Walt Disney World to End Its Free Airport Bus Rides

January 11, 2021, 11:56 AM · The free ride soon will be over at the Walt Disney World Resort.

Disney announced today that it will end its complementary Disney's Magical Express bus service to and from the Orlando International Airport for its Disney hotel guests. The service's last day will be December 31, so guests who stay at the resort this year will continue to be able to take advantage of the free transportation and bag transfer between their hotel and the airport.

"Vacationers have more options to choose from than ever for transportation, including ride-share services that save time and offer more flexibility to go where they want, when they want," Disney said in its press release.

I was not a fan of Disney's Magical Express, as it often took much longer to go between Disney and the airport than with booking an Uber or Lyft. The "free" cost just wasn't worth the wasted time to me. After almost missing my flight once due to Disney's Magical Express (despite leaving my hotel three hours before the flight's departure time), I stopped using the service for my return trips. But for families on a more relaxed schedule, the service was welcomed by many as one fewer detail to worry about on a Disney vacation.

In addition to the Magic Express news, Disney announced today that it will replace its discontinued Extra Magic Hours benefit for hotel guests with 30 minutes of Early Theme Park Entry to all four theme parks, every day, starting later this year. That has huge implications for visiting strategies, which we will talk about in a post later today. [Update: Here is that link.]

For more about the Walt Disney World theme parks, please visit our new park listing pages: Magic Kingdom, Disney's Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney's Hollywood Studios.

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Replies (25)

January 11, 2021 at 12:06 PM

This is a huge cut back. Complimentary transportation was a big plus for staying onsite. This is pretty shocking.

January 11, 2021 at 12:13 PM

Big news.

As alluded to it, the bigger news is the extra half an hour of in park time for hotel guests at the beginning of the day. That totally messes everything up for everyone else. Now... it's fair. Resort guests pay a pretty penny to stay there and they are losing a service with Magical Express after all. But it is going to be darn near impossible to get on the top tier A list rides without committing hours to it. Rides such as Tron, Guardians of the Galaxy, Rise of the Resistance, Flight of Passage and a select others will have fastpasses "sold-out" by resort guests 60 days in advance and then they will now have a full 30 minutes (years in theme park time) to clog up the queues of those attractions before non-resort people can join the queue. Again, these folks pay a lot of money for a resort stay and Disney is a business after all but it definitely is a game changer for everyone else planning their day.

January 11, 2021 at 12:19 PM

The second part of the Orlando Sentinel’s article today is what troubles me the most: extra magic hours is ending and instead every park will have 30 minutes of early entry for guest stating on-site. As one who stays offsite, this is troubling.

January 11, 2021 at 12:47 PM

I could not understand the extra hours, no one at Disney checked anyway, a prime example of this is the Halloween boo to you and Mickeys magical Christmas events where you pay extra to be at them, having been to both many times, you stand watching the shows and parades and stand next to someone who has not paid to be at the event, we once stood next to a whole family who enjoyed telling each other how the people who paid were idiots as you can stand and watch for free, as long as you do not want to go on any rides or trick or treat or the hot chocolate no one bothered to clear the park of non paying people. Where as the Universal events we have been too, they clear the park of non paying people, think the whole setup needs to be looked at as Disney is loosing money.

January 11, 2021 at 4:50 PM

There are quite a few things to unpack here. First, the loss of Magical Express may be a bigger deal than people think. It's a HUGE perk not only for guests staying at WDW resorts, but it's a HUGE perk for Disney since it was a clever way to "strand" guests at WDW and keep them from spending days at other parks. I'm sure Disney did their research and cost/benefit analysis before dumping this benefit (Magical Express was subcontracted to Mears, so it's not like this affects Disney employees, but there are about to be a lot of unemployed bus drivers in Orlando), but it's difficult for me to believe that this was not paying for itself by keeping as much guest spending on property as possible.

