Theme Park Insider

Buses, Boats, or Monorails: What's the Best What Around Disney and Universal?

December 4, 2015, 12:45 PM · Everyone has heard that old adage that getting there is half the fun. When it comes to theme parks, however, that’s not always the case. Most of us would rather just wake up in the parks. But until they turn Cinderella’s Castle into a Bed and Breakfast (coming in 2018!), we are relegated to utilizing the various transportation options offered by Disney and Universal. But which one offers the better method of travel? Let’s take a look.

Bus-ted!

Do you know what’s really magical? Walt Disney World.

Do you know what’s not so magical? Riding a bus.

I apologize if you own stock in Greyhound, but riding a bus kind of sucks. It has all the drawbacks of flying with none of the coolness. No attractive stewardesses with tiny bottles of happiness, nary a peanut in sight, except one that you might find stuck between the seats; the movie is always "Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo," and no bus driver ever has given me a “steel wheels” keepsake pin.


I’m not sure what Disney is paying the guy who comes up with all these brand PR and marketing euphemisms, but anyone who can take a bus and have it become widely referred to as a “Magical Express” seriously needs a raise. They don’t even call the regular buses “buses,” they call them “Disney Transports.”

Disney's Magical Express

Whatever you call them, according to Disney, their transports on average run every 20 minutes from all WDW onsite resorts. And in response I chuckle like Ed the Hyena from the Lion King.

Now, on occasion, I’m sure you might get lucky and hit it just right with your timing to walk right on board the bus you need, but more often than not in my experience, this is a clearly an optimistic estimate. These magical buses are subject to Mickey’s Law (which is like Murphy’s Law, only cheesier… drum roll/rim shot.)

Mickey’s Laws of Magical Buses

  1. Are never there when you’re exhausted from your day at the park, smell like the inside of a Pluto suit in August, and have kids who are five seconds or less from a full-on meltdown.
  2. Are just pulling away, giving you a nice side dish of exhaust fumes to accompany your failure, so you know it’s like a minimum of 45 minutes until the next one arrives. Unless you have dinner reservations, in which case it’s only 1 hour and 15 minutes away.
  3. Are arriving for literally every other Hotel and Resort on Disney Property except the one you, yourself, are a guest of, including some you have never heard of and sound kind of made up (Disney’s Heatstroke Harbor, Disney’s Everglades Swampy Gas Resort, Disney’s Saratoga Springs, Disney’s Melaleuca Manor.)

Speaking of #2 above, I’m convinced that the Disney bus drivers are engaged in sort of points-based competition involving speeding off just as a family shambles up to the bus stop looking like zombie extras from The Walking Dead.

One Point for each family member, left behind plus bonuses for:

This must explain why every visit I have made to WDW while my lovely wife was very pregnant involved vainly trying to run after a just-departed bus, yelling and waving like a loon as if under siege by a swarm of mosquitoes. I didn’t mind though. Her doctor said it was good for her to continue to exercise well into her pregnancy, and she usually got pretty close to catching it...

What? Those bus drivers certainly weren’t going to stop for me; at least she had a chance of getting a pity stop!

Disney Transport

Now you might not know this interesting little factoid but among the many things that are going or have already gone extinct at WDW (such as the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, affordable ticket prices, the Maelstrom, rides at Disney’s Hollywood Studios) include partially camouflaged analog corded phones at the various Disney bus stops.

In years past some people, many of whom were not my wife, grew frustrated at the lengthy amount of time it was taking for a bus to arrive and would pick up these phones, which I assume were there for cast members technically, but not marked as such.

People who picked up these phones were connected to some mysterious disembodied Voice of Disney Transportation who magically controlled the bus routes at WDW much like the Wizard controlled the special effects in the Emerald City Palace in Oz.

And if those callers happened to be pregnant and also my wife, they would demand in a third-trimester-voice, “Where’s the bus!?” Just like that tiny but angry little old lady from the Wendy’s “Where’s the beef!?” Commercials.

I’m sure it’s a coincidence that all these phones have now been removed from their respective bus stops.

