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 numerous alternatives to fill the void. This post covers the MCO to WDW ground transportation, pricing, comparisons, and more. Plus, our commentary and speculation about what might happen with supply/demand and problems in 2022.
In case you missed it, Walt Disney World made the bombshell announcement that Disney’s Magical Express airport shuttle service is ending in 2022. The buses between MCO and resort hotels have now ended, with two new paid services emerging to replace Disney’s Magical Express for transportation to and from Orlando International Airport.
The end of Disney’s Magical Express was arguably the biggest and most surprising Walt Disney World news of the 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…
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 will allow 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 begins service from Orlando International Airport on February 1, 2022. It’ll offer 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 $17 per adult and $12.50 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 an unknown quantity, as something entirely new. While it’s by an established company (Transportation Management Services) with extensive experience in the events space, that’s not quite the same as a daily shuttle service at this scale. Personally, I’m much more inclined to book the Sunshine Flyer over its direct competitor (below), but would probably wouldn’t use it before March 2022.
Mears Connect– Similar to Sunshine Flyer, this is a shuttle service by the company that currently operates Disney’s Magical Express. This makes Mears Connect the “true” spiritual successor to Disney’s Magical Express. It’ll literally use the exact same drivers and buses, just minus the Disney-branded wraps.
Mears Connect will offer transportation service for visitors in high occupancy vehicles, including buses and vans, when it launches on January 1, 2022. 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 will have two options: Standard and Express. Standard is a shared vehicle on Mears Connect (bus or van) that is economical. The Connection will make 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 introductory 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. We are skeptical this will continue to hold true with Mears Connect. Without the Disney monitoring and mandating service quality, bus frequency, dispatch times, etc., we fear the “spiritual successor” could be much worse. Mears left to its own devices typically hasn’t been a good thing.
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 never made sense back before we were locals. 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 the forthcoming Brightline service will also require a transfer at Disney Springs once it goes live in 2025.
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.
Now we’ll turn to commentary, and we have a lot of it when it comes to rental cars. Last year when travel essentially stopped, the rental car industry sold off more than a half a million cars to generate cash they needed to survive the crisis. Demand quickly returned this spring, but rental car companies were unable to rebuild their inventory because of supply chain issues facing the auto industry.
Orlando International Airport ended up selling out of cars for many travel dates in the spring and summer, with astronomical rates for other dates–as much as $300 per day for a rental. On average, those prices have plummeted since, with the normal fluctuations for off-season and peak dates.
However, there have been a couple of occasions that Walt Disney World fans reported rental car companies overbooked, and cancelled discount reservations. This isn’t just an issue at MCO–horror stories about rent-a-car companies overbooking have gone viral several times on social media in the last several months. During the past year, our experiences corroborate this, at least to a degree.
While we have not had firsthand problems with rental companies overbooking (knock on wood), we have witnessed them operating with zero margin for error or delays. Due to a lack of excess inventory, we’ve seen people waiting at the airport for cars to be returned. Rental car companies also have the same staffing issues as everywhere else, and we’ve waited in lengthy lines at several airports.
This is all extremely relevant because the end of Disney’s Magical Express will have unknown impacts on supply and demand. To be sure, many guests will opt for Mears Connect or the Sunshine Flyer, but a lot of people won’t even know those exist since Disney won’t proactively advertise them (sadly, not everyone in America reads this blog). In addition to those people, there are other consumers who will make the calculated decision to instead book a rental car.
Without question, there will be more demand for rental cars at MCO in 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. We likely won’t have answers to any of those questions until March or April 2022. All I know is that if I were visiting for spring break or summer vacation and planned on booking a rental car, I’d be locking in rates right now. (And hoping for the best when it comes to lines, overbookings, etc.)
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. Prior to becoming locals, we had almost exclusively switched from renting cars to Uber/Lyft when visiting Walt Disney World. For us, it just made more sense, was more convenient, and cost-effective (and this was before the “era” of Disney charging for hotel parking).
That was true even on trips where we split time between Universal and Disney. Using rideshare in tandem with Disney transportation worked 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.
In terms of commentary, the story here is also similar to rental cars. This spring, Uber and Lyft shortages became a pronounced issue. This was due to demand plummeting the previous year, and many drivers switching to food delivery as a result. In so doing, they realized that not dealing with people in their car was less stressful. They were thus slow to return to rideshare apps, even with Uber and Lyft offering huge bonuses.
As demand for food and grocery delivery dropped, the issues largely resolved themselves, with more drivers returning to the apps. Wait times dropped as a result, and there are now far fewer instances of no drivers being available at all. We’ve had no issues using Uber or Lyft around Walt Disney World in the last several months, and prices are generally not as bad as they were in March and April. But they’re still much higher than a couple years ago, which is likely the “new normal” with Uber and Lyft.
It’s impossible to say how the end of Disney’s Magical Express will strain the rideshare services. Again, there will undoubtedly be some impact–as with rental cars, it’s more a question of degree. Our expectation is actually that there will be a disproportionate impact within Walt Disney World as drivers gravitate towards locations (like MCO) that tend to result in longer rides. It’s likely that prices will be higher across the board, but we also expect significantly less availability on shorter routes. It’s possible this will mean the end of drivers idling in staging areas at WDW, waiting for the mass exodus of guests after the fireworks.
Ultimately, it’ll be interesting to see how the end of Disney’s Magical Express “plays 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. It could be the case that Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer absorb most displaced DME riders. In our estimation, it’s likely that many consumers will turn to rental cars, rideshare, and private car services–causing unforeseen impacts to pricing, waits, etc. for those.
Perhaps some of these concerns and commentary seem overblown. 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. Maybe its demise won’t impact transportation, maybe it will. Just something of which you might want to be mindful if visiting Walt Disney World in 2022–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!