically be gone? What is our budget? Do we want to see as many places as possible or spend quality time at just a few? What makes the most sense for us? 

Stage 3: Focus

At this point, I began researching other things to see and do near the Grand Canyon and stumbled upon “The Grand Circle.” I am embarrassed to admit I had no idea there are so many National Parks in that area! Pinterest was my friend, as I found details of what the Grand Circle was, which hikes to take, what other families had enjoyed and recommended, etc. Even this part required narrowing things down, as we were trying to keep our trip to about 2 weeks. Since we would be driving to the Grand Canyon from Colorado Springs, we added Moab, UT as a stopping point so we could visit Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. My relatives live close to both Zion and Bryce National Parks, so those went on the itinerary as well. And if you know my husband at all, you know there is no way we could be within driving distance of a Disney park and not end up there, so Disneyland became a required destination as well.  When I put it all down on the map, Las Vegas (and the Hoover Dam) was a natural stop along the way. We had a trip! However, with driving out and back from Georgia, our trip was still going to have to be at least 3 weeks. Because it’s so expensive for a family of 6 to fly, we decided to fly out one way, rent a car for our trip and drive home. But eventually we determined we would rather use those travel days visiting people and enjoying our adventure, so we decided to bite the bullet and fly both ways.

Once you have narrowed down your prioritized destinations, do a little research to see what other things are close by or on the way that you may not know about. If your family is like ours, we have several different ages and both genders represented and not everyone enjoys the same things, so be sure to include something fun for everyone along the way!

Stage 4:  Finalize

Now that we had a basic travel itinerary, it was time to finalize our plans! This also took some research, but was more fun.  I basically started with lodging at the Grand Canyon, and planned the rest of our trip around that. Lodging options are extremely limited at the North Rim, and fill up quickly at the South Rim, so make this part your priority. We were about 9 months out when I started planning, and at first I was unable to find anything to accommodate our family of 6. There are some really cool packages that include lodging and meals in Williams, AZ and a 2 hour train ride to the South Rim, so this was my back up plan. Eventually, though, I was able to find 2 nights at the Yavapai Lodge in a family suite (2 queen beds and a bunk bed), so I planned the rest of our trips around that. Frontier and Southwest offer some really good flight deals out West (make sure you read their policies on luggage), but I booked our flights on Delta during a Thanksgiving sale. We actually added 3 days to our trip based on cheaper flights on specific days, and I am so glad! 

Here are some of my overall travel tips when planning a family trip out West:

  • If travelling to the Grand Canyon or other National Park, reserve your lodging there first, and plan around that.  Their websites recommend booking 1 year in advance. If you can’t find anything at first, keep checking back. 
  • Use tripadvisor.com as a resource for your other destinations, lodging, and activities. I added Moab to our itinerary based on reviews from this site, and also booked our sunset tour at the Grand Canyon after reading recommendations. It was pricey and I wasn’t sure it would be worth it, but it was one of our kids’ favorite parts of the whole trip!
  • If you have points through a certain hotel chain, use those hotels and/or points. My husband is a Hilton Honors member due to business travel, so we found hotels in the Hilton family whenever possible. And because we are DVC members, we used points to stay at Dinseyland, so the lodging for that part of our trip was free (or at least already paid for, ha!).
  • Since you’re planning in advance, you have time to watch for deals on your actual travel arrangements. There are several apps and websites that will alert you for airline deals. If you need to rent a car, we rented ours through Avis and had a great experience. You can become a “premiere member” online before making your reservations- this came in handy for us when we picked up our car and made the process much smoother. Someone had recommended it on tripadvisor.com, and I would definitely recommend it as well!
  • Make yourself a spreadsheet to keep track of all the details- destination, lodging, confirmation number, details, price, etc. This will come in very handy along the way!

Our finalized Itinerary looked like this:

Day 1Fly to Denver, rent car & drive to Colorado Springs
Days 2-5Colorado Springs: Garden of the Gods, Cave of the Winds, Manitou Springs Cliff Dwelligns, USAFA tour (and time with family & friends)
Day 6Drive to Moab, UT and hike in Canyonlands National Park
Day 7Arches National Park, dinner in Moab
Day 8Drive to Grand Canyon’s South Rim (AZ)- Desert Watchtower, Hummer Sunset Tour
Day 9(Grand Canyon) South Kaibab hike (Ooh Aah Point), Biking along rim
Day 10Drive to St. George, UT (visit with family)
Day 11Zion National Park (*we ended up not going to Zion because half the family was tired of hiking… so a few of us hiked in Snow Canyon State Park instead. Then we toured the local country club, which happens to be where High School Musical 2 was filmed- an unplanned highlight of the trip for our kids!)
Day 12Drive to Hoover Dam, then on to Las Vegas
Day 13Drive to Anaheim, CA (Disneyland)
Days 14-16Disneyland & California Advneture, possible trip into L.A. or to Huntington Beach
Day 17Fly HOME!!

So, that’s pretty much how I went about planning our trip! I am working on more blog posts with details on each of our destinations, so if you want more info, check back soon! We are definitely hoping to do more family trips like this. If you have any tips or suggestions, I would love to hear them. Thanks for reading!