How to drive to Florida with Children

May 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

Many may ask whether or not driving is any longer cheaper than flying given the ludicrous price of fuel these days (toss up, really), but it’s not always just about the price. Both my husband and I grew up doing road trips to Florida with our family and we have now started a similar tradition with our own children. Aside from the obvious plusses to driving, for example, you can haul a lot more car seats, strollers, and “stuff” (which let’s face it, the more “stuff” to occupy the children the better!), we have found that the road trip itself is actually a significant contributor to our vacation experience! It does however, need to be done right if you are going to preserve your own sanity for the remainder of the trip!

Here’s how we do it:


  • ONE WEEK PRIOR: 1 visit to Dollarama, and 1 visit to Bulk Barn (Party Packagers is also good)
  • Large family sized vehicle that allows comfortable amount of room for each family member
  • At least two drivers, preferably three.
  • Defcon box*
  • Lots of snacks and re-fillable water bottles
  • Portable DVD player, preferably with 2 screens, and several favourite kids movies

*A Defcon box refers to the 5 five graduated states of alert (for the U.S. military originally, adapted for family use in this case), increasing in severity from DEFCON 5 (well-behaved children) to DEFCON 1 (children need a diversion before the van detonates).  I fill this box with gift-wrapped items from the dollar store and bulk barn and present the children with a gift to unwrap each time I feel the barometer rising (small stuffies, window clings, doodlepads, small games, figurines, treats, road-trip games, books, etc.).  Kids love opening gifts, and I usually colour code the gift-wrap per child so I can remember who gets what and keep things even – equity is everything at this age!


3pm: Finish the kids day at school, do a quick potty visit, and load everyone in! The kids are running on pure excitement at this point so no need to break out any of my tricks just yet, but I have them ready! After school snack is distributed as we begin our journey.

5pm: Pick up our third driver (usually Oma or a single/brave aunt or uncle) at their place. Excitement is renewed with the fresh blood entering the vehicle. The kids get a hearty snack to tide them over till dinner and a Defcon box item is usually conferred at this point for when the squirmies hit later (which is often before the time you reach the dinner stop).

7pm: Dinner stop. Usually this is at a McDonalds Playplace. We chow down, and let the kids run out all their energy on the play structure. We transition the kids into their PJs and pull out the blankets and pillows so everyone can get cozy in their car seats.  We provide the children with a gift from the Defcon box (previously arranged to be a new stuffy with which they can snuggle on the drive). Put on a favourite movie and drive while the sun sets. If they aren’t asleep by the end of the movie, they will be soon.  

**Our kids usually sleep through till morning, with the occasional wake-up for a drink of water or a blanket/pillow adjustment. Having the third driver is helpful to address these issues quickly and get the kids back to sleep before the other kids get woken up.  The adults take turns driving through the night and by sunrise most of the drive is behind us!**

6am/7am – at this point the sun is coming up and there is no way to draw the blinds so the kids wake up. It’s okay that they are up this early as it usually means they are tired enough to nap in the afternoon.  Offer drinks and a granola bar until all the kids are awake and/or someone has to pee.

BREAKFAST BREAK – We usually choose a Shoneys as it offers a buffet breakfast, allowing the kids to go and pick what they want to eat, rather than us fighting it out over a menu. At this point in the trip, it’s best to limit the opportunities for conflict.

Mid-morning  – FLORIDA BORDER! We always, always stop at the Florida Welcome Centre and get our free glass of rejuvenation, er, I mean,  orange juice. Also tradition at this stop is to get a family picture in front of the Welcome to Florida sign. Great opportunity to stretch out, have snacks on a picnic table, change our clothes, brush our teeth, whatever is necessary to make it the last leg of the trip.

This next part is the HARDEST part of the trip. It’s  3-4 hours from the Florida border to central Florida (our typical destination). The kids have realized we are in Florida but have trouble understanding why we are still in the van and not in a pool.  This is where the Defcon box really comes in handy.  Generally the sunlight makes  DVD-watching  difficult, they’ve churned through the entire variety of snacks available, and they are just anxious to arrive already! The road trip games are popular at this point, as well as audiobooks on CD.

ARRIVAL! Before we do anything else, we unpack the van and clean out all the crumbs and other nasties accumulated on the trip so they do not continue to stink up the vehicle.  Then we enjoy our vacation! Repeat on the way home.

What NOT to do:

As tempting as they are to entertain the kids once it is dark, do not bring glow sticks if you have really young kids. We had one break in the van once – what a MESS!

Do not allow anything but water as a beverage while driving. Everything else is sticky when it gets spilled, and it WILL get spilled.

Consider the many crevices into which you will NOT be able to reach, when deciding snacks. Also consider sugar levels as you do not want hyper kids when they are required to remain in their seat belts! That being said, I am helpless against the lure of Bulk Barn treats and often overspend on the cool variations of gummies, chocolate, nuts and other treats they offer.

Other tips:

Create a map of where you will be driving for the kids (I print out a map of the Eastern US States and hi-light I-75) so you can point out to the kids how far you’ve come and how much further you have to go. Teachable moment in continental geography!

Create/download travel games, for example,  “I spot it” (checklist of things to spot along the way, first person to check off all the items wins!) or the alphabet game (spot each letter of the alphabet in order on signs, license plates, etc).

If providing the kids with doodlepads or colouring books, etc, be sure to give some thought to the accompanying writing instruments vs. your kids age, and what will clean off easiest from the inside of your  van.

If you’re OK with videogames, we often bring along LeapFrogs and Gameboys  – one for each kid to avoid territory wars.  This often leads to some quieter moments for the drivers trying to catch up on sleep as well.

If you decide to do a Defcon box, be sure to supply it for both the trip down, and back.  Party Packagers is also a great place to find supplies for this.

One year I bought a bag of small monkey figurines in various acrobat positions from and used them as a reward system. For each time period of good behaviour, for each kind act towards a sibling, for each good listening moment (you get the idea), they got a monkey.  They of course competed for who collected the most monkeys, but otherwise, it worked beautifully!


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