Marla Fowler loves Disney. As in adores the theme parks. 

“I’ve been going to Disney World for 30-something years,” the New Orleans-area luxury travel advisor said. 

But it’s not always magical when crowds fill the theme parks and wait times stretch to two hours per ride. This year, Disney World celebrates its 50th anniversary, beginning on Oct. 1, and despite the pandemic expects huge attendance. That scene has repeated itself throughout the country, as people have hit the road in a desire to travel again.

One thing Fowler learned watching Disney visitors get frustrated was to find alternatives to tough travel situations, including overcrowding. Her advice when traveling is threefold: pay attention to where you lay your head, choose dining options well, and pick experiences that create great memories. 

We kept that advice in mind when choosing a few destinations. And yes, Disney’s on the list. As always, check websites and Facebook for updates and safety protocols. 


Close to Home

It’s a quick drive to Laurel, Mississippi, a quaint town that’s become popular — and more adorable by the day — thanks to HGTV’s “Home Town.” Laurel makes for the perfect weekend getaway, with its resplendent downtown, its growing culinary scene and great opportunities for arts exploration. 

New Orleanians may also park the car at Union Passenger Terminal and hop aboard the Southern Crescent, Amtrak’s service from New Orleans to New York with a stop in Laurel. The three-hour train ride leaves New Orleans in the morning, with return trips in late afternoon.

A Great Stay: Veteran travel writer and Laurel native Mary Ann DeSantis recommends the Wisteria Bed and Breakfast owned by Peggy and Earl Schneider, built in 1901 for one of the city’s founders.

“Peggy makes the most amazing breakfasts for guests and Peggy and Earl are a wealth of information about Laurel,” DeSantis said.  “If you want to stay in one of the historic homes, this is the place.”

An Awesome Meal: Miss Pearl at Pearl’s Diner serves up Southern cuisine such as fried chicken, along with great conversation. Another landmark is Café LeFleur, which has been a fixture on Magnolia Avenue for years. Bird Dog Café and owners Conner and Elliot Bell were featured on “Home Town” and the restaurant’s been making waves ever since.

Pearls Diner
Pearl’s Diner


On the Beach

There’s still lots on the calendar for Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, where outdoor fun allows for ample social distancing. The Wharf in Orange Beach continues to attract big acts such as Brooks & Dunn and Gulf Shores carries on its Movies at Meyer Park, where families can watch films on a big screen under the stars. The annual Coastal Alabama BirdFest brings in both birders and birding experts Oct. 6-9 at events across Coastal Alabama.

A Great Stay: The all-inclusive Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa continues its activities through the fall, said Kevin Hellmich, director of sales and marketing, serving up classes in its Beverage Academy & Culinary Academy every month. For those who love the outdoors, the resort celebrates both the birding and Monarch butterfly migration in October with special activities; both bird and butterflies rest along Alabama’s Eastern Shore as they make their way south for the winter. The hotel remains an ideal spot to relax and unwind at its luxurious pools, spa and while sipping cocktails overlooking Mobile Bay.

An Awesome Meal: Off the beaten path, serving steaks and seafood in a quiet ambiance, is Jesse’s in Magnolia Springs. Sage in Fairhope serves up such great Mediterranean fare that Vince Vaughn and Liam Helmsworth have dined there while filming in the area. For the fun factor, stop at Lulu’s on the Intracoastal Waterway for fresh seafood dishes, sand pit activities, live music and special events. 

Grand Hotel Golf Resort Spa
Grand Hotel Golf Resort & Spa


Road Trip!

It’s a pleasant drive north through Mississippi, with stops to enjoy history, catfish and hushpuppies and blues at numerous stops in the Mississippi Delta. Learn about the blues heritage at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, then head next door to hear the real deal at Ground Zero Blues Club, Hooker Grocer & Eatery or Red’s Lounge. Lodging in Clarksdale veers from the historic Clark House to unique boutique accommodations such as the Lofts at the Five and Dime and High Cotton Condos. 

Honor one of Mississippi’s most celebrated musicians at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola or enjoy the Grammy Museum Mississippi in Cleveland while relaxing at the Cotton House with its hip guest rooms and signature dining at the celebrated Delta Meat Market.

