Our family absolutely loves everything Dolly. Dreamore, Splash Country, Dollywood...we are huge proponents of them all. As season ticket holders that only live a couple hours away, we try to maximize our Dolly time to its full potential.
This post we'll focus on Dollywood Theme Park. We buy Season Passes for everyone plus one Gold Season Pass for me (because I'm the one who takes the kiddo alone sometimes) so that we can get the discounted Preferred Parking rate ($13 as opposed to $24) EVERY time we go. Gold pass holders get 20% off food, merchandise and rentals plus free regular parking if you want to park in B.F.E. and catch the trolly. Some reasons it's worth it to us to pay $13 to park:
1-the Preferred Parking lot has its own entrance gate where the line is SIGNIFICANTLY shorter than the main front gates.
2- The lot is close to its gate which means there is no trolly ride which means you get from car to gate much, much faster and when you leave you are not at the whim of the trolly schedule to get you back to your car a mile or two away.
3- We camp right down the road at The Ridge Outdoor Resort or Jellystone Campground (we much prefer the Ridge if space is available) and we like to go to Dollywood before the gates open to ride rides before the big crowds and to avoid traffic coming in to the park which is at its maximum around opening time. Then we like to leave midday and go back to the camper to relax and refuel before heading back to Dollywood for sunset to closing, when again the lines are much shorter. The Preferred Parking ticket (with butterfly stamp) gets you in and out of the park as much as you'd like so you could drop the kids and sitter off, hit the links or outlet stores for a while, then head back for some roller coaster family time.
4- You can stash a cooler in your car with food and drinks and walk in and out of the park as often as you like with your preferred parking spot.
5- The Preferred lot gate entrance is nestled in a corner near locker, stroller and wheelchair rentals. If you take a left from this entrance you'll come to our favorite side of the park where you can ride:
Well here's our new favorite place to stay when traveling to Pigeon Forge and especially Dollywood. The Ridge is brand spanking new (it opened Memorial Day Weekend this year) and loaded with reasons to stay here. As far as camp sites go, all the sites were level, paved, and finished with etched concrete to make the pad look like hard wood flooring. Trees are planted for shade but it will be years before shade comes to fruition, however, the sites are staggered so that the camper next to you provides shade to the little grassy area included in your site. The sites are wide and easy to back in to. They are also amply long as we could park our truck in front of our 36 foot camper lengthwise and wide enough to fit a truck next to it in the front of our spot. There is one playground so far (they have plans to add two lakes, one for fishing and one that will have slides and jumpy features for swimming) up near the back of the office building but it also is lacking shade. Our son didn't mind, he rode his hover board up to the playground, played till he got hot, then hovered over to the pool to cool off.
The huge pool here is one of its coolest features. It has a wide zero gravity entrance where they leave sun lounging recliners and umbrellas in the shallow end so you can soak up rays and chat with friends while staying cool in the water. There is also a large hot tub. They show movies at night in the summer you can watch while hanging out in the pool. It closes around 10 p.m.
The Ridge Outdoor Resort is located right off Veterans Blvd. on Middle Creek Road behind a cute little coffee shop (Smoky Mountain Espresso) and frozen yogurt shop (Sweet Frog), so for the most part you can skip Pigeon Forge's main strip (the Pigeon Forge Parkway) and traffic and have the added bonus of being able to walk from your campsite to get coffee and/or sweet treats. It's 3.5 miles from Dollywood so if you're like us you can get up early to head to Dollywood for opening gates then come home for a midday break when the crowds get out of control and head back towards evening. We always get Preferred Parking at Dollywood which makes it easy to come and go as you please, plus you never have to ride a trolly to get from a parking lot to the gates which can add up to 45 minutes to getting to ride rides or see shows.
