Walt Disney World Without a Car?

BY MARY WARING – APRIL 2012

When you visit Walt Disney World as regularly as we do — typically 2 or 3 times per year — it’s easy to fall into certain patterns. Over time, you also work out what you think are the best/fastest/easiest ways of doing things and getting places. But once in awhile I like to shake things up and do things a different way, if only to retest my assumptions.

I have rented a car on every visit to Disney World for the past five years or more. For one thing, I make regular checks of the MouseSavers Preferred Hotels, so I’m usually running from one hotel to another all day long. In order to visit the hotels efficiently, a car is indispensible. However, even putting that aside, I’ve long felt that it’s a lot faster to get around the Disney property if you have a car.

For our 3-night visit to Walt Disney World prior to our cruise on Disney’s newest ship, the Fantasy, we weren’t planning to leave the Disney property and in fact, all of the Disney restaurants we were reviewing could be reached by Monorail. So we decided to skip the rental car this time and use Magical Express to get to our hotel (Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary) and then Disney transportation during our stay.

Magical Express was fine, but not fast. We used the luggage tags so our bags would be delivered directly to our hotel. Therefore we bypassed baggage claim at the Orlando airport. We had our documents in hand and were sent straight to the line for the Magical Express buses. We waited in line about 10 minutes before we were loaded onto a bus… where we sat for another 25 minutes, waiting for the bus to fill up. Our hotel was the last of the four served by that bus. Total time from walking off the plane, to reaching the front desk of the hotel: 100 minutes.

With a rental car from Alamo or National (both of which provide very quick pick-up and check-out options, making it easy to skip the counter) and a carry-on bag only, I’ve done the same route in 35-40 minutes. When checking a bag, I’ve done it in as little as 45 minutes, though 55 minutes is more typical. So the time savings by having a rental car is not huge, but somehow I find it less frustrating. Perhaps it’s that sense of having no control that bothers me about Magical Express: will the bus be leaving in 5 minutes, or 35 minutes? Who knows?

On the other hand, with Magical Express, you can zone out and “go with the flow,” if you’re that kind of person. You don’t have to navigate or make any decisions. You just get in line and let Disney take you around. Some people find that super relaxing.

Another factor, when using the baggage delivery service tied in with Magical Express, is that you must be sure to bring a carry-on containing anything you will need in the 6 hours or so after you land. I forgot about that. We landed at 3:45 pm and our bags didn’t show up before our 7:25 pm dinner reservation. So we had to dine at the California Grill wearing the same clothes we’d traveled in, which were marginally acceptable. I’d have preferred being a little better-dressed.

Ultimately, in the rental car vs. Magical Express debate, I’m fairly neutral. It comes down to how much you value speed, convenience and control vs. economy (Magical Express is FREE if you’re staying at a Disney resort) and not having to drive.

The next day we realized that Mike had forgotten to pack a jacket, which he was going to need for our dinner at Remy, one of the adults-only premium restaurants on the ship. We took a taxi from the Contemporary to and from the Premium Outlet Mall on Vineland Avenue, which is easily the closest location where you can buy men’s dress clothing. The most direct route between those two points is 9.2 miles and takes 19 minutes in your own car. Both of our cab drivers went by a very roundabout route, taking about 30 minutes each way. Both drove well below the speed limit. They were clearly inflating the fare. Taxi fare with tip was about $28 plus tip each way. We gave each driver $32 (roughly a 15% tip) each way, so our cost was $64 roundtrip.

I was already annoyed because I could have gotten us a 3-day car rental for not much more than what we’d paid just to go back and forth to the outlet mall!

That night we had reservations at Bistro de Paris in Epcot’s World Showcase. Easy from the Contemporary, right? Just hop on the Resort Monorail to the Ticket and Transportation Center, switch to the Epcot Monorail and walk through Epcot to the restaurant. We figured we’d allow a little over an hour and all would be well.

Except that the Resort Monorail broke down. We sat in the Contemporary Monorail station for about 15 minutes before announcements were made about alternate ways to get to Magic Kingdom. At that point we realized that even if the Monorail left right away, which was obviously not happening, we wouldn’t make our dining reservation in time. We were going to have to get a cab to one of the Disney resorts closest to the International Gateway of Epcot and walk to the restaurant from there.

We went down to the front of the Contemporary and got a valet to order us a cab, which took about 10 minutes because there were no cabs at the cab stand. Again I thought the driver went by a non-direct way (certainly not the route I would have taken) and drove excessively slowly. We made our reservation just in time. Cost from the Contemporary to the BoardWalk Inn was $18.65 plus tip ($22 with tip).

Apparently the Resort Monorail broke down at least one other time during our stay. As we headed out on our last full day, we saw all of the Resort Monorails were stopped in the middle of the tracks. I know there has been an ongoing maintenance project taking place at night, and apparently it’s needed!

In any case, our taxi costs now totaled $86. I’m fairly confident that I could have gotten a 3-day car rental for $100 or less.

We took the Epcot Monorail and Resort Monorail back to our hotel after dinner, leaving before Illuminations. It was fairly relaxing and the waits weren’t particularly long because we were ahead of the big end-of-the-night crowds, but I couldn’t help thinking how much faster we’d have gotten back if we’d had a car. I would estimate that taking the Monorail took at least 30 extra minutes compared with driving. And if we had stayed for Illuminations, that could easily have been an extra hour or more.

On our last day we decided to go from our hotel to Downtown Disney for lunch. We lucked out: the Downtown Disney bus was waiting at the hotel bus stop when we walked up. We made one quick stop at the Polynesian and then to Downtown Disney by the most roundabout route imaginable. I found it hard to believe it was the fastest way. It certainly seemed to take forever, though I think it was about 45 minutes. (I forgot to time it.)

After lunch we took the bus back from the Marketplace end of Downtown Disney. We waited 15 minutes for the bus to show up. Then we made two more stops in Downtown Disney. Then we went to Typhoon Lagoon and picked up more people! Our trip took 55 minutes, including the wait. It’s an easy 15 minute drive in a rental car.

We didn’t return to the airport by Magical Express, since we were heading to Port Canaveral using Happy Limo, but I know from past experience that you must catch the Magical Express bus at least 3 hours before your flight time. It’s a 23-38 minute drive from any of the Disney resorts to the airport, depending on which side of the property you’re departing from. When I have a rental car, I normally leave my hotel 90 to 120 minutes before flight time. I allow the full 2 hours if I need to check a bag and I’m staying on the far (Magic Kingdom/Animal Kingdom) side of the property. I’ve never come close to missing my flight.

This recent experience has cemented my preference for having a rental car when I visit Disney World. I bring my GPS unit with my brother’s MouseSavers GPS POI file loaded, and I spend very little time getting from Point A to Point B. For me, it’s a huge time-saver and I strongly suspect it often saves me money as well. Even if it costs more, I think it’s worth it. My time at Disney is just too valuable to waste.

I don’t even have to remember where I park my rental car: I use the Undercover Tourist app, which has a “Where Did I Park?” feature that allows me to push a button and record my car’s location when I park it. When I am ready to head back, I just push the button again and voila, it gets me back to my car.

Does Disney’s transportation system work? Overall, yes. But you can easily spend up to 2 or more hours a day sitting on a bus (even if you’re staying at a Monorail resort) that you could have spent enjoying the parks or resorts instead. If you don’t mind spending the extra time on the buses and you’d rather not spend money on a rental car, that’s a valid choice. But it’s not the choice I will be making in the future!