Some notes on a trip to Orlando: Airports, outlets, and coffee

January 7, 2014, 12:42 PM · 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:

  1. Ease of getting there
  2. Ease of finding and making connections
  3. TSA waits
  4. 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.

Fountain View Starbucks at Epcot

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.

Replies (23)

January 7, 2014 at 1:02 PM · So you're saying Lori or Lorry got her name spelled wrong. That must be horrible.

Comparing LAX and Orlando just doesn't seem fair. The questions should be the opposite "Is Orlando International now a better airport than LAX?"

LAX is in horrible condition. In comparison to other international airports, it is 20 years old. The road entrance is appalling. In busy times, the roads are completely congested especially off the 105 freeway. Mass transit is a minor problem when compared with the road conditions and routes. The concessions are just as bad. LAX hasn't kept up with the times.

LAX should not be looked upon as a destination airport. If you're coming from the Pacific region and on your way to the East coast, LAX is a connecting airport.

Airports are not for lingering. They need to get you to the destination as quickly as possible. LAX doesn't do its job as well as other airports.

January 7, 2014 at 1:02 PM · 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…

Orlando does have some horrible wait times to get past TSA.

And now for the rant: Orlando could have had rail lines built, but if you recall some republican governor rejected the Federal funds to build rail lines and said no. No to progress, no to jobs, no no no…. (Might be a little bit prejudice and stuck in the 60’s in the south).

Oh nice write up by the way…

January 7, 2014 at 1:25 PM · 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.
January 7, 2014 at 1:37 PM · 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.

I used to think LAX was bad, with stale food choices and bad security. But they have been improving those things. I actually look forward to eating at Lemonade in the Delta terminal. The wait for security is always quick. And the entire terminal building is being refreshed: new carpet, new paint, new ceilings, etc.

If Orlando wants to continue to be the leader in global tourism, it needs an airport that keeps up with the times. I remember feeling like I had already arrived at Disney World when I got to MCO; now it makes me feel a bit sad.

January 7, 2014 at 1:39 PM · 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.
January 7, 2014 at 1:57 PM · On the Orlando Airport vs LAX -

While I have only flown into (and out of) LAX once in my life, it was a couple months after 9/11. Honestly, we had nightmares about LAX, about how bad security was going to be (since, on our trip out, the Providence airport had a 2 hour wait for security, so bad we missed our flight.) But, it was a very quick and easy experience. Now, that was 13 years ago, so a lot might have changed (I know Providence sure has, last trip we only had a 10-15 minute wait in security) but LAX was actually nice.

Orlando, however, is a nightmare. Their TSA line is still very unorganized, better than it has been in the past, but still pretty awful. That airport would be my least favorite one to flight out of if not for the absolutely dreadful Philadelphia airport, at least in Orlando they don't tell you the wrong gate to go to.

On the Fountain View Starbucks -

My wife is a huge Starbucks person (I am not, I think the coffee is a bit overpriced.) When we hit EPCOT last month, we hit that Starbucks and I was impressed. The service was quick and concise, possibly the fastest Starbucks I have ever seen (and I used to live outside Seattle.) So, I think I agree with Mr. Niles on that.

January 7, 2014 at 2:18 PM · 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.

I was at MCO in early December and my mother and I, not my husband, were selected for pre-screening. We checked in at Saratoga Springs and received this designation on our ticket. My mom and I were ushered into a specific line and did not have to take off our shoes or any of the crazy stuff we often have to do at TSA. We were out in 5 minutes even with it being the same line as airport employees (who got to cut in line). My husband was a good 15 minutes behind us in the regular line. I always thought it was strange that the retail at MCO was BEFORE TSA.

I rarely have to use TSA at LAX because it is a connecting airport for us. I cannot make that comparison. We live near Reno and we cannot go ANYWHERE directly. If I am not driving to Disneyland (which we mostly do), then we usually choose Burbank or Orange County instead. Small, rarely used airports are what we prefer.

January 7, 2014 at 2:50 PM · 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.
January 7, 2014 at 3:39 PM · Can someone say if Sanford airport is any good (especialy screening and stuff)?
It's the only destination I can go without a stop from Amsterdam so I'm considering.
January 7, 2014 at 6:16 PM · 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.

I do love Orlando's open atrium and glass, though.

January 7, 2014 at 7:37 PM · 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?

Other than that, it's been over 10 years since I've been to LAX. Literally the only thing I remember were palm trees inside the airport that were half dead, some without any palm fronds at all. I'm sure it's better these days.

As for MCO, I think it's a beautiful airport. But very badly laid out and poorly planned. I still can't figure out why all of their good stores and restaurants are prior to the TSA screening. That's completely backwards.

