Reading books as a family is one thing, but what about creating a literary-inspired road trip? Contributing writer Margot Black decided to reward her son’s extracurricular reading by creating a road trip through Florida. As a family, they visited The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Ernest Hemingway’s home in the Florida Keys, and a hotel created by a poet with its own writer’s room.
One of the great joys of being a mom is the time I spend poring over a book with my son. As a child I loved reading, and now my husband and I love to encourage our almost nine-year-old to do the same. Reading time has become a precious family experience that we all look forward to.
Over the past year we have read the seven Harry Potter novels, which is magical family reading, and all five books in the Percy Jackson series, another fun Young Adult series. I decided to embrace and reward my son’s reading and writing with a literary family road trip to Florida, where we made stops in Orlando, Miami, and Key West.
We flew from Los Angeles to Miami where we rented a car from Hertz. We’d booked a product called Never Lost, which is a GPS system. Unfortunately, it was wrong so often that we took to calling it Never Right, and used our smartphones instead.
My number one tip for a trip like this, where you will be stopping in multiple locations, be it overnight or a rest stop, is to opt for a car with a closed trunk over an open SUV. Knowing that our belongings, which included my laptop and our cameras, were out of sight—especially over the busy weekends in tourist areas—gave me peace of mind.
A Literary South Beach Gem
We spent two nights at The Betsy Hotel in South Beach, Miami and absolutely loved it. It’s a gorgeous landmark in the Art Deco district and a hug to a writer’s soul. Built in 1942 by L. Murray Dixon, the architect responsible for many famous Miami Beach Art Deco hotels, every ounce of its décor is special and unique. I was lucky enough to meet with Jonathan Plutznik, the chairman of The Betsy, who told me that they want every guest to have not just a luxury experience but a culturally rich one too.
His father was the poet and writer Hyam Plutzik, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winning finalist, who died in 1962. Their inspiring writer’s room—the only one in Miami—pays homage to the many writing rooms that existed in pre-war hotels where guests recorded memories and connected to home. Here you can use a desk donated by the Hyam Plutzik Centennial Committee to commemorate the poet’s own trip to Florida during the 1940s, when he was a young soldier on his way to war. They often have a writer in residence and hold literary salons.
We enjoyed sundowners and family reading time on the Atlantic rooftop deck. It was a fun spot to people watch. The restaurant breakfast was exemplary, and our room was lovely. They played live music and opera in the plantation-style lobby.
Key West Hemingway-Bound
I have never in ten years of marriage heard my husband sigh more than he did on our drive down to Key West, an island city on the nib of Florida. Yes, it’s stunningly beautiful and in some places you feel as if you are actually on the ocean. But there were three road accidents, so what should have been a pleasant two-hour trip turned into a seven-hour journey.
My advice? Always factor in more time for the drive. Just one thing goes wrong and you are stuck in traffic on Route 1 with no option to go left or right.
Our son was patient and peaceful. My husband was less so, but it was all worth it upon arrival. We arrived at the Chelsea House Hotel just as dark was falling. It’s a Historic Key West inn and utterly delightful, so around this time I can happily say that the sighing stopped.
I’d asked for a family-friendly hotel, and the quaint and charming Chelsea suited us perfectly. In the room next to us was a couple with a baby and a small child, so we felt quite comfortable. Our room was handily located just a few steps from the poolside breakfast buffet and I don’t think I could sleep any closer to fresh coffee. They had a lovely pool overlooking the ocean, and the staff were all super friendly and accommodating.
Our literary stop was Ernest Hemingway’s House. A true Key West landmark, it thrilled us more than we could ever have imagined. There’s no need to reserve tickets in advance. You can buy them on the door, and they are very reasonable at $13 for adults, $6 for children and little ones under five are free.
As we toured the house, which is made of limestone and set in beautiful grounds, we really felt a sense of history. It was built in 1851, and Hemingway moved in 50 years later in 1931. He purchased the house for just $18,000 and lived there with his wife Pauline and their two sons, Patrick and Gregory, for eight years. He famously kept six-toed cats, and there are currently around 40 to 50 roaming the grounds.
The house delightfully surprised me. I thought it might be hacky but the foundation that funds it gives so much love and homage to Hemingway and his work that it’s a joy. Breathing in the smell of the jasmine and gardenias, you really had a sense of a literary life well lived (Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, Death In The Afternoon, and To Have and Have Not while residing here). I also loved their comprehensive book store and wanted to buy everything in it.
