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.