In a city that thrives on its attractions, you won't find it difficult to get around -- especially if you have a car. Don't count on the city bus system to get you where you want to go -- not quickly or efficiently, anyway. If you're traveling outside the tourist areas, avoid the 7-to-9am and 4-to-7pm rush if at all possible. Commuter traffic (recently ranked as fourth-worst in the nation) can be bad anywhere, but here the complication of tourist traffic makes it even more of a headache. And don't expect weekends to be any better -- the locals who run the hotels, restaurants, and attractions still have to get to work, making commuter traffic a 7-day-a-week problem. Most of the parks don't open until 9am or so, and they usually stay open at least until dusk; you won't miss much by leaving a little later. (The exception is Animal Kingdom, where the animals move around early and then seek shelter and shade for the remainder of the day.)
Besides driving, there are two alternate means of getting around the International Drive area -- walking and taking the I-Ride Trolley. I don't recommend the former in the area around Sand Lake Road because, though there are plenty of sidewalks, you quite literally may be taking your life in your hands if you try to cross this extremely busy road. The farther south you move along I-Drive, however, the easier walking becomes. The I-Ride Trolley (tel. 407/248-9590; www.iridetrolley.com) is a safer bet. It makes 77 stops between Orlando Premium Outlets-International Drive (formerly known as Prime Outlets), on the north end of the drive, and SeaWorld to the south. The trolley runs every 20 minutes, from 8am to 10:30pm, and costs $1.25 for adults, 25¢ for seniors, and is free to kids younger than 12; exact change is required. There's an unlimited 1-day pass available for $4 per person. Thanks to I-Drive's high traffic volume, the trolley offers a decent (and fun) alternative to the bumper-to-bumper traffic.
The good news, if you are driving, is that road signs throughout the area are more accurate than they were a few years back. But to make sure you're heading the right way, follow the directions supplied for the various attractions and hotels later in this guide. Call ahead to your destination to check if there is any construction you should be aware of before heading out. Most attractions give recorded directions as an automated option when you call the main number, but you can also ask for an operator to get clarification.
Several hotels offer transportation to and from the theme parks (some to WDW, others to Universal Orlando, with a select few offering transportation to both) and other tourist destinations; the service may or may not be free, however, so be sure to check with your individual hotel for details. Depending on your itinerary, and the shuttle service offered at your hotel, you may find renting a car to be the least expensive option. It's not difficult getting around town, but it can be expensive, so know your options when you're deciding on your hotel.
Look Both Ways -- Traveling on foot anywhere in Orlando, especially on International Drive, can be tricky. If you have to walk across a parking lot or street, be careful. The Surface Transportation Policy Project's pedestrian safety report has named Orlando the most dangerous city in the country for pedestrians. Drivers here pay far more attention to their maps and street signs, not the people in front of them. Though walking up and down the sidewalks on I-Drive or U.S. 192 can be an enjoyable way to get to a restaurant or minigolf course without having to pack up the car, you need to pay strict attention when it comes to crossing the street, and you should avoid crossing multiple-lane roads altogether.
Whether or not to rent a car while in Orlando is one of the most important decisions you will make when planning your trip (just behind selecting your hotel). First, think about your vacation plans. If you're planning on going beyond the boundaries of Disney to Universal, SeaWorld, or anywhere along I-Drive, a rental car is a necessity. If you want to head out in the evenings to smaller attractions, dinner shows, or other activities not located within the realm of Disney, a car will allow you the most flexibility. If you plan to limit your vacation only to WDW, then a car might prove an extra and unnecessary expense ("might" being the operative word here).
If you've decided to stay right on Disney property, the question to ask yourself is how, exactly, will you get to the parks? If the Magic Kingdom is accessible only by taking a bus, switching to the monorail, and then catching a ferry, you may want to opt for a car. The least expensive properties, the All-Star resorts, are among the farthest from the Disney parks. Wait times between buses can be considerable, if not unendurable, even with recent enhancements to the dispatch system.