Secondly, while MCO is expanding and being renovated to allow for easier connections and access, eliminating DME is likely to increase vehicular traffic to and from the airport. As Robert noted, it's easier and more efficient to grab an Uber/Lyft than it is to use DME, but if the thousands of guests that use the free shuttles start bombarding rideshare services, than prices will inevitably skyrocket and availability will decrease. Airports around the country are struggling to deal with the surge in rideshare popularity, and most facilities are simply not equipped to handle tens of thousands of passengers being picked up at the airport through these services. The way that I look at it, virtually every major hotel brand in the world that has properties near a major airport has some type of shuttle service. For WDW hotels to abandon this important mass transit service is frankly irresponsible. If MDE wasn't making ends meet, why not add surcharges or other revenue generating avenues to help the service break even instead of leaving guests to their own devices. Yes, frequent guests to WDW probably know that MDE isn't the best way to get to and from the airport, but those that take their family on a big vacation once every 3-5 years to a city/airport that is already infamous for the lack of mass transit options need a reliable way to get to WDW from MCO. This is a HUGE deal, and I don't think Disney or Orlando understand the full impact of eliminating DME.

The change in Magic Hours is also pretty HUGE. This is yet another policy change where I don't think Disney understands what impacts will result. First, I always saw Magic Hours as a way from Disney to manage crowds around the 4 WDW parks. By shifting the hours from park to park, Disney was able to queue guests to visit one park over another on a given day. If there's no advantage/disadvantage to visiting one park over another, you're going to end up in the Wild West where it will be next to impossible to gauge crowd levels on any given day. The only tool Disney will have to control crowds between the parks will be shows/entertainment schedules, general park hours, and hard ticket events. It certainly increases the value of staying at a WDW resort significantly (along with park hoppers since you can leave parks that are inexplicably crowded), but not as much as you think - 30 minutes probably gets you on one or 2 top attractions before off-site guests are allowed in the parks, and you still probably have to arrive 45-60 minutes before rope drop to be near the front of the mobs. I don't really see what Disney is trying to accomplish with this change.

January 11, 2021 at 1:41 PM

@JK - Hard-ticket events require guests to wear wristbands to stay in the park. While it's possible that guests may be able to walk around the park to watch the parades and shows an hour two after the official start time, there are plenty that get caught and asked to leave by cast members. You're definitely pressing your luck staying in the parks during a hard ticket event without an appropriate wrist band, and anyone advocating this as a way to "beat the system" will eventually get caught.

January 11, 2021 at 1:46 PM

The availability of Ride Share systems has likely destroyed the idea of stranding people on Disney property. Now it's pretty easy to get offsite to spend money elsewhere, so Magical Express likely doesn't net the money it used to. Too bad. It does feel like the end of an era even if it did have its issues it was still fun.

January 11, 2021 at 2:05 PM

I think this is in response to (1: the obvious one being a huge budget cut due to coronavirus) but also 2: the huge rise in instacart/grubhub/amazon delivery and even uber/lyft to go off property. Disney has always tried to keep people from bringing cars so that way people were trapped on property, and the fact that you could get to the airport and just use Disney transportation for your entire trip was a big deterrent to keep people from brining their own cars. They have been desperately grasping at straws the past few years trying to discourage people from driving or getting a rental car (see: removing free parking at parks for hotel guests, charging daily parking rate at hotels, jacking up the parking cost at the parks, etc). But now that the gig economy apps have made it easy to get far better and cheaper meals delivered right to your hotel, or you can easily leave using uber, Disney is saying F it.

Personally while I get what they are going for but think they are taking it too far. Disney relies on their hardcore fans a lot more than people realize, especially now during the corona, I think doing this while continuing to charge a daily parking rate at hotels and also not allowing hotel guests to park for free at the parks is just making them come across as a bunch of greedy a**holes. DME is still extremely popular IMO it would've made more sense to wait to cut this until the Brightline station opens at Disney Springs.

Also I think 2022 is should be a huge year for WDW with the pandemic over and several major new attractions recently opened/opening that year.

