Some notes on a trip to Orlando: Airports, outlets, and coffee
We just returned from a short trip to Orlando to visit family over the New Year's holiday. Here are some observations for your consideration:
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.
So you're saying Lori or Lorry got her name spelled wrong. That must be horrible.
Are you serious, Plunged into the 40’s? Isn’t that an Oxymoron…… Plunged into the 40’s… I wear shorts in the 40’s.. Just the other day I was celebrating because we hit 25 and had not wind… But I digress…
I can't speak for MCO as I haven't been there in ages, but LAX terminal 4 is awful. Horrible screening setup that funnels everyone into a cramped tiny room, and two awful places to eat. And no connections to other terminals once you are past security. Awful. Granted, I am used to MIA which is absolutely glorious now that (nearly) the whole airport has been renovated. But still, terminal 4 was the pits.
Agree completely in regards to LAX and MCO. Orlando feels run down: old carpets, run down trains to and from the airside terminal buildings, an infuriatingly long TSA wait that doesn't seem to make any sense as to why, odd waits stuck airside for everyone else in the terminal when international flights arrive as there is no separate route for international passengers to head to customs and immigration as there is at most airports, and food choices that are out of date with current tastes.
California's governor did accept Federal funds for high speed rail, and we still don't have rail lines to LAX. High speed rail is not an answer to providing mass transit to the airport.
On the Orlando Airport vs LAX -
Many don't know that there are plans (and they are working on land acquisition right now) that the International and Freight airport for Los Angeles may move to Vegas. Yes, Vegas. Actually the land in Jean/Primm on the border. A High Speed train can take you into LA almost faster than getting around by car and the landing patterns into LAX are very difficult for the International flights. How do I know this? Well, the land permits have already been filed for some property AND I know a member of the Primm family who has been in negotiations for a few years now for this purpose. The move to a new facility may be the reason why LAX has not been updated too much.
For the anonymous poster who complained about LAX terminal 4 -- that was the one we flew from, with the 5-minute TSA wait and the new restaurants. I agree that it was a nightmare before the changes, but it's much, much, much better now.
Can someone say if Sanford airport is any good (especialy screening and stuff)?
Been to so many airports when I used to travel for my job. I still say the Southwest terminal at Hollywood / Ft Lauderdale is the best.
Hopefully both airports improve, mostly in the way of transportation options. It's just too bad DLR doesn't offer some kind of Magical Express service. I know it's not the gigantic city that WDW is, but I'm not asking for a fleet of 100 MEx busses. Maybe once every 45 minutes?
I live in LA and fly out of LAX often to go back home, which is Boston. 99% of the time, the least expensive flight option is Jetblue or Virgin, which I prefer to fly over United/Delta/AA anyway. However, that terminal is horrendous - inside TSA, there is a Hudson News, a Starbucks, Burger King and a Gladstones as the table service option. I was spoiled for many years flying out of the JetBlue terminal at Logan, which was revamped long ago and has tons of wonderful options both before and after security. I hope the JetBlue/Virgin terminal at LAX gets updated soon.
I can't believe either airport could possibly make it on a Best list. I haven't had to do it in years, but switching airlines at LAX was a pain. You pretty much had to walk out to the street and then start the whole process all over again. The terminal for regional flights is about as luxurious as a bus station.
I really think LAX and MCO are in two different levels of airports and both a pretty bad.
The Sanford airport, while mildly inconvenient, is a fantastic option to MCO. Fares are a fraction from anywhere, ease in and out, quick TSA, hosever, it is small. I enjoy the quiet, small atmosphere and will fly in accordance with the limited schedule to avoid Orlandos airport.
I'm not sure if it's timing, international trips, the terminal side or sheer darn luck but for the last few visits we have never had any problems at security when leaving MCO to come home (*cries a bit*) to the UK.
OT... Sanford is a very small airport but it is very efficient and fast to get through TSA. I fly all of the time in and out of Sanford because Allegiant flies in and out of there and I can fly back and forth to my family in Little Rock for as little as $80 round trip! There is not much as far as food or stores in the airport but it is easy in and out.
In defense of MCO...they have a large food court in the main terminal but also one for each of the subsequent terminals that are quite solid
I'd like to give my opinion about LAX and MCO from tourists who are coming from outisde the US. My experience with both has been terrible, unfortunately (and I'm flying from Australia to Indianapolis via LAX again this weekend). Most of the Asian and even European airports are a breeze. So, why can't the US (with it's high level of customer service and technology achieve this??).
Sorry, that last post re. tourists from outside the US was mine. Forgot to login!
Orlando is the most unwelcoming airport for foreign tourists, they can give you such a hard time at immigration.
I'd like to echo what Daniel Smith, a fellow Aussie said. Coming from Australia LAX is about as much fun as pouring honey over your body and setting camp over an ant nest. We almost always try to make our visits to the US a direct flight into SFO (my brother lives in the bay area of San Fran).
I have to say I find recent developments with Universal's aggression so interesting. We as Disney or Universal fans will all benefit. A theme park war is just what we need. If you are like me a theme park fan it's very exciting!
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