The Great Car Rental Debate

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It seems that every time I make a trip to Walt Disney World I ask myself the same question: should I rent a car this time?  I used to think renting a car was a waste of money with the free transportation from Orlando International Airport to a Disney resort via Disney’s Magical Express and the complimentary buses, boats, and monorail on property.  I thought why shell out an extra bit of money?  Surely the extra cost outweighed the benefits.  And then I took a trip that changed my opinion forever.

I was shown the light when I took a friend with my friend, Julie, on which we slept at all three All Star resorts.  We decided that since we would be moving frequently a car was the way to go.  I couldn’t believe how much faster it was to take our own car to the parks.  We just hopped in whenever we wanted and headed back to the resort whenever we wanted without any waiting around.  We didn’t have to face the long bus queues at park closing and it was great.  It was easy to get to other resorts for dinner without having to make any transfers.  And best of all, we didn’t have to be back at the resort three hours before our flights to catch the Magical Express.  We could simply head out to MCO directly from the parks.  It was I was let in on Disney’s best kept secret (and I’m not talking about DVC).  It comes down to this: time is money at Walt Disney World.  Every moment that you are waiting in line for the bus is time you could be strolling down Main Street or grabbing a fast pass for Soarin’.  The convenience of having your own wheels is pretty awesome once you’ve experienced it.

I was all set to rent a car for my next trip in August.  If there’s one thing for sure about August in Florida it’s HOT.  So I thought having a car would make taking mid-afternoon breaks quicker and easier.  The plan was to get to the parks for for rope drop, bang out as man attractions as we could, and then head back to the resort for a swim and/or a nap.  Then, after our break I would take the bus back to the parks for the evening.  If there is one thing you have learned from reading my blog posts for the last year or so it’s that I like to have a good time when I’m at WDW.  And being the responsible mouseketeer that I am I’d leave the car at the resort in favor of a nice CM driving me back to Pop Century after a few drinks around World Showcase.

This all sounded so great until I tried to actually book a car.  My first stop when renting a car is mousesavers.com.  This site is great for anyone looking to save money on their Disney World vacation, and car rentals are included.  The site lists each car company and any available discount codes at any given time.  Simply apply the codes on a car rental company’s website to see the savings.  I have found that Dollar often has the best rates so I always start with them.  Imagine my shock when the cheapest option was $392 (with the discount applied) before taxes and fees.  I am used to paying about $20 a day, but this was closer to $78 a day before all of the added fees.  After my disappointment in Dollar, I spent hours trying to get the best deal with any company I could.  Unfortunately, they were all about the same price.  I realize that August is busy and therefore the prices go up, but this price made me rethink my whole strategy.

I haven’t given up all hope yet!  Many of the discount codes available on mousesavers currently expire in June.  I’m hoping for some new ones to crop up which will apply to my dates in August.  Also keep in mind that a few friends and I will be splitting the cost for the car so that softens the blow.  Oh decisions, decision…

Help!  I could really use some opinions about what to do in this situation.  Do you think its worth it to bite the bullet and rent the car?  When does the cost of the car outweigh its benefits?  Let me know what you think.

Next week I’ll give some packing and planning advice for the upcoming hot summer months…

Kristen Helmstetter

Kristen Helmstetter is an Unofficial Guide researcher who will share her 20-something perspective of all things Walt Disney World with blog readers. Kristen’s email address is khelmstetter05@yahoo.com. You can also follow her on Twitter: @khelmstetter.

56 thoughts on “The Great Car Rental Debate

  • June 11, 2010 at 9:12 am
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    Agree about the price. I’m headed to WDW very soon and could not find and super-low rental rates. Even so, I prefer having a car when I travel to Orlando. Granted, I also always head over to Universal, but even Disney-only days are better for me with a car. I’m not wasting time waiting for a bus or stopping at hotels that are NOT my hotel, or figuring out how to get from point A to point B. I understand the financial (and even environmental) concerns, but I would say you should find the best deal possible and go for it.