I get through TSA in Indy in 5 minutes but am lucky to get through Orlando in 20. Then again, Indianapolis has a new airport, built from scratch after 9/11, so it was built with the new requirements in mind.

January 7, 2014 at 7:47 PM · 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.
January 7, 2014 at 9:34 PM · 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 can't understand how Orlando airport, in the land of theme parks, can't figure out how to manage a queue. The first time I was there, the line through TSA wasn't really a queue, but more of a funnel with no help from anyone working there. The last time I was there, I was lucky to fly first class. If it wasn't for an amazing ticket agent, I would have never found the entrance to the first class TSA line on my own.

January 7, 2014 at 10:13 PM · I really think LAX and MCO are in two different levels of airports and both a pretty bad.

LAX services the second largest city in the United States. They should be one of the best airports in the entire country. I know New York and Chicago aren't always the greatest, but they seem to have their act together.

Orlando is bad and will always be bad due to security screening. I swear, they check and hassle customers more than I have ever at O'Hare and Midway in Chicago. They check on things that I have been carrying the entire trip.

Can somebody explain why TSA is such a nightmare at Orlando?

January 8, 2014 at 2:23 AM · 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.
January 8, 2014 at 4:07 AM · 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.
In fact last year, one TSA lady was just sat on her chair waiting for some travellers to come over and go through. Previous to that I would say we waited 5 or 10 minutes on a few trips.

Of course now I have just completely jinxed my run of luck haven't I...

January 8, 2014 at 6:02 AM · 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.
January 8, 2014 at 7:59 AM · 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

Why is TSA so bad in Orlando as someone who flies out of their weekly:

One the line is ridiculous and TSA preferred and Clear need to end especially in Orlando. Yes it is form of Fast/Express Pass for Airports but in this instance it creates a dedicated line that can not be accessed by others, therefore creating unneeded delays.

Secondly Orlando has probably the highest number of children flyers which do take longer to get through security

It also has many novice seems every time someone has sun tan lotion in their carry on or an ipad in their carryon or guns from a theme park.

The other nightmare to Orlando's design is the layout is for a 365 days a year but it needs the volume for 3 months plus 1 week

Also the reason for light rail not being included had nothing to do with federal Funds it was more tied to Disney not wanting to cede an advantage via Magical Express and the Big 3 Theme Parks arguing over the route

January 8, 2014 at 12:55 PM · 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??).

The problem lies with many things. Here is my last experience at LAX.

I was greeted with a 1.5 hour line at Passport Control. After a 15-hour flight from Australia, and then also followed by another 50-min wait for security to fly on to MCO, this is not what you wish to find. Then, as a tourist on a visa waiver program, you are scrutinised at what you will be doing in the US, suitcases searched, finances torn over, it's most uninviting for a one-week stay and I was really made felt like I was guilty of something entering the US. So much so, that I now sadly only fly to the US if I absolutely have to. I now make all my Disney and Universal trips to Asia or Europe, just because on holiday, I want the whole holiday to be a pleasant experience.

January 8, 2014 at 12:56 PM · Sorry, that last post re. tourists from outside the US was mine. Forgot to login!
January 9, 2014 at 12:15 PM · Orlando is the most unwelcoming airport for foreign tourists, they can give you such a hard time at immigration.
January 9, 2014 at 6:23 PM · 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).

MCO seemed ok when we ent in early December.

The idea of Vegas being the west coast hub is an interesting one, which I think I'd like. It wouldn't be much longer a flight and a new purpose built facility would be great.

January 10, 2014 at 9:56 AM · 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!

Disney has little comment in public but behind the door they are fully aware and extremely competitive.

I have visited and literally lived at both parks thru my career. Disney's research, storytelling, and understanding of human behavior are stellar. Universal uses of new technology and new themed thrills is reaching new peaks. Universal's team has allot of past Disney cast members working for them. Only good things for the fans and guests!

Disney grabs a younger guest early and then gets the next generation to continue passing it on. They are good at trapping the foriegn tourist. Universal is sort of new to the true themed story ride and for sure having great success.

Disney World maybe behind in new attractions but it is not due to the great creative team they have. Something's were made with purpose for instance crowd control or logistics. Others were made so far in advance it is taking time to get to some of the more exciting stuff and budget right now. Disney parks success will allow the creatives to continue to dream more wonderful family attractions.

Universal recent success will allow for more awesome themed thrill rides that the thrill seekers enjoy! Either way it's a great future ahead for the theme park fan!

As I said I have worked and visited both too many times to count. I have worked in the park and in creative roles for both on staff and subcontractors. I would give the edge of new attractions to Universal but the place for families to meet and play is still Disney!

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