One of the big dilemmas facing many people is if they should rent a car at Walt Disney World, and if so, how to save money when renting a car at Orlando International Airport. This post covers the pros and cons of renting a car for a Walt Disney World vacation, as well as how to go about saving the most money on rental cars, and other rental car hacks, pitfalls, and other random rambling.
As a threshold matter, you have to determine whether you need to rent a car at Walt Disney World in the first place. Unlike many other vacation destinations, a rental car at Walt Disney World is not a strict necessity, so don’t assume that a booking a rental car is an inherent step in your trip planning.
In the first section of this post, we’ll explore the benefits and drawbacks of renting a car. If you already have determined that a rental car is right for your family, you can skip ahead to the second half of the article, which covers tips and tricks for saving money on rental cars at Walt Disney World (and beyond).
We have a lot of ground to cover in this post, so let’s start by taking a look at whether you should rent a car at Walt Disney World or roll the dice and rely on Disney’s “lovely” “free” transportation system…
To Rent or Not To Rent?
That is the question. One that has perplexed many a traveler since the dawn of a new Disney era in Florida back in 1971. I’d normally cut to the chase here (well, after rambling for a few sentences) and dig into the pros and cons, but I think it’s better to start with my personal experience here.
For a number of years, I was against renting a car at Walt Disney World because I liked the idea of kicking back and not stressing about driving myself through the labyrinth of roads that criss-cross Walt Disney World. Of course, in the era of Google Maps on the iPhone, this really is not at all a challenging task, but the underlying point was that I drove plenty at home, and didn’t want to deal with it on vacation. Even at the “cost” of relying on inefficient Disney buses, I still liked not having to bother with driving.
This wasn’t simply a matter of not wanting to drive, it was also the corresponding feeling of escaping the real world and being in the “Disney bubble” that came along with this. If you’re unfamiliar with the Disney bubble, it’s somewhat akin to the giant dome that covered the city in the television masterpiece, Under the Dome. Except not at all. It’s the sense of an all-encompassing Walt Disney World vacation devoid of real world intrusions to the greatest extent possible. Point blank, this is something you either get or don’t get, appreciate or don’t appreciate. For those who don’t care or understand the Disney bubble, the idea of not wanting to engage in basic real world tasks like navigating roadways and finding a parking spot might seem lazy or, worse yet, crazy. To each his or her own.
I’m a big fan and advocate of the bubble. For me, it was another element of this bubble that (for a while) extended as far as not watching or reading the news and not checking email while on vacation at Walt Disney World. Bit by bit, these elements of the bubble eroded for me. My employer expected me to handle matters regardless of vacation. Social media invaded life (and with it came bits of the real world). However, one thing that stood for a long time was the “no cars” rule.
That rule finally fell by the wayside, too, as trips to Universal Orlando Resort and staying off-site simply made renting a car the practical thing to do. I’ve since come to appreciate the utility and convenience a rental car can offer on a Walt Disney World vacation, but I am far from a rental car “convert.” In fact, when the circumstances dictate, I still skip the rental car, and I honestly long for the days when a Walt Disney World trip meant disconnecting from the real world. I don’t think there’s any going back to that, but a total escapist trip every once in a while sure would be nice. (Since writing this post, I’ve realized the perfect balance for me is using Uber in conjunction with Disney transportation. You can read about that in my Uber v. Rental Cars at Walt Disney Worldpost.)
As far as my actual experiences of driving a rental car has gone, it has been a mixed bag. In terms of getting from the airport to your hotel, I’d hazard a guess that I have saved–on average–about 10 minutes per trip, but I’ve also had issues with rental car agencies (see below) and have rented from off-site agencies. I think it’s fair to say that you typically will save a little time over using Disney’s Magical Express, but the exact amount varies on the rental agency you use, whether they are in-terminal or off-site, and the efficiency of Disney’s Magical Express. I think about the maximum amount of time you could save is 45 minutes if the rental car process goes off without a hitch, and you’d otherwise be the last stop on the Disney’s Magical Express loop.
Once you get to Walt Disney World, you can save a lot of time with a rental car, but the exact amount depends largely on where you’re staying and the parks you will visit most frequently.
