The end of Disney’s Magical Express is a massive loss for shuttles between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, but fortunately, there are alternatives to fill the void. This guide covers MCO to WDW ground transportation, pricing, comparisons, and more. Plus, updates on supply/demand, sold out dates, and price increases. (Updated September 21, 2022.)
In case you missed it, Walt Disney World ended its Magical Express airport shuttle service at the beginning of this year. In place of that free bus service between MCO and resort hotels, two new paid services are available. One is Mears Connect, which is from the operator of Disney’s Magical Express and uses the same buses and drivers. The other is Sunshine Flyer, a totally new service with a fun theme.
The end of Disney’s Magical Express was arguably the biggest and most surprising Walt Disney World news of last year, and has dominated conversations about changes and cutbacks ever since. It even took the #1 spot in our Airing of Grievances About Walt Disney World, ahead of even Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. Continuing to complain isn’t particularly productive at this point, so we’re here to give you a rundown of the alternatives for airport transportation. First, let’s start with an update as of Fall 2022…
Fall 2022 Airport Transportation Update
Even before Disney’s Magical Express was discontinued, there was an airport transportation supply and demand imbalance last year that resulted in surging rental car and rideshare prices at Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World resorts. As with so many things, this was a ripple effect due to the economy’s shutdown in Spring 2020.
At that time, the rental car industry sold off more than a half a million cars to generate cash they needed to survive the crisis. Similarly, there was no demand for Uber or Lyft, so many of those drivers turned to grocery and food delivery–and found that transporting potato chips and pizza was a lot less stressful than people.
You know how the story goes from here. Demand returned for both, but supply–of cars and drivers–did not. Rental car companies were unable to rebuild their inventory because of supply chain issues facing the auto industry. Uber and Lyft had to offer generous incentives to lure drivers.
We saw the negative ramifications of this throughout last year, but especially in the spring and again during November and December. Rental car companies cancelled reservations due to insufficient inventory. Tons of horror stories about rent-a-car companies overbooking have gone viral several times on social media in the last several months.
Fast forward to Fall 2022, and we have (mostly) good news.
For one, we’ve used both Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer, and have found both to be economical and reliable ways to get between MCO and WDW. They’re basically Disney’s Magical Express. Minus the “Disney” part…and the “Magical” part…okay, and the “Express” part, too. (In fairness, DME was never actually “Express,” either.)
Our experiences with both have been entirely uneventful. That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, but they’ve been solid for airport shuttle buses. Neither will win any awards for speed, but that’s par for the course. We have no complaints.
However, there are upcoming dates when Sunshine Flyer is sold out entirely. To our knowledge, this is unprecedented.
Now, that doesn’t mean that Walt Disney World will have unprecedented crowds those weekends. It just means Sunshine Flyer cannot accommodate more passengers. That could be due to staffing, demand, or some combination of the two. Since Sunshine Flyer is a new service, it could simply be a matter of slow word-of-mouth starting to build about the nascent service.
In cross-checking those dates against Mears Connect, we see no issue with availability for that airport shuttle.
Equally as important, there are no red flags raised by rental car prices when searching for those dates. To be sure, in-terminal rentals are getting more expensive as compared to August and early to mid-September, but they’re not outrageous for those dates. Rather, we’re still seeing Columbus Day weekend and the upcoming holiday season as having higher rates.
With that said, if you’re planning on visiting Walt Disney World between October and December 2022 and plan on using an airport shuttle service or renting a car, we’d encourage you to book that ASAP. That’s especially true if you’re visiting during one of the many holiday weeks during that stretch. As of right now, availability is good and prices aren’t too bad.
That’s unlikely to last. All signs point to this being a busy Halloween and Christmas season. More dates are likely to book up for (at least) Sunshine Flyer, and rental car prices will almost certainly increase. (We pay attention to MCO rental car pricing, as it’s one near-term factor in our crowd calendars.)
