What do you think of when I write the words Florida? Sandy beaches, glorious sunshine, Disney? It’s the perfect holiday destination…. well until you realise that every other RV traveller and European winter escapee has that same image of themselves sipping cocktails at the sunset beach bar, watching rockets launch from Cape Canaveral, taking day trips into the mangroves to spot alligators and swimming with manatees in the fresh water springs.
Florida was full. Every campsite we tried was rammed, every activity was booked up and we spent every evening poring over road maps and trip planner books to try and find the best solution. How on earth would we ‘do Florida’? How on earth was everyone else managing to ‘do Florida’?!
Playing the Florida game
Most of the RV travellers we meet are Americans. They travel the length of the country depending on the weather. As we have mentioned before, the bulk of them are snowbirds and, it seems, one of their traits is forward planning.
They play the system – State Parks offer the best locations and biggest sites, but are also substantially cheaper than private parks (sometimes $70 a night cheaper!). They also only have nominal cancellation fees. It’s a no-brainer. As soon as the reservations open in November our white-haired friends batch book all the coastal spots. Closer to the time they (sometimes) cancel the days they don’t need.
Fighting back to snag the Florida RV cancellations
Had we not committed to dropping our lovely visitor Lou-Lou off at Orlando Airport, as well as visiting Universal Studios (the boys’ Christmas present), we probably would have just given up on Florida and headed straight into Georgia.
We had a commitment though (and interactive wands) so we decided that we just had to get creative. It was then that a handy loophole came our way.
Wandering Labs lets you put in the earliest and latest dates for a campsite and it will constantly scan for availability. It’s a game of ‘fastest finger first’ – if something gets cancelled a mail goes out to everyone looking to book.
Of course most of the dates are just singular overnights and so you find yourself panic-discussing, whilst trying to hold the space before paying, whether it makes sense to drive four hours south for a one-night space that has opened up at John Pennekamp Coral Reef or Bahia Honda in the Keys. Will something else come up? How badly do we really want to go? Arrggghhhhh!
Getting sensible and rethinking what makes a good Skoolie trip
Sitting in front of a mobile stressing about campsites and long drives doth not make a fun holiday. We had a chat about Florida and tried to work out what we actually wanted to see, what we thought we should be seeing and what we were actually likely to see if we did make the trip.
Florida – there’s more to life
- Beaches – we still had plenty of coast to travel, Southern Florida was not our only option.
- Snorkelling – march is still too cold to spend long in the water
- Alligators – pah, we’d seen them in Texas. How much better would they be in the Everglades
- Manatees – they are rare, what’s the chances we’d spot one anyway
- Rockets – well if we are lucky we’ll spot one as we drive past Cape Canaveral.
Playing the system wasn’t for us. My ‘fastest finger’ deleted all the alerts for the south and we decided to just focus on a couple of good beach sites on the Gulf Coast and take the rest of the trip inland.
The best laid plans
It took a while but Wandering Labs paid off and we eventually secured four nights at Fort Pickens National Seashore on the Florida panhandle – beachside spots on the Gulf of Mexico.
It didn’t quite go to plan. Because we were surfing the cancellations, each night we had to move to a different site. Then, the weather turned. There we were, idyllic white-sand beach and the rain meant that we spent hours and hours hunkered down in our Skoolie (which by now smelt of wet cagouls). We might as well have been in a Walmart car park!!
If in doubt, go to a goat farm
We had a lot of miles to cover to get to Orlando and, based on drives of about 3 hours a day, we worked out that we needed to break our road trip near Talahassee. It was a weekend and even the obscure campsites were booked so we went on Hipcamp to find an alternative.
It was very alternative.
I broke the news to Louise, “so when you come out for holidays we have a few days in New Orleans at Mardi Gras, some beautiful beach time, some volunteering on a goat farm time and then on to Orlando!”
“A goat farm???“
We travelled towards Talhassee with some trepidation – this was not like our usual camp spots. Like a Boondockers Welcome hosted spot, this would be off-grid living. That’s not a problem for us but Lou was not so enamoured with the idea of it. The road was terrible and we bumped and heaved along looking for the gate. What were we doing?
What a fab decision! It was a breathe of fresh air (albeit with a goaty tang!) to camp out in the goat paddock of Melissa’s laid-back, community-focused farm. Volunteers chatted around the fire, baked food for each other, sold hand-made jam and worked for their stay building barns, collecting eggs from the chickens or doing farm maintenance.
The five of us moved a big compost pile . Well, most of us did – the boys were tasked with cuddling the baby goats and giving them milk. They LOVED it!
I booked a spot at Manatee Springs campground not expecting to see actual manatees. It wasn’t listed on Florida Tourism’s guide to where to find them, but it was exactly half way on the route to Orlando.
We were lucky. Manatees swim in the springs in cooler temperatures and this tucked away spot had the crystal clear water they love. We had barely even walked to the waters edge when someone said there was a “momma and her baby” in there. They munched on grass and occasionally came up for air with a breathy snort.
The next day we took out kayaks and bobbed along as five of the enormous creatures glided around us. The water was so clear we could make out the most incredible detail. We have since seen other manatees (turns out Florida is swarming with them at this time of year) and only really saw the occassional ripple and a snout.
The magical world of Kit, Soren and Harry Potter
We ummed and ahhed about going to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter for a long time. We usually avoid busy, touristy, over-priced attractions as we can’t really afford it and generally begrudge parting with so much cash for just one activity.
