In September and October of 2016 we stayed at three different Jellystone campgrounds. We spent nearly two weeks at Jellystone west of Chicago, one week at Jellystone south of Memphis, and parked our fiver at Jellystone of Kansas City when we flew to Alaska.
The location in Chicago was outstanding and certainly raised the bar for RV parks that consider themself “family friendly.” Memphis’ Jellystone (actually located in Mississippi) didn’t have much going on to speak of, and they made no effort to make up for it, despite the closed-up inflatables section that had hours but never opened and the playground that was a clear hazard because the slide kept falling off, but it was a decent stay — far better than if we would have stayed in Memphis. We didn’t get much chance to enjoy Kansas City’s location, but what we experienced in the little time before we left for and after we returned from Alaska was excellent, and we would stay there if ever in the area again.
Fast forward to now.
We’ve spent a few Christmases camping, but we prefer to spend time with family, if and when able to. Out of the blue, however, Mama’s parents decided to go to Biloxi for the holidays, and we do usually spend Christmas with them, if any family. That suddenly presented to us an opportunity to go camping the last week of December.
However, our usually preferences — James Island County Park in South Carolina and Disney’s Fort Wilderness in Orando — were understandably booked.
No problem! That meant looking for a new location!
We’d heard there’s a Jellystone in northern Florida, so Mama called to inquire about a site and was surprised to learn they were nearly empty for the holidays because, according to the young lady on the phone, the office closes for Christmas and the staff is reduced.
Perfect! We weren’t really looking for anything to do, just someplace to camp, to get away from it all and the stress of getting the house ready for listing.
She booked it then and there.
The day before checking in to Jellystone we decided to treat the boys to ICE! at Gaylord Palms in Orlando. Mama and Papa have been to two before — once at Gaylord Palms and once at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville — but this would be the first for the boys.
If you’ve never been and have the opportunity to go one year, go! Especially if you can score a deal on Groupon, like we did. It’s a unique experience, and every year there’s a different theme. This year the display had to do with countries around the world. It was beautiful, fun, and — of course — cold!
The other times we’d attended ICE! it was just sculptures and Christmas village setup. It’d been more than a decade since we’d gone, and they sure have expanded since. Not only were the sculptures and village there, but there were also snowball-throwing games and two snow hills for tubing down.
It was a blast!
After spending much of the day there we left, found a Cracker Barrel outside of Gainesville that we could boondock at for the night, and continued to Jellystone the next morning.
And yes, it was nearly empty.
We got a beautiful site that looked out across the lake, and beyond our rig there were no other campers. We basically had an entire loop to ourselves…and it was so peaceful.
During the busier season — which doesn’t include Christmas, oddly enough — their on-site water park is open. Now, this isn’t a splash park. This is a small, full-fledged aquatic amusement center, with a large water slide, splash pad area, zero entry zone for the little ones, and a lazy river. The park is included for campers, but others can partake for a nominal admission fee.
Also at this campground were multiple playgrounds, two bounce houses, a large jumping pillow, a heated swimming pool, an arcade, golf cart rental, sports fields and courts, miniature golf course, gem mining area…and more than 10 miles of off-roading trails for dirtbikes, ATVs, and UTVs!
Sadly, the water park was not open. This Jellystone location gives most of its staff the days before and after (as well as the day of) Christmas time off. They only keep a couple of people on staff in the office, and even the office hours are severely abbreviated.
This would have been fine, and for us it was okay because we simply went to Jellystone to give us someplace new to go for Christmas, but a neighboring family a couple of sites behind us was from out of state and came down to this location due to the activities and events advertised on the website.
Come to find out, there were supposed to be several things going on, including a caroling tractor-pull ride throughout the park, campsite holiday-lights decorating contest, and more, including the water park that was supposed to be open.
We didn’t mind one way or the other, but if you’re deliberately escaping the frigid and snowy climate of one location to spend the holidays in a warmer area promising much to do, then that’s a probem.
Especially when kids are involved.
The father of this family was certainly vocal. He voiced his disappointment to the few office staff and even spoke with the owners of the park. He then ended up getting permission — and the keys — to drive the tractor for the tractor-pull ride one night and then was granted access to the water park. He and his oldest son spent hours cleaning and chlorinating the water park so his kids could enjoy it.
And when we saw it had been opened for them, we joined as well.
We also found out from him that the bounce houses and jumping pillow weren’t initially in use either. He had complained about that as well and then turned them on and cleaned them so his kids could play on them.
Sadly, they vacated three days before their planned checkout date. They were very disappointed and he was tired of working on what should have been his vacation, so his kids could do what they had planned to do.
At one point we went to the office (which we discovered was closed early) and noticed there was actually a bulletin by the entrance, listing and highlighting the park’s planned events during various holidays.
There was even a flier posted listing what was supposed to be going on the days we were there, the reason the other family had come down.
So not only was it online, but it was physically printed out and posted just outside the entrance of the office.
We were glad we had no expectations, but we certainly felt badly for the family that did. It was no wonder they were so upset.
Fortunately, we truly enjoyed ourselves.
Christmas morning we had our traditional breakfast of unhealthy sugary foods — the only time we ever eat this stuff for breakfast — and went about enjoying what Santa had brought for the boys and opening gifts.
We also started another tradition a few Christmases ago: the boys get one large gift (usually something combined), but to find it they get sent on a scavenger hunt.
And this Christmas was no different! Just because we’re on the road does not mean the final gift won’t take a little work.
The boys took turns reading clues as they ran around inside and outside June and even to other vacant sites.
All that work to find the final gift in the bed of Bertha!
The boys had a large box to unwrap, with another wrapped box inside, followed by the final wrapped gift.
A four-gun, vest-free laser tag gun set!
Batteries — a pack that happened to be at the clue just before they found the gift — were quickly installed and then it was game on.
The boys played that for hours, and we joined them for several rounds. Talk about a fun workout!
We had another surprise yet for the boys too. Mama’s parents had gone to Biloxi for Christmas, but they were leaving there Christmas morning. They had to pass right by Jellystone on their way home, so they stopped by for a few hours to celebrate Christmas with us and join us for dinner.
It was a great holiday.
Two days later, it was time to head home. We really had a great time, though. We rode our bikes around a lot, even venturing to the beginning of the off-roading trails and playing on the hills. We also rented a golf cart on the last day, and we played even more laser tag together.
Would we go back again, despite the disappointing experience the other family had? Absolutely. We had no expectations when we made our reservations and arrived, so we weren’t disappointed in any way whatsoever. That’s not to say we’re not disappointed in the campground for doing what they did. And we’re not sure if the other three families — yes, only three — that were also there were also disappointed.
Perhaps someone in the office dropped the ball and failed to inform this particular family that the park all but shut down for Christmas.
Maybe it was an oversight that this park’s website reflected the same schedule of holiday activities that other Jellystone locations also showed online.
And why on Earth there was physical proof of the so-called events that were never really planned posted just outside the office made no sense.
An error or negligence on the part of one or a few can ruin it for an entire establishment, but it does not necessarily reflect the intentions or standards of the owners, who actually stopped by the day after Christmas to see how our stay was and make sure we weren’t affected the same way as the other family. They even made it clear that they had no idea about the activities listed on the website or on the bulletin by the office. They didn’t know until we told them.
As for us, we plan to go back. Based on reviews and the steady flow of campers and trucks towing trailers with off-roading vehicles arriving as we were checking out, this is a very popular and family-friendly place to go.
Next time, though, we plan to bring our dirtbikes so we can venture onto the miles of wooded trails as well.