The Ridge has several really cool tiny homes they've just built to rent to friends and family that don't have campers. The also have 2 huge glamping tents with running water, heat and air, and kitchens. These were really cool looking as the front of the tents opened all the way up and had massive front decks for hanging out. They are planning to build several more tents and tiny homes and plan to have 300 camp sites in all. This place is gonna be massive and self contained with lots of stuff to do. Once all the features they have planned get built I can't imagine a reason to leave once you check-in except for grub and Dollywood.
We stayed in site 24, which was great, but it seemed most of the spots in there were great. I read some apprehensive reviews about the bottom loop down the hill closer to the road but if anything I thought those spots were more private (and they come equipped with really nice gas fire places, the rest of the sites have nice wood burning fireplaces) they are just significantly further away (like I would probably drive to pool area) and pretty severely downhill from the pool and playground so that the walk up would be pretty brutal. But it's definitely not a deal breaker to be at the bottom of the hill here, I'd take those spots any day over the very nicest spot at Jellystone Campground right down the road which is where we USED to always stay when doing a Pigeon Forge trip (Greenbrier Campground in Gatlinburg on the Pigeon River is our favorite spot for more natural trips--fishing, kayaking, hiking, creek walking and swimming, and tubing-- refer to Greenbrier blog post for more info on that awesome place).
The office building/conference center/check-in is enormous, brand new, and NICE. The camp store near check-in is sparse right now with only the very basic necessities but they will be improving that area as time goes on. There are multiple meeting rooms and all kinds of amenities for conferences and family reunions, etc. The lady running the place was as nice as they come and super proud of the new campground as she should be. I truly won't consider booking any where else in Pigeon Forge unless the secret gets out about this place and it becomes impossible to book...which I predict will happen sooner than later. They do allow advanced booking on line. We highly recommend the Ridge Outdoor Resort and can't wait to visit again this fall when Dollywood gets the Great Pumpkin Luminights rolling again. Happy camping!
Grayton Beach is our family's favorite camping destination. We've gone in March, May, July, October and December and we can honestly say every season has its perks. I can't pick a favorite time of the year to visit so I'm endorsing all the times any time to go to Grayton.
The campground is nice and flat and easy to bike. Sites are level for most part but vary greatly in depth and width so be sure to check the details and dimensions for each camp spot under the blue "See Details" box on the campground reservation page. We prefer to stay in the upper loop which has larger, level gravel sites with full hookups. The lower loop is more scenic (several of the sites back up to Western Lake for easy kayak/canoe access) and those sites are more private for the most part, however, if you pull a bigger rig like we do (34 feet), the lower loop is kind of tight though squeeze-in-able, but a little cramped for our indulgent needs (we have slides on both sides). We have good friends who much prefer the lower loop with its privacy and proximity to the lake so don't omit that loop from your radar on our account.
The bath houses are fine, great even. I prefer to shower in our camper so I don't personally use the bath house, but our son prefers the bathhouse showers to ours and he's pretty high maintenance and very much in to cleanliness (he sometimes showers 3 times a day while at the beach). The laundry facilities are located in the bathhouse area (there are 2 washers and 1 dryer, all coin operated) and there is a utility sink and a coke machine as well. The restroom is maintained and cleaned every morning around 10 o'clock by volunteers who trade work like this for a their campsite fees. These volunteer workers are usually full of amazingly insightful information about RVing, camping, campgrounds, national parks and full time camping. I highly suggest engaging in conversation with them if you cross paths.
Half of the sites on the upper loop have shade some or most of the time but half of them are out in the open with little to no shade at all. If you get stuck with one of these spots (and yes it is still TOTALLY worth it to go if you get one of these spots) bring a source or two of shade with you to set up around camp. Also be weary of running the AC all day at too low of a temperature and freezing up the system while you're at the beach.
