How can I make this surprise roadtrip with my 13yo boy more epic?
June 6, 2019 8:12 AM   Subscribe

My son is turning 13 later this month, and our gift to him is a surprise father-son roadtrip for a week. I have a ton of cool stuff planned - baseball games, an amusement park, ziplining, and rock climbing. But I want to make the in-the-middle stuff memorable, too. What can I do to make this an all time great trip?

We will be in Pittsburgh, Hershey, Nelson Rocks (WV), Charleston (WV), and Cincinnati.

I have a bunch of considerations I am trying to work through:

(1) Are there can't miss restaurants or sights in or on the way to any of the places we are going?
(2) Are there fun/meaningful things we can do in the car (conversation starters, trivia, two-person games?)
(3) Are there fun/meaningful things we can do in the hotel (I plan to bring the Switch and hook it up to hotel TV, but are there other things)?
(4) I am going to surprise him with the trip on the day we leave. Would it be cooler to parcel out what we are doing day-by-day and make it a new revelation each day? Or would it be more fun to take him through the whole itinerary when we hit the road?
(5) Is there a fun way to reveal the itinerary? We are going to baseball games and I got him a jersey for each of them. We are going to Hersheypark and I could get him [a candy bar?]. We are going ziplining and rock climbing and I could get him [???].

Any creative thoughts, or past parent-child bonding experience, or great roadtrip advice, or specific recommendations along the route would be most welcome.
posted by AgentRocket to Travel & Transportation (41 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think the one thing that immediately stands out when reading this is make sure that you ask him what he wants to do, too! The "in between" stuff, like stopping randomly at whatever you happen to see along the route -- and get off the highways to help stuff like this happen! -- would be amazing if that were left up to him. Give him ownership of the trip, too, so it feels like both a surprise FOR him but also a partnership WITH him. Treating him more as a grown-up will be something that really sticks out for him in the future -- all of my best memories with my parents at that age are them respecting me for who I was and what I did or didn't want to do, and for them understanding that I was growing into my own person.

Sounds like it'll be great!
posted by knownassociate at 8:22 AM on June 6, 2019 [26 favorites]

-some really good podcast episodes and/or an audio book? This American Life has such a huge archive you could find something about baseball or road trips or just search around for stuff he is interested in.

question cards are great idea there is one called chat pack that would be good, and another set called table topics, but hunt around on amazon. Journal writing prompts is a good google search for this kinda thing too.

Also maybe google around for scenic byways instead of taking the interstate the whole time?
posted by wowenthusiast at 8:24 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

What I would do is get a bunch of go pro type cameras and film everything (get mounts for the car and for you two). Also, get a drone and map out a bunch of drone-approved areas to stop and take videos with the drone. Great way to have fun and make memories (literally:).
posted by jraz at 8:26 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Road trip games! We play license plates (call out the name of any new state license plate you see - each one can only be called once), Americana (any flag bigger than a garage, bunting, American flag on a skid), Horse (shout out horse while pumping arm a la Eagles vs Sharks) and travel bingo (memorized a travel bingo card from the dollar store). This is the result of many, many 10 hour trips though, so maybe just start with license plates and take it from there.
posted by valoius at 8:29 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

It looks like you're going to be in a lot of the territory covered by the "Loneliest Road" itinerary here, on the "Road Trip USA" website. That site is a tie-in for a book that was my bible when I did my own road trip; it covers 11 different coast-to-coast or border-to-border trips following the old two-lane highways. I strongly recommend poking around in there; they discuss a lot of the "can't miss restaurants or sights" along the way. The site can be a bit tricky to navigate, so I've pulled out a couple things:

* Cincincatti
* West Virginia (The site assumes you're going west-to-east, so the "Next stop" link at the bottom of the page is for the westernmost part of the state and moving east, you may just need to click through)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:30 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Do "lame" stuff too -- "Ooh, statue of a giant cow, go stand by it I'll take your picture!" "Ooh, random small-town ice cream stand, want ice cream?" "Ooh, antique shop!" It increases the odds of encountering the unexpected, which often makes as good of memories than the planned stuff.
posted by AzraelBrown at 8:39 AM on June 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

Pick up a paper road atlas. Something that's in book form or spiral-bound, not a fold-out map.

