Three adult brothers. Five cousins. Two spouses. Two parents. One road trip. It sounds like the making of a cheesy summer blockbuster starring Ben Stiller, Seth Rogan and Adam Sandler. But it's not a movie. It's my reality.
For the very first time in my 39 years (I know, I look young), my Dad---in honor of his 75th birthday---has planned for all three of his grown boys, and our families, to come together for a family vacation. This will be the first time our individual families will intertwine for any length of time. And it'll be the first time my brothers and I will collectively have our parenting prowess on full display.
I thought this experience would make for a good article. But instead of writing the piece in past tense, after I arrive home, back to my safe, normal life, it'll be more insightful to reflect on this road trip in real time with travel tips we learn along the way.
Traveling with young children is like watching an Adele Grammy performance. You assume it'll be incredible, but oftentimes it's not. Add a different time zone into the mix, and you're basically just a glutton for punishment. So why did I agree to do this? Because it's not about me. It's about family. It's about being present. It's about making lasting memories for my son, Max.
TIP: Set expectations. If young kids are involved, the trip will probably not be relaxing and calm. Know that going in. But don't let it deter you. There are still wonderful family memories to be had. If you're honest with yourself ahead of time, you won't be disappointed.
It's also about doing something good for someone you love. In this case, my dad. This trip is his brainchild. His wish. His planning. And if something means this much to someone that means so much to me, I'm going to put my personal fears and biases aside to take part. As my parents get older I realize that I won't always have this opportunity to make new and exciting memories. Plus, I would never deny my parents the chance to spend quality time with their grandson. So I'm going to not just make the most of this trip, I'm going to do it with a smile. We'll see how long the smile lasts.
If you're picking up on some skepticism, here's why — it's going to be a lot of people in close quarters. A lot of clashing personalities. A lot of different interests. A lot of people vying for attention. A lot of people who haven't always seen eye-to-eye on things. Case in point: there's a strong likelihood one of the twelve travelers voted for our current POTUS. Trust me, I know. But I'm hopeful that having my awesome nephews and nieces around will help keep the adult talk to a minimum.
So in the words of Max from Where The Wild Things Are…
LET THE WILD RUMPUS START!
Destination: Virginia Beach, VA
I'm driving a minivan. You read that right. A minivan. A rented one, of course. And you know something; I'm kinda loving it. It's a Dodge Caravan. It's SO big. And I'm typically not a size queen. But it's very comfortable and roomy. Three whole rows separate me from my are-we-there-yet repeating kiddo. Everyone can control their own air condition levels and all passenger seats have their own charging station. #ExhaleShoopShoop
TIP: When renting a vehicle for your road trip, pick function over form. While the attention-seeker in you gravitates towards the Porsche Cayenne — it's just not practical. You can return to your fabulous, judgy self when you're back at home.
We arrived safely and got through our first extended family dinner. It wasn't so bad. I even managed to keep my food down. I kid. The meal was lovely. Interesting to note, however, Alex and I ordered sensible salads while the other boys indulged in chicken parmesan, baked ziti and fried calamari appetizers. The division lines were clearly drawn.
We're staying at a hotel right on the beach. It ain't the Four Seasons, but they do offer a breakfast buffet with a gourmet pancake station. And by gourmet, I mean, frozen pancakes that are microwaved in front of you. Luckily we stopped at the grocery store on the way to VA, and picked up some of Max's favorite breakfast items. Individual boxes of Fruit Loops to the rescue. Fun fact: Fruit Loop was one of my nicknames in college.
TIP: Instead of forcing all twelve family members to settle for the only restaurant in town that has the two menu items your child eats, bring your kid's favorite foods with you so you don't ruin meals for everyone else. Chances are your kid is the only one in the group who wants to eat Little Caesars pizza three meals a day. #PizzaPizza
After breakfast all twelve of us hit the beach. It was straight up the Brady Bunch vacation episode — and I was serving fierce Greg Brady realness. There was football playing (that's the one with the net, right?), ice cream eating and burying kids in the sand. Maxwell was having the time of his life with his cousins. At this point I'm thinking all of the worrying was for nothing.
TIP: While the rest of my family broke the bank renting beach loungers and umbrellas from the hotel, I walked across the street to the boardwalk shops and purchased the exact same items for the same price they paid to rent them. Pay once and get to reuse them all week long, plus keep them handy for future beach trips.
My brothers and our three families started our day by renting surrey bikes and raced each other around the boardwalk. None of the kids fell off. So a good start to the day.