And is it just me, or do you all remember a time when these theme park buses contained seats for more than 10 people? We used to get multiple rows facing forward like, you know, a real bus. Yet now we get a semi-circle of seats arranged like a therapy group meeting around a standing room-only space the size of a wedding dance floor. Why? So Disney can pack more and more guests in like sardines, of course.

What’s more fun after spending a long day in the parks than standing up for an entire bus ride while trying to hold onto the handrail, your kids, 57 souvenir bags, and a stroller that refuses to stay folded while staring into a bunch of strange armpits and trying not to fall onto one of the seven people seated around you each time the bus lurches to a stop or start. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah!

What about Universal?

Unlike Disney’s fleet of roughly 18,000 Disney Transports, the only onsite Universal hotel that regularly utilizes full-size transport buses is the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. While these buses suffer from the same addiction recovery group type seating as their WDW brethren, there are quite a few more positives.

Since the Universal shuttle route is limited to two points, Cabana Bay and Universal’s CityWalk, there always seems to be a convoy of buses in motion, minimizing both the wait times and the amount of people on each bus. This in turn leads to you frequently being able to actually sit down, which on a Disney bus has become almost as difficult as getting dinner reservations at Be Our Guest. Plus the Cabana Bay buses have surfboards affixed to the roof and are painted like powder blue “woodies.” Ahem. Insert your own joke here.

The Universal equivalent of the Disney bus, I mean Transport, would have to be the Water Taxi. Three of the current four Universal onsite resorts (Royal Pacific, Hard Rock, and Portofino Bay), plus the forthcoming Sapphire Falls, utilize the water taxi system.

Water Taxi

While I realize these boats are basically floating buses, the positive is they are not a standard form of transportation in every city in the world (except perhaps Venice, Italy) so they make for a more - dare I say - magical transportation experience while on vacation.

I think cruising on the water in a partially open air vessel, under walking bridges, and past lush tropical foliage just makes for a better experience than a bus on a highway. Especially for folks who don’t live anywhere near a body of water back home.

There's nothin' on earth like a genuine bona-fide electrified six-car monorail!

I used to love the monorail as a kid. Remember when getting to ride up front in the pilot’s cabin was the coolest thing ever? Unfortunately things change. Getting to hop into that cool nose cone of the monorail is no longer an available option, and I’d rather navigate I-4 on a unicycle during Central Florida Rush Hour Traffic than ride in a WDW monorail.

Monorail

Why, you might ask? Because in my opinion the WDW monorail fleet has gone from a spotless futuristic mode of transportation to the back of an New York City Taxi Cab, circa 1979. They have become filthy from all the constant wear and tear, with torn upholstery and nasty stains. Some of these monorails are run-down, when they are running at all that is....

They seem to be breaking down more and more frequently, and I can tell you first-hand that this particular experience is worse than sitting through Stitch’s Great Escape. Okay, maybe not that bad. But close!

We were on our way from one of the hotels on the monorail loop to the Magic Kingdom for a Mickey’s No So Scary Halloween Party, when we got stuck. On a standing-room-only monorail filled with costumed folks on a warm October day.

And since the monorails run on electricity, when they go down so does the air conditioning system. Bibbidi-bobbidi-B.O.! Thank goodness it was only about 20 minutes before we limped into the MK station.

Other people haven’t been so lucky... Just this past October guests were stranded for hours between the Contemporary and the Magic Kingdom until Reedy Creek Fire Rescue was able to affect a rescue. Some guests were removed via cherry picker and everyone else was towed back to the TTC (Transportation and Ticket Center.) Even worse, there have been quite a few crashes, as recently as last month, when a monorail that was already being towed became loose and crashed with a tow vehicle. (No one was hurt and no guests were involved.)

Monorails have been the both the most efficient and popular mode of transportation at WDW for years, so why is it that lately are they breaking down so much and not being maintained to look nice and shiny?

Well, I can’t tell you why, but I can relay one simple truth: monorails (and buses, and any form of guest transportation for that matter) don’t make the theme park any money. From an economical standpoint, it is a strictly a cost. For what it's worth, reducing maintenance and upkeep reduces cost. However, reducing maintenance and upkeep also increases the risk of accidents, malfunctions, and dinginess.

How will Disney respond to this situation?

Monorail Fireworks Viewing Dessert Parties!

