We all know the two words that make the idea of a car rental for your Disney trip seem crazy: “Magical Express.” Disney’s complimentary guest delivery service from Orlando International Airport (MCO) is a wonderful perk if you’re staying at a Disney resort. Some guests would feel that their arrival was anticlimactic if they passed under the Walt Disney World arch in any vehicle other than a Disney bus (with the characters and music welcoming you in the onboard video). And more pragmatically, why waste a free perk like airport transportation?
While there are a lot of reasons to love Disney’s Magical Express, there are a few reasons to consider renting a car – and a few things to keep in mind if you do decide to rent.
Paddling your own canoe (rental car) at Disney can help you move faster and can reduce frustration. No more arriving at a resort bus stop as a Magic Kingdom bus pulls away and waiting 45 minutes for another one (in the meantime watching 15 buses headed for Hollywood Studios roll through). No more worrying about getting to a very early dining reservation. You want to arrive for Early Morning Magic at 7:00 a.m.? No worries – you can be driving into the parking lot at 6:30 a.m. No need to devote a couple of hours if you’re traveling by bus from one resort to another resort for dinner. You can make the trip in 10 minutes flat in your rental car. Maybe you want to go AWOL from Disney property and enjoy a mouthwatering burger at Freddy’s Frozen Custard near Little Lake Bryan. Maybe you want to go to a church service in Celebration. Maybe you want to shop at the Premium Outlets or maybe you’ll feel guilty if you don’t visit Aunt Ida in Winter Park. There are plenty of reasons why you might like to have your own set of wheels.
If you’re not staying on Disney property, in most cases you’re looking at arranging your own airport transportation. It isn’t cheap! Depending on the size of your party, you may be surprised to find that renting a car is sometimes not that much more than paying for airport transfers.
The same logic applies to guests arriving at the Orlando Sanford (SFB) Airport. Disney’s Magical Express serves only Orlando International Airport (MCO). Some airlines offer the option to add shuttle service to Disney. Be sure to get a rental car quote before booking your airfare, so you’ll know in advance whether to book the shuttle to Disney or not.
If you are staying off property or are arriving at Sanford, then renting a car may be an attractive option. But while staying off-site is a reason to rent a car, staying off-site also means you’ll have to pay to park at the Disney theme parks! If you aren’t entitled to free parking as a resort guest or as an Annual Passholder, driving yourself to a theme park can get expensive fast. Disney charges $20 a day to park. (Standard self-parking is complimentary at Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney.) A Tables in Wonderland card can get you free parking if you are dining at a park restaurant, but you may be asked to pay for parking and visit guest services with your restaurant receipt for a refund.
Orlando is actually a great place to rent a car because its airports serve so many visitors. You’ll find many options. And at both MCO and Sanford you can walk right across to the car rental lot rather than riding a jitney to the lot.
Watching rental car rates is not unlike watching the stock market – the numbers go up and down. Guests might prefer to avoid prepaying or locking in their rate, especially if they’re booking well in advance of travel. What goes up will probably come down. You do have to factor in how much your time is worth, too — the time you might spend glued to the car rental websites, testing out various discount codes, and re-booking reservations.
Whether you’re driving your rental car in from Orlando International or Sanford, you can choose to reach Disney property via either toll or non-toll highways. The trouble with the non-toll routes is that they can be very congested, and it could take you three or four times longer to get to your resort. If you’re coming from Sanford, that’s a long time on I-4. The Central Florida GreeneWay is generally much calmer and will get you there in a much shorter time. But it has tolls.
Navigating the Florida tollway system is possibly the biggest challenge associated with renting a car on a Disney trip. Some of the exits (like the one at the Wal-Mart nearest Disney property) are unmanned. If you don’t have change, you’re out of luck. (Though Florida’s Turnpike does forgive the first unpaid toll.) Additionally, you’ll be delayed several times to pay tolls with cash, waiting each time in a line that might be long enough to increase your impatience to get to Disney. If you prepare ahead of time, you’ll sail right through the prepaid lanes – because you’ll have a Sunpass.
If you decide to rent a car – a month or more before your trip, register on the sunpass.com website and order a transponder for $20. It will be sent to your home and can be activated before you leave with a credit card added to your Sunpass account to cover tolls. Before use, all you have to do is visit the Sunpass website or call their toll-free number to provide the license plate number on your rental car. Toll rates for Sunpass customers are lower than for those paid with cash, so the transponder will pay for itself in no time. The transponder attaches just behind the rearview mirror with suction cups that make it easy to put on and take off. You’ll bring the same one back with you on your next Disney trip. Sunpass also offers a mini sticker transponder for $5, but stickers are only good for single use. Since you’ll be setting up a Sunpass account for yourself anyway, you may as well make it easy to use again on your next trip – so get the transponder.
Note that you can just drive your rental car through the Sunpass prepaid lanes without a transponder and let the tolls be charged through your rental car company. Sunpass captures your passing license plate – you don’t have to switch anything “on” or sign up in advance. (Confirm the policies with your specific rental car company.) The disadvantage here is that the car rental company will charge you a daily convenience fee of $4 to $10 – charged each day of your rental, even if you only use the service on one day. You’ll also be charged the non-discounted rate for each toll. You wouldn’t have to deal with remembering to bring the transponder in your carryon (or a heavy bag of quarters if you choose to pay cash) – but you’ll pay big for the small convenience of paying tolls through your rental car company.
As the flashing red lights are trying to tell you, you can’t stop your rental car for photos as you pass under a Disney World arch. All of the major routes to Disney have a welcome arch. World Drive (the route from MCO) has the largest arch, but you might not even notice that there are other arches, as they all give you the same little (or big) thrill. The only entrance to avoid, if you want to pass under an arch, is the “side door” along Hotel Plaza Boulevard from 535 (exit 68 from I-4) – though cute signs on either side of the road feature the same Mickey and Minnie at the arches.
Once you arrive at Disney World, driving is usually something of a pleasure, with cheerful purple signs clearly directing you to your park or resort. The only area where traffic predictably backs up is approaching Disney Springs. From World Drive, the magical purple signs will direct you to Epcot Resort Area (Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk, Swolphin, and Caribbean Beach), Animal Kingdom Resort Area (Coronado Springs, Animal Kingdom Lodge, and the All-Stars), Magic Kingdom Resort Area (Polynesian, Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, and Fort Wilderness), Disney Springs Resort Area (Old Key West, Saratoga Springs, and the Port Orleans resorts), and ESPN WWS Resort Area (Pop Century and Art of Animation).
Arriving at a theme park by car is easy and breezy, too. Brightly yellow-decked parking attendants at Disney World theme parks manage movement of vehicles with military precision. Don’t even think about picking a different parking place – you’ll be directed to exactly the one and only place intended for you. Unfortunately, that occasionally means driving to the very back of a loooong row, with a correspondingly long walk back to the tram. There’s no avoiding this. Just walk to the tram singing the song from the FINDING NEMO stage show at Animal Kingdom: “Go with the flow!” (By the time you get done with all the “oh’s,” you’ll be on the tram. (But you won’t have forgotten to take a photo of your row number because that’s how you roll, you Disney pro!)
While waiting for Disney transportation can sometimes be frustrating, there are plenty of times when your bus or boat will pull up at exactly the right moment. And arriving at a Disney theme park or resort via Disney transportation has car travel beat hands down. At the Magic Kingdom, your bus will pull up on the MK side of the lagoon – so you can skip the monorail or ferry. And at the other parks, your bus will drop you off a stone’s throw from the park entrance.
Whether you rely on Disney transportation or rent a car, either way, you win – you’re at Disney World!