Learning to read a map and navigate highways and interchanges without GPS and a phone is still a worthy skill, IMO. Plus you'll find he'll be browsing the map during quiet times and possibly find some interesting things to see or places to stop all on his own. Also stops the "how long/far until we are at X?" questions...he can look it up for himself and try doing the math.
posted by JoeZydeco at 8:42 AM on June 6, 2019 [10 favorites]

Re: No. 3: Swimming in the hotel pool each evening. Bring some dollar store beach balls and goggles. Use quarters for diving games. You may find that other guests (especially kids) join in your play, if so, leave them the beach ball when you go in. Or you may find yourselves completely alone, like it is your own private swimming pool.
posted by KayQuestions at 8:42 AM on June 6, 2019 [5 favorites]

For Cincinnati, the Reds have a pretty elaborate and extensive museum at the ballpark. I am not sure how much it will speak to a non-Reds fan but if you are baseball people it might be a good look.
posted by mmascolino at 8:46 AM on June 6, 2019

Enjoy the quiet moments and unplanned times. Rather than being annoyed if something comes up that's unexpected or bad, laugh and have fun with it. I don't know what your kid is like, but I would've kind of chafed at always having something scheduled. But it would be fun to just walk around big cities.
posted by OnTheLastCastle at 8:48 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

I like making spotify playlists with someone else, like they add a song, I add a song, they add a song, I add a song... Depending on how divergent your music tastes are, of course.
posted by geegollygosh at 8:54 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Go to the first gas station and buy a million snacks, the grosser/more sugary the better.
posted by EmilyFlew at 8:55 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

When you're in Hershey, he might enjoy taking an Amish tour to see what their lifestyle is like without electricity. Check out one of their all you can eat Amish restaurants in the area like Dieners or Shady Maple.

I just took a girls only road trip with my 14 year old daughter and my sister. When I asked her about what she liked best, she replied "Honestly, just being in the car and talking with one another." We were making silly jokes about the scenery and animals, playfully argued and debated about where to eat, listening to her spotify playlist and why she liked it then getting her to open up about her friends...priceless moments for all of us.
posted by IndigoOnTheGo at 8:56 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Is there an empty parking lot in the middle of nowhere that he could drive the car? Whether this is a reasonable idea admittedly depends on the kid...
posted by cogitron at 9:01 AM on June 6, 2019 [16 favorites]

Let him pick music or audiobooks to listen to. Don't worry if he gets tired or just wants to be in his own head or whatever - being with someone else around the clock can be exhausting sometimes even when you love them, so keep an eye on him to get a sense of how he's doing and if he needs a little space. Or just let him know he can tell you. And yeah, ask him if he wants to know the itinerary or to be surprised.

This sounds like a really nice gift.
posted by trig at 9:02 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Atlas Obscura map is an easy place to research quirky touristy sites on a driving trip.
posted by Nelson at 9:05 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

And never forget the value of leaving some blank spaces...blank. After a half hour or so of zoning out, video gaming or whatever, my son would tune back in to me. He spent a lot of time on our long road grips unfolding his thoughts to me, but he had to work his way around to it. We had some great, deep, connecting conversations on these trips.
posted by Nancy_LockIsLit_Palmer at 9:09 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Don't know if you're doing the game in the burgh or in Cinci. Pirates games are _cheap_ and PNC Park is regularly rated as one of the best ballparks in America. When coming to Pittsburgh, approach from the west and come through the Fort Pitt tunnels. The tunnel opening to a view across the Monongahela river of downtown Pittsburgh is spectacular. Make sure you ride the incline up to Mt. Washington. Northwest of the city is the Coin Op Hall of Fame, which has some extremely rare pinball machines. Worth a visit.

If you head toward Hershey on 22 rather than the turnpike, you could hit up a boat tour of Penn's Cave and see if you could book a tour of the research nuclear reactor at Penn State. If you opt for the turnpike (76), stop off at the Flight 93 memorial in Somerset County and talk to your boy about how you experienced 9/11. If you take 30 to 15, hit up Gettysburg.

Hershey Gardens is across the street from the park, and worth a visit. Only takes about an hour to stroll through. Also, hit up chocolate world and a) make your own chocolate bar, and b) buy a Reeses/Hershey/whatever that's as big as your head in the gift shop.

I'll nth the idea of leaving empty spaces for your boy to fill. 13 is a big milestone, and doing some of the planning is a nice nod towards his need for independence. I also like the idea of taking turns controlling the music. That's a good opportunity to tell him about why some songs are important to you, or just some of the nostalgia that comes with hearing that song of the summer from a year in your childhood.
posted by bfranklin at 9:21 AM on June 6, 2019

I wouldn’t miss the Andy Warhol museum or Primanti Bros. (for a sandwich with french fries inside it!) in Pittsburgh.