If you’re staying at a hotel that is not near any theme parks, but has a shared bus route, your time-savings can be huge. Disney bus transportation is woefully inefficient, and it’s not at all uncommon to see 3 buses for one park pass you at the bus stop while you wait for a bus to another park. If you’re staying at an All-Star Resort and are heading to Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios, you might save as much as an hour per day in transportation time. That’s a best case scenario with the car and worst case scenario with Disney buses, but it is conceivable. Now, if you’re thinking to yourself, “I’ve never had a problem with Disney transportation,” then I hope you find the nearest piece of wood and aggressively start knocking on it. If you don’t have a Walt Disney World transportation horror story yet, just give it time.
On the flip side to that, if you’re staying at a resort adjacent to one of the theme parks, you won’t save any time with a rental car. This is the case if you’re at a Magic Kingdom Area Resort heading to the Magic Kingdom by boat or monorail, and also for the Epcot Area Resorts heading to Epcot or Disney’s Hollywood Studios on foot or by boat.
For example, a guest staying at the Contemporary is going to come out incredibly far ahead by walking to the Magic Kingdom (or taking the monorail) than driving to the Ticket & Transportation Center (Magic Kingdom parking) and then taking the monorail or bus. In fact, I’d argue that bus transportation from any on-site resort has the potential of being faster than driving to the Magic Kingdom, since the buses drop off directly at the park whereas the parking lot requires using a tram, then riding the monorail or boat over to the park.
This is one of the big reasons why I think renting a car has been a mixed bag for me. As a frequent visitor to the Magic Kingdom, I find driving to and parking at the Ticket & Transportation Center to be a huge hassle, and I think it almost never saves me any time. If it does, that savings is de minimis, and I’d much rather have the convenience of not having to drive myself, and instead being dropped off right at the front of the park. I’m not suggesting Walt Disney World bus transportation is efficient–it’s not, it’s an absolute mess–but those guests emphasizing the Magic Kingdom on their vacations might find bus transportation, warts and all, preferable to driving to the TTC.
For the other 3 parks, where parking lots are located adjacent to the park, there is definitely a time-savings in driving. If you’re doing one park per day and not staying at an Epcot Area Resorts, you will save time by driving to the parks over using the bus 95 times out of 100. (Even a blind squirrel finds a nut every once in a while…or 5 times out of 100, as the case may be.)
I almost always find myself park hopping to the Magic Kingdom at the end of the night since it’s open latest, and it’s way easier (and more fun) to take a monorail from the front of Epcot to the Magic Kingdom than it is to head out to the parking lot, and then drive over to the TTC and deal with all of that nonsense described above. Likewise, if I want to go from Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Epcot for a late night stroll around World Showcase, the vibe aboard the Friendship Boats that operate between the parks is literally one-million five-hundred thousand times better than the vibe in a rental car.
Another thing, and this almost doesn’t even bear mentioning since it likely won’t be helpful to the vast majority of you (but it at least informs a little about my preferences) is that I typically stay in the park until after they’ve closed (remember, park stores are open up until an hour after closing) and by the time I exit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, or whatever park, there usually is a fleet of empty buses waiting for me to offer “private” service back to wherever I’m staying. It’s like Uber, but with a Walt Disney World bus! Contrast this with trudging myself across a vacant parking lot at 1 am and then tiredly driving to the hotel, and it’s easy to see why I like the buses.
Saying “your mileage may vary” on this last point is a colossal understatement, because your experience is more likely to be this: leaving the theme park after the fireworks or right as the park closes, and being faced with huge lines at the bus stops, waiting 45 minutes or more to finally board a bus to your hotel, standing elbow-to-armhole 😉 with 50 other sweaty tourists as the pungent aroma of body odor lingers in the air. This experience is about as strong of an endorsement for getting a rental car as there might be…although it could just as easily be an endorsement for lingering behind in the theme park a bit and waiting for the rush to die down. After all, wouldn’t you rather wait on a park bench gazing at Cinderella Castle than under the orange glow of sodium-vapor lamps at a dingy bus stop?
