Camping is a crapshoot. On a good trip, the conditions can be just right, the campsite ideal, the amenities perfect for keeping kids and parents occupied happily for the duration of the stay. On a bad trip, the people next to you are drunken bigots, the mosquitoes carry off your children, the lake is a swamp, and you’re miles from any ice cream stand. If you’ve got a shiny new trailer, you can hole up inside and pretend you’re at home on the couch watching Age of Ultron with the kids. When you’re tent camping, you’re at the mercy of pretty much everything. So you do the research, look at the pictures, ask for recommendations, and take a leap of faith a year in advance, hoping you made the right call and a hurricane with a stupid name doesn’t wipe your reservation off the map.
Early this year, I looked around for another Eastern Shore-based campground that had all of the cool stuff our last place did minus the live band and found Jane’s Island State Park, down at the bottom of Maryland before Maryland becomes Virginia. Reviews looked promising, the sites looked clean, and I was able to reserve a spot right on a canal, figuring the closer we were to moving water, the cooler we’d be.
I’ve spent the last week preparing for the trip, making piles of gear and then moving them around the house, paranoid I was going to forget something important. I upgraded our cooler. The Scout has new brakes, which are AMAZING and feel fantastic. I premade hobo stew for our first night at the campsite, figuring after I drove all the way down there, set up camp, and got the kids organized, easier dinner would taste better.
We were able to hit the road at 9:15 and got to the Bay Bridge by 10, slowing for some construction at the site of the old toll plaza. Once we made it over the span, we breezed into Easton, picked up Zachary, and continued south on 50 for the end of the earth. Stopping for food and gas, we made decent time, slowed only by the fact that the safari top needed to be up to keep Zachary’s hair from blowing all over his face.
The park is very well-run, and one of the cleanest and most well-equipped state parks I’ve been to. Our campsite was spotless and in a perfect spot to pick up breezes off the marsh. I got the site organized while I had the kids ride their bikes around to scout out the bathhouses, camp store, and marina.
Figuring we’d be hot overnight, I left the rain hood off the tent to keep us ventilated and started a fire. The hobo stew is in foil packets and was on the fire for 45 minutes before I got impatient, took it off and heated it in a pan. The kids were pretty cool about trying it (or, just extremely hungry) and we all made it disappear pretty quickly. Then, figuring we’d have nothing better to do, I drove us in to Crisfield to walk the pier and see what was there.
A century ago Crisfield was the epicenter of oyster fishing in the country, but the town has declined along with the health of the Chesapeake Bay. Most of what we saw was dark and quiet—an ice cream shop along the water actually had a sign saying they were closed due to lack of staff.
We found an ancient diner on Main Street and kept them open to enjoy their A/C and our ice cream for as long as was respectful, and then headed back to the campsite. I set the kids up with headlamps I’d bought and we lit off some sparklers by the canal before calling it a night.
On the pier at Crisfield we’d seen heat lightning flashing to the north, and my weather app showed big orange blobs on the radar heading our way. I made sure to get the rain cover ready and packed away all of our consumables in Tupperware tubs in the truck. Then we laid down for the hottest night in a tent I’ve spent since 1997. That time my ex and I had to wander the pier at Myrtle Beach until about 3AM, when exhaustion set in and we finally passed out in the tent for three hours—until planes started taking off from the airport directly over our heads.
This time we all tossed and turned until about midnight, when a blast of wind suddenly hit us and I knew I had precious minutes to get the rain cover on the tent. I scrambled outside to get the cover secured right as the first fat drops started hitting, and by the time I was able to get back inside, the wind was blowing the tent sideways and Finn was sitting up holding it in place.
It rained hard for half an hour, and then tapered off pretty quickly. The tent is a good one and kept all of the rain out both top and bottom—thank god. We all laid back down to try and sleep. It had cooled off but I couldn’t remove the rain cover to ventilate while the trees dripped on us, so things got muggy. Zachary found it impossible to sleep and was sitting up every half an hour, miserable. At about 4AM I told him if he couldn’t sleep we weren’t going to stay the second night and that I was totally OK with bailing out. That seemed to make him feel a little better, but didn’t help him sleep at all.