If you’re going from Pittsburgh to Charleston, I’d stop off at Fallingwater. I would have loved that at his age!
posted by sallybrown at 9:25 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Does he like video games? If you can find a real word arcade to take him to it could be a nice bonding experience!
posted by Faintdreams at 9:31 AM on June 6, 2019

Seconding leaving some decent stretches of time on the drive without planned activities. When I was a teen, long car rides were the only time I could talk to my parents about important stuff. Something about the changing scenery and not being able to make eye contact really helps foster difficult conversations.
posted by Weeping_angel at 10:07 AM on June 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

The one must-do thing is to eat some Cincinnati chili. It's... unique, which will be a fun experience for you to share. If you don't like it, it'll probably be in a way that's quite amusing for a 13-year-old boy to describe.

I'm assuming you're going from Charleston to Cincinnati. Not sure how you plan to do that, but you've got good options. US-35 from Charleston to Chillicothe is a nice, scenic drive through the hills. Very peaceful. On the other hand, I-64 will take you through Kentucky horse country around Lexington, which is a pretty unique landscape. And if you approach Cincy from the south, you'll see the Florence Y'all water tower.

If that's not actually your route, let me know how you plan to get to Cincy. I grew up in southwest Ohio and can make other suggestions if you're going a different way.
posted by kevinbelt at 10:21 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

goetta at breakfast in Cincinnati, pepperoni rolls in wv
posted by brujita at 10:31 AM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Pick up the most off the wall postcards at every gas station, restaurant, and tourist site. Write the postcards to yourselves and mail them home (make sure you bring an abundant amount of stamps with you so you don't have to hunt them down on the road). I do this as a tour diary to list what I did at certain places, funny jokes that happened in the car, conversations had, things seen. When you get home, you'll have a photo book made of postcards with messages and memories. You could even sneak a few postcards to send to him directly talking about how much he means as a son, etc.
posted by quince at 10:53 AM on June 6, 2019 [2 favorites]

Jungle Jim's in Cincinnati is an incredible, interesting stop.
posted by miratime at 10:57 AM on June 6, 2019

I'm totally projecting here, but if we had told our 13-year-old son he was going on a surprise road trip *right now!*, he would have freaked out. He's always needed time to think through, plan and process before undertaking big stuff, and travel in particular. Your kid may vary, of course, but it could be helpful to temper your own expectations in case his reaction isn't immediately as excited as you hoped it would be.

(Other than this wet blanket/rain cloud, I hope it's a great trip.)
posted by Sweetie Darling at 11:03 AM on June 6, 2019 [6 favorites]

Good point, I'd give him a day to let him pack the things he wants and think it through. Maybe even a little 'trip shopping' excursion to let him stock up on some small things he wants to bring like snacks and drinks.
posted by JoeZydeco at 11:23 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

You have a lot of really active stuff planned; find places to go for walks/ hikes and have the chance to talk or just be together. Try to think of something you love - bookstores, birding, whatever - and build some of that in. Same with anything 13yo loves - bluegrass music, shopping for baseball cards (it should all be stuff that starts with B, apparently, lol). Sharing what you love is a great experience.

Ohio - Youngs Jersey Dairy in Yellow Springs has fantastic ice cream and Yellow Springs is a cool hippie town, Glen Helen is a nice place to hike. Might be possible to rent a canoe and have a bit of a river trip. The whole area of your trip is full of rivers and lakes.

Cincinnati has Chili; Dayton has pizza - I grew up with Cassano's. Eat local foods take pictures. Carry index cards or paper and markers, make signs and hold the sign for pictures, and/or take pictures of state and town signs. Have Dad and son save pictures online; other parent can make an album to be mostly ready when they get home. I always stop at the visitor center to get a map and they often have useful info.

Anything he needs will be easily purchased along the way, new tshirts are a given. I'm sure your son is a cheerful happy kid, but just in case he acts like he hates it or is cranky and surly, know that he will later talk about the trip with deep affection.
posted by theora55 at 11:29 AM on June 6, 2019

Is your son growing up somewhere within a city or suburb with the nearly inescapable light pollution of modern urban/suburban America? Consider arranging things so that you spend one night, or even just part of one night, somewhere far from city lights and with a view of the sky. Turn off your phones for an hour or two. Build a campfire. Sit and talk.
posted by Nerd of the North at 11:37 AM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you collect spare change or have a few small bills, give it to him for snacks or souvenirs at the gas stations. Maybe he isn't allowed to eat Slim Jims or chocolate bars at home. It's his choice. The important thing is, he gets to choose what to eat and how the money is spent. This loops back to the empowered decision making others have posted about above.