During peak hours in the busiest seasons, you may have trouble getting a seat on the bus, so keep that in mind if you're traveling with seniors or companions with disabilities. Also, if you're bringing along children and strollers, consider the frustration factor of loading and unloading strollers and all of the paraphernalia that comes with them on and off buses, ferries, and trams.
A car may drastically cut the commute time between the parks and hotels not directly on the monorail routes, so decide how much your time is worth and how much the car will cost plus the $14-per-day theme-park parking charge (Disney resort guests, however, are exempt from parking fees) before making a decision about renting.
In general, if you're going to spend all of your time at a park and you're ready, willing, and able to handle the transportation network's schedules, there's no sense renting a car that will sit in the parking lot. But if you're on an extended stay -- a week or more -- you'll probably want a car for at least a day or two to venture beyond the tourist areas. You can discover downtown Orlando, visit museums, or tour the Space Coast; leaving the parks behind may be necessary for your sanity, not to mention your survival. After heading from park to park, day after day, a reality check may very well be in order, and there's no better way to come back down to earth than to enjoy some of Florida's more natural offerings.
If you are going to be spending the majority of your vacation outside the House of Mouse, a car is an absolute necessity (unless you plan on staying solely within the bounds of Universal Orlando for your entire trip). While there are plenty of transportation options such as shuttles, trolleys, and taxis, utilizing them every time you venture outside of your hotel can't be done without losing your sanity (and lots of cash).
All the major car-rental companies are represented in Orlando and maintain desks at or near the airport (and even inside select hotels and resorts throughout the tourist district). Many agencies provide discount coupons in publications targeted at tourists, though AAA discounts and online offers are often better. You may want to ask your travel agent if he or she has a recommendation, or whether a discount is included in any vacation package. Also, it never hurts to ask about specials. Be advised that many rental agencies in Florida will rent only to drivers 21 and older, and that drivers younger than age 25 may have to pay a young renter's fee of up to $25 a day.
Good rental deals can also be obtained through such online sources as Expedia, Travelocity, Priceline, and CarRentals.com. Keep in mind, however, that pricing often varies from day to day. The further out you can book a car, the less expensive your rental is likely to be. I've paid as high as $690 per week for the very same class of car that, weeks earlier, was listed at just under $200 per week. And that same car, the one I rented for $690 (during the now lengthier spring-break season) -- a no-frills, sub-economy-class Matchbox car -- I later rented for only $79 (through the very same rental agency). And if that isn't enough to make your head (or bank account) spin, if you're intent on renting a specific car such as a Dodge Caravan, you'll need to book as far out as possible thanks to limited inventories.
Car-Rental Insurance -- Car-rental insurance usually costs $25 or more a day. If you hold a private auto insurance policy, you are probably covered in the U.S. for loss or damage to the car, as well as liability in case a passenger is injured. The credit card you use to rent the car also may provide some coverage. Double-check with your insurance company and your credit card company regarding what may or may not be covered on both ends. Note: Many car-rental companies now charge steep out-of-service fees, if the car is out of commission for any reason after its return. Also note that some car-rental companies have been known to lie about the amount of coverage you need in order to get you to sign up for policies that make them quite a bit of profit. Always do your homework on what is and isn't covered by your policy before you get to the rental counter.
Car-rental insurance probably does not cover liability if you cause an accident (some companies, however, may offer supplemental liability insurance for an additional daily fee). Check your own auto insurance policy, the rental-company policy, and your credit card coverage for the extent of coverage: Is your destination covered? Are other drivers covered? How much liability is covered if a passenger is injured? (If you rely on your credit card for coverage, you may want to bring a second credit card with you. Damages may be charged to your card, and you may find yourself stranded with no money.) You don't need any surprises spoiling your vacation, so look at your coverage before reaching the rental counter.
