There are a number or reasons to consider a road trip to Walt Disney World. You can haul all of your baby and toddler gear (no icky, sticky rentals); flexible travel times mean a blow-out diaper won’t prevent you from missing the plane; and skipping on airfare means huge savings! There is one big drawback: the time logged on the road!  The travel time from Washington, D.C. to the Magic Kingdom is twelve hours; it hovers right at the point of do-able and time prohibitive. Add some kid-friendly pit stops along the way and you’ll find the time flies (without actually paying for air fare). Read on for an itinerary that is sure to make the trip there just as adventurous as your Disney vacation. The best part: these excursions are free because, let’s face it, Disney is money. Some people choose to drive overnight on their way there, or back. If you choose to stop along the route in both directions, use our guide or alternate locations for the return trip.

Photo: Loren Javier via flickr

Getting An Early Start
There are approximately 860 miles between your family and the Mouse himself. We’ve allotted a generous two hours to stretch little limbs and explore each of these locales; the earlier you leave, the earlier you’ll arrive at your destination. Dress kids in their daytime clothes the night before for an easy up-and-at-‘em morning.

Photo: Sarah Duke Gardens

Stop to Smell the Roses in Raleigh
Exactly four hours from D.C., Raleigh makes a logical first stop to grab brunch or lunch depending on how early you departed. Heralded as one of the top ten public gardens in the United States, Sarah Duke Gardens offers 55 acres to walk, run and jump those car cramps out. The gardens are open to the public 365 days a year from 8 a.m. to dusk. You can order a picnic basket to enjoy on the grounds, or check out the nearby Nasher Cafe Museum. We love the cafe’s close proximity to the gardens, but it should be noted that they do not have a children’s menu, but the staff is very accommodating to small palates. The adjacent museum is free for children under 15, veterans, and the general public on Thursdays.

420 Anderson St. (Durham, Nc)

Alternate Location:
Head Indoors in Durham
If it’s raining (or you want to make stops on your way home) consider heading to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, a mega-sized museum space complete with dinosaur fossils, hands-on exhibits and a living conservatory. For food, head across the street to The Daily Planet Cafe, which offers a selection of locally sourced foods and an extensive vegetarian menu (because how many burgers can one person eat on the road). If you don’t have time for the museum, but your kiddos need a quick stretch, check out Greystone Recreation Center, which houses a free indoor playground and rock climbing wall.

11 W Jones St. (Raleigh, Nc)

Photo: Savannah’s Candy Kitchen

Walk the Waterfront in Savannah
If all goes according to plan, you should arrive in Savannah in time for your next meal. Take a pre-dinner stroll along the cobblestone River Street in the Waterfront District, which runs over one mile along the length of the river. If time permits, hop on the ferry for a free river ride. You’ll find The Pirates’ House, a charming, historic Inn, just steps away from the riverfront.  The whole family will be entertained by pirates who serve food with a side of “AR!” Your kiddos can get in on the fun with restaurant-provided DIY pirate hats and accessories. Don’t forget to stop by Savannah’s Candy Kitchen for some southern, sweet treats for the road.

21 East River Center (Savannah, Ga)

Alternate Location: Have a Picnic at Pulaski
Sixteen miles off 95 sits one of the most well-preserved masonry structures form the 1800s. For Civil War enthusiasts, Fort Pulaski is a must-see stop. But for those who are more interested in fauna than forts, the area boasts over 5,000 acres of marsh, wood and mud lands. Hiking trails run through tidal marshes, woods and around lighthouses. It’s the perfect place to stretch your legs and enjoy some nibbles in the open air.

US-80 (Savannah, Ga)

Have you ever gone on a road trip to Disney World? Tell us about it in the comments below. 

—Meghan Meyers