In the morning, he and I were up the earliest. I got coffee going and then made us some breakfast on Dad’s skillet while he talked to his Mom on my phone. We ate some food and let Finn sleep in until quarter of eight, then got ourselves ready to run over to the camp store to rent a canoe. I parked the truck in the sunlight to dry out and we filled the boat with our gear. Paddling out into the marsh, we followed a canal for a kilometer that led out into an area of open water and up to the beach separating marsh from bay. We were the first to pull our canoe up onto the sand, and we immediately got into the water to cool off.
Because it’s so shallow, the water was about 85˚ and very calm, so we stayed in for an hour and relaxed until the kids wanted to fish. We hiked back to a pier leading out into the open area of the marsh and I hung out with them for an hour while they dropped their lines in the water. While they were occupied, I took a side trip up the beach until I was away from everyone and spread some of Dad’s ashes out into the bay. Some of my strongest and best memories of him are from camping at the beach, and I was missing him a lot on Saturday.
The fish weren’t biting, so Finn got bored; we left Zachary at the pier and took the canoe back to the beach. He joined us after about 20 minutes, and we stayed in the water for about three straight hours laughing and splashing until our fingers were prunes and our stomachs were growling.
I got the kids hydrated and snacked, and then we got back in the canoe to paddle back to the marina. Thankfully the wind was at our back so it was pretty easy for me to paddle us back in—both kids ran out of steam about halfway back. Finn had applied sunblock 3 times but was still bright red and I think Zachary was suffering the lack of sleep. I got the zombies back to the campsite and sent them off to the bathhouse to wash off with their pre-selected clothes (DAD WIN) while I broke down camp and packed the truck up. After I got showered, I threw the bikes on the back of the truck, cleaned up our site, and hit the road for home.
About 5 miles out of the park we got hit with a rainstorm, so I put the hammer down until I could find a covered gas station and put the full top back up on the truck. Finn was up front slathered with aloe and Zachary was in back, so I think he only got a sprinkling. We put the rain behind us and stopped at a Hardee’s for a huge, well-deserved burger and fries, and continued on to Easton.
Dropping Zachary off at home, I noticed more storm clouds brewing north of us, so I hustled Finn out the door, put the bikini top back up, and floored it for home, hoping we could outrun the clouds moving southward. The Scout doesn’t currently have windshield wipers—it’s a long story—so I’ve coated the windshield with Rain-X. It works remarkably well on a summer day but at night in a thunderstorm I don’t want to test it out. Thankfully she’ll do 70mph with no effort, and with brand-new front brakes I’m not worried about stopping anymore.
We made it over the bridge with no problem—and as we got closer to home the clouds seemed to move off to the west. We pulled into the driveway at 8:30 dry as a bone and exhausted; I brought all of the consumables inside to the front porch and backed the truck into the garage.
Even though it wasn’t the full two-night three-day experience, I think we all had a lot of fun under the circumstances. Sometimes you roll the dice and get great weather, and sometimes the heat chases you home. I know we all slept like babies in our own air-conditioned beds last night, and with the kids going back to school tomorrow, that was the right call.
I got back from Florida and fell immediately into a grind at work so I haven’t had any time to collect my thoughts about the Wizarding World in one place. Currently I’m sitting in the doctor’s office (Saturday morning) being tested for the flu, because both Finn and Jen tested positive for it in the last five days.
But let me back up. Our flight to Florida was uneventful. Finn was much more anxious about this flight than she was when we went to Kansas City, but once we made it into the air she did great. On the ground in Orlando we collected our bags almost immediately and then waited a full hour for the shuttle to arrive to take us to the hotel.
We stayed at the Aventura, which is the cheapest of the three available through Universal but about five levels above a normal hotel: multiple choices of food in the lobby, staffed from 7AM to 11PM, a rooftop bar/bistro, a heated outdoor pool with its own bar, etc. Our room was on the small side but perfectly functional for our needs, and from the 8th floor we could look out and see the park (and Hogwarts Castle) from our bed.
On the first morning we were on one of the first shuttles (our tickets included an hour’s early admittance), and within 10 minutes they’d dropped us off at the entrance to Citywalk, which is a giant outdoor mall in between the real world and the entrance to the park. We followed groups of people in Hogwart’s robes to the entrance, scanned our tickets, and then followed them further through the park, past a 50’s Main Street, the San Francisco dockyards, and New York City to the facade of Kings Crossing Station. Through a crack in the wall, at about 8:15, we walked out of Orlando and into Diagon Alley. Finley’s breath caught in her throat. Sloping gently uphill, the shops and stores led to Gringott’s Bank, on top of which perched a bloodied, angry dragon. It was good enough that if I squinted in the early morning (before the throngs of tourists really descended on it) at the families wearing their robes, under the overcast Orlando sky, I was as close as I could actually get to the world of the books.
