A couple of weeks ago, my kids had their Spring Break from school, so I took the week off from work and we had a vacation. It’s the first “real” vacation we’ve had since 2010, at least by my wife’s accounting. Then, we drove from Michigan to Atlantic Beach, NC for the week, and hung out by the ocean. In 2011, I graduated from business school right around spring break time…and started a job in Florida. So for spring break, we moved me down to a little apartment outside Tampa, and the family spent the week cooped up in a too-small hotel room while Florida decided to hurl around thunderstorms and tornadoes. When summer came, I took some time off, flew home to Michigan…and we moved our house down to Florida. Decidedly not vacationey.
Last year, we took a real trip for spring break. We drove to Galveston, TX – another two-day drive – and rented a vacation home for the week. And then spent most of the week sitting in my dad’s living room watching pre-taped tennis with the sound turned off. The kids would’ve had more fun projectile-vomiting.
So this year, we debated whether we should go to Key West, or go north, or something else. We decided that since we live in the United States’ most popular vacation destination, we should stay and do Florida-ey things…not to mention saving ourselves from four days of driving. So we decided to spend a day hunting for sharks’ teeth in Venice, a few days in St. Augustine, and a few more days in Orlando – all of this within three hours of our house.
So first of all, I liked St. Augustine a bazillion times more than Orlando. It’s the oldest city in America – Ponce de Leon landed in 1513 and started the first European settlement. Jamestown? Pfah, a hundred years later. The American Revolution? Johnny-come-latelys. St. Augustine happened only 21 years after Columbus discovered our whole continent. It’s staggeringly old. We wandered around a fort – no, a Castillo – that was built in the 1600’s, and still bears the scratched graffiti of its original residents. Wow. We wandered across the now-empty field over the foundations of the original settlement, where the outlines of the foundations are marked on the ground. It gives me chills. St. Augustine was an awesome, laid-back place to relax and soak up some history and perspective.
Orlando, on the other hand, is like Vegas of Florida. It’s a town that sprouted up in the godforsaken center of the state, and would be nothing without theme parks. Vegas has casinos, Orlando has Disney and Universal Studios. I’m not saying that Disney isn’t worth seeing – Disney World is awesome, and you simply can’t understand how awesome until you’ve gone. But the rest of Orlando? Shit-heap. The roads make no sense, the traffic is ass-nasty and slow…and stupid. It’s dirty, it’s smelly. It’s there for tourists and outlet-mall-shoppers. What did we do in Orlando? Visit Disney and shop at an outlet mall.
I did more expressway driving that week than I’ve done in a long time, and I’m left with questions and impressions. First, it’s easy to see the difference between a “commuter freeway” and a “long-haul freeway.” I-4 traverses Florida, east/west, from Tampa to Daytona. From Tampa through Orlando, it is definitely a commuter freeway. People weave back and forth through three lanes of traffic like they’re slalom skiing. The speed limit is a suggestion, as people go either 20mph under it, or 15mph over it. Brakes are slammed, it’s a nasty, cut-throat place, just like downtown, only at 75mph.
Conversely, we took I-75 to Venice. If you have never heard of I-75, it’s the artery from Sault Ste. Marie on the Michigan/Canadian border, to the tip of Key West. Traffic moves along on cruise control, lane changes are more considerate, bored people sleep in passenger seats. It’s a long-haul freeway, and you can tell that people have settled into “the groove” of covering distance.
Then…what is wrong with 75mph? It’s faster than the 70mph speed limit, but it’s not gonzo-crazy. I felt like a speed-pariah as I set the cruise for 75mph. Everybody, EVERYbody was sailing around us like we were in a rowboat. Except for the folks going 67 that I had to go around. I swear nobody else was going 75. Argh.
Our accommodations in Orlando were at a timeshare resort. We got one of those deals where you spend a couple of hundred bucks, total, and you get a huge multi-bedroom condo for several days or a week…and all you have to do is listen to a timeshare presentation. We’ve done it before, and it works well for us, usually. We typically spend about $300 for the whole week, and we get two or three-bedroom condos that actually fit our family. We have a kitchen we can cook in, and save money from eating out; we usually have a pool and amenities at the resort – and by resort I mean cluster of condos, really – it’s usually fine.
So I think we hit the Carnival Cruise Lines of timeshares on this one. We waited for a couple of hours in a hot room to be checked in, and apparently at least one family spent four hours waiting. Once we got the room…we didn’t get the room, as it hadn’t been cleaned yet, for another three hours. We went out to eat. The room had stained carpet, and skanky bathtubs, and half the lights were burned out. There were no washcloths, or dishtowels. The presentation wasn’t too bad, but was fairly pushy.
But it reinforced our thoughts – why would anyone buy a timeshare? They cost thousands in purchase price. And then they cost several hundred per year in maintenance fees. And you have the hassle of scheduling time. We’ve consistently bought time-share rooms on eBay, for less than the yearly maintenance fees.
I think timeshares try to play on people’s desire to be coddled, to feel like there’s some luxury in their life. People seem to obsess over “five-star” everything – whether it’s an artificial designation or not. People pay more for the car with the letters after the name – EX, SS, GT, LX, whatever – because it comes with more leather, and toys, and better radios…luxury, right? People want to feel like they’re being treated special, so they “join” different “clubs.” Like Sam’s Club. It’s not a club, it’s a store, and people pay money, to be allowed to shop at this store…but they get a sense of belonging, a sense of being special.
It makes me wonder how drab and unfulfilling people’s lives really are, that they need to feel this. Or maybe it’s me, and my home, car and life are more luxurious than I think they are. In any case, I’ve found that I don’t really care for luxury. I’ve taken one cruise in my life…and I had doors opened for me, and chairs pulled out for me, and all garbage spirited away with ne’er a single trash can to be found. And I hated that aspect of the cruise. At one point, I had to put my nasty, chewed-on apple core into the hand of a crewmember so they could throw it away. I felt horrible for them. I dunno, I just have no desire to be coddled. I like quality…I don’t really care about luxury. I’ll eat at a cement-floored dive, if the food is supposed to be good – and we’ve found some awesome food that way. I like camping more than hotels. I just don’t like luxury, so the point of a whole lot of things is just lost on me.
So over the course of the week, we found the Fountain of Youth. We wandered ancient forts. We browsed a historic downtown shopping district. We mini-golfed. We spent a day at Disney. We spent a day at an outlet mall. Do you know what seemed to make my family the happiest? We went to the beach three times.
We went to a beach in Venice to find sharks’ teeth. We brought our shovels and buckets and colanders…and we found some. Well, I found some, anyway. The kids played. I kept at it and found 10 or so little black sharks’ teeth. My son said – and I can’t stress how rare this is – “this is fun.”
One night in St. Augustine, we cruised the beachfront road, and stopped at a random beach at sunset. It was the best shelling beach I’ve ever been on, bar none. The kids jumped in and out of the surf, and we filled a bag with shells, and we ooh-ed the sunset.
The next day we got Subway and ate it at the beach for lunch. Again, the kids ran around and dabbled toes. They laughed, they squealed, they acted happy. At NONE of the other activities were they as consistently happy as they were running around and picking shells at the beaches. Disney, forts, minigolf, restaurants, shopping…nope, they fought and squabbled like animals. We could literally spend a week at the beach, and my kids would probably be the happiest I’ve ever seen them.
Maybe that’s my takeaway from this – stop spending so much money on doing things and just go to the beach.