My top tip for visiting would be to get here early. We were there as it opened and had a quiet run of the house, but an hour later, it was packed with tourists who had hopped over from the cruise ships. So go early.
My son Jett, an animal lover and avid reader, was enchanted and said upon leaving, “I want to come back here.” I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know anything better than a cat and a typewriter—maybe a cup of tea? It was pretty damn perfect.
We spent the rest of our time exploring Duval Street and the beaches. I wish we’d had more than two nights in Key West as it felt rushed. Next time I’ll factor in a beach day so that we could all just sit and enjoy the surroundings, so be good to yourself and add a day to linger with no agenda by the sea—that’s the key to Key West.
Pottering Around Orlando
We reluctantly left the bohemian beauty of Key West and headed to Orlando, which is about as opposite as you can get in terms of sense and sensibility. Our plan was to spend two days exploring The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal, and I’m glad we did, because we love the books and I’m a big one for rewarding reading. That being said, it was extremely expensive and taxed our patience at every turn. I would emphasize that with a trip like this, you must always weigh the experience versus the cost.
I didn’t realize when I booked the trip that it was Easter weekend. I used a digital calendar with no holidays listed, so tip alert—use a paper calendar. I will be doing so for the rest of my life when planning travel.
Because we had limited time and the park is so big, I bought The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando by Seth Kubersky. His best advice was to eat outside of the park whenever possible and lay out a plan of attack for the day. One of the reasons you might want to eat outside of the park is because of the cost to get in and the price of everything once inside.
We paid an eye-watering $649.97 for a two-day park-to-park ticket for two adults and a child. Universal Islands of Adventure is home to the village of Hogsmeade, Universal Studios Florida is where you’ll find Diagon Alley and the two are connected by the Hogwarts Express.
With the package we bought they offer you the third day for free (we didn’t have time to go back) but they will also try to upsell you a jump-the-queue Fast Pass plus add-ons for upwards of $300.
I had to pity the poor lady who we met in our hotel elevator. She’d brought her son to the park, they’d been on one ride and it started pouring, so her son wanted to leave. That one ride cost her $250.
Once inside, we found that most of the rides required at least an hour’s wait. The hanging around meant a lot of snacking, which can break the bank. We are lucky that my husband and I make decent money and save well, but this was a big spend for us. Popcorn is $5 and bottled water is $4.
It also rained heavily both days at some point, so inside the park we had to purchase pricey umbrellas and plastic ponchos. I’m just glad we weren’t a family of six. There was no break anywhere, and nothing felt like value.
Because of the crowds we managed no more than four rides all day; at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, we spent 2.5 hours in the line because the ride broke down three times. The guard actually came and told us we might want to have a seat as “it may be a while.” At one point we sat on the floor of the inside of the ride and sang “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” We got to 64 bottles by the time the ride started up again.
I bought a Harry Potter Pumpkin Juice for $7.50, a bottle of still water for $4, and a bag of chips for $3.50. My son took one sip of the juice and declared it “disgusting.” Later we purchased a hot dog and bag of chips for $12 and saw some of the most vile food ever at their Krusty Burger hut.
Afterward, I had to think about what this trip had ultimately taught my son. Number one, it was an intense experience of commercialism. Theme parks are an exercise in patience and value. It also made me double down on my commitment to nature moving forward. Even my son thought it was expensive. But I was proud that he behaved well with all the waiting. The visit was a big reward for reading, but next time I will add up what we spent and then buy the stock. That way, he will be rewarded for years to come.
On the positive side, our hotel was affordable and we had a lot of fun. We arrived at the park midday and left at 10 p.m., so we closed it down. The environments were spectacular and the rides, which included the Flight of the Hippogriff and the 4D Forbidden Journey, were fun. We also rode the Hogwarts Express train twice, drank the required Harry Potter drink, and bought a t-shirt and a sweatshirt.
Leaving Miami, we got to the airport four hours early. We were done. Our son wanted to go home, see his dog, and not miss the flight.
After Universal, our dinner at the airport felt like a fair price–a family first—and once we’d eaten, we calmly sat down with one another while waiting to board. It was the perfect final chapter to our literary adventure.
- Beyond Disneyland: Unexpected Sights & Activities in Anaheim
- How to Visit Japan With a Small Child
- Swap This for That: Exotic Family Experiences for Tight Budgets & Timelines
Text and Images by Margot Black for PeterGreenberg.com