BY PLANE—Orlando is served by 44 airlines, so thankfully, competition keeps airfares among the lowest on the East Coast. Nearly 35 million people fly in or out of Orlando International Airport (MCO) each year, or nearly 96,000 a day. Strategies for finding a good airfare include:
Primary websites that collect quotes from a variety of sources (whether they be airlines or other websites) include CheapOAir.com, Expedia.com, Kayak.com, Lessno.com, Mobissimo.com, Momondo.com, Orbitz.com, and Travelocity.com (which runs Expedia searches). Always canvas multiple sites, because each has odd gaps in its coverage because of the way they obtain their quotes. Then compare your best price with what the airline is offering, because that price might be lowest of all. Some sites have small booking fees of $5 to $10, and many force you to accept nonrefundable tickets for the cheapest prices. Sounds odd, but you can often save money by booking between roughly 6 weeks in advance if you’re flying domestically and 2 to 3 months ahead if you’re coming from abroad.
The main airport, Orlando International Airport (www.orlandoairports.net), is a pleasure. If, on the way home, you realize you neglected to buy any park-related souvenirs, fear not, because Disney, SeaWorld, Kennedy Space Center, and Universal all maintain lavish stores (located before the security checkpoint, so budget enough time). The airport, 25 miles east of Walt Disney World, was built during World War II as McCoy Air Force Base, which closed in the early 1970s but bequeathed the airport with its deceptive code, MCO. I don’t know how they do it, but the late-departure rate of 17 percent is among the lowest in the country, even though the airport is America’s 13th busiest. Midmornings and midafternoons can be crowded for outgoing passengers, weekends can be clogged with cruise passengers, and mid-afternoon summer thunderstorms sometimes create delays.
The main terminal is divided into two sides, A and B, so if you can’t find the desk for your airline or transportation service open on one side, it may be on the other side. Several rental car companies are right outside, no shuttles required.
Rental car companies at MCO:
Alamo: 800/327-9633; www.alamo.com
Avis: 800/831-2847; www.avis.com
Budget: 800/527-0700; www.budget.com
Dollar: 800/800-4000; www.dollar.com
Enterprise: 800/325-8007; www.enterprise.com
E-Z Rent-A-Car: 800/266-5171; www.e-zrentacar.com
Hertz: 800/654-3131; www.hertz.com
L & M Car Rental: 407/888-0515; www.lmcarrental.net
National: 800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com
Thrifty: 800/367-2277; www.thrifty.com
Also keep in mind Hertz-owned Firefly (888/296-9135; www.fireflycarrental.com), which can offer lower prices than most of its competitors because its vehicles are older and well-used.
Very few airlines (Allegiant, Icelandair) use Orlando Sanford International Airport (www.orlandosanfordairport.com), or SFB, 42 miles northeast of Disney. It’s connected to the Disney area by the Central Florida GreeneWay, or S.R. 417—the trip takes about 40 minutes and there are tolls, so new arrivals should have U.S. dollars. European visitors might fly into Tampa International Airport (www.tampaairport.com), or TPA, 90 minutes southwest.
BY TRAIN—Amtrak’s ( 800/872-7245; www.amtrak.com) Silver Service/Palmetto route serves Orlando and Kissimmee. Trains go direct between New York City, Washington, D.C., Charleston, and Savannah.
Transportation to & from MCO:
BY RENTAL CAR—Get a car. Otherwise, theme park resorts conspire to hold you prisoner. If you intend to experience the “real” Orlando or its rich natural wonders, get a car. If you want to save huge amounts of money on meals, if you ever want to take a breather from the theme parks’ relentless plastic personalities—get a car.
Economy rental cars start around $15 to $25 a day. Test the waters at a site such as Kayak, Orbit, or Travelocity, which compare multiple renters with one click. Priceline and Hotwire have been known to rent for as little as $15 a day.
If you rent a car from the airport be alert as you exit the airport—you must decide whether to use the south exit (marked for Walt Disney World) or the north exit (for SeaWorld, Universal, the Convention Center, and downtown Orlando). Whichever route you take, you will pay a few dollars in tolls, so have loose change. Also, at toll booths, stay to the right, where the cash windows are; the others are for e-passes.
If you’re staying at a Disney hotel, you automatically qualify for the free Disney's Magical Express shuttle coach (see By Shuttle, below), which separates you from your luggage and delivers it to your room several hours later. You may feel free to turn it down. A budget-saving solution is to rent a car for only the days you’d like to venture off property. To that end, Alamo ( 800/462-5266; www.alamo.com) and National (800/227-7368; www.nationalcar.com) operate satellite agencies within the Walt Disney World Resort: one at the Car Care Center near the parking lot of the Magic Kingdom. Alamo is also at the Buena Vista Palace Hotel east of Downtown Disney. Renting away from the airport incurs taxes of around half of those charged by renting (or even merely returning) a car at the airport, where they’re over 20 percent. Always fill up before driving back to the airport. Gas stations near the airport’s entrance have been nabbed for gouging. Stations inside Walt Disney World charge a competitive price, but one not as low as outside the tourist zone.
Agencies may not rent to those under 25. Action Car Rental (3719 McCoy Rd., Orlando; 877/535-7117 or 407/240-2700; www.actionrac.com) will, but it charges them $10–15 more a day. Most companies won’t rent to anyone older than 85.
BY SHUTTLE—Mears Transportation ( 407/423-5566 or 855/463-2776; www.mearstransportation.com) is the 800-pound gorilla of shuttles and taxis; it sends air-conditioned vans bouncing to hotels every 15 to 20 minutes. Round-trip fares for adults are $32 ($24 for kids 4–11, kids 3 and under free) to the International Drive area, or $36 per adult ($27 for kids) to Walt Disney World/U.S. 192/Lake Buena Vista. You’ll probably make several stops because the vans are shared by other passengers.
If you have more than four or five people, it’s more economical to reserve a car service (do it at least 24 hr. ahead) and split the lump fee; an SUV for up to 7 would be $110 to $150. Try Mears, Tiffany Towncar ( 888/838-2161 or 407/370-2196; www.tiffanytowncar.com), or Quicksilver Tours ( 888/468-6939 or 407/299-1434; www.quicksilver-tours.com), which often volunteers to toss in a free 30-minute stop at a grocery store so you can stock up on supplies.
If you have a reservation at a Disney-owned hotel, you have the right to take the company’s airport motorcoaches (also known as Disney’s Magical Express, run by Mears). By offering the perk, the Mouse makes it seem simple by sending you tags for your luggage, which you affix before leaving home, and telling you everything will be taken care of from there. By the time you board the bus to the resort, you’ll already have waited in two long lines—the first of many, many lines you’ll endure, so get used to it—and then you’ll stop at up to five other hotels first. Your bags may not meet up with you again for 6 to 8 hours, so hitting a park right away may be difficult. When you depart for home, you must be ready 3 to 4 hours before your flight. Magical Express is free, but it costs you. It lulls you into not renting a car, which means you’ll probably never leave Disney property again and you’ll have to rely on the park’s slow buses for your entire vacation.
BY TAXI—Taxis are not the best bargain. The going rate is $2.40 for the first 1/4 of a mile or the first 80 seconds of waiting time, followed by 60¢ for each 1/4 of a mile. Taxis carry five passengers. It’ll be about $70 to the Disney hotels, $60 to Universal, not including a tip, which is cheaper than a town car but not a rental.