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Land Cruiser

by Brent Betit

You've all seen those cruise industry "infomercial" articles asking you to compare the cost of a cruise with a land vacation. They usually look something like this:

Item Cruise Land
Cruise Fare $3,500 N/A
Transportation Included! $ hundreds
Ground Transfers Included! $ hundreds
Breakfast Included! $ hundreds
Lunch Included! $ hundreds
Dinner Included! $ hundreds
Midnight Buffet Included! $ hundreds
Activities Included! $ hundreds
Parties Included! $ hundreds
Entertainment Included! $ hundreds
Night Club Included! $ hundreds
Airfare Included! $ thousands
Total $3,500 $ gazillions

Of course, the cruise always comes out looking like a bargain - and as a consumer you may have regarded the calculations with a high degree of suspicion. I'll admit it: I was skeptical, too, enough to actually test it out.

It wasn't exactly my idea. My wife decreed, early this past summer, that the family unit (two pre-teen boys, my wife, yours truly, and an aging Ford Explorer) was going to experience the quintessential retro family vacation this year. Her definition of such a vacation meant traveling by car from Vermont to the Deep South, visiting Kissimmee, Florida, and a little theme park they have there called Disney. I guess she didn't think I was Goofy enough.

When I first heard this, I swallowed hard before I dared speak. My two boys can't even make it to the grocery store without staging World War III in the back seat; I hate standing in lines; and theme parks have always seemed like places for the intellectually under-endowed to dispense with excess money. You might say that I am the Grinch that stole Disney.

Still, my wife was very persuasive, and I finally agreed to her gentle suggestions, particularly since it meant that I wouldn't have to sleep on the porch for the next five years. Driving three thousand miles round trip to see Mickey and friends seemed like a good idea given the alternatives.

So one fine August day we loaded up the Explorer, took a deep breath (and several credit cards) and set out for Florida. Being trapped inside a small, metallic enclosure that was moving at a high speed while listing side to side at least felt familiar. It was almost like that inside cabin on the old Song of America. Except I couldn't find a bar waiter when I needed one. And boy did I need one.

I will spare you the details of the three-day drive down, except to say that on one stretch of I-95 it took 90 minutes to go 12 miles. Stay away from the Washington DC area. In fact, stay away from the entire northeastern corridor of I-95 if you can. If they would paint a few more stripes on it, it might begin to resemble what it actually appears to be: a very long parking lot.

Fortunately, when we arrived it was to find a very nice two-bedroom condo with full kitchen, living room, laundry area, two bathrooms (one with a Jacuzzi) screened porch, and nearby swimming pool. In other words, a bit like the typical Owner's Suite on most ships. I booked this at auction on Egghead - another experiment that was part of the research for an earlier column about Internet auctions Let's Make A Deal. (What I won't go through for the reading public!) The accommodations cost $875, including tax.

It's a good thing the place had a pool. I purchased a four-day park hopper pass for Disney ($701 for the four of us - ouch!), and we visited the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, MGM/Disney, and the Animal Kingdom during a four-day period. It was just like I expected: hot, busy, kitschy, and complete with one-hour lines for just about every ride. (Be sure to look for the Fast Pass system if you visit. With this system, you pre-register for a particular ride, receiving a ticket that tells you when to return - usually one hour from the time of registration. Once you do return, you enter via a special entrance with virtually no line!)

My kids were not that impressed with Disney. They couldn't wait, most days, to get back to the resort so they could jump in the pool. Had I only known, I could have just purchased an in ground pool and stayed home.

We did have some interesting experiences. An evening laser light show at MGM/Disney was very well done. Don't miss lunch at the 50's diner at MGM/Disney. The wait staff treat you just like a 50's family, including making you go wash your hands before dinner, withholding dessert if you didn't finish your entrée, and even making you sing if you leave too much on your plate. It's the only diner in town that has humiliation on the menu. A couple of teenage girls from the next table did a fair rendition of "I'm a Little Teapot" just after we arrived. I ate every morsel on my plate. I am definitely not a little teapot. In fact my family might tell you I'm a great big despot after this trip.

At Epcot, we visited several countries, including France (no, not the real one; they have international theme areas). In France, don't miss the surround-video of the French countryside -- filmed from a helicopter. If you forget your Dramamine, though, you may be reaching for the airsick bag.

Oh yes, and there was one other unique experience. Three days after we arrived in Florida, we found out that our Ford Explorer was equipped with those now infamous Firestone ATX radial tires. We also discovered that every tire dealer in the state was sold out of fifteen inch tires, and had to face the prospect of driving home (1,500 miles) through fairly brutal heat at Interstate speeds. It is an experience I hope never to repeat. I think there are some dents in the steering wheel where my fingers were clamped on during the return trip.

To sum up the expense sheet, I will compare a recent Bermuda cruise (7 day) with our 6-day drive to and 7-day stay in Florida:

Item Florida Trip Bermuda Cruise
Gasoline $275 $15
Lodging, in transit $480 $0
Lodging, main event $875 $2,800
Meals $1,400 Included
Entertainment $701 Included
Incidentals $1,000 $500
Total $4,731 $3,315

If you calculate costs by the day, the Florida trip is the clear winner: $4,731/13 = $363.92 per day. The Bermuda trip was $473.57 per day. On the other hand, there were a few things missing from the land cruise, including:

  • Someone to make up the room every day and leave chocolates on our pillows
  • Hot and cold running bar waiters
  • Entertainment a few steps away from the room
  • Gourmet meals (included!)
  • Different scenery every day
  • Relaxation/ not having to drive
  • The ocean
  • Hot snacks whenever we wanted them (included!)

Of course, the real assessment came when I asked my sons whether they had a good time or not. "Well, yeah, I guess" is not an overwhelming endorsement, and in stark contrast to their reviews of our cruise to Bermuda.

After two solid weeks with my family, I returned only to immediately leave on a business trip to Washington, DC. As I flew into the city (high over the snarled traffic on I-95, in one-sixth the time it took me to drive there) I reflected on my recent land cruise. Would I do such a thing again? Absolutely, particularly if the penalty for non-participation were a five-year stay on the couch. Beyond that, though, is the fact that none of the balance sheets come close to calculating the value of spending time with your family, in any setting. What's that worth? It's priceless. Where are we going on our next family vacation? I'm not telling. But it will have something to do with water, and everything will be included.


Brent BetitBrent Betit is a freelance writer who lives in Vermont with his wife and two young children.

Brent is also the Executive Vice President of Landmark College in Putney Vermont, and we are proud to announce that Landmark College is the recipient of a U.S. Department of Education Title III (Strengthening Institutions) Grant. Landmark is one of only 32 institutions selected from among approximately 1,800 applicants for this highly competitive grant program this year and Brent and his staff worked with Senator James M. Jeffords and his staff at the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions who provided substantial support, advice, and guidance during Landmark's two-year quest to gain funding within the grant program. Congratulations, Brent!

Brent has written many SeaLetter columns on such subjects as sea-going language, cruising with kids and cruise etiquette. To find all of Brent's SeaLetter columns and cruise reviews, visit our SeaLetter COLUMNISTS Index.

Brent is always interested in your comments and suggestions and may be reached at: Brent@sealetter.com.

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