We’d been advised to go to Ollivander’s straight away, so we got in a short line and soon found ourselves queuing up inside for a private wand selection. Inside a closed room, a wizard stood behind a desk and drew one of the kids out of the crowd (not Finley, but some chump who was celebrating a birthday). His show was great. He made cabinets move and lights dim and had the crowd in his hand. When he was done we filed out into the main shop.
Finley walked almost immediately over to a wall containing hundreds of boxes, chose a blue one, and said, “What’s this one?”
A man in Ollivander’s costume overheard this and walked over. He asked Finley if she had lots of energy and if she wanted to share that energy with other people, and we all smiled with agreement. It was pretty clear Finley’s birch wand had chosen her. He then matched Jen and I with our wands (holly and reed) like a boss.
Outside, we practiced our spells at the medallions set in the ground and began to explore the Alley. We sampled hot butterbeer—which is liquid heroin—and looked through the shops, exchanged $10 for Goblin money, walked down the dark alley at Borgin and Burke’s, and looked over the flavors of ice cream at Mrs. Fortescue’s. After a thorough inspection of Diagon Alley, we found the Hogwarts Express and queued up on line there.
As with much of our stay, the lines were relatively short, and we filed into a compartment on the train. This ride is an experiential one, where there’s a projection on the “outside” wall, where we could see ourselves passing out of London, then over the countryside and past Malfoy Manor, through the Forbidden Forest (where Hagrid joined us for a while on the motorcycle) and the Weasley’s car chased alongside. Interspersed with that was a projection on the inside compartment windows where Harry, Ron and a terrible Hermione impersonator battled a dementor and bought candy from the trolley.
Walking into Hogsmeade is another moment of awe. The buildings stretch out into the distance, snow-covered roofs piled high with leaning chimneys and towering dormers, and the castle looms off in the distance. In the afternoon it’s mobbed with people, so the effect isn’t quite the same as Diagon Alley, but we still had loads of fun looking in the shops, casting spells, and walking up the lane.
Here I was able to talk Finley into going on the Hogwart’s ride, which, as we found out, is a mixture of live-action and projection. You strap into a chair four seats wide, which is connected to a hydraulic arm. The arm is on a track that takes you through an immersive story experience through Hogwarts, flying across the Quidditch pitch, and down into caverns to face off with dragons. I reached out and held Finley’s hand through the whole thing, as it was a little more intense than I was expecting, and I figured she was having a good time (I heard her laughing at certain points, but the way the chairs are set up you can’t see your neighbors). When we got off the ride she immediately told us with a solemn face that she didn’t want to ride any more rides.
We took a break from Harry Potter and wandered out into the rest of the park, starting with a strange area that wasn’t tied to any property we could identify. There we found some lunch and then went on a ride called Posiedon’s Fury, which felt like it dated back to 1998 or so. It’s basically a show, where the audience is led from one room to the next, and you stand on a low stage while they project video, shoot fire, and spray water on you. Finley thought that was great, probably because she wasn’t on a moving car.
From there we wandered out to the Jurassic Park area and the Kong experience, where we were unable to get her to ride any of the other rides. Finley played a game, and then we walked to the other side of the park to try and find our way out.
Returning back to the hotel, we took a brief break while Jen slept off a headache. Finn and I went down and sat by the pool, where I read a book and she did some of her homework. Then we shuttled back to the CityWalk, where we met the Matejowskis for dinner at the Hard Rock Cafe. I haven’t seen them since 2007, when I arranged for Jen to fall out of a plane, although the girls met with them for a hike a few years ago while I was traveling for work. It was great to catch up with them (this little girl is now driving), and we all had a great time.
We rose early on Sunday to to have breakfast at the Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade. The only problem was that it’s very hard to get to Hogsmeade early without taking the Hogwarts Express unless you’ve got a different ticket than we did. So we hustled to King’s Cross and queued on line, rode the train, and got there early enough to be the first family on line. The food was passable at best but the ambiance was excellent, and we were able to relax for a little while before heading back out. We deliberated over what to do with a cup of butterbeer, then dove into the rest of the Universal park.
First up was Seussland, where the three of us rode the Sneetches ride, and then Finn and I rode One Fish Two Fish and the carousel. I do love the fact that she’s 11 and still loves a carousel.