January 11, 2021 at 2:05 PM

Disney has been trying to cut down on car use in the parks/hotels (I can remember you could drive right to a hotel, park there even if not a guest and then use the Disney transport systems). They had to adjust that over the years so can see this as another move.

Frankly, my family has never used the Disney buses, we always took a cab from airport to the resort we stayed at, sure others do as well but as noted, many others use it as a perk so think Disney may be underestimating the effect this has.

January 11, 2021 at 2:56 PM

Surprised Robert didn’t cover the financial angle in more detail.

1) no longer contracting with Mears reduces costs
2) more people will rent a car and pay for hotel parking (this will be the big one)

January 11, 2021 at 4:12 PM

The reasons to stay off property just keep stacking up...By the time CHEAPek is done there won’t be any highly beneficial reason to book a stay at an Orlando Disney resort...

January 11, 2021 at 4:12 PM

I am not even close to being finished writing about this!

January 11, 2021 at 5:36 PM

Saw another commentator who pointed out that with the new rail link between Orlando Airport and Disney Springs due to open in 2022 or 2023 that would offer a faster and more convenient method of transport. The transfer would be reliable and fast and the existing Disney Transportation system could then distribute guests and their luggage to individual resorts. Maybe that's in Disney's mind?

January 11, 2021 at 10:17 PM

@David Brown: As a former Florida resident, I'll say believe that rail link when it's actually built and not one minute before.

January 12, 2021 at 4:57 AM

I am toying with the idea of flying from Europe to Orlando end of August for 14 days. It would be my second visit tot WDW and this time around I'd want to have the whole Disney experience by staying onsite and only taking an Uber or Lyft up to three times to the Universal parks.

I was not planning on renting a car this time and really like the idea of getting picked up by Disney's Magical Express bus service right from the airport. However, it seems from the comments here this bus is not always the most practicle way of getting to WDW.

At least it will run when I plan to come but should I take an Uber etc instead?

What are the issues with it?

Duration, too many stops, frequency?

There are other issues for me why I am hesitant about booking my flight and making reservations.

First of all: in Europe most countries are offering free covid vaccines to the whole population in the coming months. How is that in the US? How much does the vaccine cost for the average US-American? Will many people be vaccinated by end of the summer?

Secondly, for me the most magical and special aspect of the Disney parks, particularly the ones in Florida are the parades, the shows and the fire works. At the moment it is not clear when those will resume, am I right?

Thirdly: I wanted to stay at one of the New Orleans hotels. The are unavailable for booking right now. The hotels that are available and in my price range (moderate) all seem to have been build several decades ago and even though I am sure, they offer good quality, it is not the same compared to newer standards of building and designing.

Furthermore: if I am spending that amount of money, I want to be able to have the experience I am aiming for.

As to the half hour advantage for hotel guests: sorry but that is too little of a time frame to be a real incentive to me. Make that one hour and I’d feel more special as a Disney hotel guest.

Look forward to your thoughts and ideas how to plan half a year ahead.

January 12, 2021 at 8:28 AM

The Magical Express was fantastic. It made it so easy, and the service of them dealing with your baggage was fantastic as well. I was upset to find out that the Cruise line didn't have an equivalent service. Now that I moved to Florida (40 minutes from Disney), I don't need the service, BUT I always told people about how great it was. Disney is cutting back. I hope their business model will change again after business picks up after the COVID threat has calmed down.

January 12, 2021 at 10:03 AM

@DutchDuck - We used Magical Express on our most recent trip to WDW last January. The system does have its drawbacks, but it works relatively well if you don't need to have a tight schedule when you arrive and depart.