Just kidding… Disney would never take over a vital guest transportation system to use as a thinly veiled money-making scheme by charging for something you can see for free and providing low-cost dessert foods while charging upscale restaurant prices. Oh wait…

I won’t go into the Ferrytale Wishes wherein WDW takes an entire ferry out of service for a dessert party since Robert skillfully covered it all. From what I have heard (but sadly not yet experienced) the monorail trains at both Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland Resort put the WDW ones to shame.

So, what are your thoughts, input, and first-hand experiences you can share for this transportation conversation?

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Replies (30)

December 4, 2015 at 1:05 PM · and yet.... it's still better to be on one of these, than to try driving
December 4, 2015 at 1:24 PM · Did you really just say that Disney doesn't offer boat transportation? Have you really not seen the huge ferries that take people to MK from the Transportation and Ticket Center? Or the smaller boats that take you to Epcot or DHS from the Boardwalk? And I don't know what monorail you've been on, but the ones that I've been on were all pretty clean.
December 4, 2015 at 1:46 PM · Why do you not even mention the ferry's at MK?
It's one of the primary ways to get from the parking lot to the park across the lagoon or vice versa and in the morning going to the park the line up in the heat & humidity is absurd and in the evening, after the fireworks, you'd better be willing to wait a good hour while be shoved about like cattle at a stock yard just to board the ferry back to the parking lot.
It's without a doubt one of the biggest bottle necks in all of Disneys transportation system and the one I've always dreaded the most in our past visits
December 4, 2015 at 1:52 PM · Another great one, Paul! And I agree 110%. I too used to love the monorail as a kid -- it was the start of the Disney magic. But now it's just a beat-down. The boats at Universal are definitely the most relaxing mode of transport to theme parks in Orlando.

Disney's boats that serve Epcot resorts are pretty nice too...I just wish there were more of them to more places.

December 4, 2015 at 2:05 PM · I know when it is crowded at WDW, it can be crowded on the different modes of transportation. That is a given. But could you be any more negative? I have been to WDW 20+ times and know that things have changed. I still love the Monorail and look forward to seeing it and riding it every time that we are at WDW.
December 4, 2015 at 2:07 PM · The Monorail is the tragic part of this to me. These used to be visions of the future you could experience. To me, they are now just part of a reality that a simple, clean, and quality experience has been run ragged by popular demand. I worry that one day the monorail experience will be reserved for resort guests only to cut down the traffic.

There is hope though. What if the buses were driver-less? What if the "Magical Express" was a fleet of unique driver-less vehicles to whisk guests around the resort. What if the vehicles were themed to Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tron, or Star Wars? Maybe Disney World can recapture that vision of the future. Maybe they can really create a Magical Express.

December 4, 2015 at 2:17 PM · The boats at Universal are an attraction of sorts. The relaxing "short" ride through a beautifully landscaped area is so well themed that you don't realize there's parking garages & roads nearby. And there's not much of a wait between boats. Conversely, we took the boat from Epcot to DHS thinking it would be relaxing like the Universal trips. Big mistake. The route had so many stops and took so darn long that we were close to heatstroke, boredom & exhaustion by the time we arrived at DHS.
December 4, 2015 at 2:23 PM · My college has a bus tracking app in which you use your phone and can check when a marked bus will arrive to your stop via a live GPS map along with an ETA. I think adding that to Disney's system might bring down some complaints.
December 4, 2015 at 2:29 PM · With the exception of the MK, the best way to get park to park is your car. It might take a bit longer if the busses are on the 20 minute schedule and you don't have to wait multiple busses (good luck). It's about a 10 minute walk or ride between your car and the gate. What you lose you gain on the back end as you don't have to take a bus then go to your car.

The MK is a different story. The inefficiency is a nightmare that takes away a good amount of fun of visiting. Good idea in the late 60's, but it has long lost its fun except for the first visit by a 6 year old.

Dirty busses, slow boats, or aging trains (monorails). Time for Reedy Creek to build some high quality mass transit that efficiently handles WDW and could also tie in with a regional system to other attractions, hotels, airport, and the convention center. It'll never happen as Disney doesn't want to compete.