    • June 11, 2010 at 10:12 am
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      I like to have a car. A trip to Disney, even a “value trip,” is pretty expensive when compared to a vacation in a lot of other places. It is important to maximize the amount of time spent on activities and minimize the amount of time spent waiting. A good touring plan helps in the parks, and a rental park helps outside of the parks. The rental car price is steeper during busy times, but may still be worth it when you factor in the value of your time. So, you have to decide it the time that you save is worth the rental car cost. If you can afford it without breaking the bank, then I say go for it. I also like to hit Wal-mart for bottles of water and snacks. You will need a LOT of water in August, so that can be a good amount of savings, too.

      Have you tried rentalcarmama.com? I have never used them, as we prefer the Emerald Aisle at National – we like to pick our vehicle. We have friends that have been going to Orlando at least yearly for more than 20 years, and that is who they recommend. It is the site they have used most recently, for I’m not sure how many years now.

      Good luck on your trip, whatever you decide.

      • June 11, 2010 at 10:12 am
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        I meant rental CAR, not park.

      • June 11, 2010 at 11:11 am
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        Hey Amy! You hit the nail on the “time is money at disney” head. Also, stopping at a grocery store or walmart was definitely something we considered when we thought about getting a car. We’re going to have a huge group and water and beer are much cheaper in bulk. I’ll look into rentalcarmama. I’ve never heard of it! I love when I get to learn new things from the readers! Thanks!

    • June 11, 2010 at 11:01 am
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      Thanks, Clinton! I’m pretty sure we’ll wait it out a little longer and hope to get a better deal and go for it. With taking mid day breaks I think its really the best way to go. I just have to justify the cost. Thanks for reading!

  • June 11, 2010 at 10:13 am
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    I got a good deal on a Thrifty rental car when I flew down to the World a few years ago. In my case, a trip to Universal is always part of the plan and you really need a car for that. The rental deals via Mousesavers were much better a few years ago. I fully concur with your assessment that the rental car companies are bringing down the big hammer on customers these days, for whatever reason(s). I don’t suppose it will get much better once the Wizarding World ramps up to normal operation.

    • June 11, 2010 at 11:03 am
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      Thrifty definitely had the best deal and I was about to book them but then I saw all kinds of terrible reviews. “thriftysucks” even started following me on twitter after i tweeted something about it. It scared me off and I thought I’d wait a while longer before I booked with them. Have you had an ok experience using them? Thanks for reading!

      • June 11, 2010 at 11:59 am
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        I actually rented from Thrifty for the same time period last August. I had a convertible (Woot!). It was really expensive though and I kinda wish I hadn’t spent the money on it then because I would have been better served to have a rental car this past March (having one on both trips wasn’t in the cards for me).

        Having easy access to Walmart was nice, but there is also the option to walk over to the Hess station near the Swolphin for cheaper drinks. If you find better deals it is something to consider though!

        • June 11, 2010 at 12:11 pm
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          Hey thanks for letting me know that Thrifty was ok! I wouldn’t spring for the convertible in WDW since I drive one at home so that wouldn’t be an issue. I heard some really terrible things about them that freaked me out.

          • June 15, 2010 at 5:54 am
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            Make sure you sign up for Blue Chip if you do book with Thrifty. For some reason, there is always a queue at the inside check-in desk. Admittedly, it’s shorter than the DME queue, but if we enjoyed waiting in lines, we wouldn’t be on this site.

      • June 14, 2010 at 6:01 am
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        I almost always rent from Thrifty in FL. It is the same company as Dollar. I usually use the Wild Car and get something fairly decent-sized (In April, this was a Ford Escape). The only thing that annoyed me on my last trip is that the Orlando Magic Card discount no longer includes additional drivers for free. At $9.95/day that adds up, if you need the flexibility additional drivers provide.

