Road trips to Florida were the best part of my childhood

For my parents, it was tons of planning (and lots of complaining from the back seat), but my childhood would have been nothing without our annual road trips south of the border.

Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Mariotti

The night before a two-day drive to Florida was a production in our house. While my two sisters and I were bursting with excitement, Mom and Dad were frantic. Late into the night, they meticulously laid all the luggage out in the hallway, trying to figure out the most systematic way to pack the minivan.

I am the youngest in my family, and ever since I was in diapers, road trips to Florida were our thing. When I was growing up, my grandparents wintered in Fort Lauderdale, so these annual road trips were a great way for my parents to plan a family trip on the cheap. While a road trip to Florida may sound kind of boring—each year we drove the same route and there was no shortage of complaints or arguments along the way—these annual journeys are among my best childhood memories.

two kids in a car 15 ways to make road trips less painfulTrips always started the same way: with a 4:30 a.m. wake-up call. Cranky, half-asleep and dragging my pillow and teddy bear down the stairs, I’d head to the car without having to worry about a suitcase—my parents took care of that! Manoeuvring into the overstuffed car required some ninja skills: hopping over a cooler, squeezing between the shoe bag and the beach toys, deking the overnight duffel bag. The three of us likened it to navigating a laser-beam maze. Two thousand, three hundred and seventy kilometres to go.

The first stop was always just a few minutes from home, the Tim’s drive-through, to give my parents some fuel. Our parents might have had a couple hours of peace to drink their coffee as we dozed off in the back. But as soon as we were awakened by the stone-cold faces of border security, the road trip shenanigans would begin.

three sisters sitting in a car
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Mariotti

Having three high-spirited girls in one vehicle for 22 hours couldn’t have been easy for my parents. Julia, who’s five years older than me, was the wise one who always knew the best music to listen to, and later, when our van had TVs, the best movies to watch. But my middle sister, Nadia, was notorious for starting fights with me in the car—or maybe it was the other way around, I can’t remember.

Personalizing your own little spot in the car was key to making things comfy—and keeping your sanity. We would pop blankets over the headrests and use a flashlight so we could read a book in private or just sleep without feeling like we were being stared at. When crankiness started to spread through the car, my mom whipped out road-trip breakfast: mini cereal boxes, bananas and a thermos of milk to wash it down.

This wasn’t the kind of road trip where you make frequent stops to leisurely explore the cities along the way. This was the kind where my dad tried to beat our record time, year after year. Aside from the odd gas station or pee break, we spent the bulk of the time in the car. A tray we used for making lunch sandwiches doubled as the card table where many loud games of Crazy Eights took place. When the minivan with built-in TVs came into the picture—a blessing for my exhausted parents—after the initial fights over what movie to watch, there would be sweet, sweet, silence.

North Carolina marked the halfway point of our journey. Instead of pre-booking a place to stay, my parents played a fun game of picking out a motel or inn based on where we were at around 7 or 8 p.m.—the later the better, as most of these motels were best viewed in the dark. These nights were my favourite. My whole family in one room, fast food for dinner in front of the TV and lots of jumping on the bed after hours of being cramped in the car. It’s when the real feeling of being on vacation would set in.

three sisters posing on the beach
Photo: Courtesy of Sarah Mariotti

Day two involved yet another early wake-up call, 5 a.m., and we were back on the road. My mom had one rule for day two: No asking, “Are we there yet?” until we saw a palm tree. We distracted ourselves by playing eye-spy, looking for bodies of water, fellow Ontario licence plates, RVs, cars towing boats, and motorcycles. Each was worth points, and the goal was to rack up more than your neighbour.

Once we saw the Welcome to Florida sign, we knew we were in the home stretch. The rest stop served complimentary Florida orange juice, which I still think is the coolest form of hospitality.

Not long after passing the sign, our surroundings began morphing into landmarks we all knew like the back of our hands. As we excitedly pointed out the Galleria Mall, the rad vintage movie theatre and our favourite spot on the beach, all the silly fights and grumpiness from being in the car slipped away. When we reached our grandparent’s condo building, there was a feeling of accomplishment and relief that we had made it.

Looking back, I forget the arguments, frustration and impatience of being in the car. Singing along to music, checking out cute (sometimes weird) restaurants in different states and seeing the spread of scenery along the way made driving two whole days a much greater journey than if we had flown. My sisters and I still crack inside jokes from these trips and laugh about some of the memories we have from those long drives—good and bad. In the confines of car, we had a chance to build a relationship beyond sisterhood—we became best friends.

Read more:
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