Speaking of the beach, that's why we're here! We've stayed in vacation rentals on 30A in Rosemary Beach, Seacrest Beach, Seagrove Beach and Seaside and I can tell you that any vacation time of year (Spring Break, Memorial Day, Summer in general but most especially July 4th week, Labor Day, and Fall Break) you will have to wake up early and I mean 6 a.m. to go set up chairs and your designated area or you will not get front row seats at the beach. Furthermore, if you don't get some representative to go man the designated area by 9:30 or so then your space gets encroached upon more and more from all sides until you are boxed in to a little plot listening to multiple conversations going on all around you all day. Thankfully, the state park beach at Grayton is not like that. The check-in office charges $5 per car to use the beach daily (campers use the beach for free). This minimal cost somehow cuts back on the traffic that comes to Grayton State Park and leaves it significantly less crowded than all the other beaches on 30A that I've visited. Memorial Day this year was crazy busy at the park so we went to set up chairs around 9 or 10 each morning and only once when we went back had someone encroached upon us because it was so busy that day. Even on the very busiest of days Grayton Beach State Park beach is not as busy as the other ones around because they stop letting people in when they run out of parking spaces and there just aren't that many parking spaces to crowd the beach too badly. On a normal week you shouldn't feel the need to go set up early unless you're like me and you just can't relax until you know you've got a spot semi close to the long wooden walkway that leads back to the beach bathhouse, the parking lot/bike rack and the road back to the campground.
We usually take our truck loaded down with our daily beach provisions first thing in the morning with our bikes also loaded so we can leave the truck in the parking lot and bike back and forth to our site because while getting a parking spot early in the day is very easy, keeping one throughout the day in busy times is not. When we are ready for our big load up of the day (usually a couple hours before sunset) we load the truck back up and take everything to the camper. Then when we go back for sunset there is usually ample parking like in the mornings.
Sunsets are pretty magical on 30A beaches. You will see weddings, engagements, families decked in their white and khakis for family photographs and you'll see children playing and fishermen casting until dark. We take just our beach chairs and cocktails and our son takes his shovel and a towel and we aim our chairs at the sun like everyone else and watch it slowly drop. Most times, as its last sliver melts into the ocean, we people of the beach cheer and clap and whistle and feel very special for getting to witness a sunset as great as that. Sometimes we take our truck, sometimes we ride our bikes. The bike rides to and from the beach are some of our most lasting memories once we get back to nonvacation life.
Bikes are also great for traveling 30A and exploring the different beach communities. Traffic gets kind of crazy in and around Seaside from everyone coming from different beaches to shop and explore there, but from Grayton Beach State Park it is just a short bike ride and there are many places to park your bike but very limited car parking. In Seaside there are food trucks, Sundog Books and Records, Modica Market, an awesome Saturday morning farmer's market and many restaurants and clothing and surf shops.
The Grayton Beach community is also very cool and an even closer bike ride away. Take a left out of the state park and very shortly you will come upon Bad Ass Coffee, a favorite spot of ours for coffee and good wi-fi (which currently Grayton Beach State Park lacks). We go have a coffee here if we want to download a movie to watch that night. Hurricane Oyster Bar is a family favorite as well, we love the fried crab claws, the oysters and their coconut hushpuppies. Grayton Beer Brewpub is really good and very close and they do a fun Trivia Night on Thursdays. My favorites there are the collard greens, the mashed potatoes and the burgers. Chanticleer's is a great lunch spot. Everything is good there but most especially their cookies. I suggest taking at least a half dozen back to the campground with you for later (hide them from everyone else).
As far as golf goes, it's a haven down there for us golfers. Santa Rosa Golf Club is very close and extremely beautiful but pricey. For cheaper golf a little further away I highly recommend using an app like GolfNow to book a tee time. There are so many courses and they all compete on those booking sites and you can find pretty incredible deals on the daily there. Kelly Plantation is my personal favorite for under $100 a round in the area.