Or, maybe he gets $X for the trip there and $X for the trip home.
posted by nathaole at 12:03 PM on June 6, 2019

I agree that you might want to give your son 24 hours to mentally prepare for the trip and make some of his own choices in terms of packing, etc. I agree that you should leave space in the trip for things to naturally unfold. I agree that you should give him some choices so it can be a partnership as suggested above. And I’m wondering why no one has recommended bringing a pack of cards because I have had some nice conversations with my dad when he played solitaire. I have had even better conversations with my daughter when we played cards together.

This is a wonderful gift!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:20 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I would absolutely give him some warning of the trip in case he and his friends have made plans or are hoping to do something that they are looking forward to in that time period (even if what is being looked forward to is something small that you don't know about).

Definitely leave some empty spaces in the agenda for him (and you) to process and talk about all the fun activities that you're treating him to.

Please let him have some input into the activities. Otherwise you run the risk of giving him a trip that you will enjoy and hope he is enjoying but that he will look back on later and think, "I wish they'd bothered to ask me what I wanted to do." A friend of mine had a similar, but not identical, gift given to her and although she definitely appreciated it, she was saddened by how much more it would have meant if she'd only been asked for input.
posted by Amy NM at 12:25 PM on June 6, 2019 [4 favorites]

If you're going across Ohio from WV, you could go horseback riding at the Spotted Horse Ranch, or if you only have a short time in that area (such as a lunch break), have lunch at the M&M Family Diner or My Old Dutch in Logan, OH, and take in the (tiny, but fun) Museum of Pencil Sharpeners, which is located behind the Visitor Center (which itself is opposite Walmart, and is signposted as you come out of the Walmart car park).
posted by essexjan at 12:39 PM on June 6, 2019

Oh, and if you're going to be in southern Ohio over Father's Day Weekend, the Logan Washboard Festival is on.
posted by essexjan at 12:41 PM on June 6, 2019

This sounds so awesome!! I'm pretty sure you know your kid and that he'll be into it.
I would get him a backpack and put all the things inside for him to open, including a road atlas and guidebook , and tell him "here are the things I have planned so far, and your job is to get us from place to place and tell me where we should stop along the way".
At that age I would have been SO EXCITED to be in charge of something, I can't even tell you.

Check back in and let us know how it went!
posted by exceptinsects at 1:10 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Definitely music. Your trip needs a soundtrack. Something that, 20 years from now for the rest of his life, he’ll hear a song come on and think Road Trip With Dad.
posted by Knowyournuts at 2:20 PM on June 6, 2019

Definitely the suggestion to take the Ft. Pitt tunnel into downtown Pittsburgh. It is very impressive. If you approach Cincinnati from the south on I-75 you will get a similar but less dramatic effect of the city suddenly popping into view.
posted by mmascolino at 2:27 PM on June 6, 2019

If there is an obscure regional snack item, make a tradition of always looking for it at the gas station/grocery store, and ideally buying and consuming it. ("Let's just see if they have those Humpty Dumpty chips!" etc) I also really like picking some kind of tchotchke to be on the hunt for — I collected pencils as a kid (strong recommend! they're like, a dollar!), but if he's into, I don't know, pins? baseball cards? magnets? glass fish? key chains? to always check for those and just on this trip always buy them.

Sometimes as a kid — sometimes as an adult — I get a little overwhelmed with choice, so "you can get souvenir if you want!" often just paralyzed me with indecision. But "let's see if there are any cool Amish country pencils here!" was way more appealing. Also, I still have that pencil.
posted by Charity Garfein at 3:17 PM on June 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I think letting him plan as many stops as possible would be great. But yeah, Young's Dairy is awesome, as is Yellow Springs OH (good short hike, little shops). You might preload your phone with audiobooks and comedy to listen to.
posted by slidell at 7:17 PM on June 6, 2019

We are going ziplining and rock climbing and I could get him [???].

A locking carabiner?
posted by slidell at 7:21 PM on June 6, 2019

Choose hotels with pools.
posted by metasarah at 8:01 AM on June 7, 2019 [2 favorites]

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