First, when you arrive at MCO, if you have tagged your bags properly when you boarded at your home airport, you go straight to the bus. Disney pulls your checked baggage and will deliver your bags to your room later in the day that you arrive. If you want, you can even take the bus straight to the theme parks and perform your check-in electronically (Disney will relay your room number and link access to your Magic Bands - if you have them - or your smart phone as soon as its available). The main drawback of this is that you can't expect to be able to access your checked bags for at least 4-6 hours after you've arrived in Orlando. That means if you need to change clothes or need to use toiletries in your checked bags, you probably won't be able to do that for a while after you land. For example, on our most recent trip, we were aware of this delay in accessing checked bags, and packed a change of clothes in our carry-on bags for a nice dinner at Jiko. However, even after we had dinner and returned to our resort, which was nearly 4 hours after we landed, our bags had not arrived at our room. We had to work with the front desk to expedite delivery of our bags just to get them delivered before midnight on the night we arrived (we landed @ 7 PM), and they probably wouldn't have been dropped off at our room until after 1 AM had we not notified the front desk. If you're planning an arrival early in the day, and are going to spend your first day at the parks or just lounging around the resort, the baggage delivery delay is probably no big deal, but if you're arriving later in the evening and need to access items in your checked bags shortly after you arrive, the baggage delivery service is a pretty big issue. However, if you're worried about the delays in delivering checked bags to your room, you can always manually pick up your bags when you arrive at MCO (don't put the Magical Express tags on them), and take them with you to your bus.

The other drawback of Magical Express is that you're at the mercy of the bus schedule. If you have reservations or want to visit the parks shortly after arriving at MCO, Magical Express will almost certainly take longer than you expect it will. On our most recent trip, we had a dinner reservation for Jiko the evening that we arrived. However, our flight into Orlando was significantly delayed (almost 5 hours later than initially planned), which made it really tight to make our reservation (we even moved the reservation back to the last one of the day after our flight was delayed), and almost didn't make it because it took over an hour from the time we landed at MCO until we were dropped off at our resort. We were lucky because our resort was one of the first stops of the run, but it was still a very tense hour because we didn't want to get charged the $25 no-show fee for missing our dinner reservation. If our plane had not been delayed, we would have had plenty of time to make our reservation, but it's something to think about when you're planning your trip. Magical Express is most certainly not the quickest or most efficient way to get to and from MCO, but once you've tagged your bags, you're kind of stuck with it.

Also, when you need to return to the airport, you are given a time to board the bus back to the airport. It is usually 3-4 hours BEFORE your flight is scheduled to leave, so don't plan to do anything in the hours before your departure (i.e. don't plan to spend any time at the parks if you have a flight that leaves MCO before 2 PM).

As far as the vaccine and post-virus expectations in the US, I think we're all just speculating right now. I think it's possible that the full theme park experience (shows, parades, and fireworks) will be back to pre-COVID schedules by August, but it's just as possible that things are still significantly curtailed even into the early fall. If I was living in a foreign country, I don't think I would plan an overseas trip to the US this summer, because there are just too many variables. The US vaccination program has taken a very long time to get rolling, and it's unlikely that the needed herd immunity (250+ million Americans) will be achieved before the fall seeing that it's taken nearly 3 weeks to immunize fewer than 7 million people who work at hospitals and health care facilities (not only accepting of a vaccine by live/work close to where inoculations are administered). If you are insistent in making a trip this summer, August gives you the most buffer against further delays in returning to "normal", but you also have to consider that so many new attractions are being delayed beyond this summer that could be enjoyed next summer if you're able to hold off another year.

As far as the Moderate Disney resorts, all four (include both sides of Port Orleans - French Quarter and Riverside) have gone through extensive renovations over the past few years. In fact, the Destino Tower at Coronado Springs Resort features some of the newest and most modern rooms at WDW. While many of the resorts date back 20+ years, they have all gone through upgrades and renovations to put them all on similar levels in terms of amenities, building standards, and size. However, I will note that Caribbean Beach is the only moderate resort that has direct access to Disney's Skyliner, which gives you very quick and easy access to DHS and EPCOT without having to board a bus. Port Orleans has direct access to Disney Springs via boats, while Coronado Springs requires a buses to get to anywhere on WDW property. Based on all indications, rooms should be available for most WDW resorts later the spring, but Disney is deliberately controlling room availability in order to manipulate the market so they can keep prices high and to limit unnecessary labor costs by staffing resorts that are not near 100% occupancy.