The general takeaway here based both on my anecdotal experience and the practical realities of driving versus using Disney transportation is that rental cars most definitely can save you time, but they also can cost time, and more importantly, can be a hassle. We have a whole host of Walt Disney World Transportation Tips that consist of various hacks and other strategies to save time, and I’m pretty well convinced that you can save nearly as much time and have a better overall experience in terms of hotel to park and park to park transit with a rental car as without one if you act in a strategic manner. I know this flies in the face of conventional wisdom, and certainly will not be the case for everyone, but you can make it work–if you want to make it work. If you’re concerned about the cost of a rental car or worried that it will make for less of an immersive experience, I’d recommend at least giving it a shot.
With that said, there are certain incontestable advantages of having a rental car at Walt Disney World. The biggest of these is freedom. While some Disney-fans with rose-colored glasses think Walt Disney World offers “free” transportation because it’s this kind-hearted, benevolent corporation (“benevolent corporation” is pretty much an oxymoron), the reality is that transportation is offered to discourage rental car use and trap people on property, which means eating at Disney restaurants, shopping at Disney stores, and perhaps most importantly, not visiting non-Disney theme parks. Walt Disney World offers transportation out of its own self-interest, and nothing more.
Having a rental car allows you to go to the grocery store at your leisure, venture to considerably less-expensive off-site restaurants, and also easily visit local off-site attractions that don’t have titles starting with “Disney’s…” If your vacation is truly a “Central Florida” vacation and not a “Walt Disney World vacation,” this benefit of having a rental car is a huge one.
In fairness, there are workarounds for all of the above: grocery delivery services, the Lynx public transit system, and the Mears Shuttle, Uber, or Lyft to get between Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort. Each of these ‘alternatives’ is preferable to having a rental car.
There is an in-between option besides renting a car for the duration of your trip and relying on these alternatives for your off-site adventures, and that’s renting a car for a day or two at the National desk at the Swan & Dolphin or the Walt Disney World Car Care Center. I view this as a pragmatic compromise, but if you have had enough negative experiences with Walt Disney World transportation or know you want the freedom of driving yourself every day of your trip, you should move on to the next section that covers saving money on rental cars at Walt Disney World.
Saving Money on Rental Cars
For the most part, this section will apply equally to Walt Disney World and almost any other travel destination in the United States. While we’ve only had a rental car for 4 trips to Walt Disney World, we rent cars a lot (68 days in 2014).
Recently, our friend Mark Willard turned us onto the site autoslash.com. The premise of AutoSlash is that they monitor your rental car reservation for price drops, and rebook you at a lower rate, if available. You can make a rental car reservation with AutoSlash or track existing rental car reservations made with major car rental companies, and they monitor the reservation automatically.
In theory, this is a really awesome site. I love automated travel resources like this that scrape sites and track prices, as they essentially outsource the work I’d otherwise be doing to ensure I’m paying the lowest price. My limited experience with AutoSlash thus far has been hit or miss. First, I’ve had issues with it searching all possible agencies and finding the actual low price the first go-round. Second, I’ve found that about 8 times out of 10, Hotwire’s (non-refundable) Hot Rate beats AutoSlash on the first search…so if that’s a good enough rate, I just book via Hotwire. Now, this isn’t an inherent problem with AutoSlash (it speaks more to my lack of patience than anything), but if the Hot Rate is a rock-bottom price like $11.95/day, I figure there’s no point to messing with AutoSlash, so I’m not really giving it a chance.
With that said, on the couple of occasions when I’ve given AutoSlash a chance to work its magic, it has worked like magic. Like a resolute husky chasing a floating frisbee through a thick blanket of snow, AutoSlash has tracked down and returned lower prices to me, often with a few days of booking (I know you all read this site for my “excellent” groan-inducing, overwrought metaphors). When I have used it, AutoSlash has a pretty solid track record–solid enough that I consider the dual strategies of checking Hotwire and AutoSlash to be sufficient for me when it comes to getting deals on rental cars.