Eventually make your way to Memphis, home to the studios that first recorded the blues and later rock ’n’ roll, funk and rhythm and blues. There are several outstanding museums that showcase this history of Southern music that paved the way for most of the music we listen to today. 

For a real fall treat, head east to the Memphis Botanic Gardens to stroll trails full of flowering treats. The Gardens offer a variety of plant collections, from herbs and pollinators to the elegant Japanese Garden, all accented by outdoor sculpture and art. Children will especially love the prehistoric plant trail, the fragrance garden and the interactive My Big Backyard.

Work off those Memphis barbecue dinners at Shelby Farms Park, a former farm consisting of 4,500 acres of green space and 11 miles of urban trail that’s ideal for hiking and biking with ponds for paddling.

A Great Stay: New to the Memphis hotel scene is The Memphian in historic Overton Square that’s being revitalized and now stands as an arts, dining and entertainment complex. 

An Awesome Meal: For an authentic meal, visit the downtown location of Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, serving up Southern fried goodness and sides. If meat isn’t your thing, Sweet Grass on Cooper Street serves up delish vegetarian dishes, such as General Tso’s Cauliflower made with coconut rice, scallions and sesame seeds. As always, The Peabody is the place to enjoy a cocktail in its famous lobby, with or without parading ducks.

Hooker Grocer Eatery
Hooker Grocer & Eatery


Beale Street Music District In Memphis Tennessee Usa

Fly Away to Spirited Places

Fall in southern California can be magical: temperatures drop, humidity levels are low and the rains have yet to arrive. It’s a great time to hike the Santa Ynez Mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the Channel Islands and the exquisite town of Santa Barbara, nicknamed the “American Riviera” for its Spanish architecture and Mediterranean climate. There’s so much to see and do, from water sports and whale watching to upscale dining and shopping.

Visitors can use Santa Barbara as the jumping off point to explore California’s central wine region, or utilize its expansive urban wine trail.

“Our wine scene has continued to expand, with about 30 on Santa Barbara’s Urban Wine Trail,” said Karna Hughes, director of public relations for Visit Santa Barbara.

A Great Stay: The Spanish-influenced Kimpton Canary Hotel offers everything, from a rooftop pool to a hot mixology program in the heart of Santa Barbara, Hughes said. For a coastal retreat, the Ritz-Carlton Bacara rests on 78 acres overlooking the Pacific. For a little of both, Hotel Milo offers access to downtown as well as Santa Barbara’s West Beach.

An Awesome Meal: Start your day with a homespun breakfast three miles south of Santa Barbara but a world away at the Summerland Beach Café. The Victorian home is a feast for the eyes as well as taste buds; check out the historic photos lining the walls. Afterwards, stroll along the more pristine Summerland beach, with a stop at The Sacred Space for tea in its heavenly garden that will erase all stress of the modern world.


Do Disney Differently

Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary Celebration begins Oct.1, which means the park likely will fill to capacity for weeks. To avoid crowds this fall or later, New Orleans luxury travel advisor Maria Fowler suggests paying extra for the VIP tours, a private guided trip through the park for up to 10 guests.

“The VIP guide is a human fast pass,” she said. “You can go on any ride you want.”

The fireworks cruise is another trick, Fowler said, small pontoons that hold up to 10 people and float the park’s lagoons an hour beforehand and then stall in the water during the fireworks show. 

A Great Stay: Fowler, who arranges Disney packages for Glass Slipper Concierge, recommends staying as close to the Orlando parks as possible. Cheaper accommodations farther away may result in long transit times. 

Her number one favorite is the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, located in the back of the upscale Golden Oak gated community. The resort offers spa, golf, onsite Disney character meals and is a quiet alternative to other Orlando resorts. A nice hotel allows for time to relax from a day at the theme parks, Fowler said.

An Awesome Meal: Disney World offers everything from fast food to fine dining. In between are what Fowler calls “tapas lounges,” small establishments with wait service and menus but not bound by reservation. 

“They’re usually not crowded because a lot of people think children aren’t allowed,” Fowler explained. “But all Disney lounges are family friendly.” 

Naturally, the price increases with these extras and more upscale accommodations.

“There are a lot of extras that Disney will sell to you,” Fowler said. “Choose what makes your vacation special.”

Walt Disney World