January 12, 2021 at 9:11 AM

How much is uber/taxi to Disney hotel and the return trip to the airport?
The rental car agencies must be thrilled! People will once again rent cars. Disney will charge them to park those cars. And the state of Florida will collect tolls. It's a win for everyone - except the consumer.

January 12, 2021 at 9:24 AM

The rail line stuff is still a bit of a ways off but what it sounds like is that it’ll get you as far as Disney Springs without the extra added benefit of Disney getting your luggage picked up and to your room for you...So now I have to go from airplane, to train, then to bus?..........All while bringing along 6 people’s worth of luggage...Then we’d have to do all that in reverse to leave? Yeah that doesn’t sound like a logistical upgrade over the existing system they have with Magical Express...Bold prediction, ride share and car rental services are going to see an uptick in business about a year from now...

If I’m paying for a ride share to get me to the resort or renting a car, then what exactly will Disney be giving me as a benefit to stay on property? 30 minutes early entry to the parks everyday? Dining plan is gone...FP+ extra charge is a very real possibility at this point...Now this...To echo my earlier comment, they sure are cutting back on the reasons to stay on property...

January 12, 2021 at 10:14 AM

@Sneakertinker - I think the suspension of the DDP is only temporary. I would anticipate that Disney will bring back the Dining Plan after park operations return to more normal conditions. But I do agree that the benefits of staying on WDW property are slowly being minimized.

January 12, 2021 at 2:51 PM

@Russell Meyer: thank you very much for your extensive answer! I think I will make a decision on whether I will use DME as soon as I know my estimated time of arrival at Orlando Airport.

you wrote:
„but you also have to consider that so many new attractions are being delayed beyond this summer that could be enjoyed next summer if you're able to hold off another year.“

I am not so sure if those are worth the wait. Especially since none of them have specific dates or even a specific year attached to them yet.

My first and only visit is eight years back so a lot has changed and has been added both to WDW and Universal.


After all, 2021 is Disney World’s 50th anniversary!

Magic Kingdom:
Already open:
Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid
Enchanted Tales with Belle
Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
The Muppets Present … Great Moments in American History

Tron: tentatively 2022
Splash Mountain: ?
WDW Railroad: ?

EPCOT
Already opened:
Awesome Planet – The Land pavilion
„Beauty and the Beast” Sing-Along

Tentatively 2021:
Disney’s DuckTales World Showcase Adventure
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure
“Disney Harmonious”

Planned 2022
“Wondrous China”
Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster
Moana: Journey of Water

Planned 2023 beyond:
3-story Festival Center, “Dreamer’s Point”
Play! Pavilion
“Spaceship Earth: Our Shared Story”
Mary Poppins attraction

Hollywood Studios
Already opened:
Toy Story Land/ Alien Swirling Saucers and Slinky Dog Dash
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge: Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run & Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
Mickey Shorts Theater

Upcoming?

Animal Kingdom

Already open:
Pandora: The World of Avatar: Na’vi River Journey & Flight of Passage

Already gone:
“Rivers of Light: We Are One”

Upcoming?

With all the financial problems, it seems very uncertain what new rides and attractions will open in the upcoming year(s).

The current line-up of attractions that have been added since 2012 is already appealing to me. As soon as Disney's shows, fireworks and parades are up and running again I definitely want to visit again!

January 12, 2021 at 3:34 PM

I hear you DutchDuck, and there's always something new on the horizon when it comes to the Disney and Universal parks - that's why people come back to visit again and again. However, I think there's some merit in waiting to visit not only because of some of the attractions opening over the next 12-18 months, but because of the potential for pandemic operations to still be in effect when you're planning your visit, significantly reducing the enjoyment factor for a trip that will take a lot of planning and expense for someone from overseas. If you had asked me last fall if it was a good idea to start planning a summer 2021 trip, I'd say you'd probably be good, especially in August. However, given current conditions and the prospects for improvement to a level that would see most theme park visits to return to pre-pandemic expectations, I'd say you're taking a pretty significant risk of seeing dramatic impacts not only in traveling to the US, but trying to enjoy a visit to the parks.