We’ve also used Uber and Lyft a lot for getting to and from MCO. This has been easy and efficient, and we’ve never had any issues whatsoever with availability or wait times at the airport or on-property at Walt Disney World. That hasn’t always been the story at Flamingo Crossings–where wait times are usually longer–but it’s also out in the middle of nowhere. (It’s an odd dynamic–middle of nowhere, and yet, tons of people live in that booming area.)
Pricing with Uber and Lyft is all over the place, but the range is definitely above what we experience in 2019. We’re primarily traveling between the Orange Counties (Florida and Southern California), which tends to put our MCO arrivals late at night. For whatever reason, MCO is often slammed late at night, which leads to surge pricing. We’ve paid as much as $70 for a ride to Walt Disney World via rideshare. That’s not even as bad as it gets–we’ve heard of some people paying $100.
We usually depart Walt Disney World early in the morning or in the middle of weekdays, and rideshare prices are almost always significantly lower. In the last two months, our range has been $30 to $40 before tip for these trips. On that note, a couple of suggestions.
First, pull up both Uber and Lyft and compare prices. The vast majority of the time, we’ve found cheaper (sometimes significantly so) rides via Lyft–but not always. Second, opt for the “Wait & Save” option if you’re not tight on time. We did this once, got an immediate pick-up time, and have done it ever since. If you’re traveling at an off-peak time, this is usually easy savings and minimal inconvenience.
With that Fall 2022 update out of the way, let’s turn to our normal Orlando International Airport transportation guide…
MCO-WDW Shuttle Services
Sunshine Flyer– The latest option for MCO to Walt Disney World shuttles is the Sunshine Flyer, a themed motorcoach bus experience. Offering a convenient and cost-effective mode of transportation, the Sunshine Flyer allows guests to start the themed magic of their Walt Disney World vacation from the moment they step off the plane.
The Sunshine Flyer’s buses are late model, premium buses with themes that center around old-fashioned passenger cars and train engines. From the bus designs to staff dressed as old timey rail conductors and engineers, the motorcoaches effectively serve as time-machines, offering a glimpse into 1920s train travel.
The buses service all Walt Disney World resort hotels and offer with a restroom, USB chargers, and three-point seatbelts. Ahead of travel, guests will book their tickets online and receive a QR code to scan at MCO, which will ensure smooth timing and departures. For the return trip, a confirmation email will be sent advising of the bus departure time the day before checkout out. It’ll be approximately 3 hours prior to scheduled departure time for domestic flights and 4 hours prior to departure time for international flights.
The Sunshine Flyer currently offers transportation to all Walt Disney World resorts, from Value Resorts to Deluxes–and will be expanded to off-site accommodations in the future. Tickets for the Sunshine Flyer must be booked at least four days ahead of arrival. Tickets are $16 per adult and $10 per child each way. The Sunshine Flyer offers a full refund if cancelled 72 hours in advance, or credit towards future tickets if cancelled under 72 hours.
We’re incredibly excited about Sunshine Flyer, as it offers a fun theme—trains are undeniably awesome, as is the golden age of rail travel after which the Sunshine Flyer is modeled. There’s also a clear “Disney connection” to the Sunshine Flyer’s theme, as Walt Disney was an avid railroad enthusiast.
The only downside is that the Sunshine Flyer is new and still finding its footing. It doesn’t have the fleet or resources as Mears in Central Florida. While it’s by an established company (Transportation Management Services) with extensive experience in the events space, that’s not quite the same as operating a daily shuttle service at this scale for decades.
Mears Connect– Similar to Sunshine Flyer, this is a shuttle service by the company that operated Disney’s Magical Express. This makes Mears Connect the “true” spiritual successor to Disney’s Magical Express. It literally uses the exact same drivers and buses, just minus the Disney-branded wraps.
Mears Connect offers transportation service for visitors in high occupancy vehicles, including buses and vans. The company advertises Mears Connect as the “same reliable, safe service guests have been using for decades to Disney area hotels” with scheduled service, luggage handling, convenient airport terminal staging, and return trips from resorts to the airport.
Mears Connect has two options: Standard and Express. Standard is a shared vehicle on Mears Connect (bus or van) that is economical. Standard makes a limited number of stops and will have you on your way to your resort within 20 minutes of your check-in to the Mears Connect reception area. The Express level offers direct service with limited to no wait time.
