Destination Wally World: How to Not Lose Sight of the Gospel on Your Family Vacation

All parents have a little Clark Griswold inside of them.

We just can’t help nurturing the highest of hopes for our long-awaited, hard-earned family vacation. Visions of car-trip sing-alongs, mosquito-less hikes, and kids enthralled by museums are too tantalizing to resist. According to Facebook, no one else’s children get sunburned, contract Montezuma’s revenge, or wander into a flotilla of jellyfish, so it’s only reasonable to expect mine won’t either. All that togetherness with happy, appreciative children will only relax Mom and Dad, impress the in-laws, and promote peaceful sibling relations for years to come.

If only. Sigh…

My first vacation as a mom came when my firstborn was only three months old. My parents took me, my husband, and our newborn son to the beach, where we met up with my brother, his wife, and her parents. I just knew all those adults were going to want to cuddle baby while I caught some sunshine and some sleep by the pool.

I don’t know what I was thinking would happen, but our first night at the beach, little guy woke up hungry at 2 am (like he had every night of his life). And he was awake for the day at 5 am (just like always). Apparently vacation means nothing to a hungry newborn. I was FLOORED. I remember wailing to my poor husband, “Vacations aren’t vacations anymore when you’re a mommy!” He just looked at me wondering and said, “Well, honey, what did you expect?”

It sounds ridiculous now, but on some level, I expected that I would get to catch up on sleep because that’s what people DO on vacation, right?

Looking back on that beach trip, and other vacations since then, I have had many moments when I behaved like an infuriated Clark Griswold upon arriving at Wally World and finding it closed after a two-thousand-mile road trip with the family:

“Well I’ll tell you something. This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our … smiles!”

Determined to force his family and his circumstances to meet his expectations, out-of-control Clark actually becomes more of a problem than the closed amusement park.

Like Clark on his quest for fun, I anticipate a holiday with my family that serves my agenda. When plans go awry – which nearly always happens – my disappointment makes matters worse for everyone.

Pursuing my own agenda causes me to miss what Jesus is doing. The disciples were guilty of this too. Right up to Gethsemane, hot-headed Peter still thought Jesus had come to overthrow the Romans by violence, so he struck the first (and last) blow, cutting off a servant’s ear. Because Peter expected an aggressive leader, he took matters into his own hands to seize power for Jesus the only way he knew how – by force. Jesus rebuked Peter and Peter, out of frustration and fear, denied even knowing Jesus at all. In one sense, Peter’s denial was true: Peter knew Jesus was the Messiah, but he misunderstood everything about the kingdom Jesus came to bring, and the means by which Jesus would assume His throne.

When things don’t go as I expect, I effectively deny Jesus’ lordship over my life and try to control circumstances myself instead of watching for what He is doing and waiting for His guidance.

Because my hopes for family time are so high, my emotions run high too. If I can trust Jesus to knit my family together – rather than relying on a perfect family retreat that won’t happen anyway – then I won’t be so disappointed when the kids fight, or someone needs a trip to the ER, or we get a flat tire. After all, we can expect the unexpected when we travel with children.

Perhaps it would be more helpful to call a vacation with kids an “extended out-of-town intensive parenting opportunity.”

Lots of good stuff can happen when everyone is away from the comforts of home, and parents and children have the chance to see each other in a whole new light. Some of the things we can teach our kids include:

  • Grace, for when your daughter refuses to try the nonrefundable, $200/day zip-line tour you have already paid for.
  • Self-control, as when a much older child throws a snowball at your five-year-old’s face and it rips his little cheek open.
  • Responsibility, like when your son tries to throw a rock into the lake and it goes through a windshield instead.
  • Forgiveness, for when dad takes the whole family on an unnecessary two-hour detour because he thought the GPS was wrong.
  • Humility, by asking for directions before getting everyone lost.
  • Respect, when the youngest one is the first to get up on water skis.
  • Trust, when turbulence on the plane makes everyone fearful.
  • Patience, no example needed.

Keeping our eyes open for chances to show our kids Jesus turns a disappointing vacation into a joyful adventure. Holding expectations very loosely gives us room to pray, to give thanks, to encourage and – dare I say it? – to relax and enjoy the good gift of family time.

Keep in mind that Wally World or wherever is NOT the real destination of your family vacation. That destination is just a means to an end; the destination of parenting is always Jesus. The journey you lead them on is always the journey toward Jesus, the same journey you yourself are traveling. To paraphrase Clark Griswold: getting there together is half the fun.


Anna is a single mom of three young adult sons. She is the Senior Director of Content at Rooted, co-host of the Rooted Parent podcast, a member of Church of the Cross in Birmingham, AL, and the author of God's Grace for Every Family: Biblical Encouragement for Single Parent Families and the Churches That Seek to Love Them Well (Zondervan, 2024). She also wrote Fresh Faith: Topical Devotions and Scripture-Based Prayers for College Students. In her free time, Anna enjoys gardening, great books, running, hiking, hammocks, and ice cream. She wants to live by a mountain stream in Idaho someday.

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