No matter how far away we roam

I’ll be home for after Christmas.

We’re at T-minus two days and counting until the big day. Soon, Carla’s parents will be arriving and we’ll being going to Christmas Eve services at church. The surprise and joy of Christmas morning will give way to the irritability and arguing of sleep-deprived children.

Cognitively, I know that Christmas isn’t for me. It’s for the kids. Emotionally, though, I need to have a connection with my past before I can truly feel I’ve celebrated Christmas.

Don’t get me wrong, Christmas with my wife and children in our own home is special. I treasure the traditions we are developing and enjoy building life-long memories with our boys. But for me to feel like I’ve had Christmas requires a trip to my parents’ house in Central Florida.

Since I left for Troy University in 1988, I’ve been making a pilgrimage to Lake Wales some time during the holidays. The 502-miles of pavement allow my mind to travel through time to revisit memories of previous Christmases.

Michael Jordan cardboard stand up with Lee and Lance
Lee and I measure up with Mike, circa 1994.

Like the time I gave my brother, Lee, the life-size cardboard standup Michael Jordan for Christmas. All our Christmas pictures that year had Mike wearing a Santa hat in the background.

Or the year my youngest brother Lyle ate too many helpings of Lee’s famous barbecue meatballs during an all-night Madden football video game tournament. He has since sworn off meatballs.

Like Christmas itself, now that I have kids of my own, the trips to Florida have taken on a different meaning. My children look forward to these vacations because they get to spend time with grandparents they don’t often see, and, yes, they get even more presents.

My dad’s unpredictability adds to the excitement. One year he took the boys and their cousins for a night-time hay ride through the orange groves. Not a year goes by that he doesn’t introduce them to such classic songs as “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor on the Bedpost Overnight?” and “You Can’t Roller Skate in a Buffalo Herd.”

Paw Paw takes the grandkids on a hay ride
Paw Paw's lawn tractor and trailer entertains the grandkids with a Christmas hayride in 2009.

So like so many snowbirds over the next several weeks, we’ll load up the minivan and head down I-75. If you have to drive home for Christmas, Central Florida isn’t a bad destination. At the risk of sounding like a member of the Florida Tourism board, this is really the best time of year to visit. It’s in that narrow window of about two months when the weather isn’t unbearably hot and humid. With temperatures in the 60s and 70s, we will be packing shorts and T-shirts, ready to enjoy outdoor play in my parents’ expansive yard or at one of the nearby parks.

Central Florida also just happens to be home to a number of theme parks. This year we’ll be trying out the new Legoland Florida, which opened this fall a convenient 20 minutes up the road from my parents’ house.

There is no place like home for the holidays, even for grown ups. I look forward to making more memories with my family even while reminiscing about a few that happened before I had one of my own.

Now I’ve got to go find my shorts to pack.

It’s your turn! Where do you travel for the holidays? Do you take family vacations or do you travel great distances to see family? Are you separated from family by geography and miss out and seeing family members? Leave a comment below on how you cope with holiday travel.

Old school spring break

The Wallaces in West Palm Beach
The Wallaces in West Palm Beach, Fla., on spring break. Bob Perkins photo

Growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth, I can’t remember a single spring break vacation. That’s not to say we didn’t have any. I just can’t remember them. We were content to have a week off school, sleep late, watch cartoons and play outside. 

Now, it’s a different story. Spring break isn’t just for college students anymore. Families experience peer pressure to hit the road, too.  

An AOL travel survey this year revealed that 60 percent of people traveling during spring break will spend from $500 to $2,000. That’s more than my parents spent on spring break travel in my 18 years of living at home. 

The same survey showed 75 percent were staying in the U.S. with Florida the top destination. I can attest to the validity of this. I file this dispatch from West Palm Beach where we are wrapping up a week-long trip to the Sunshine State. The trip down I-75 was crowded with fellow Atlantans escaping the city for warmer climate, beaches and theme parks. Free investment tip: invest in Disney stock.

Video game fishing
Barron and PawPaw get in the only kind of fishing they could during Tuesday's rain.

But our spring break plans were modest this year: a visit to my parents in Central Florida, a day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in Orlando (thanks to the generosity of friends who provided us with complimentary passes for the whole family), and a day of fishing with PawPaw.  We rounded out the week with a visit to Atlanta ex patriot friends Bob and Faith Perkins who provided quintessential South Florida hospitality: good food, beautiful weather and a day at the beach.

What I learned from this year’s edition of the now time-honored travel rites of spring is that old school wins.

Universal was fun and memorable but probably overwhelming to our two-year-old son who capped off the night by throwing up. And when a day of rain and thunderstorms postponed our fishing trip by a day, playing card games with their grandparents produced more laughs than the video games – even video game fishing.

Barron's first bass
Barron catches his first bass -- the non-virtual kind.

We had a great time at an impromptu campfire, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. The older boys experienced absolute delight fishing in the breezy Florida sunshine with their grandfather. My five-year-old was so excited he couldn’t stop talking – before, during and after. My oldest hauled in his first bass, a 12-incher we had to throw back because of state law. For those of you who care about that sort of thing, he caught it on an 8-inch, Zoom Finesse watermelon seed worm. He was proud, but his daddy and granddaddy were even more proud.

And a day at the beach — digging a big pit, boogie boarding in the Atlantic, collecting shells and trying fruitlessly to send a Portuguese Man-of-War back to sea — proved more fun than avoiding a mechanical shark at Universal.

For authentic fun in the New South, mix in a little of the tried-and-true to make lasting memories. The Great Outdoors are a better incubator for quality family time than manufactured settings. And in an era of rediscovered austerity, it’s a better value, too.