Jessica Markley’s 10-year-old son William was not happy. When his parents sold everything in September to buy a 32-foot travel trailer and explore the country with their three kids and two dogs for a year, William wasn’t exactly over the moon. “He thought we were the worst people in the world,” Markley says.
Jessica Markley and her husband, Bill, wanted to give their kids the childhood of a lifetime, marked by adventure and unbelievable experiences. William, on the other hand, just wanted to stay home with his friends in Memphis. No stop on their road trip seemed to ease William’s homesickness—not even a few days at Disney World—until they found Camp Margaritaville.
“He lit up,” Markley recalls. “I had not seen him smile in months.”
Camp Margaritaville, formerly known as Cabana Club, is a tropical RV resort and collection of cottages in Auburndale, about 40 miles outside of Orlando, set to a soundtrack of Jimmy Buffett themed merriment. The family-friendly club offers full-hookup sites for RVs, cozy cabin rentals for up to six people and a slew of amenities from a putting course to a 147-foot waterslide, that make visitors feel like they’re living on island time.
What I loved the most was that we made our first friends on the road. We needed that.
— Jessica Markley
The moment the Markley family parked their travel trailer at the Camp Margaritaville site, William was hooked. He spent hours running around the two dog parks with their 6-month-old chocolate lab and their 6-year-old miniature dachshund. Then, when he and his four-legged friends were worn out from their escapades, he’d take them to the grooming station to primp and pamper them.
“He just thought that was the coolest thing ever,” Markley recalls. “It gave him something to put his focus on.”
At the club’s green, William and his four-year-old brother, Oliver, made friends with other kids over games of Gaga ball while the adults gathered around the fire pits, sipping drinks from the tiki bar.
“What I loved the most was that we made our first friends on the road,” Markley says. “We needed that. Being new to RVing, we didn’t have a community yet.”
The Markley family wound up staying at Camp Margaritaville for six weeks, and the club grew to feel more like home every day.
“We never wanted to leave,” she says.
Not Your Average Theme Park
The RV resort provided the kind of intimate, laidback escape that can be hard to find in Florida these days given the rising popularity of the Sunshine State. But in Central Florida, visitors find an untapped oasis close enough to enjoy the liveliness of Orlando but just far enough removed to breathe easy. In cities like Lakeland, Auburndale and Winter Haven, travelers find the Southern hospitality of a small town with easy access to the amenities and attractions of a big city.
In Winter Haven, families can experience the world’s first Peppa Pig Theme Park opening February 24, a little piggie playground where they can soar above the clouds in a hot air balloon, ride on the back of an epic dinosaur and go for a boat ride with Grandad Dog.
For the swashbucklers in the family, the recently opened Legoland Pirate Island Hotel is a builder’s pure bliss. Each day, young pirates awake to find a treasure hunt right inside their rooms. Once they’ve tracked down their daily Lego bounty, buccaneers can walk the plank into the resort’s heated pool, build a take-home souvenir with Lego experts and even get their sea legs on a pontoon boat ride around Lake Eloise.
Saunter out to Lake Wales for a real taste of Old Florida with flair. At Westgate River Ranch Resort, visitors experience the life and culture of America’s first cowboys, without sacrificing any modern-day comforts. Go glamping in one of the dude ranch’s luxe, fully furnished tents outfitted with air-conditioning and a personal concierge that lights a nightly campfire and delivers coffee in the mornings. Those who find themselves just passing through should swing by for the Saturday Night Rodeo, a long-standing tradition where riders brave the backs of bucking bulls and broncos.
Whether you’re a buccaneer, Buffett fan or bronco rider, there’s a Central Florida town that’s just the right fit. Here, a vacation doesn’t have to require long lines, crowded rides and traffic jams. In fact, it rarely does. Instead, travelers get to experience the Sunshine State on their own terms, exploring the quiet corners and adrenaline-pumping adventures without the hordes of tourists. And when it’s time to pack up and head back to your hometown, you might just realize you don’t want to leave.