Now that Walt Disney World has done away with its Magical Express bus service (free transportation from the Orlando airport to WDW), guests are more often now considering whether they should rent a car during their Walt Disney World vacation.
Let’s start by saying that while you can no longer get from the airport to your Disney hotel for free, there are plenty of fee-based services that will transport from MCO to WDW, including Mears Transportation buses, Sunshine Flyer buses, town car and limo services, ride share cars, and taxis. And once you’ve arrived at Disney World, there are plenty of ways to traverse the Disney campus at no cost, including monorails, buses, boats, and the Skyliner gondola system.
But still, if you’re paying for airport transportation anyway, your next question is probably, “Well, shouldn’t I just rent a car?” Here are some things to think about:
What are the rental car rates?
Car rental rates vary wildly depending on supply and demand, the length of your rental, and the size vehicle you need. Your first step in deciding whether to rent a car should be a quick search online to get a rental price estimate. As you plan your search, you’ll want to check the major rental companies (particularly any that you have a rewards affiliation with), as well as travel aggregators such as Priceline or Hotwire. Also be mindful if you have any memberships such as AAA or AARP that might offer discount codes.
What other costs will I incur if I rent a car?
In addition to price of the car itself, you’ll also need to factor in the price of any insurance you might purchase, tolls, gas, and parking fees.
If you are staying at a Disney-owned hotel at Walt Disney World, parking is free. But make sure you know whether it’s a Disney-owned hotel. Many hotels within the gates of the Disney World Resort, such as the Swan and Dolphin and many Disney Springs area hotels, charge for parking.
Guests staying at non-Disney hotels will also be charged for parking at the theme parks. Standard parking for a car or motorcycle is currently $25 per day at the theme parks. Oversized vehicle parking (campers, RVs, limos, etc.) is $30 per day at the theme parks.
If you want to get a little closer to the action, you can buy access to a preferred parking area for $45-50 per day. (There are seasonal variations.) If you’re among the first guests to arrive at a theme park in the morning, you may find that the preferred area is close to equidistant from the front gate as the first few rows of regular parking.
Note: This fee is per vehicle, not per person. Disney annual pass holders are exempt from theme park parking fees, but not the hotel parking fees at non-Disney resorts.
Where am I staying?
The cold hard truth is that some resorts have a better transportation situation than others. If you’re staying at the Grand Floridian, Polynesian or Contemporary, then you have easy monorail access (with no stroller folding) to two of the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom and Epcot). Similarly, guests of the BoardWalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Swan, and Dolphin resorts have easy access to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you’re staying at one of these resorts, it will be easier and faster to use Disney’s free transportation than a car to get to many locations. And guests of the Riviera, Caribbean Beach, Art of Animation, and Pop Century resorts are on the Skyliner route, giving easy access to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
On the other hand, if you’re staying at Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village or the Saratoga Springs Treehouses, you’re far removed from even the main part of your own hotel. Having now stayed at both those locations myself, I know that I will never stay there again without access to my own automobile. Guests staying at the outer buildings of the largest resorts, such as Coronado Springs or Saratoga Springs, will also want to think carefully about whether having a car makes sense for them.
If you’re staying at a hotel off Disney property and are thinking of using their shuttle service to get to the parks, be sure to ask many pointed questions about the frequency of service. The hotel’s answers may sway you that a car rental is the way to go.
Do any of the guests in my party have special needs?
Depending on their itinerary, guests with special needs may find that either a rental or using Disney transportation is more appealing based on their personal circumstances. Remember to consider this as you look at your options. You’ll also want to take into consideration any non-obvious medical or psychological needs in your party.
Every Disney World hotel and theme park has ADA-compliant designated parking areas near the front of the guest parking lots. Valid disability parking permits are required for these areas. Guests with questions about accommodations for disabled guests should contact Disney directly at (407) 560-2547 or email email@example.com.
Do I like to drive?
I very much dislike driving. This certainly played a large role in my family’s early rejection of renting cars during our Disney vacations. For me, giving up the chore of driving for a week made vacation time infinitely better. If you don’t mind, or even enjoy driving, then your situation will be different.
Will I be visiting other Orlando area attractions?
If you’re planning to visit other Orlando or Florida area attractions such as Universal Studios, SeaWorld, LegoLand, the Kennedy Space Center, shopping outlets, or the beach, then you’ll be much more efficient with your time if you have access to a vehicle. If you will only be going “off-campus” for one or two days of a lengthy Disney vacation, then you may want to investigate a partial stay rental from the Alamo or National desks at the Dolphin Hotel or the Disney Car Care Center. At the very least you should run a quick estimate on Uber or Lyft to see what the cost would be to use one of those services so you can compare it to the rental price.
Will I be arriving in the area via Orlando International Airport?