December 4, 2015 at 3:10 PM · I'm sorry but that's one of the most negative 'knocking copy' articles I've ever read on this site and not what I expect of Theme Park Insider. And I have to say I have never had any problem with WDW 'Transport'. The buses have always run for me, never with a 45-minute wait, never smelling, not even all that full. And the monorails have been fine. So I don't recognise the caricature that you present.

I can only assume you were trying to be humorous, but in which case I didn't get the joke....

It just reads like another 'Disney is rubbish, Universal is wonderful' article.

December 4, 2015 at 3:14 PM · James: Excellent idea. One of the main problems is waiting in anticipation and not knowing when it will show up. I know they say 20 minutes between trips, but that's only the ideal, not the actuality. Plus you never know what time the last one came, unless it took off while you were running trying to catch it. LOL...And the trips take forever, especially if you're the first stop on or first stop off. I use my car about 80% of the time. Time's not bad that way except for MK, due to trying to get across the lake from TTA. I always feel bad for the WDW resort guests that don't have a car.But when we're at Universal, my car rarely leaves the parking lot. A short walk or short boat ride gets us everywhere on campus.
December 4, 2015 at 3:20 PM · Universal: Walking
Disney: Amything but walking

Will it cause the track to bend?
Not on your life my Hindu friend.

December 4, 2015 at 4:18 PM · Rental car > Walt Disney World buses

At one time (many, many years ago) the WDW buses did provide reliable transportation. You could park at one themepark and ride the buses the rest of the day while park hopping.

If I were to ever stay on Disney property, there is no way I would rely on their bus transportation to get anywhere. I would still rent a car.

It seems that they are now more dedicated to take guests to the resorts rather than to parks. If I'm doing my single day park hop to all four parks, it's way easier to drive to each one and walk to the gates. I'm also saving a lot of time and getting some extra exercise while I'm at it.

If you still want to ride the buses I do have one tip - do not start your day with your car parked at Animal Kingdom. It's almost impossible to get back there at the end of the day from one of the other parks.

Not to sound like a conspiracy theorist, but I think there's more to the monorail maintenance issues. One factor I could easily see is crowd control going into the Magic Kingdom. If the monorail is "broke down" and the only way to get to the park is to ride the ferry, then this allows for more control of the flow of guests arriving at the front gates. Sometimes I've wondered if it would faster to just walk around by the Contemporary when the monorail is down and they are only running the ferries.

I have nothing but praise for Cabana Bay's buses. They run frequently which allows for low wait times to get to Citywalk and back to CB. Like Rob mentioned above, when I visit UO my car stays at the resort (and ug, I'm paying to park it there), but I can go for days before I need to use it since I'm staying on property. The only time I end up using it is to drive to Disney to visit the various parks or run a few errands to stores.

December 4, 2015 at 6:06 PM · Yes Kris, you're so right about the Cabana Bay buses. We were there for five days in 2014 Fall, and there was always a bus or two waiting when we walked over to the stop. And they were never crowded. It was a seamless experience.
December 4, 2015 at 7:51 PM · As a New Yorker who rides public transportation every day, I wholeheartedly agree with this assessment of the sub-par experience Disney Transport has become. The monorails are older than many NY subway cars! These are trains, and they need replaced every so often. The first system lasted 20 years, and it's been 25 since the current fleet was introduced so it seems time. Can't Reedy Creek issue a bond initiative as it's transportation related? In the interim, they need to clean and maintain them more frequently. They just seem grimy, and again, I ride the subway every day!

The worst part of the buses is the lack of information. Am I going to wait 20 minutes? Or an hour? Cause I'll get an Uber or taxi as my time is worth it. My vacation hours are precious, and while I love to slow down, I want to do so over dinner or on a bench on Main Street USA. Not waiting and watching as other resort buses come and go while I sit--or more likely, stand--growing anxious and wondering what is to be.