Driving in Town
Speed Limits -- Obey posted speed limits. On highways and interstates, they're usually 55 or 65 mph, but as high as 70 mph in some rural areas. In residential areas, 30 or 35 mph is usually the case. Note: The corridor between the attractions and downtown Orlando is a speed trap, with fines for speeding starting at $81 (and reaching as high as $306). Fines double in construction areas and school zones. It is best to stick to the speed limit for safety reasons as well, not just because of the threat of a monetary penalty. With so many tourists, most of them with no idea where they're going (and who are probably paying more attention to their maps than their driving), you'll be able to react more quickly to any surprises if you're not speeding along.
Seat Belts -- Seat belts are required for all passengers. Children ages 3 and younger must be buckled into a car seat, and those ages 4 and 5 must be in a safety restraint (whether a car seat, booster seat, or seat belt). Police will issue tickets to parents who don't put their children in the proper restraints while driving. Many car-rental agencies offer car-seat rentals; however, if you'll be here for more than just a few days, you may want to consider bringing your own, as the rental cost will almost add up to the price of a new car seat.
Air Bag Safety -- Children, in or out of car seats, should ride only in the back seats of cars that are equipped with air bags. Air bags have been linked to the deaths of several young passengers in the U.S. If you don't know if your car is equipped with passenger-side air bags, you'll need to ask the car-rental attendant; air bags are, however, a standard feature on most new-model cars.
Drinking & Driving -- Don't. It's that simple. Florida's rules are strict and strictly enforced. If you're planning to drink (alcohol, that is), especially after an exhausting day in the theme parks, designate a sober driver or find an alternative means of transportation (there are plenty of options). Some clubs even provide free soft drinks to designated drivers. If you don't obey the law, your accommodations may change from a four-star hotel room to a Florida jail cell in short order.
Defensive Driving -- Drive with extra care in tourist-heavy areas. It's not uncommon for drivers to make sudden turns or to slow down unexpectedly when reading road signs. People often come to near stops on the highway while attempting to read their maps and decipher the Disney signs, which can be confusing. The tourist areas in Orlando are doubly difficult: The locals are in a hurry to get to their jobs, and tourists are scurrying to be the first to the fun. Assume all other drivers have no idea where they're going -- which is often close to the truth -- and you'll do fine. One of the best things to remember: Keep a safe distance between you and the car ahead of you. And, while it may sound like common sense, don't read a map while driving (you'd be surprised how many drivers do). Get your co-pilot to do it, use this guide to determine your exit in advance, or call ahead to your destination to find out which exit you should take. Stay in the far right lane, the slow lane, when you begin to get near your exit. If you miss your exit, don't panic -- there are plenty of others (especially around Disney) that can get you where you want to go.
Driving in the Rain -- Watch out for a hazardous condition where oil on the road creates slick patches when the road gets wet. Rainstorms in Florida are intense and frequent; they're almost a daily occurrence in summer. Exercise extreme caution and drive in the far right lane when driving much slower than the speed limit. Don't pull off onto the shoulder of the road. If visibility is especially poor, pull off at the first exit and wait out the storm; they seldom last more than an hour. Florida law requires drivers to turn on their headlights whenever they turn on their windshield wipers.
If You Get Lost -- Exit numbers continue to change and signs continue to be confusing. On interstates or Orlando's toll roads, don't try a U-turn across the grassy median. Go to the next exit and reenter the highway by accessing the on-ramp near where you got off. Avoid pulling over to ask directions from people on the street. Instead, stop at a convenience store or gas station and ask the clerk. Don't forget, you can get maps ahead of time from the Orlando CVB. If you are renting a car, most agencies will provide a map (some even provide computer-generated directions). Some rental-car agencies offer GPS navigational systems with their rentals as an add-on; inquire when you rent your car. Most of the hotels have maps located in the racks with all of the brochures. They are usually inserts in the local tourist magazines.
Safety While Driving -- Question your rental agency about personal safety or ask for a brochure on traveler safety tips when you pick up your car. Obtain written directions from the agency or a map with the route marked in red, showing how to get to your destination. And, if possible, arrive and depart during daylight hours.