Some of the airport transportation options such as Mears or Sunshine Flyer are only available from Orlando International. If you’re arriving in the region via Sanford or Tampa airport or by rail, then a rental may be the most time and money-efficient way for you to travel. Again, try spot-checking Uber and Lyft rates to compare those options to rental rates.
During one particularly fraught Disney visit this spring, I ended up taking an Uber from Tampa International to Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. The rate was about $130, but there is wide variability in rideshare pricing.
Will we be using a stroller during our vacation?
Some guests have issues with carrying strollers onto a Disney bus. If you find this to be a challenge, then you may want to consider a rental car. On the other hand, you’ll still need to fold the stroller to get it into the car. Guests staying on the monorail on Skyliner lines will likely not have to fold a stroller to get to their connected theme parks.
Where will I be eating most of my meals?
When using Disney’s free on-campus transportation system, getting from a resort to a theme park is fairly straightforward. For the most part, you take a boat, bus, monorail, or Skyliner directly from the resort to the park. But getting from one resort to another is often more complicated, involving one or more mid-trip transfers. For example, if you’re staying at the All-Star Sports resort and want to get to a dinner reservation at Cirtico’s in the Grand Floridian using Disney transportation, you’ll have to take a bus from the All-Stars to the Magic Kingdom, and then transfer to the monorail to the Grand Floridian. Whenever there are transfers, the possibility of waiting and delays is increased, making resort-to-resort transportation generally inefficient with the Disney system.
If you will be dining primarily at your own hotel (or an easily accessible sister resort) or at the theme parks, then using Disney’s system is generally fine. However, if you’ll be doing much of your dining at distant resorts, then renting a car may be something to strongly consider. Or, again, consider how much you might budget for rideshares or taxis to make your transportation more efficient.
Will drinking alcohol be a part of my Disney vacation?
Having adult beverages is part of the “I’m on vacation” ethos for some Disney World guests. If you plan to have drinking play a role in your touring, then relying on Disney’s transportation is the more responsible way to travel. (Remember, even two drinks can put some folks over the legal limit.) If you’re doing this over multiple days of your trip, then skipping the car rental could be the better way to go from both a safety and economic perspective.
How long is your vacation?
Some guests feel that if they’re only at Walt Disney World for a short time, then they want to be as time efficient as possible, making a rental more attractive. Other guests feel that a long stay means a greater need for a car due to the increased likelihood of off-property visits and dining. These are stylistic and personal priority issues you may want to consider.
Do I have car seat issues?
The free Disney boats, buses, and monorails are not configured to anchor car seats. If you feel like your young child must be restrained at all times, then you may want to consider renting a vehicle. On the other hand, if you’re coming from far away and don’t want to deal with the hassle of a car seat, or the expense of renting one, then using Disney’s transportation may make more sense for you.
Check out Becky’s tips if you have car seat-age children and are considering using rideshare transportation.
Are you coming from a home outside the US?
If you’re an international guest, there may be license issues that impact your ability to rent a vehicle. Additionally, if you come from a country where driving takes place on the opposite side of the road from the US, then you may feel more comfortable foregoing a rental and using Disney transport and/or rideshares.
How old are you?
Many car rental agencies will not rent to guests under age 25. If you’re a younger traveler, Disney transportation may be your only option.
Am I impatient?
Or maybe I should say, “Do I need to be in control?”
Using Disney transportation is often quick and efficient, sometimes slow and plodding, but it is always out of your control. When you drive, you’re in charge of your actions; with the Disney system, someone else is running the vehicles. If you can’t handle waiting or uncertainty, then a rental car may be a better option for you.
Do I have issues with heat?
If you’re traveling during the hot season in Florida (basically April through September), any car left in a parking lot will be HOT when you get into it. Not like a little warm hot, but third circle of hell I think I might die right here on the pavement hot. Seriously, I almost passed out getting into a rental in the Epcot parking lot in September just from the waves of heat radiating off the parking lot blacktop.
If you take Disney buses and monorails, you’ll find that the vehicle is air-conditioned and cool from the moment you step inside.
Am I willing to take occasional taxis, Ubers, or ride shares?
Taking an occasional ride share or taxi (to a meal at another resort, for example) can make not renting a car much more palatable. However, some people, particularly some single women, are uncomfortable in a vehicle alone with a stranger. You may want to factor your feelings about this into your rental decision.
Some seniors or folks from rural areas may not have much experience with rideshare apps and may be nervous about using an unfamiliar service.
Wrapping it up …
As you can see the decision process may be quite different, depending on a wide variety of factors. If you’re in a large party with several toddlers staying at the Grand Floridian, then Disney transportation may be the way to go. If you’re a single woman staying at Caribbean Beach Resort, then a rental car may make more sense. But even with these fairly easy cases, there may be personal factors that influence the decision in the other direction.
Fellow travelers, are there any other things that factor into your choice about whether to rent a car during your family’s Disney World vacation? Let us know in the comments!