        • June 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm
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          That’s great to know that Thrifty is ok. I might go ahead and book with them pretty soon because the were a lot cheaper than the other options. Thanks for the reassurance, Rich!

  • June 11, 2010 at 10:15 am
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    Long ago and far away, I gave up on Disney transportation. I discovered once while staying at the Hilton (shhhh…don’t want Disney to hear I actually stayed off property once or twice) that driving to the parks was soooo much nicer and a much better use of time. I have been known to use the boats on occassion but if I want to ride a bus, I can go to any major metro city for the experience. When at Disney, the only rides I am interested in are those that are located inside the parks. Check priceline and other set your own price kind of places; I’ve had alot of luck with these. Also, book the smallest car possible & invariably, you will be upgraded to a larger model for cheaper (if not free) than is available on the website. As a side note, use Magical Express for that which they do best – luggage transportation. There is nothing better than bypassing the luggage area and hopping straight into your rental. It’s like having a free bellhop!

    • June 11, 2010 at 11:08 am
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      I did check priceline, etc out of desperation and their prices were not any better! I should have included that in my post. I also always use the book the cheapest option trick. Still no luck. I’ll keep my fingers crossed though! Thanks for reading and for the advice!

  • June 11, 2010 at 10:22 am
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    I would check hotwire or priceline, especially if you’re not picky about which company you go with. They always contract with a major rental car company, so you also don’t have to worry about getting stuck with some shady, flea-bitten outfit.
    I just ran a sample check on hotwire for some August dates. Both total $300 for a five or seven day stay, including taxes and fees. The thing you have to watch for on these two sites is that your credit card insurance doesn’t apply because you are paying the website, not the car rental company. So you’ll want to be sure you buy their insurance or are covered by your personal car insurance.
    I’ve also used the Entertainment book coupons, especially for National. Those can offer a huge savings, too.

    • June 11, 2010 at 11:12 am
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      Hi Brian! Thanks for chiming in! I looked at priceline, etc already but if you are saying they are better deals I’ll have to have another look. mousesavers also usually has entertainment book codes listed. Thanks again!

      • June 11, 2010 at 11:23 am
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        Be careful with the Entertainment Book Codes if you don’t have an actual book. Many companies require that you turn in the actual paper coupon when you pick up your rental to get the discount. We almost always use the E book for rental cars, with great success. We are almost always asked for the coupon at check-in. Someone you know might have a spare coupon you could have…

          • June 11, 2010 at 3:30 pm
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            Yes! I usually find that they are the best, all things considered. However, we aren’t looking at all of the rental car companies. We are pretty attached to the Emerald Aisle. (I like to have ultimate control over my rental car choice.) I also like paying for a mid-size and getting something better. Last October we rented a mid-size (the base rental for Emerald Aisle) with a discount from National. We actually drove away with a Ford Flex, which had fold down 3rd row seating. With the 3rd row folded down, there was plenty of room for the scooter we rented from Walker for my mom + other items like a cooler…and the cargo space was closer to the ground than on a typical suv, which made it MUCH easier to lift the scooter in and out.

            I also need to add that National was VERY accommodating to us, as I couldn’t find an suv on the “Emerald Aisle” lanes that seemed just right for us. They acutally told us pick any car from the suv lane that I thought would suit our needs. It was a really positve experience. We’ll be renting from them again in December on our next trip. Of course, this happened during the off season, so that might have been why they were able to be so accommodating.

          • June 11, 2010 at 3:43 pm
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            Wow that sounds great, Amy! Maybe if National’s price is good I’ll give them a shot. I have no problem with belonging to multiple preferred customer clubs so I’d certainly join the Emerald club or whatever it is they call it.

  • June 11, 2010 at 12:16 pm
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    Being from Canada, I used air miles to book a car rental (used a few miles to get a $100 off coupon). I booked with Alamo and I’ve never had a bad experience with them. I have also heard that you should reserve your car rental ahead of time, and then frequently check back to see if rates drop. I believe you can reserve without paying up front and cancel anytime. Although you are going at a peak time, you never know what can happen… happy travels!