Pricing could vary depending on date and hotel, but the current rate on the standard service is $16 for adults and $13.50 for children for a one-way trip or $32 for adults and $27 for children for round trips. Express is currently priced at $250 per round trip for up to 4 passengers, plus $55 for each additional person.
Mears is a transportation company with coach buses and taxis that enjoyed a virtual monopoly on Orlando for decades. Historically, we have not been fans of Mears. We had several negative experiences with them in the pre-rideshare days–enough to arrive at the conclusion that it was a poorly-managed company doing the bare minimum and not caring about customer service given their aforementioned monopoly.
To the extent that Disney’s Magical Express offered good service, our suspicion is that it was due to contractual requirements with, and oversight from, Walt Disney World. Without the Disney monitoring and mandating service quality, bus frequency, dispatch times, etc., we fear the “spiritual successor” could be worse. In our experiences with Mears Connect thus far, this has not been a problem–but we’ll continue to use the shuttle service and provide periodic updates.
Alternative Airport Transportation
Luxury Car, Limo & Private Van Service – Honestly, we’ve never used private van service for traveling between MCO and Walt Disney World. There are only two of us, so it has never made sense. It also felt of little value from a research perspective, since Disney’s Magical Express, rideshare, or rental car served the needs of 98% of readers.
Obviously, the end of Disney’s Magical Express changes the equation. Now, many families of 4-6 will be find private car service to be a superior and more economical option than the aforementioned shuttles. Moreover, depending upon how things play out with rental car and rideshare prices and waits, private vehicle service might be better than those, as well.
I’ll level with you again: researching private car service in putting together this article has been overwhelming. There are a lot of advertorials and it’s almost impossible to tell what’s objective advice. Fortunately, we’ve gotten a lot of feedback from readers in the months since DME’s demise was announced, and I’ve cobbled that together here. (On that note, please offer more recommendations–I’ll continue to modify this with your top picks!)
Quicksilver Tours – Far and away the “most recommended” option, we’ve heard nothing but good things about Quicksilver from our readers. Many praise the pricing, noting that it worked out to be cheaper for them than Mears Connect or Sunshine Flyer. (Just keep in mind that prices will likely go up with demand, which will assuredly increase with the end of DME. So book sooner rather than later!)
Orlando Transportation by Mike – Readers have recommended this service (including in the comments to this post!) and online reviews elsewhere are likewise overwhelmingly positive. Mike’s transportation company gets high marks on communication, courtesy, and cleanliness.
Happy Limo – Based on our research, this is one of the most well-established and largest luxury vehicle services in Orlando. It’s definitely not the cheapest, but appears to offer good customer service, with fewer issues than many alternatives. From our perspective, there’s something to be said for a larger scale operation with years of experience–especially as all of these transportation options adjust to a post-DME environment.
Tiffany Town Car – Readers who have used Tiffany have unanimously praised their service and recommended this luxury limo. However, we’d offer the caveat that online reviews are more mixed, with some red flags from guests with disabilities.
Again, we cannot vouch for any of these services as we haven’t used them. Generally speaking, we’d recommend checking policies on luggage handling (included or do drivers assist?), car seats (included or do they cost extra?), airport meet & greet policy (does the driver greet you with a sign in the pickup area of MCO?), grocery stops (whether they’re included, discretionary, and duration), and whether gratuities are included or recommended on top of the base price.
Public Bus – Orlando International Airport has bus stops that are serviced by LYNX local buses. This public transportation is available not only to Walt Disney World, but also Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, International Drive, Downtown Orlando, and a range of other destinations in Central Florida.
We haven’t used the LYNX buses in Central Florida, but are not averse to public transportation. Judging by Google Maps and LYNX’s route map, this seems like a much better option if you’re staying near downtown or I-Drive, which offer more direct routes. (Really, anything to the east of Walt Disney World is better for bus service.) With that said, transit times seem relatively reasonable (~90 minutes from MCO to Disney Springs) but just be aware that you’ll likely have multiple transfers to get to your resort. Probably not ideal with kids in tow, but that’s the nature of public transportation.