As mentioned above, on the initial search, there’s a chance that Hotwire’s Hot Rate will be better than whatever AutoSlash finds. My rule is that if Hotwire’s rate for an economy car is <$15/day before taxes, I just book that and wash my hands of worrying about a rental car. If it’s above $15/day, I go with AutoSlash because my bet is that it can find something lower if given time. Your mileage may vary on this, and these certainly aren’t hard and fast rules–just ideas to consider.
There are myriad other ways to save money on renting a car, but unless you are an aggressive bargain hunter with a surplus of time, I think checking other options is unnecessary. The combo of AutoSlash and Hotwire is going to get you the best price available to the general public 98% of the time. Religiously checking other resources will largely be a waste of time. However, if you have nothing better to do, here’s a great 12-part series that delves into other alternatives for saving money on rental cars. Although I don’t agree with everything in that series, if you find yourself renting a car frequently, it’s a good read that will make you a savvier car renter.
One tip you’ll glean from the article include the value in joining (free) loyalty programs for the major rental car agencies–this can be a nice timesaver and a way to receive complimentary upgrades, so I’d definitely echo this advice. I would additionally recommend tinkering with your pickup and drop-off times (especially if it means saving an extra day on your rental car charge by keeping the pick-up and drop-off times in a days plus <24 hour window).
I also always skip the additional insurance offered since my auto policy covers me (as do my Visa cards). I always pass on any upgrades (besides complimentary ones in terms of vehicle class) as they are pointless and unnecessary. Likewise, I never do the prepaid gas option because it’s a racket. Don’t get suckered into this one–most of the time you’d have to return the car with less than half a gallon of gas in order to save money with this option.
As for rental agencies, I’ve only had experience with 3 agencies in Orlando: Firefly (once), Payless (twice), and Hertz (once). Again, limited sample size, but I thought it might be worth mentioning my experiences–just don’t give my anecdotes too much weight. Normally, Hertz is my go-to rental car agency, and I think their customer service is excellent and vehicle fleet nice.
However, one of my worst-ever rental car experiences have been with Hertz at the Orlando International Airport. To make a long story short, for whatever reason Hertz has (had?) kiosks that customers can use to pick-up their rental car; at these kiosks, you interact with a real person, located off-site (in Omaha, I think). Well, this takes way longer than dealing with a real person at the counter, yet for some reason, the Hertz reps in Orlando will direct you to the kiosks even when there is no line for the counter. After completing the process at the kiosk, I proceeded to the parking lot to learn that my rental car was…on the other side of the airport. Hertz has a presence on both the A & B side of MCO, and the person on the other end of the kiosk didn’t account for my actual location. After many other reps at Hertz passing the buck in dealing with me, I finally spoke with a manager who admitted there had been “tons of errors and complaints” with the kiosks. Perhaps they aren’t in use anymore, but suffice to say, this was one of my worst-ever rental car experiences. This was early last year, so I wonder if these kiosks are even still in use.
By contrast, my experiences with both Firefly and Payless were flawless. Both have some mixed reviews online, but I found the service to be excellent and efficient. Again, these are only a couple experiences and they could be outliers, but I figured it would be worth mentioning in case you’re on the fence about either.
In general, outside of the Orlando International Airport, my experiences with National, Alamo, and Hertz have all been exceptional. My experiences with Dollar and Thrifty have been less stellar. In fact, my experiences with Thrifty have been so atrocious that I would never use them again nor would I recommend anyone else use them. Other agencies not mentioned above have either been hit or miss or are small, independent locations that don’t warrant mentioning in the context of a post about Walt Disney World rental cars.
This is a lot of information to digest about renting a car for Walt Disney World, and although there are some other tips and hacks I might recommend–and I’m sure these still leaves rental car newbies with some questions–I don’t want the info here to get bogged down in an article that’s ridiculously long (even by my standards). Hopefully this has helped you determine if a rental car at Walt Disney World is for you, and if so, how to save money on one. If you have any unanswered questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments and I will be more than happy to assist!
Do you rent a car at Walt Disney World, or prefer to rely on Disney transportation? Do you rental car veterans have any input or tips to add? If you’re a rental car newbie or planning a first visit to Walt Disney World, do you have any questions after reading this? We love to hear from readers, so if you have any thoughts or questions, post them in the comments!