    • June 11, 2010 at 12:48 pm
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      That could be a good tip for our Canadian friends, thanks! I looked at all the companies and would totally be willing to try Alamo so thanks for good review of them.

  • June 11, 2010 at 12:19 pm
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    The pattern I’ve noticed is that prices get to their lowest point 14-21 days out. This has happened on my past two trips (Sep 09 and Jun 10). For this June trip, I was experiencing the same thing as you are now: over $400 for a week, compared to around $180 paid on previous visits. Well sometime around 21 days out, they finally bought the prices down….now I have a mid-size from Alamo for $175 for a week using a Costco discount.

      • June 11, 2010 at 6:38 pm
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        Something I have done for our last 2 trips this year (February and May) is to book something at a price we can live with. Usually it is with Alamo using a code and coupon from the Entertainment Book or sometimes a ecoupon from the Alamo website. As departure time draws nearer, I check every few days and have had really good luck with the last minute specials email Alamo sends out. I also have had good luck with Alamo just a day or two before our vacation started and without any coupons and codes. We did have to prepay but the rate for a midsize SUV was fantastic.

        • June 12, 2010 at 10:37 am
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          We literally booked a car at the last minute (10 pm the night before we left) with Alamo. It was around $160 for a mid-size for 8 days. The rates change based on availability, so this worked for us in mid-May you may not find such a good deal during a peak time. Just keep checking back as it gets closer.

          • June 12, 2010 at 12:12 pm
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            Thanks for sharing this! I think I’m just going to wait it out and hope for the best. I am a planner when it comes to WDW trips so its hard to not know what’s happening, but I’m sure something will work out.

        • June 12, 2010 at 12:13 pm
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          Sounds like a good strategy. Thanks for sharing it! At this point I can’t even live with the price so I’ll keep waiting.

  • June 11, 2010 at 3:26 pm
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    Another option we tried was using a combination of Disney transportation and taxis. We have little kids, so we tended to leave the parks mid-day or early evening when crowds were low and the Disney transportation uncrowded. But, for dinners at other resorts, we would catch a cab every evening. A large taxi-van was very reasonable and for us (at least) the cost of a couple taxi rides each day was less than the cost of a rental car. Plus, we didn’t have to worry about going back and getting the car the following day when we had wine with dinner or a few drinks in the park.

    • June 11, 2010 at 3:41 pm
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      Thanks for the tip! Maybe we’ll try that if the price doesn’t come down.

  • June 11, 2010 at 4:50 pm
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    *IF* the monorail actually went more than five places, WDW transportation wouldn’t be hellaciously slow.

    I tried buses up until a couple years ago when I realized driving would turn an hour-long ordeal into a 5-minute jaunt. I still don’t completely understand why the WDW buses are so insanely slow.

    So yes, I have given up WDW buses pretty much forever, though they can be handy if you get tanked at DTD and need to get back to the hotel safely 😉

    • June 12, 2010 at 12:09 pm
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      You get spoiled so quickly having your own car don’t you? I generally will need to use the buses in the evening… not every night but a lot of nights 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

  • June 12, 2010 at 7:01 am
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    I don’t think it’s the time of year; I think it’s Orlando. I have family in Palm Beach, FL. (175 miles from WDW). We’re planning a trip, and I had the brilliant idea of flying into MCO, hitting Disney, then renting a car and driving down before flying back from PBI.

    The car rental price for that is astronomical; over $500 for 9 days. However, reversing that and flying into PBI, then driving up to MCO and dropping off gives me a price of less than half that.

    It will cut down on your time in the parks on day one, but had you considered pricing other nearby airports and flying into TPA and driving an hour to Disney?