Finn and I queued up for the Minions ride, which was an indoor experiential ride centered around a large screen with moving seats. That was so much fun we convinced Jen to try it with us, and she liked it up until the seats went backwards and then she white-knuckled it through the rest of the show.
Down the street was Jimmy Fallon’s Race Through New York, which again was an experiential ride with 3D glasses. Finn and I tried that one and she proclaimed it her favorite of the day up to that point. Jen sat out in the park square and got her stomach back in order, watching a parade down Main Street.
We then wandered through the Simpsons area, where Finn and I rode another spinning ride (this one hosted by Kang, the alien) and then I stopped in for a frosty Duff. Further on, we found the younger kids’ section of the park and checked out the Curious George area, which was basically a huge water park/exploration area and then a giant air-powered ball pit/gladiator arena. Six-year-old Finley would have spent the whole fucking day in there. As it was, we had to ask her to leave.
Walking towards the exit, we stopped in at the ET ride, which we’d been told was a throwback acid trip from the park’s opening in 1990. It did not disappoint. Like many of the other rides, it’s an experiential ride, where you get on a bike on a track and ride through the forest, ultimately going to “ET’s home planet” where a bunch of crappy rubber dummies sing a mind-numbingly bad song. Seriously. This would have been the perfect opportunity for experimentation with recreational drugs.
Walking back toward the entrance, we noticed a light show going on in the lake between areas and stopped to watch. They projected clips of their films on spraying water, synchronized with other jets of water, projections on the buildings behind, and fireworks overhead. It was, I must admit, pretty cool. When it was finished, we hurried out of the park to get ahead of the throngs.
Back at the hotel, Finn asked if she could check out the pool, so the two of us got suited up and went down to try it out. The weather was cold enough that a pool heated to 85˚ still felt freezing to me, so we stayed out and watched Back to the Future while Finn swam—and ultimately made a friend!
Jen and I were determined to ride some rides together, so we prepared Finley to hang out while we waited on the lines. But we planned things so that the lines would be as short as possible. Hustling into the park in the morning, we hit the Escape from Gringott’s line with a 20-minute wait and wound our way through the building until we boarded a mine car and headed into the dark. Again, it’s an experiential ride augmented with 3D glasses, with live-action elements and projection, where we followed Harry, Ron and Hermione and evaded Bellatrix and Voldemort, who were shooting spells directly in our faces.
Exhilarated, we found Finley where we’d left her and hustled over to Hogsmeade, where we queued up for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. We didn’t know much about this one going in, other than that it’s the newest of the rides in this section of the park. As we walked up to the building where the queue starts, we saw part of the ride flying past, and I have to admit, both of us got really nervous. I don’t like roller coasters all that much and I knew this was going to be outdoors, but I also knew Jen really wanted to ride it, so we continued in line.
The cars are shaped like a motorcycle and a sidecar, with a restraining pad that comes down over your legs. I took the motorcycle so I was sitting up the whole ride, which ramped up my anxiety, and Jen was in the sidecar. Normally when I’m in a roller coaster I squinch down into the seat as much as possible so I can pretend I’m not dangling from a pipe twelve stories above hard concrete. This was like standing on top of a speeding train.
Luckily, as you can see, there are no giant climbs or loops, which would have had me shitting my pants (I’m afraid of heights; anything above 3 stories has my palms sweating) but the acceleration and physical movement was absolutely fantastic. We were both cackling like idiots at the end of the ride; if we’d not had Finn waiting on us, we would have immediately gone back on line.
As it was, Finn was feeling lousy at that point, and by the time we’d made it back to the entrance she was really down. We got back to the hotel and put her in bed for a couple of hours until she woke up with a fever, at which point we Uber’d to an urgent care. We then got a car to take us to the nearest Walgreens to pick up a Tamiflu prescription, where we found they had not received the prescription. I called a car for the girls and waited around an hour for them to fill the script, then came back and delivered her medicine.
We quietly packed our gear while she slept and the next morning hit the ground running. Our Uber driver was a nice man from Venezuela who didn’t complain at all when Finn got sick in his van. I tried to catch as much as I could with a plastic bag but didn’t have time to actually open it, so most of it was in my hands. In the airport we checked our bag and then washed up in the lavatories, sailing through security relatively quickly. We prepped for more sick on the plane but Finn did great and thankfully had no further issues.
