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Ideas for Family Vacations and Road Trips From Illinois to Florida

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At Daytona Beach in Florida, you can drive your car right onto the beach.

At Daytona Beach in Florida, you can drive your car right onto the beach.

Driving From Chicago to Orlando With the Kids

My family and I have traveled to Orlando, Florida, four times in the last three years. On our second trip to Orlando, we drove from Naperville, Illinois. The year before, we flew on United Airlines, and earlier this year we flew on Southwest. This article depicts our most recent road trip. In this article, I will describe some of the sights and scenes we stumbled upon along the way and some tools we used to arrive at our destination.

My family does not take the normal driving routes to Florida because we take our time to stop for adventures. We normally try to visit a cave or a historical battlefield; luckily, this trip provided one of each.

Top Places to Go in Orlando, Florida

In this article, I cover my family's second trip to Orlando, Florida. The first time we flew and rented a house with a pool. On our second trip, we drove. The following are the places we have been to in and around Orlando. There is a lot to do and see there! Below, I have rated the attractions in order of when to see them, Sea World being first (in my opinion).

  1. Sea World
  2. Animal Kingdom in Disney World
  3. Kennedy Space Center
  4. Florida Beaches
  5. Universal Studios at Universal or Hollywood Studios at Disney
  6. Magic Kingdom in Disney World
  7. Islands of Adventure at Universal
  8. Wet 'n Wild
Giant Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois.

Giant Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinois.

How to Plan a Vacation

As far as planning for a vacation goes, it is helpful to start months—maybe even a year—ahead of time.

Once you answer the questions below, you can start planning your trip. For example, my family and I knew we wanted to go to Universal Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom. We also knew we were traveling around June, after the end of our children's summer sports, and before the next school year started. We were driving, meaning our trip allowed room for other activities if we wanted to extend our stay. Therefore, we knew where, when, and how we were traveling.

In January, we began looking for deals for the various places we wanted to explore, arrangements for park admissions, combo hotel/park admissions, all-inclusive deals, etc. We ended up with a "Universal Package" that included five nights at a hotel and park admissions to Universal's Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios.

Note: Driving is not always convenient as it can be time-consuming. A year before this trip, we found cheap flights on United Airlines and decided to fly down to Orlando. We then rented a house with a pool and bought our admissions tickets online.

Questions to Answer Before Going on a Trip

  • Where do you want to go? We decided on Orlando, Florida, because my family and I took a vacation in Orlando the previous year, and we decided to vacation there again for this trip.
  • When do you plan for the vacation? We decided to start planning in late July or early August.
  • How long do you want to stay there? We decided four to seven days would be enough time for us.
  • What do you want to see while there? Planning what you’d like to see during your visit will help determine the length of your stay.
  • How are you going to get there? For this trip, we drove our car from Chicago to Orlando.
  • If driving, how many days will it take? Based on our route, it took us two to three days.
  • Can you see everything? No, probably not. To get around this, we made a list and prioritized.
  • Where are you going to stay? For this trip, in particular, we stayed at multiple locations, including a hotel, a motel, and a friend's house.
Fort Pulaski Canon

Fort Pulaski Canon

Plan Your Route Ahead of Time and Be Flexible

Since my family and I have driven to Florida from Illinois once before, it was easier to plan a trip a second time around. Tools such as Google Maps and MapQuest are great when planning. For this trip to Orlando, we decided we would have city goals and determined where we wanted to stop along the way. Good thing we did!

One question—and this involves the whole family—is how long you want to drive per day. Our family can handle 5-8 hours of driving per day. On an 18-hour trip to Orlando, that means two stops. The question is, where do you stop and when? When we stop, we try to stay somewhere we know. That way, we are more determined to do something the next morning before driving again. We do like to see the United States!

We don't necessarily take the most direct route, because part of the fun of driving is seeing the United States. Whether it's a cavern or cave in the mountains, or the 20-foot Superman statue in Metropolis, Illinios, it is a lot of fun to go off the beaten path.

For this trip on the way to Orlando, Florida, we made a plan to stop in Knoxville, Tennessee; Savannah, Georgia; and Jacksonville, Florida (this stop was necessary due to the fact that our hotel reservations in Orlando were from Tuesday through Sunday, and we had to stop somewhere Monday night). It made sense for us to stop in Jacksonville as we visited family there and didn't need to stay in a hotel.

On the way home to Naperville, Illinois, we decided to stop in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Metropolis, Illinois.

We don't necessarily take the most direct route, because part of the fun of driving is seeing the United States.

Places to Stop Between Chicago and Orlando

Here are some of the places we have stopped between Chicago and Orlando:

  1. Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia
  2. Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee
  3. Metropolis, Illinois (home of the fictional character, Superman)
  4. Elijah Gem Mine in Hendersonville, North Carolina
  5. Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee
  6. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birth home and final resting place in Atlanta, Georgia

First Stop: Gem Mining

If you've never been mining, take an hour or two from driving and stop at a gem mine.

The plan for our drive was to arrive in Knoxville earlier than we did, but unfortunately, a flat tire slowed us down. Thankfully, my roadside assistance came in handy, and I was able to fix the tire without much stress. Long story short, we didn't end up gem mining until the end of the second day, rather than the beginning of the second day as planned.

Eventually, we arrived at Elijah Mountain Gem Mine near Asheville, North Carolina. If you've never been gem mining, here's the concept: you get a bucket of dirt, and using water, you wash all the dirt off and what is left should be rocks, gems, sediment, etc. You never know what you are going to find, and sometimes you get nothing. Fortunately, Elijah's has premade buckets with gems already in them. They also have buckets with Native American artifacts and fossils. Not really prospecting here, but the kids have a lot of fun as the sand sifts away and they see multi-colored gemstones. This stop was a few miles off the expressway into Asheville. Other gem mines are off the beaten pathways, so it depends on how much time you have to get to your next destination.

You'll have to search long and hard for a gem like this.

You'll have to search long and hard for a gem like this.

Civil War Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia

The Chicagoland area celebrates Casimir Pulaski day. Being from the Chicagoland area and of Polish descent, it was a no-brainer to stop at Fort Pulaski in Savannah, Georgia.

Casimir Pulaski was a general in the American Revolutionary War. Fort Pulaski was built by the Confederate Army prior to the Civil War.

It takes about two hours to walk through Fort Pulaski. There are many Civil War cannons and fire cannons on the premises. Additionally, there are exhibitions almost every day. The $10 yearly pass was well worth the entry into this National Monument.

More information can be found at the National Park Service site on Fort Pulaski.

If you have the time and like old forts, Fort Jackson is another great stop on the way to Fort Pulaski.

Ruby Falls in Chattanooga, Tennessee

We love exploring caves. This year on the way home from Orlando, we stopped in Chattanooga, Tennessee, at Ruby Falls. Ruby Falls is a waterfall that is under a mountain. The only way to get to it is by taking an elevator 200 feet under the earth and walking about 2/5 of a mile to the waterfall. Of course, this is all part of a tour that takes you to Ruby Falls.