    • June 12, 2010 at 12:11 pm
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      Interesting. Thanks for sharing this info! Unfortunately I wouldn’t be willing to take the extra time because its only a 5 day trip and I’m bringing someone who hasn’t been in a long time. I also have already booked my flights for the trip using MCO. Thanks for reading!

  • June 12, 2010 at 12:38 pm
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    Great post and a problem I came up against when planning for this latest trip. I had always done the mixed code thing and usually get great deals. I’ll check for better deals as I get closer and cancel\re-book if necessary. This time insane prices for late June. I finally bit the bullet and did Priceline and bid for $14 a day thinking, based on other prices, this would never be accepted. It was. For 6 days, I am paying $158. It is not the smallest size car, but the next step up. I’ll ask about an upgrade at the counter. Hertz by the way.

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:27 pm
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      That’s great! Maybe I’ll have to try that. Thanks for reading and contributing, Ed!

  • June 13, 2010 at 9:04 am
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  • June 13, 2010 at 12:00 pm
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    Kristen, Don’t give up yet! For our trip next week, we reserved early and got a good rate ($220/10 days intermediate). A couple months ago the rate for the same rental went up to $700! And then just recently they came right back down to $220 again. We’ve never been without a car; we swear by National as we’ve always gotten good rates (with the help of mousesavers) and never a bad experience.

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:28 pm
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      I won’t give up, Richard! Thanks for letting me know about your rates; that gives me hope.

  • June 13, 2010 at 5:34 pm
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    I agree with TriSec – it must be Orlando. We are driving down from Michigan, and are renting to save the miles from piling up on our own cars. I was able to reserve a mid-sized car from Hertz for 9 days for $238. We are actually debating the whole bus vs car thing. We haven’t been to WDW since 2004, and have never had a problem with the busses. But, I understand things have changed since then. My husband would rather take the bus and relax, since he’s usually the one that does the driving. We don’t have young children, so it’s never been a big deal for us to wait. Now, I am wondering if we should do more driving. Guess we’ll wait and see!!

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:29 pm
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      I’m sure the location has a lot to do with the price. It’s a busy time of year in Orlando. Have a safe trip when you drive, Carol!

  • June 13, 2010 at 6:35 pm
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    Different spin.

    Normally, I have given up on the rent or not to rent decision in favor of the Emerald Aisle! 😉

    This October, though, we’ll be going to WDW for the Food & Wine Fest (as usual) but this year I sprang for a 1BR at the Boardwalk Villas. So I’m thinking, maybe we don’t really need a rental car since we’ll be pretty strictly at EPCOT and the Studios.

    In the back of my mind, I know I’ll regret NOT renting a car, though. Has anyone rented a car from Alamo (I believe) at MCO, run your arrival errands, and then turned it in at the Swolphin? We’re arriving on Sunday and leaving on the following Friday, so maybe I’d have a car for Sunday, turn it and then get a new one on Friday. Am I crazy? Are my Scottish genetics getting the better of my common sense?

    Thanks in advance!
    – janet

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:32 pm
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      Hi, Janet! It is, indeed, Alamo who rents from the Swolphin. I thought I was going to be staying there in October, but have no switched to Yacht. When I was going to stay at Swolphin I looked into this option since they do not offer DME service. It wasn’t terribly priced so it might be worth a look for you. When are you going in October?!

  • June 14, 2010 at 1:23 pm
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    Excellent Article!!!! Thank you for the info. We can use my car in Oct. 🙂

    • June 14, 2010 at 6:33 pm
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      Thanks as always, Caroline! I’ll look forward to cruising around in your car in October!

  • June 14, 2010 at 9:52 pm
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    I just reserved a car from National – Emerald Aisle at MCO for 10 days in December. We will pick it up on Saturday @ 3ish and then drop it back off 2 Mondays later at 4:30ish. I used the Entertainment book contract id code plus a $40 off coupon, and my rate is $227 total, including all fees and taxes. That is even better than the rate I got last October. And, thanks to the Emerald Aisle, I will am only paying for a mid-size but will actually get any car of my choice on that aisle. It’s always an suv, a full-sized one. They don’t just have mid-sized, they have all sorts of better cars than that available.