One thing to consider: lately (like the last two years) October and Fall Break have been kind of crazy down on the Panhandle. Last year was the worst Red Tide I had ever seen in the area and I've been going there for 30 years. Our son even picked up a respiratory infection from the Red Tide that lasted several weeks. We also had to evacuate the campground five days early because of Hurricane Michael. That wouldn't be so bad if the year before the exact same thing hadn't happened with Hurricane Nate. This year for Fall Break we got a vacation rental in Sea Grove with some family. We're throwing in the white towel on October beach camping for now because Florida closes all of its coastal state parks if there's even a threat of a hurricane hundreds of miles away (understandably so). Also, October used to be one of the very best times to visit because it wasn't so busy but now it's gotten even busier than Spring Break weeks because everyone's figured out it's much warmer (both air and water) in the fall. That and I think Fall Breaks are more common now than they used to be (I never got a fall break in school! What's up with that?)
The rangers and office workers at Grayton Beach are great. Many of them have been there for a long time and really know their stuff. When trying to book a spot at Grayton Beach State Park it is important to know it is very competitive. Most of the time, unless you get lucky and stumble across a site that was cancelled, you are going to need to book the site 11 months out...to the day. If at first you don't succeed try, try again. Have a game plan, book early and commit. Getting a site is tough but the pay off is extremely rewarding. Good luck and happy beach camping!
There are those who are attracted to the camping lifestyle and those who belong in hotels or VRBO type arrangements. It will usually take just one camping trip to figure out your preference. If you enjoy the smell of a wet camp fire and the sound of crickets (and other bugs and animals) at night and you have an persisting desire to be in the great outdoors despite the possible heat, cold or dampness, then camping might be for you. Camping is a time to put away the screens as much as possible, to cook outside, to take bike rides, to wet a line and, if only for a day or two, to let time slow down a bit while we hangout with those we love. I grew up tent camping and still cherish the memories of fishing, campfire hotdogs and family play and laughter. Since starting my own little family, we purchased a camper when our son was 2 and we have not had a single regret for taking on the adventure. I use the camping experience as teachable moments for my son. He's able to adjust the BlueOx Hitch, scotch the camper, drill down the stabilizers and help unload the truck. I am frequently consulted by co-workers thinking about getting a camper. Most have been mothers or fathers with young kids and want my thoughts on whether or not they should take the plunge. My message is always the same: If your family really enjoys the outdoors and each other then get your camper. Kids are only little for a little while and we never get those moments back.
If you come to terms with the fact that you have the camping bug, there are several important things to consider before you make the investment. In my experience, it seems most of the camper people we know started out with small pop-up style campers. Most of our camping friends bought super entry level campers (read cheap and half canvas) ten years ago or so as first campers but since RV camping has become so popular I've notice a shift to buying hard shells for a lot of entry level families. Consider this:
It's worth mentioning that I live with and love a chef so we have crazy amounts of outdoor cooking gear and usually feed a whole camping crew. Our list of favorite gear may seem heavy in the cooking equipment compared to your needs. When camper shopping my preference is tandem axle for better stability and security while travelling. It's also important to note that I'm an engineer by trade so some of my comments may seem technical in nature and some of my recommended tools for camping may seem over the top. Take what you think you need and then whittle it down based on what you actually use.
Our First Camper
We decided on a hard shell camper because I found a great deal and because I was finished sleeping on the ground in tents. I bought the Puma Palomino from a co-worker for $4000. We kept the Puma for 7 years and enjoyed every minute of it. I had no grand expectations from the Puma, if something broke I wasn't that worried… I had only paid $4000 for it. From the beginning it had a leaky awning and the roof became soft over time. There were broken hinges here and there and sometimes the heat worked. The water heater never did work for us on it. The bathroom of the Puma was tiny and we mostly used the tub for extra storage. It had 2 bunks tucked in the back (top was always used for storage) and it had no slides. I pulled the Puma with a Chevy Suburban and did not have a stabilizer hitch for it. The Puma was only 23' feet in length with a total hitch length of 25'. Our last trip in the Puma was at Fall Creek Falls State Park with a group of our camping friends. One couple had just upgraded to a Forrest River Cherokee with a slide and bunks and invited us in to check it out. We waited all weekend to go see it and when we did we were ruined. Suddenly our Puma felt so claustrophobic and tiny and OLD that we easily convinced ourselves that we NEEDED a new camper. With slides.
