Mears Connect and the Sunshine Flyer announced that they’re merging the two shuttle services to offer combined ground transportation between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World. This post shares the press release plus commentary the potential good & bad of this change, and what it means for traveling between MCO and WDW resort hotels for the rest of this year and 2024.
Let’s start with the basics: Mears and Sunshine Flyer announced on July 14, 2023 that they have entered into a definitive agreement under which the companies will merge two complementary services into one combined entity to provide exceptional guest transportation from Orlando International Airport to Walt Disney World Resorts.
The new service will be called Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine. According to the combo, they will continue to provide guests with safe and reliable transportation services to and from the airport with enhanced booking capabilities, guaranteed 24/7 service, greater operational efficiencies, and a hassle-free experience to and from their preferred Walt Disney World Resort.
Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine will provide superior guest service, while also enhancing the guest benefits through combined operational capabilities, best practices, and aligned marketing efforts. Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine promises the best possible experience that guests have come to know and love from Mears Connect and the Sunshine Flyer. (Their words, not mine.)
“While we have been competitors in the past, we have always shared the same goals to provide guests with safe, reliable, cost effective, stress-free travel between the airport and Walt Disney World resorts”, said Rebecca K. Horton, Chief Operating Officer of Mears Transportation. “By merging operations, sharing ideas, expanding services, collaborating on what’s best for the guest, we believe we can provide an even better guest experience given the challenges and opportunities in today’s travel market.”
“As partners, we will be able to bring even more features and benefits to our guests,” said Mark Sherman, General Manager of the Sunshine Flyer. “Whether it is 24/7 service, express options, or a private trip to ease guests’ minds the minute they step off the plane, together, Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is delivering more to our guests. We are confident that our collaborative efforts will promote a creative atmosphere and will allow us to focus on the customer experience and kick off the magic of a Walt Disney World vacation the moment they touch down in Orlando.”
Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is the only 24-hour shuttle servicing both the A/B and C Terminals for both arrivals and departures at Orlando International Airport. Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is also fully wheelchair accessible and ADA-compliant for both standard and express services.
Updates & Quick Tips from Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine:
The new service will begin August 1, 2023.
A dedicated hotline is available 24/7 to answer questions and assist guests regarding new reservations: (407) 423-5566
For all existing reservations, unless otherwise provided, please contact the customer care team on your confirmation email.
Mears Connect guests will not be impacted and reservations will remain the same.
Sunshine Flyer guests traveling between July 14 and July 31 will receive an email using the email linked to the original reservation to confirm all travel instructions.
It appears that the summer sale pricing of $12 per child and $15 per adult is ongoing with Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine–at least according to the website!
In terms of commentary about Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine, this is a bit of a mixed bag from our perspective. Honestly, when I saw the press release alert, my heart skipped a beat. My first thought–before actually reading anything–was that one of the two had been acquired by Walt Disney World and was being transformed into an in-house Disney’s Magical Express.
Obviously, that is not what’s happening. Hopefully our headline was crafted in such a way to not give you that same sense of initial excitement followed by an intense letdown. Disney’s Magical Express is not coming back this year, and the odds are exceedingly low that it’ll be back in 2024. Not zero, but pretty close.
Today’s news about Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine doesn’t really make the chances of Disney’s Magical Express returning down the road any better or worse. If anything, Disney is likely to contract a shuttle service out to Mears, just like they did before, rather than acquire the company and do it themselves. So that’s still a theoretical possibility in the long run. But as we’ve said before, we don’t expect that until 2025, if ever.
Walt Disney World needs a tremendous amount of lead-time to accomplish such a significant change (just as they did to end Disney’s Magical Express). Moreover, Walt Disney World still has not experienced enough of a slowdown or downturn in resort occupancy to feel the requisite sense of urgency necessary to bring back Disney’s Magical Express.
It will probably take Epic Universe opening hotel bookings or a recession for Walt Disney World to feel the pressure needed to bring back Disney’s Magical Express, and even those are not sure things. The era of rideshare could have been the death blow for Disney’s Magical Express, and there might never be any going back. We’re still holding out a slight sliver of hope, though!
As for today’s actual news about Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine, there’s also good and bad. Starting with the bad, we always prefer to have more choices as consumers and for competition to drive down prices and improve service. The launch of Sunshine Flyer put needed pressure on Mears, and we suspect that both have forced one another to keep their prices in check. In fact, the airport shuttle services are actually cheaper today than they last year!
We also really enjoyed the ambitiousness of Sunshine Flyer. The theme centering around old-fashioned passenger cars and train engines was really cool. Thanks to the bus designs along with 1920s rail conductors and engineers, the motorcoaches effectively serve as time-machines, offering a glimpse into old timey train travel. Consequently, it felt a bit like a spiritual successor to Disney’s Magical Express in the “magical” department. Even if it lacked Disney IP, the train theme was a great nod to Walt Disney and his legacy. We fear that this will disappear with the debut of Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine.