You said that you specifically were fond of the parades and shows, and if that's an important part of the Disney experience for you, I think some, if not all of those entertainment options may be curtailed or severely limited. It's very possible that Disney may not be running parades, fireworks, or any other live performances this summer, and you have to ask yourself - if you paid thousands of dollars to visit WDW, would it be worth it if you couldn't have those experiences? I think it's important to recalibrate your expectation if you're making any significant plans right now, and either be able to cancel everything if conditions don't improve (and get your money back), or be willing to deal with any lingering impacts from the virus that almost certainly won't be gone even by August.

January 13, 2021 at 2:59 AM

There is something I am not sure has been put forward as a reason (I will be honest, I haven't read all the comments here)

but it is the "green" of Disney.
By abolishing a bus fleet (Even if it is run by a contractor) WDW can say that they are 100% carbon neutral/offest/emisssion free (or at least heavily reduced)
If I recall they are or have built a large solar farm for WDW (and not the Mickey ears shaped ones) so this could be part of the idea too.

I'm not suggesting that the extra parking costs etc aren't a factor in their decision, just adding another factor.

January 13, 2021 at 4:10 AM

My own experience:

The first time I visited Walt Disney World in 1999, my off-site hotel advertised a free shuttle to/from the airport. When I landed, and called the hotel when no shuttle arrived, I was told it didn't run that time of day. So I shared a cab with a BUNCH of other people (it was a sedan, yet they squeezed eight of us in -- there was lap-sitting involved), and somehow other people paid around $20 each, and as the last one dropped off, I was stuck with a $60 taxi fare.

The hotel also advertised free shuttles to the park. What they didn't say was that it involved sitting through a one-hour timeshare presentation EVERY DAY that I was going to a park in order to get a ticket for the shuttle.

So the one time I stayed at Epcot to watch Illuminations: Reflections of Earth, that meant I had to pay for a cab back to the hotel, since the last complimentary shuttle left Epcot when the show started.

Fortunately, I was able to catch the advertised shuttle back to the airport at the end of my trip and didn't have to take a taxi again (this was pre-Uber, of course).

Every trip since then, which is five or six in number, I've stayed on property and taken advantage of Disney's Magical Express. With that first trip to compare with, it's been wonderful to have a free, relaxing ride with Disney videos playing while I am taken to my resort. It's STILL great (even after DME is retired) to have free bus transportation to/from parks that runs late enough for me to watch Epcot's nighttime spectacular (when that is a thing again). Sure, depending on where you're staying, it may take a while (I'm looking at you, All Star Resorts, but I've had better experiences at Port Orleans: French Quarter and Caribbean Beach -- and my last visit was before the Skyliner was in service).

The loss of DME will be HUGE. The internal transportation will still be there (as far as we know), but the loss of the complimentary transportation from the airport to the resort will be a huge blow to visitors.

January 13, 2021 at 9:04 AM

@emanymton - That's an interesting take. However, all those guests currently riding DME still need to get to WDW somehow when the service stops. While buses generate emissions attributed directly to Disney (either through their owned equipment or subcontractors'), all they're doing is passing to buck to thousands of smaller vehicles that will instead be transporting all of those people to WDW. Certainly once (IF) Brightline starts running to Disney Springs, it will reduce the need for some people to take rideshares, public buses, and rental cars to WDW, but I doubt it will completely absorb the void left by DME. While Disney can claim eliminating carbon emissions on their corporate balance sheet, those emissions are not disappearing, and might even increase since there's no guarantee that people will be using low-emission or zero emission modes of transportation to and from WDW.

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