The 2000s Teen Rom-Coms That Introduced a Generation to International Travel

In other words, 'The Lizzie McGuire Movie' is the Roman Empire for girls.

Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist

Ask any woman who acquired her first bra in the early 2000s, and she’ll agree: The Lizzie McGuire Movie is a perfect film. The G-rated, delightfully campy masterpiece gave birth to scenes that have stuck with preteen viewers well into their 20s: a brunette Hillary Duff smugly uttering “Sing to me, Paolo”; the igloo dress; that Italian extra who screamed like her rent was due. But perhaps most resonant was the image it painted of Rome-because The Lizzie McGuire Movie was, for many Gen Z kids, the first time they ever saw the Trevi Fountain.

The film, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary, follows the titular character as she embarks on a middle school graduation trip to Italy. Once there, McGuire has a meet-cute with Italian pop sensation, Paolo Valisari. Valisari is shocked to discover that McGuire’s basically a blonde doppelganger of his ex-music partner, Isabella, and the two gear up for an unforgettable performance at an international awards show.Since its 2003 premiere, the movie has graced the internet time and time again, from recreations of the “What Dreams Are Made Of” performance (Duff recently danced along to the song at the SAG-AFTRA strike) to Cardi B saying she channels the movie at Fashion Week events. But the latest TikTok trend involves travelers embracing their inner child by visiting the film’s famous shooting locations in Rome, from the Spanish Steps to the Colosseum.

“So many fans have made trips specifically to trace the locations, and it couldn’t be better, because our movie is basically a travelogue-we went to every popular spot,” says director Jim Fall, acknowledging that their target audience wasn’t exactly classical architecture connoisseurs. “At the time, I was a little concerned that we were being cliche, but six-year-olds haven’t seen Roman Holiday, so what I thought might have been cliche was new to a whole generation.”The Lizzie McGuire Movie isn’t the only coming-of-age hit that shaped Gen Z’s collective concept of travel. Prior to the Disney blockbuster, there was, of course, the holy trinity of Mary Kate and Ashley movies set in glitzy European cities: Passport to Paris (1999), Winning London (2001), and When In Rome (2002). Amanda Bynes had tweens wishing they were secretly born into British high society in What a Girl Wants (2003), while The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005) no doubt inspired-and perhaps still inspires-countless girls’ trips to Santorini. And who could forget when The Cheetah Girls 2 (2006), released just a few years after Lizzie Mcguire, inextricably linked the streets of Barcelona to the iconic pop bop “Strut.”

One part location, one part movie magic

When Fall first signed on to direct Lizzie McGuire, the location was already written in the script. Why the screenwriters chose the Italian capital, he doesn’t quite remember, but ultimately, it didn’t matter-it was the perfect fit. “It felt like we were all a bunch of kids on a trip to Rome making a movie about kids on a trip to Rome,” he recalls fondly. The director had a month before filming to scout locations, research which paid off in the form of the famous “Volare” scene, where McGuire rides on the back of Valisari’s vespa, winding through narrow streets and past popular landmarks like the Piazza del Popolo and the Pantheon.

Fall made sure to sprinkle in a few homages to old movies, so that the inevitable adults in the audience could also get in on the magic. Take the Trevi Fountain scene, for instance. “It starts with three kids throwing three coins in a fountain,” Fall says. “There was a movie about Rome called Three Coins in the Fountain, as well as a song [of the same name] from the ’50s.”

And when it came time to shoot the finale-a.k.a. famously klutzy McGuire’s pop star-meets-gladiator moment-Fall had us all fooled. “I think one of the funniest things is kids thought you could actually have a concert inside the Colosseum,” he laughs. “We did it through visual effects-this amazing company called Rainmaker created the inside of the Colosseum, plus we built sets in Vancouver. All the interior, the stage, and a lot of the stuff you see when they’re backstage was shot on sets.”