We had managed to sew the seed in them that the Disney parks were all about Disney princesses and they actively did NOT want to go. There was nothing we could do about Universal Studio’s offering though – there was no way that they would shrug off a chance to go to Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade. And really, what kind of parents would be if we begrudged our two children, who have very few treats these days ..seriously, driving in an actual car in New Orleans was the most exciting thing they had done for months according to them, it felt like a superfast rollercoaster, the chance to dip into the world of their favourite book / movie and experience Florida’s famous theme parks.
Eventually we decided to use all the Christmas present money and buy tickets. It gave me anxiety thinking about the money – for four of us to go it cost 7 dollars more than auntie Louise’s flights to America. What if we hated it? What if it was too busy? Should we just have kept the money and used it to pay for more regular treats? What if we had used it to cover those RV parks in the keys that could have given us the classic Florida Keys experience?
Needless to say we went. Highlights for me (apart from the beer), was Auntie Lou-lou’s face when we did the ‘kid swap’ option (one parent stays with the kids while the other rides) and she had to go on the Forbidden Journey ride on her own. We thought we were just touring the castle but it turns out the tour IS the queue and after over an hour walking at snail’s pace around the castle it seemed to make sense for us to go on the ride. She got whisked away before she really knew what she was doing.
The second best bit (and please note the sarcasm) was when Kit was too scared to go on the Forbidden Journey but decided 5 minutes after we exited that he wanted to do it. Back for another 90 minute queue then!
I won’t tell you more about it as both kids are writing their own blogs about the day as part of their literacy homework. If they ever finish them I shall post them up for you to enjoy.
The Kennedy Space Center costs too much money. They try to style it out as another activity you can do in your week of paying for Disney and Universal, so in comparison to them it seems economical. I don’t want to pay the best part of $200 to visit the museum though and then pay more to watch a rocket to take off. The main reason we wanted to go was to watch a rocket launch and surely the sky does not belong to NASA – as long as we were camping close we should just be able to look up. We got the paper and checked the rocket launch schedule at Kennedy Space Center to look at the plans for launches.
Launch date identified, we set about the campsite. Easier said than done. Jetty Park and Manatee Hammock campgrounds are the places that every blog or forum tells you to go if you want to watch blast off. Obviously though, they were all completely. Darn snowbirds already have the rocket schedule nailed.
You can’t reserve an un-reserveable space though – Florida Today mentioned some rocket watching spots off the highway. No overnights but we could just drive off after to a Flying J truck stop to overnight.
Anticipating it to be busy, we identified a pullout that was on the water’s edge and got there early. It was perfect. We looked directly across the bay to NASA and the launch pad. It even had dolphins to watch while we waited! We had drinks with our Canadian neighbours and then, at 11.45 got up of the roof deck for one of the most unbelievable spectacles of our trip.
We thought watching wolves in Yosemite was going to be our roof-decks magic moment but this gave it run for its money. There was a streak of bright light and a roar as the rocket went up and then an amazing ‘plasma- ball’ effect in the sky when the rocket detached itself from the base unit. A fireball dropped back down to Earth with a crack as it broke the sound barrier, then in just eight minutes the whole thing was done and we could see no more.
We researched what the unmanned SpaceX rocket was doing and were fascinated to learn about the equipment for 25 different experiments that was on board. it was taking to the International Space Station. It had everything from stem cells for monitoring under microgravity to better understand how the cells transition into heart cells, in a bid to cure heart disease, to Adidas trainers that were being tested to improve performance.
Discovering the mangroves
While we were waiting for the rocket launch, we decided to travel a little bit further south. The weather was good and we didn’t want to go far so we just picked a couple of State Parks that had free spaces and decided to just see what they offered.
We arrived at Jonathan Dickenson State Park expecting little more than a few sweaty days amongst inland waterways. We ended up with a nature-packed treat and properly ticked of the last of the Florida environments… the alligator-infested swamps!
There is nothing like gliding along in an inflatable kayak and spotting the statue-like shape of a 6ft reptile on the bank. “Get the camera quick!”. Then watching as it slithers and slips down the muddy bank and splooshes into the water just metres from your vessel. “Take the camera and pass me the paddle quick!”. Then, when it turns and glides towards you and your child, only his eyes visible above the water-line. “Back paddle. NOW”!
We also stopped at Long Point Park (where we had our other experience with manatees). It was on a spit and had the sea on one side and several waterways and islands everywhere else. Guy and Kit had a solo paddle with a dolphin, much to Soren’s annoyance, but we also saw osprey’s, pelicans, egrets, ibis, storks and even flamingo.
Finally heading north
We lucked out again as we headed north. A cancellation popped up just when we needed it at Gamble Rogers State Park. It coincided with Daytona Bike Week, so apart from the dull roar of bikes that accompanied our stay, and the extended time it took to cross the road from the campsite (it was on a scenic bike route), we had a lovely few days on Flagler Beach.
Florida is also famous for big-game sport fishing and we watched several fishermen who were catching and tagging sharks. This black-tip looked huge to us at 5ft, the guy hauled it in wearing a special brace, but they seemed unimpressed.
And so on to Georgia, where were would face the most radical change to our trip. Actually forget that – we would face the most radical change to our entire understanding of travel, health, economies, budgets and even the world.