December 4, 2015 at 8:01 PM · The negativity of this article is quite off-putting. I'm sure you're only trying to be funny, but floating the notion that Disney bus drivers are in a contest to see who can screw over the most guests is very offensive.
December 4, 2015 at 8:10 PM · This article does seem to be bashing Disney, but the transportation system does need improvements. Ideally the monorail lines would be expanded to connect to all 4 parks and Disney Springs, and a few more resorts. The buses would then be to connect people from the each, resort lacking a monorail, water park etc to directly to the nearest park and monorail station, and then hoping on the Monorail if one wants to go to a different destination. This would shorten the bus trips and make them more consistent because then they would only involve going from one place to another. The downside would be the routes would become more complicated. With how much it would cost I'm sure it will never happen, but something does need to be done to Improve transportation around the entire resort. The size of Disney World is it's greatest advantage, and also its biggest disadvantage.
December 4, 2015 at 10:23 PM · It's amazing how easily offended people are when some of the comments are obviously intended to entertain. Lighten up, folks.
December 4, 2015 at 11:38 PM · Great article! It's sad that public transit in most large cities is far better than the transportation at a place trying to call itself a resort. My town seemed to find a way to install solar powered "Next Bus" information, but that seems impossible for Disney. They must really be hurting for money! Oh wait, something about record profits. I wonder how that's happening. Maybe by stranding their paying customers.
December 5, 2015 at 12:15 AM · Great article! I don't normally comment but i feel a few comments on here (ironically complaining about you being negative) are pretty negative and rude.

Anyone who's reads this and can't at least crack a small smile needs to take life a bit less seriously!

December 5, 2015 at 1:17 AM · @ the anonymous poster suggesting that I can't see the funny side of life simply because I suggested that this article is negative: Well thanks for your tolerance and understanding and embracing of the concept of free speech. I am sure Paul's intention was indeed to be entertaining but in comparing a bus system that has one single route (Cabana Bay) with Disney's that has something like 120 different routes he simply isn't comparing like with like and to me therefore the tone of the article passes over from 'funny' to 'Disney bashing'.

And thanks for the advice about taking my life less seriously. I'll try to bear that in mind.....

December 5, 2015 at 7:43 AM · I also assume the writer is 'having a laugh' - we have stayed at Disney 4 times and consider the bus service to be fantastic. I don't think we ever waited more than 20 mins for a bus to any of the parks or resorts. The drivers are very helpful too. We also like the recorded messages on the buses as part of the overall Disney experience.

If anything i think they have too many buses on the go at once - i think every 30 mins would be good enough and much better for the environment (but it is a fantastic service)

December 5, 2015 at 7:58 AM · I read this article in anticipation o some entertainment and humor. I did not find much of either. The bus from the resorts is not a fair comparison. You have one resort at Universal that has bus service what is the ration of people to buses? Disney Transport has how many people to serve each day from each resort and so on. Second most of the resorts located on water have boat service which I have found to be efficient and enjoyable. The monorail does need some upgrading but it is limited by its size of the system. Also, it is it's own demon in the fact that it is so popular.
Now I have never done the Magical Express as I drive to Florida with my family as it is less expensive than flying. But, Magical Express started out as a Disney owned thing it is now owned and operated by Mears.
I did like the point system part as it reminded me of a Bob Newhart routine in which he did about Bus Driver School. Once you got past that part of the article though it became how can I bash Disney and make Universal seem so great.
As for Universal I can not justify paying the money for admission there to put my life on the line. I am not allowed to enjoy the rides that I prefer because I am not allowed to where my insulin pump. I spoke directly to Universal about this in anticipation of a future trip to Florida and was told that I would have to remove my pump and put it in a locker. So if I have to wait an hour to board a ride now I am rising my health and potentially becoming extremely ill to the potential of being hospitalized. And the reports are if you make it to the front and you have the device on you are not allowed to board and have to put it in a locker and get back in line. Not sure how true that is but makes sense. I do not even have to remove the pump for airport security. So let's see some articles on medical devices in the parks.
December 5, 2015 at 7:13 PM · Disney never owned DME it was always contracted with Mears. Universal and Disney are not going to allow anything that can fly off and hit people medical device or not. A 60mph roller coaster is a bit different then an airplane.

As an Orlando local and someone who has gone every year of my life to Disney and Uiversal I can agree that Universal is much less stressful for transportation. Just riding the tram from the parking lot at Disney is a freaking 45 minute lawyer safety spiel torture that gets restarted every time people cross the line and board the tram that cannot move until it plays its 10 minute safety spiel. Nothing more magical then seeing people yelled at for boarding a parked tram or being ticked off that they cannot board a parked tram that mocks then for several minutes before it moves.