    • June 16, 2010 at 7:05 am
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      That’s a great rate! When are you going in December?! I’ll be there from the 1st-6th at the Polynesian. I’ll have to look into Emerald Aisle and National; I’ve never used them before.

      • June 16, 2010 at 10:17 pm
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        We have to maximize my husband’s vacation days, so we alwyas try to work in 2 weekends for vacations. We azrrive on the 4th and leave on the 13. I would love to attend some reunion activities, but will only realistically be able to on the last day. And while my family enjoys Disney, I am the planner and the UG, touringplans and WDW Today nut. I don’t think any of the others are too interested in Reunion. Maybe if there was a Yee-Haw Bob meet on Saturday, or something like a Fantasmic meet on Sunday…

        • June 17, 2010 at 4:02 pm
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          Well I hope you get to go to some of the activities! I’d love to meet you and I will be at most of them. Either way have a wonderful Christmas time trip!

  • June 15, 2010 at 10:54 pm
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    Here is our strategy, used twice recently, to reduce bus waits and increase other conveniences. We usually stay at the Dolphin because of the close proximity to two parks we like.

    – day 1, late arrival: rent car (National or Alamo) at MCO, go to store to stock up on groceries, check in to hotel. Maybe drive to a late-closing park.

    – day 2: drive to one of the parks not walkable from Dolphin (MK or AK). Return car to Dolphin valet late afternoon.

    – middle days: visit walkable parks (HS or EP). If boat is arriving (or super-hot outside), take boat, otherwise the walk is 2/3 mi to one park and 1 mi to the other, so 10-20 minutes depending on how fast your party moves. Fireworks at HS or EP.

    – on middle days, you can also take a bus to MK in the morning, and then monorail “hop” to Epcot later for dinner or evening rides/shows, then walk or boat to hotel.

    – If we do get stuck on a bus coming back at park close, then for some reason the Y&B Club bus always seems less full and more frequent than the Swan/Dolphin/Boardwalk bus. So, we may catch that one and walk to the Dolphin from Y&B since it is next door.

    – 2nd-to-last day – rent car at Dolphin. Do AK or MK. Do DD. Watch fireworks at MK, since you can get out of their driving rather than waiting in the enormous bus line at park close.

    – last day – go to park of choice (early-opener, if you have time left before flight). Return car at airport.

    Even if you pay $70 each day, you get the National upgrade with Emerald Club, and it’s still about the same as a cab and more convenient.

    • June 16, 2010 at 7:03 am
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      Wow! Thanks for the detailed response, Brian. That sounds like a great plan, especially for those folks staying at the Swan and Dolphin. Have you found that it is more or less expensive to pick up at the airport and drop off at the Swan/Dolphin? Thanks again!

      • June 16, 2010 at 12:10 pm
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        It doesn’t cost any extra to rent at the airport and return at the Dolphin and vice-versa. I think there is another National/Alamo place around the parks as well.

        • June 16, 2010 at 12:22 pm
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          Good to know. Yes, there is another car rental facility at the Car Care Center on property. Its probably easier to get to the Swan and Dolphin using WDW transportation though. Thanks again!

  • June 20, 2010 at 7:38 pm
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    We are coming to WDW for our first trip this September for our daughters 4th B-Day! We are flying into Sanford. Any recommendations for car rentals? We are staying at all star music.

  • August 10, 2010 at 3:22 pm
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    If may hard to take a decision,please follaw an old saying in China: letting nature take its course!

  • August 23, 2011 at 6:07 am
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    Finish the rent or own argument. Rent to own homes serve an important purpose in today’s gloomy economy: They provide us the opportunity to determine if they’d be better off as renters or homeowners.

Comments are closed.