Back to the beach we went. After a couple of hours with the full gang, Alex suggested the three of us sneak away for some private sightseeing. We took a speedboat ride to look for Dolphins. We had a blast. It was nice to get in some quiet, low-key family time.
TIP: Just because there are a lot of people on your road trip doesn't mean that everything has to be done as a group. Sometimes a little time away from everyone else is the refresher you need. And chances are the rest of the group won't even notice you're gone.
Destination: Williamsburg, VA
Meanwhile, we're headed back into the Dodge Caravan to drive to our next location, Williamsberg Virginia, where the following days will be spent hitting the outlets, taking in some Colonial history, splashing around Water Country USA and then ending things with a bang at Busch Gardens.
Once we arrived to our hotel, it started to rain... hard. Luckily, the hotel had an indoor swimming pool. The kids loved running around the pool and diving in, totally ignoring the NO RUNNING and NO DIVING signs.
TIP: Want to earn the title as best uncle ever? After dinner, take all the cousins out for ice cream. Want to score even more points? Take them all to a gift shop and let them each pick out a souvenir. Not only will it make them remember their trip fondly, but also the person who gave it to them. When you only see family once a year, it's okay to spoil them a little bit. It'll cement your title as the world's greatest guncle (see what I did there?).
Destination: Water Country USA
When it came to water park day, the grandparents decided to sit this one out. I don't blame them; hot sun and long lines don't appeal to me either. But a parents gotta to what a parents gotta do. Off we went. Three brothers. One spouse. Five cousins. And two Ativans. Just in case.
TIP: If you are heading to a water park on a warm summer day, GO EARLY. Literally, be the first ones there. We were, and we got to knock out all the major rides within the first hour, which left the rest of the day for the lazy river (and by lazy river I mean people watch… and by people watch I mean lifeguard watch.)
TIP #2: Reapply sunscreen often (even if it's waterproof). I made sure to do that for Max every ninety minutes, but forgot to do it for myself. A few hours later I looked like John Candy in Summer Rental.
Destination: Busch Gardens
By the sixth and final full day of this road trip, everyone started feeling ret to go. But not before checking Busch Gardens off our must-do list. Things got off to a touching start. As I entered the park holding Max, Alex took out his iPhone to show the greeter our three ticket codes; the employee — a man in his 30s — looked at the three of us and said “You've got a beautiful family. It gives a small-town guy like me hope that one day I'll be able to make my dream of starting a family come true." I thought to myself, how did he know we were necessarily a two-day family. And then he added, “by the way, your Golden Girls t-shirt is giving me life." Nuff said.
After studying the park map we quickly realized that the three families would have to separate because no one would agree on which rides to go on. Grandpa stayed with Me, Alex and Max for the first few hours, and then switched off to hang out with his other offspring. After eating our way through Italy, getting drenched on the Log Flume, visiting with Bert and Ernie at the Sesame Street Fun Forest, we jumped at the chance to take in a show. It didn't matter what show, as long as it was air-conditioned. Pet Shenanigans turned out to be wildly entertaining and was the perfect place to rest, rehydrate, filter our Instagram photos and reapply sunscreen.
TIP: Purchase your tickets online before you go to the park. And always Google “Busch Gardens Discount Codes" (or any other major theme park). There's always a way to save twenty or so percent. Our Google search sent us to McDonalds breakfast, which included a discount code. So not only did we get $20 off each ticket, but we also got to eat sausage biscuits and hash browns. Stop judging. We had orange juice too.
TIP #2: It's really hard to keep three separate families together when the kids range in ages from 6 to 13. Everyone wants to go on different rides, they want to eat different meals, some love to walk, while others complain about boob sweat. Best advice I can offer: split up so everyone can enjoy themselves, then have a set time to meet together for lunch. Pick a place/area that offers a range of food items so everyone's needs are met.
What can I say… on the seventh and final day everyone was in their respective vehicles by 7a.m. to make the long trek home. And while the trip could have benefited from being a day or two shorter, nothing could replace the memories Max made with his cousins. And to see Grandpa reveling in his grandchildren's joy made it all worth it (even the painful moments I opted not to include in this article — I wouldn't want to embarrass anybody — that's what my Twitter feed is for).
TIP: Always end things on a positive note. Focus on the positive and show your appreciation. No family vacation is perfect, but nothing in life is. So don't sweat the small stuff (and trust me, it's all small stuff).
So here we are. The trip in over. We have returned home. And looking back in hindsight I can honestly tell you my worst fears were well founded. It was, in a word, awful. Just kidding. We got through it just fine. Phew. No broken bones. No shouting matches. No guilt trips. And not even a single Donald Trump mention.