I took my three year old niece to Universal because I wanted her to see characters roaming the parks and I did not want to plan every second a year in advance and wait in hour long lines for rides that she has no clue about anyways. The creepy singing baby ETs were just as good as the creepy small world dolls to her and seeing spongebob roaming the park made her day. Personally I think it is more magical then getting a fastpass and waiting to meet them while being forced through a cattle line with a forced picture. All Disney needs is a slide to kick kids down a la "A Christmas Story" to make the line go faster Next!!!

December 6, 2015 at 9:33 AM · I gotta tell you, the Monorail at Disneyland is not all its cracked up to be. Its cute from a historical point, but it serves no purpose.
December 6, 2015 at 4:12 PM · The Disneyland monorail can hardly be called a form of transportation. It's a ride that just happens to have a stop in DTD. It's only slightly faster than walking between the two stops.
December 7, 2015 at 2:36 PM · The Disneyland Monorail has become a joke. When they built DCA and Downtown Disney, they should of just removed it rather than just turn it into a ride to nowhere. They should of built a new route and made it the transportation system from the parks to Mickey and Friends Parking Ramp. But the management who wanted to expand the resort for as little money as possible opted to continue using Trams, and leave the existing Monorail route intact even though it few people want to ride it except for nostalgia. Thankfully Disney has focused more on guest experience than they were in the late 90s/early 00s, but it still isn't up to the standards Disney had for their parks for 30 years. Universal isn't perfect and still below Disney in my opinion, but unlike Disney they have worked to improve their product over the past several years.
December 7, 2015 at 4:28 PM ·
Re: Timothy Hoster December 5, 2015 at 7:58 AM

Tim, When you spoke with Universal, did you or they suggest the Attractions Assistance Program (AAP) or the Guest Assistance Program (GAP) as a possibility to assist with your insulin pump issue? I believe that both programs are still in effect, although the AAP might be the best solution to your medical situation while visiting UO.

December 7, 2015 at 4:51 PM · Another great article, Paul! Thank you!

For those of you who felt the article was being unfair to Disney, I'd like to remind you all of the days when DW was the Magic Kingdom, the hotels on the monorail line, and Camp Wilderness. Back then, you either drove your car to the resort and rode the monorail or the ferry to the park or you took the boat from the campground to the park or you walked to the monorail station at your hotel and you rode the monorail to the park. I don't recall there being too many issues with getting around the resort since Disney had all of their assets pretty much located in one place.

Now that Disney has decided to maximize their revenue by massively expanding the number of on-property hotel rooms and quadrupling the number of resorts, they have no one to blame but themselves for not properly addressing the transportation issue and letting the infrastructure go wanting. Disney is starting to address the problem, but they have a ways to go before they can provide the high quality and themed transportation that they once provided.

As far as those of you who feel that Paul is being unfair and is resorting to Disney bashing, I say hogwash! Paul is just using humor to point out that Disney is failing to meet their own historical standards and is starting to pale in comparison to the quality of the limited transportation system at the USO resort. So if you don't like him pointing out that the emperor has no clothes, I have a simple solution for you - DON'T READ HIS ARTICLES!

Jeff Elliott, another talented writer on this site, has for the most part quit writing articles for TPI partly because of the emotional and unwarranted criticism he received from the Disneyphiles. So, unless you have a factual basis and not an emotional or anecdotal basis to disagree with Paul's humor, you might want to keep it to yourself. Or you could stick your neck, your time, and your writing skills on the line and see how it feels to get a pile of lazy potshots thrown at you!

December 7, 2015 at 11:57 PM · I don't have much complaints about the busses. However, I think they screwed up the Magic Kingdom parking situation.

After being at the parks all day, we are exhausted. Recently, on a busy days, it is not uncommon to have to wait upwards of 30 minutes for a boat or monorail to get to the TTC, then another fifteen minutes to catch a tram, or a fifteen minute brisk walk.

But I cannot think of anything they can do to fix the situation short of raising ticket prices some more to control crowds. It was a neat magical idea, but the logistics of it suck.

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