Getting home was uneventful, and Finn laid down immediately on the couch, where she stayed for the next two days. As she got better, Jen got worse and she was diagnosed with the flu on Friday.
I spend most of my life worrying about money, so it’s strange that I get so zen about money when we’re on vacation. Basically, I’m willing to spend whatever on whatever if it makes our life easier, especially when I know that we’re going to be spending more on food than I normally would. Even so, the numbers were kind of staggering for the time we spent in the parks. Overall, we spent $848.05 on food of all types, from airport to airport; this equals a little over $200/day on meals, butterbeer, drinks from the bar, butterbeer, snacks, and butterbeer. We spent a total of $200 on Uber rides, $80 of which was a cleanup fee for our Venezuelan friend, and a further $25 for travel to and from the urgent care/pharmacy.
Where we were relatively chill was in merchandise. Given that Every. Single. Ride. Ended in a gift shop, and there was a gift shop in the lobby of the hotel selling merch, we got away with only spending $202.31 on branded stuff: 3 wands and a hippogriff. Finley was really restrained in the face of all this consumerism; she never bugged us for a robe or a T-shirt or jewelry or any of the other thousand items available. When she latched on to the hippogriff, I made that happen, but waited until the final day in the park and made her carry it in her own backpack. It was fun to watch her walk the park with Buckbeak’s head sticking out of the pack, and it made her happy—and that was worth every penny spent.
I’m sitting out on the deck of the beach house in 80˚ weather pretending the sun on my crispy face doesn’t sting too badly. The air is blowing in from the water and the waves are gently beating the shoreline about 300 yards from here. It’s Friday and we’re all settled comfortably into a lazy beach schedule: rise when we feel like it, stumble around the house and make some coffee, lay about in our PJ’s until we’ve rustled up some breakfast, and then slowly make preparations for the beach. By about noon or so we’re packed and ready, and we head out to the warm sand.
We got here at the tail end of the brutal heatwave that gripped the East Coast, so our first two days on the beach were a challenge. The heat was intense and the air wasn’t moving so we baked on the sand and were assaulted by clouds of horseflies; the only saving grace was that the ocean was warm and horseflies can’t bite underwater. On Tuesday the storm blew through and cooled everything down, so the rest of the week has been idyllic: temperatures in the high 80’s, a 5-10mph wind blowing from the south, and cool ocean water with 2′ waves to jump around in.
This year we’ve scaled way back on our culinary requirements; in years past we’ve gone the extra mile to source and prepare wonderful dinners. This year we’re all in EASY mode and not stressing ourselves out by spending two hours on a gourmet meal. Lunch is sandwiches in the cooler and bags of cheesy-poofs (we brought seven bags between two families), a spiked iced tea/lemonade mix for the ladies and cold Coronas for me, and various snacks we’d never allow the kids to eat on a regular day. By 3PM we’re lit and the day rolls smoothly on from there.
The house itself is comfortable and appointed well. While nothing is ever laid out how I’d arrange it, this one has everything we need and has enough room for us all to come together and separate when we need space. The kitchen is large and easy to use. And the outdoor shower is large enough to fit three sandy bodies at once.
Few things in life relax me more than a house at the beach; I love the rhythm of the days here and the sounds and smells. I love the giggles of my girl jumping the swells, a manhattan on the deck under the stars, throwing my nephew into the waves until my arms are sore, the scent of salt air on the back of my wife’s neck, the feel of sand between my toes, and going to bed tired and sore and slightly drunk and very happy we are all together.
Sunny weather, 80˚ and a 5mph wind blowing in from the bay. No horseflies, warm water (when we were out of the wind) and perfect gusts for flying kites. A perfect day at the beach followed by dinner in Lewes and some ice cream for dessert.
The house is quiet. The kids are watching some TV while the adults wake up slowly in the living room. We’re all sunburned and sleepy from yesterday’s four-hour beach time. The weather has been brutally hot and humid since before last week, and it included the coast of Delaware. There was also no wind to speak of, so the horseflies swarmed us unless we were in the water (our panicked escape from the beach back to the house must have been hilarious to anyone watching from the neighboring houses). Monday wasn’t as bad as Sunday, though, and the water was cool and refreshing.
Our house is spacious and modern, and we’ve all got enough room to move and not be on top of each other. While it’s not set up quite the way I’d prefer, it’s directly on the beach and only three houses from the end of the row. And there’s an outdoor shower. And air conditioning.