Taxi – Available on a walk-up basis at the Arrivals Level (Level 2) on both sides of Orlando International Airport. Taxis may carry up to 9 passengers, and charge the same rate regardless of the number of passengers. All taxicabs picking up at the MCO are regulated by Orlando’s Vehicle-for-Hire Ordinance, which requires fares to be determined by a taximeter. This means there are no flat rates–you’re paying by distance, which typically amounts to $60 to $70 each way depending upon the location of your hotel.
This is another example of where the Mears monopoly comes into play, but there are a handful of alternatives to Mears at MCO. Given the wealth of alternatives, I would not take a taxi from the airport unless really desperate. There’s a decent chance desperation will creep in for some visitors if problems play out with rental car and rideshare services, though…
Rental Cars – This one is pretty self-explanatory, so we’re not going to fixate on the ‘basics’ of it too much. We have an entire post titled Tips for Renting a Car at Walt Disney World that covers the ins and outs of renting a car, along with money-saving tips. If you don’t like waiting at all, like to be in control, and don’t mind driving while on vacation, renting a car is probably for you. This is doubly true if you ever want to leave Walt Disney World property.
When we rent a car anywhere, we typically use either AutoSlash or Hotwire for car rentals and book one of their “blind” Hot Rates. Renting a car can reduce waits and commute times, but we’ve found that sometimes not renting works better for us. Consider your circumstances, how much you want to drive while on vacation, whether you’ll be staying off-site or on-site at Walt Disney World, and how frequently you’ll want to venture beyond the bubble.
Without question, there will be more demand for rental cars at MCO throughout 2022. The unknowns are to what degree, whether it’ll exceed supply of available rental cars (and how often), result in more overbookings, and the long-term impact on pricing. If you plan on booking a rental car, it’s wise to lock-in rates as early as possible.
Rideshare – Similar deal here as with the rental car section. Now that they’re reasonably well-established in most cities, we assume most people are familiar with Uber and Lyft–even if you’ve never used them. If not, you can read some of our advice for using Uber and other ride-sharing services in the post Uber & Lyft at Walt Disney World Tips.
In general, we are huge fans of Uber and Lyft, using rideshare services whenever possible rather than renting a car. We’ve almost exclusively switched from renting cars to Uber/Lyft when visiting Walt Disney World. For us, it just makes more sense, is more convenient, and cost-effective. That’s especially true now that pretty much every hotel, including Disney-owned ones, charges for parking.
Using rideshare in tandem with Disney transportation works out really well for us. As with renting a car, you’ll also want to consider your circumstances to determine whether relying on rideshare is right for you.
Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see how the end of Disney’s Magical Express continues to play out in terms of its impact on competition, transportation alternatives, supply and demand, and even roadway congestion between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World. Thus far, it appears that Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer are absorbing most displaced DME riders, with rideshare and rental cars picking up the rest of the slack.
Even though the last couple years have been a roller coaster of supply and demand imbalances, this outcome isn’t all that surprising. After all, Disney’s Magical Express didn’t exist until the 2000s–before the days of Uber and Lyft–and people managed to get to and from the airport just fine, and without issue. However, Walt Disney World attendance is up significantly since then (Magic Kingdom alone has increased by ~6 million guests). Suffice to say, a lot has changed since Disney’s Magical Express debuted and Disney attendance still hasn’t recovered to 2019 levels, so there could still be disruptions during peak travel dates. Just something of which you might want to be mindful if visiting Walt Disney World during a particularly busy travel time–it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets and get something booked sooner rather than later.
What do you think of the announcement of the Sunshine Flyer? Will you use the service, or is it too expensive for shared transportation? Will you opt for Sunshine Flyer, Mears Connect, Uber, Lyft, or renting a car? Thoughts on pricing, efficiency, or anything else regarding airport transportation? What do you think about Walt Disney World ending Disney’s Magical Express? Other thoughts on this? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!