There are lots of forums that will help guide you through the do's and the don't before each trip but here's my short list:
My gear for each trip:
TOOL BAG! This is a must have and my basic tools include: extra fuses/fuse puller; screw drivers; allen wrenches; flashlight or headlamp; wire strippers/side cutters; adjustable wrench; multi-meter; tire repair kit; screen repair tool; knife; multi-tool (the guts of my tool bag are pictured above)
Disney World & Fort Wilderness Campground
So we went to Disney World. And we stayed at Fort Wilderness for 8 nights.
Some of Our Favorite Things:
1. Our travel planner, Lindsay of Cupcake Castles Travel Company
I've never officially met Lindsay, we communicated via email exclusively. Luckily one of the ladies in our camping group just happened to be buddies with Lindsay and suggested we employ her so we could get the Fast Passes we wanted for rides. Then we realized it might be nice to have someone else battling for our sites for us as well so she did that too. She got us all (3 families with 3 campers) in the section we wanted (the 1400s) at Fort Wilderness and she secured Fast Passes for our top 3 rides at Magic Kingdom (Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain) and at Animal Kingdom (will discuss this more later as it is another favorite thing unlike the Magic Kingdom which was just okay with a nine year old daredevil son who thought the rides were mostly lame and the excessive crowds completely insane). Lindsay really came through for us in a big way and I'm so glad we found out about her and the services she offers because our days would have been spent in very long lines for very few rides. I highly encourage you to find a Lindsay type to help you.
2. Animal Kingdom
We really loved Animal Kingdom. Maybe it was the rum Dole whips. Maybe it was the tri-flavored margaritas near Expedition Everest. Maybe it was Expedition Everest itself. No, it was for sure Avatar Flight of Passage that just blew us away. With an 8 hour long line forming during the days of Spring Break week we planned our whole day around our Avatar Fast Pass which was at 10:30, not long after the park opened. We got to the park 30 minutes before opening and still the line was pretty long to get in, but it went fairly fast.
We ran straight for Flight of Passage and got there with ten minutes to spare as you have a time window you fall into instead of an exact set time. The wait for the ride was already at 3 hours at 10:30.
The ride itself was simply amazing. Imagine riding on a motorcycle only it's supposed to be a banshee. You feel the banshee breathe in and out as you ride. Mists of scented water like lilac spritz your face as the banshee dips into a water fall. It was an awesome VR experience that I contemplated waiting in line for again. But it was up to 4 hours by then so, no thanks. My son did sucker me into buying him one of the banshees that sits on your shoulder in the gift shop ($75ish) after the ride so be aware of this: that ride might make you so happy you agree to anything, even a $75 banshee that will get played with maybe twice, ever. Hit up the Dole Whips (I thought the coconut rum ones were better than plain rum) because it's a must. Hit up the Warung Outpost for a Triple Yeti Blast (Mango, Strawberry, Lime layered margarita) because they are even better than the whips. We ate at the Yak and Yeti-- it was pretty good, sat a group of 14 in an hour, and the service was impeccable like everywhere in W.D.W.
Best tip: Expedition Everest has a single rider line near the exit. Warung Outpost is nearby. Grab a seat on the big fake rocks, send a representative to the Outpost for margs and tell the kids the ride single rider over and over until they can't take it. That was my most favorite part of our day there (except for the 5 minute Flight of Passage).
3. Fort Wilderness Campground
We got primo spots in the 1400s near a pool and Chip and Dale's nightly bonfire and movie. The spots we had were spacious and paved and very nice. A bathhouse with laundry facilities were right next door. You use your Mickey band for everything in W.D.W. including laundry and to get in and out of facilities so keep it on while hanging out around the C.G. It's also how you get access to the pools.