The potential good news of this is more or less what Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine has stated in their press release. Joining forces makes the combined shuttle service potentially more efficient. I’ve taken both Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer many times, and ended up using the former more often because it was easier to book last-minute and generally more efficient. For solo travel in particular, it has made more sense to use one of these shuttles than pay $40 to $60 for an Uber or Lyft from MCO.
My general experience with both shuttles has more or less mirrored Disney’s Magical Express. In a word, the shuttles are usually “sufficient.” Average wait in line is around 10-15 minutes, another 10-15 minutes to depart, and 30-45 minutes until drop off. My total time has typically averaged out to about 60-75 minutes.
Definitely not fast or efficient, but good enough for the price…especially back when that price was “free” with DME. (With that said, if I had a family of 4, I’d absolutely do rideshare over Mears Connect or Sunshine Flyer–that’s always faster and should be about the same price or cheaper.)
On a few occasions, the shuttles have definitely not even risen to “sufficient.” They’ve had long lines and an insufficient number of buses, making extra stops and/or having delays as a result. I’ve waited in line 45 minutes or so just to board a bus, and then another 15 or so idling outside before departing. Add in travel time, and there have been times when it took nearly 2 hours to arrive at my Walt Disney World resort hotel. There’s a reason why Mears removed their original guarantee that guests would wait 20 minutes or less to board a bus!
Given some of the horror stories I’ve heard from readers, I frankly feel lucky that a 2 hour commute time has been my worst experience with either Mears or Sunshine Flyer. For what it’s worth, these anecdotes about being stranded and delayed seem fairly evenly distributed between the two. Some have become fans of one service after being burned by the other, but it’s all a matter of (bad) luck. This happened with the Mears-operated Disney’s Magical Express, too, but the difference was that Walt Disney World would step in to make things right and provide taxi vouchers (etc.) if the shuttle stranded someone at a resort. Now, you’re on your own.
Conversely, there have been times when I’ve been “luckier,” and due to a lack of demand for my particular resort, I was placed in an express van along with other “stragglers” destined for unpopular resorts. That still wasn’t truly efficient as it took a bit for the service to determine that was the appropriate way to dispatch, but I still viewed it as a win–it was faster than normal shuttle service. Still, that probably wouldn’t be a win for Mears Connect or Sunshine Flyer.
The bottom line here is that resources have arguably been spread too thin with two competing airport shuttle services. Even back when Sunshine Flyer was announced, I was surprised and wondered whether both services would be able to coexist at scale. There’s been an ongoing bus driver shortage in Central Florida for years–since at least 2018. This is why Disney has contracted with outside companies from as far away as Miami to provide additional bus coverage (if you’ve seen Academy-branded buses at the parks or resorts, that’s why).
I have absolutely zero insight into the procurement of the motorcoach buses themselves, so I can’t speak to whether the two services were competing for those. (Probably not, since Mears Connect already had at least a partial fleet–the Disney’s Magical Express buses.)
It’s not just bus drivers who would conceivably be spread too thin between the competing shuttle services, it’s also passengers. My experience being placed onto an express van is a good example of this. With revenge travel now in the rearview mirror, the two shuttle services may be realizing there’s an insufficient inflow of guests to sustain both of them.
The discounts they’ve been offering are a pretty good indication that this is the case…and that’s during summer tourist season! Just like with Walt Disney World, these are not being offered out of a sudden sense of generosity–they’re trying to attract more customers as demand slows. This is something that’s only likely to worsen as the early fall off-season arrives. Perhaps there was a reason, aside from their veritable monopoly, that Mears never had competition in the pre-Disney’s Magical Express dark ages. Maybe two shuttle services between MCO and WDW simply is not sustainable.
Ultimately, my view is that the merger creating Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is probably a good outcome on balance. Competition is great in keeping prices down, and that was probably the case here. What’s not so clear is whether competition between Mears and Sunshine Flyer was improving or worsening service and the guest experience. I’m highly skeptical that was actually happening here.
Consolidation also offers opportunities for operational efficiencies and economies of scale. This is one of those benefits of mergers that’s often touted in theory, but doesn’t always happen in practice. My guess is that it will with Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine, at least to some degree. Mears is great with operations, whereas Sunshine Flyer is strong with the guest experience and theme. If Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is able to combine the strengths of both shuttle services, it’ll be a winner.
As someone who likes everything about the booking and arrival experience with Mears Connect, but wishes they had more buses and drivers, I think this merger is likely to achieve my desired outcome. Theme is more of a wildcard, and something that I’m guessing might fall by the wayside. Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine might come at a slightly higher price, but frankly, when I was standing in that ~45 minute line, I would’ve happily paid a couple extra bucks for a Lightning Lane.
What do you think of Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine? Happy or disappointed that these competing airport shuttle services are merging? Will you use Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine over Uber, Lyft, or renting a car? Thoughts on pricing, efficiency, or anything else regarding Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine? What do you think about Walt Disney World potentially resuming Disney’s Magical Express down the road? 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!