BY CAR—Probably 90 percent of what a tourist wants to do lies within a 10-minute drive of Interstate 4, or I-4, as it’s called. That free highway runs diagonally from southwest to northeast, connecting Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, the Convention Center, Universal Orlando, and downtown Orlando. I-4 is technically an east-west road linking Florida’s coasts, so directions are listed as either west (toward Tampa and the Gulf of Mexico) or east (toward Daytona Beach and the Atlantic Ocean). Once you’ve got that down, you’ll be set. Exits are numbered according to the mile marker at which they’re found. Therefore, the Disney World exits (62, 64, 65, and 67) are roughly 10 miles from Universal Orlando’s (74 and 75), which are about 9 miles from downtown (83). If you know the exit number, you can figure out distance.
If you stray much onto minor roads, it’s a good idea to carry a map. Roads can go by several names and be confusing. Disney World is a particular disaster, since its signage is intentionally incomplete. Don’t rely on free maps; laughably, some maps provided by Universal don’t acknowledge that Disney exists at all. Visit Orlando (www.visitorlando.com/mapexplorer) has free maps.
SHUTTLES—Universal is easy: You walk, bus, or take a free boat everywhere. At Disney, though, hoofing it is impossible. It’s so big as to require a fleet of nearly 300 buses, the Disney Transportation System (DTS), which anyone may use for free. Curiously, DTS qualifies as the third-largest bus system in the state, after Miami and Jacksonville’s public services. Taking DTS to a theme park eliminates the parking tram rigmarole. However, once you add waiting time, which can be 20 to 45 minutes, plus the commute itself, which can be just as long and require a transfer, you’ll find that having a car of your own is often worth the expense.
DTS is particularly overwhelmed during the opening and closing of the theme parks, but dispatchers run extra buses around those times and keep routes rolling for about 2 extra hours before opening and after closing. If you’re staying at a Disney resort that offers another kind of transportation—say, the monorail to the Magic Kingdom—then a bus won’t be available for the same route. Also, since the system has a hub-and-spoke design centered on the theme parks and Downtown Disney, you must often transfer if you’re going between two second-tier points, such as two hotels or a hotel and a water park.
On balance, DTS can save you from having to rent a car if you meet both of these criteria: (1) You only plan to go to Disney attractions and nothing else (which would be a shame for you—thumb through the rest of this book); and (2) you’re a patient soul who doesn’t mind ending a 12-hour day in the parks with a potential hour-plus commute, possibly standing the whole way.
The second shuttle variety is the hotel theme park shuttles, which go from independent hotels and are often free (or paid for by resort fees). The upswing is that, yes, you can save money by using them, but there are strong downsides, including wildly inadequate scheduling (you might miss fireworks) and rambling routes. These only go to the park gates, not to restaurants or natural and historic attractions.
A third option is the I-Ride Trolley ( 407/354-5656; www.iridetrolley.com; adults over 12 $2 per ride, seniors 25¢, kids 3–9 $1; day pass $5, 3-day pass $7, 5-day pass $9; daily 8am–10:30pm), an excellent shuttle bus with plenty of clearly marked and well-maintained stops, benches to wait on, and genuinely useful routes—except it doesn’t go to Disney. Its Red Line (every 20 min.) plies International Drive from the shops and restaurants just north of I-4’s exit 75 all the way to Orlando Premium Outlets, near Disney; along the way it touches down at SeaWorld and Wet ’n Wild. The second route, the Green Line (every 30 min.), takes in Wet ’n Wild and SeaWorld, too, but heads down Universal Boulevard, making it more of an express route, and turns around at Orlando Premium Outlets. It comes within a long block of the entrance to Universal Orlando. Visitors without cars may find it feasible to stay on I-Drive, use this dirt-cheap shuttle to see nearly everything, and then tack on the hated hotel shuttle or a city bus for Disney days.
BY PUBLIC TRANSIT—There’s not a lot to love about public transit in Florida. Buses are infrequent (usually one or two an hour), and shelters inadequate (often nonexistent), and when the sun’s strong, the combination is dangerous. Distances are also fairly great, so journeys can take a while. The Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority runs the LYNX system (www.golynx.com), on which one-way fares are $2, day passes cost $4.50, week passes are $16, and transfers between lines are free. Up to three kids 6 and under ride with adults free, and you have to pay with exact change. In downtown Orlando, there’s the free LYMMO (www.golynx.com; Mon–Thurs 6am–10pm, Fri 6am–midnight, Sat 10am–midnight, Sun 10am–10pm) bus service, which makes a loop between City Hall and the Controlled (including Church Street Station and the Orange County Regional History Center) every 5 to 15 minutes.
For tourists, here are the most convenient routes, many of which stop at Downtown Disney where you can transfer to Disney’s free bus system:
* Route 56 heads down U.S. 192 from the Osceola Square Mall in Kissimmee and straight to the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, where you can catch DTS to the other parks. This makes U.S. 192 east of Disney the only major hotel zone that provides transfer-free bus access to Walt Disney World. Buses run every 30 minutes, but the last one leaves at 10:53pm.
* Route 8 does most of International Drive, including the Convention Center and SeaWorld. It duplicates the service offered by the I-Ride Trolley.
* Route 50 goes from the central LYNX station in downtown Orlando, down Interstate 4, to Downtown Disney, and to the gates of the Magic Kingdom. It stops at SeaWorld where passengers can connect to I-Drive by on Route 8.
* The lesser Disney areas are served by the 300-series lines. Number 300 goes to Hotel Plaza Boulevard from downtown; 301 to Epcot and Disney’s Animal Kingdom from Pine Hills; 302 to the Magic Kingdom from Rosemont; and 303 to Hollywood Studios from the Washington Shores area. Bus 304 is the only one that connects with another tourist zone; it trawls Sand Lake Road, which bisects I-Drive. Once they’re off I-4, 301 and 302 pass within a few blocks of Universal Orlando, on Kirkman Road, so if you toss in about 15 minutes of walking, they could technically be used for Universal, too, but it wouldn’t be fun.
* Route 21 goes up Turkey Lake Road from Sand Lake Road to the Universal Orlando park and links with the downtown depot.
* Route 42 starts at the Convention Center on International Drive, and 75 minutes later, reaches the airport.
In 2014, Orange County added SunRail ( 855/724-5411; www.sunrail.com; $2 one-way, $3.75 round-trip), running from DeBary, north of Sanford, to an obscure spot on E. Sand Lake Road near S. Orange Avenue. Tourists only care about the 16-minute jaunt between downtown Orlando and Winter Park, but as most departures are in the morning or evening, targeting commuters, few visitors use it.
BY TAXI—Given so many alternatives, taxis are not a natural choice. You will, however, almost always find a cluster outside of the major theme parks’ gates, waiting to take fares to their hotels. If you spend more than $30 a day on taxis (a one-way ride from the Magic Kingdom to the hotel stretch on U.S. 192 east of Disney would cost about $25), smack your forehead, because you could have rented a car for that.
Many companies accept major credit cards, but ask when you summon a ride, because your payment may need to be processed by phone. Companies are not carefully monitored, so only choose a recommended carrier. Call your own:
*Diamond Cab Company: 407/523-3333
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.