The best thing for us about the C.G. was the bus shuttle system. You can walk to your closest bus stop and hop on a bus to the main bus terminal near the check in station and the marina (where we caught a boat shuttle straight to Magic Kingdom and were dropped off at a back entrance with no line whatsoever coming or going). From the bus terminal you can go just about anywhere in Orlando. No joke. We took it to get to the Arnold Palmer Invitational one day. We took it to Universal Studios another.
It goes without saying that Fort Wilderness is very expensive (we spent $190 a night for our spot) but it's Disney World and we only ever planned on doing it that one time. But now I know someday, when we have grandkids, we'll be going again.
4. Universal Studios
We thought Universal was way better than any and all of the Disney parks. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was our favorite area but the whole resort is amazing and way more attractive to the 9 and older demographic. The Virtual Reality rides were great for all those afraid of heights, loops and drops but made a few of our most adventurous adult coaster riders nauseous and they could only ride a couple of those type rides before they waved their white flags at them the rest of the day. The park is split into two amusement parks and a water park. We did not go to Volcano Bay, the water park, but we heard great things about it from other guests who did check it out for a day. That's the thing about Universal Studios, it is so big and so great I wish we had spent a day at each park. Months before our trip we bought tickets online through Universal's website. They offer the best possible deals straight through them. We bought Park-to-Park tickets that gave us admission to both Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure for around $160 per ticket. Then we opted to buy Unlimited Express passes which let you ride every ride as many times as you want by skipping to the front of the line. Those cost a little over $100 and were well worth it as we were there Spring Break week and rides had extremely long wait times (they were also sold out of Express Passes when we got there so we were happy we had bought them beforehand. Some in our group were not so lucky. All in all it was super incredibly expensive but our favorite amusement park to date. We plan on trying to go every few years from now on but will stay onsite at the resort because some of the packages they offer make rooms, tickets and fast passes much less expensive.
5. Disney Golf
We played Disney's Oak Trail, the Magnolia Course and the Palm Course. We planned each Disney day out painstakingly so we booked tee times at least 2 months out, maybe earlier, though I don't think that's necessary but you don't want to wait until the day before to book either. We booked the Oak Trail Course on the day we took kids as it is very kid friendly and only open for walking (push carts are provided). The Oak Trail reminded me of any semi-okay local public course. It doubles as a Footgolf course in the afternoons and the line for that activity was much longer than the line to get on that particular golf course that morning. The Magnolia course was fun and in better shape than the Oak Trail, but again it didn't super impress. There is a Mickey Mouse shaped bunker and some cute historical facts posted throughout the course. Both times we played everyone working at the courses kept asking if we had played The Palms yet and kept pumping it up like it was all the magic. Players on the courses kept telling us to go to Lake Buena Vista and we really wish we could have because it definitely seemed to be the most popular and loved among the actual golfers. The Palm was fine. It was nicer than the Magnolia Course but the problem I had with it was that it didn't live up to the hype. All the employees (and there are a ton of them everywhere helping you in any way possible) kept saying "Wait til you play the Palm" and yada-yada-yada and it just wasn't that special. The golf made the list of favorites because, well, it's golf and it's an escape from the amusement parks and crowds and kids. Next time we will be playing some of the many non-Disney related golf courses in the area.
6. Arnold Palmer Invitational
This was a surprise hit for us. We go to at least one PGA golf tournament a year and this one just happened to fall on the days we were in Orlando. Three adults set out early to establish a greenside hangout and we were thoroughly pleased to find good beer and cocktails at decent prices and excellent food for golf concessions. Despite the tournament being one of Tiger's first since his return to golf, the crowd wasn't that bad except when his threesome came through with its hoard. The kids came later with the other adults and they had a great time watching golf for a little while and a better time rolling down the hill behind us for a long time. One of our crew cheered for Tiger during a brief moment of silence and he actually looked at her and nodded in recognition. It was crazy and over the top on none of us will ever forget it. Rickey Fowler and Rory McIlroy both hit their approach shots long and right at our feet. Spaced out crowds, awesome merchandise, delicious brisket tacos and cold, frothy craft beer makes for an excellent tournament for spectators, highly recommended.