And that glamorous hotel where McGuire and co-star David “Gordo” Gordon share a romantic rooftop kiss? Also a set. “I had an amazing production designer who designed a functioning elevator,” Fall says. “In a way, it’s almost too much-how could they have afforded to stay in this five-star hotel? But when he showed me the designs, I was like, ‘You know what? This movie has a bit of magic in it, let’s go with the pretty one. I don’t want to film a movie where they stay at a crappy youth hostel.'” (The exterior of the hotel, however, can be found on the corner of Vicolo de’ Cinque and Via del Moro in Rome.)

Photo courtesy of Disney Channel
Photo courtesy of Disney Channel
Photo courtesy of Disney Channel

Songs to inspire a new generation of travelers

The lasting power of these early aughts films can in part be attributed to their powerful soundtracks, which infuse teen pop ballads with local touches, like Spanish guitars or classic Italian melodies. “For The Cheetah Girls 2, we wanted to make sure that the music reflected the incredible setting,” says Steven Vincent, senior vice president of music and soundtracks at Disney Branded Television. “With ‘Strut,’ it was really important for us to not only make a great song that showcased the energy of Barcelona, but also to inspire young viewers to follow their dreams and explore the world.”To help him select tracks that embodied la dolce vita, Lizzie McGuire’s Fall worked with music supervisor Elliot Lurie, the voice behind ’70s chart-topper “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” The director asked Lurie to send him a list of quintessential songs about Rome, and Dean Martin’s “On An Evening In Roma,” which plays as McGuire and her classmates first catch sight of the city from a bus window, was number one on the list.

But the 1958 song “Volare,” re-recorded by Vitamin C, was the dark horse. “‘Volare’ was something I asked [Lurie] to look up, and he was like, ‘Who knows ‘Volare?” says Fall. “I thought, Well, that’s an Italian word that means ‘to fly,’ and if we rerecord it, it’s the perfect song for that [scene].” Older viewers might not have recognized the original song, but it was given new life by a generation of teens who spent the next few years singing it in their bedrooms, hair brushes in hand.

The future of the teen travel rom-com

While many Disney Channel TV shows have been transformed into feature-length films over the years (The Even Stevens Movie, Wizards of Waverly Place: The Movie, etc.), The Lizzie McGuire Movie was the first to premiere in theaters. “I think that movie came along at a sweet spot when the studio was willing to take a bit of a risk,” Fall says. And that risk paid off by way of a box office hit, with the project grossing more than $17 million its opening weekend alone.

These days, Disney Channel Original Movies (or DCOMs, as they’re known in internet parlance) aren’t likely to be filmed on-location overseas. That luxury has pretty much been off the table since 2008’s disappointingly low-rated The Cheetah Girls 3: One World, which blew its $25 million budget on an elaborate-and ultimately uninspiring-Indian backdrop. Within the larger sphere of teen rom-coms, it seems as though plots featuring foreign escapades happen less and less, though Netflix gets props for keeping the party going with their recent love-to-hate-it series, Emily in Paris.

“It makes me sad these kinds of movies don’t get made anymore. One of the reasons I shot wide-screen, had an orchestral score, and songs by Dean Martin, is because I wanted the movie to be as classic and timeless as it could be,” Fall says. “Of course, it’s dated in its own way-the music, the fashion-but that’s the charm. There’s a reason The Lizzie McGuire Movie has stayed so popular, if not become more popular now than it ever was.”

Amidst online murmurings of a Lizzie McGuire reboot, Fall has considered the possibility of a sequel. “I’ve always wanted to see Lizzie and Paolo meet again, where Paolo has now become a much more grounded, real person, and they actually fall in love, either back in Rome or in New York,” he muses. “Because in this movie, they’re teenagers-it’s not really falling in love, it’s infatuation.”

Though as for whether or not today’s teen audience could ever get their own version of The Lizzie McGuire Movie in all its silly, study abroad-style glory, Fall remains skeptical: “I don’t think a movie where a 15-year-old girl gets on the back of a stranger’s Vespa in Rome could even be made today.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTikTokTwitterFacebookPinterest, and YouTube.

Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Travel team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram


Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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