If you drive off a highway and end up in a dodgy-looking neighborhood, turn around and leave the area as quickly as possible. If you have an accident, even on the highway, stay in your car with the doors locked until you assess the situation or until the police arrive. If you're bumped from behind on the street or are involved in a minor accident with no injuries, and the situation appears to be suspicious, motion to the other driver to follow you. Never open the window or get out of your car in such situations. Go directly to the nearest police station, well-lit service station, or 24-hour store.
You may want to look into renting a cellphone on a short-term basis if you don't already have one. One recommended wireless rental company is InTouch USA (tel. 800/872-7626; www.intouchusa.com). Another option, if you plan on renting a car, is to rent a cellphone right from the car-rental company. Be sure to inquire about availability and rates when making your reservations.
If you see someone else on the road indicating a need for help, don't stop. Take note of the location, and call the police by dialing tel. 911 to make them aware of the situation.
Park in well-lit, well-traveled areas whenever possible. Keep your doors locked, whether you're inside the car or not. Look around before you get out and never leave packages, pocketbooks, or any kind of valuables in sight. Although theme-park lots are patrolled, it's best to secure your valuables at all times. For an added measure of security, you can store items in the lockers available near all of the park entrances. If it is an item you really don't need with you that day, use the hotel safe for storage and don't even bring it along.
If someone tries to rob you or steal your car, don't resist. Report the incident to the police immediately.
Fun Fact: Cars, Cars Everywhere
If the traffic outside isn't enough for you, you can find cars inside as well. The NASCAR Sports Grille at Universal's CityWalk is loaded with racing memorabilia and high-tech driving-related video games.
Stops for the Lynx bus system (tel. 407/841-5969; www.golynx.com) are marked with a paw print. It will get you to Disney, Universal, and I-Drive, but it's generally not very tourist-friendly. One-way fare is $2 for adults, $1 for kids 7 to 18, and free for kids 6 and younger (up to three per paying adult); express passes and day passes are available as well.
Mears Transportation (tel. 407/423-5566; www.mearstransportation.com) operates buses to all the major attractions, including Kennedy Space Center, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens (yes, in Tampa), among others. Its service is the largest in the area, and with good reason. Rates will vary based on where you are going and where you are coming from, so call ahead for the particulars. Many of the area hotels use Mears for their shuttle service to the parks and attractions. If your hotel does not provide free shuttle service, make sure you compare the costs of taking shuttles to the cost of renting a car before deciding on your transportation; the car will often be the cheaper way to go.
The increasing popularity of Bike Week in nearby Daytona Beach and a growing number of weekend road warriors have sparked an increase in places specializing in motorcycle rentals. The Harley-Davidson, in all shapes and sizes, is the most popular. You must be at least 21 and sometimes 25 years of age, have a motorcycle license, and have a major credit card. Rental fees can run between $489 and $1,179 for a week or between $99 and $199 per day (event pricing runs slightly higher), including helmets and raingear (insurance is extra). You can rent bikes at American V Twin, 5101 International Dr. (tel. 888/268-8946 or 407/903-0058; www.amvtwin.com); Orlando Harley-Davidson, 3770 37th St. (tel. 407/423-0346); South Orlando Harley-Davidson, 7786 W. Irlo Bronson Hwy. (tel. 407/994-3700); and Eaglerider Motorcycle Rentals, 1233 Sand Lake Rd. (tel. 407/316-8687). Reserve your bike months in advance if you're going to be here during Bike Week, late February to early March, or Biketoberfest (also in Daytona) in mid-October.
Taxis will line up in front of major hotels in addition to a few smaller properties. The front desk will be more than happy to hail one for you. If you wish, you can also call Yellow Cab (tel. 407/699-9999) and Ace Metro (tel. 407/855-1111) on your own. Both are good choices; however, rates can run as high as $3.25 for the first mile and $1.75 per mile thereafter, though occasionally you can get a flat rate if you ask. Yellow Cab (a division of Mears Transportation) features a fare estimator on its website, www.mearstransportation.com -- just click on "Taxi Service" and the "Taxi Fare Estimator" icon will come up. In general, cabs are economical only if you have four or five people aboard and aren't going very far. You could actually rent your own car (depending on the model) for the price of just a few taxi rides.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.