Some notes on a trip to Orlando: Airports, outlets, and coffee
Published: January 7, 2014 at 12:42 PM
Is LAX now a better airport than Orlando International?
Orlando and Los Angeles airports rank among the nations' busiest, with Orlando 13th and LA third in the country for annual passenger boardings, according to the Federal Aviation Administration [PDF]. But Orlando's long enjoyed a much better reputation than LAX has. Neither airport cracked last year's list of the world's top 100 airports (topped by Singapore's Changi Airport), but in its most recent rankings, Travel + Leisure magazine named LAX the nation's second-worst airport, while declaring Orlando the fourth best.
But LAX has been fixing itself, building a new international terminal, renovating domestic terminals and awarding new concession contracts which have brought new restaurants into the airport, including some local favorites.
At the same time, Orlando's remained stagnant, planning for the future while enduring a present that's left the airport with a layout that doesn't fit modern travel patterns, and some of the nation's longest TSA security checks waits.
Here are four criteria for judging airports:
- Ease of getting there
- Ease of finding and making connections
- TSA waits
- Quality and availability of concessions
Orlando and LAX both fail on number one — mass transit to both airports is limited to city buses, with no rail options. For theme park fans traveling to a Disney hotel, Orlando gets points for Disney's Magical Express option, but for everyone else, Orlando loses points for having its main road access be toll roads.
Both Orlando and LAX are destination airports for me, so I can't judge them for making connections. That leaves TSA and concessions. On both, LAX now beats Orlando. LAX spreads its operations among nine terminal buildings, each with its own TSA checkpoint. That better distributes the load of passengers when compared with Orlando, which offers two TSA checkpoints, one each for the A and the B sides. In our experience, security checks at LAX take no more than 5-10 minutes, and personnel are helpful. In Orlando, however, we've never gotten through TSA in less than 15 minutes, often taking more than 20. (Nearly half an hour on this trip.) And my wife and daughter claim that they seem to get singled out for extra screenings more often in Orlando than at any other airport (a complaint we've heard from other female passengers).
As for concessions, Orlando has a large food court and abundant retail. Unfortunately, they're located before the security checkpoint, minimizing their use to passengers. Who wants to risk missing a flight due to long security lines? That's why today's airline passengers often choose to go through security as soon as they are checked in, rather than linger outside the checkpoints. In Los Angeles, all the concessions are located behind the checkpoints, where they're available to you until you board your flight. Most of Orlando's food and retail may as well not exist once you've gone through its nasty TSA check.
A few years ago, that really didn't matter much in Los Angeles, which offered a limited selection of tired quick service restaurants. But this time, we could choose from local restaurants such as Campanile, La Provence Patisserie, Real Food Daily, and Homeboy Cafe. Compare that with the Qdoba, Wendy's and a Ruby Tuesdays (that was out of fish, bacon, and burger patties) that we found in Orlando.
Five years ago, I used to look forward to visiting Orlando International, and dreaded my time in LAX. Today, it's the opposite.
An outlet shopping alternative in Orlando
If you want to include outlet shopping during your Orlando visit, you're probably familiar with the hassle of getting into and parking at the two major outlet malls near the theme parks: the Orlando Premium Outlets on International Drive (close to Universal) and on Vineland Avenue near Lake Buena Vista and Disney. But on this trip, we found a much more accessible alternative — The Lake Buena Vista Factory Stores, located on State Road 535, between U.S. 192 and the Central Florida GreeneWay toll road.
On a day when it took us more than 20 minutes to make one circle around the Vineland outlets' parking lots, finding no empty spaces, we found abundant available parking at the Lake Buena Vista stores. It's smaller than the Vineland and I-Drive outlet malls, but it's got many of the biggies, including Nike, Eddie Bauer, Gap, Old Navy, Timberland, Izod, etc. It'll be our first stop next time we want to go shopping in Orlando.
Epcot's Fountain View: The best Starbucks ever?
Okay, we've not sampled nearly enough Starbucks to make that declaration. But Epcot's new Starbucks location did quite well for us on our recent visit, when temperatures plunged into the low 40s and visitors crowded into the store in search of hot drinks.
Despite visiting on Jan. 3, the store still has eggnog lattes available, a seasonal favorite that had long since disappeared from every other coffee store we'd visited since Christmas Eve. And the baristas at this Starbucks actually spelled Laurie's name correctly, something she hadn't experienced at a Starbucks in ages (Lori, Lorie, Lorrie, Lorry, Laury — you name it). Perhaps it takes Disney's high-volume inventory clout and cast member training, but Fountain View provided the best Starbucks experience we've had since visiting, well, the Fiddler, Fifer and Practical Cafe at Disney California Adventure.