Do I Need to Rent a Car at Disney World?

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There are few things that make Walt Disney World visitors as passionate as the question of whether or not to rent a car during their vacation. Some folks claim that you absolutely MUST rent a car. Others are horrified by the thought of spending money on a rental when there is perfectly good FREE transportation at Walt Disney World. The reality is that, as with most Disney questions, the answer to “Do I Need to Rent a Car?” is a resounding “It depends.”

If you're staying on Disney property, you qualify for free transportation from the airport to your hotel.

If you’re staying on Disney property, you qualify for free transportation from the airport to your hotel.

I was 100% in the no-rental camp for many years. During my first 20 or so family WDW vacations, we only rented a car twice, and those rentals were just because my husband was attending conferences on site and his company paid for it. I secretly laughed at folks who said that a car was necessary at Disney World. And then I stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge for the first time, where I learned that having a car would have saved me hours of frustration and waiting.

Staying at a different resort, one a bit further afield, made me realize that the car rental question really has many answers depending on a number of factors. Here are some things to think about to help you decide whether renting a car at Disney World makes sense for your family’s vacation.

What is my budget?

If you’re staying on Walt Disney World property, free transportation via Magical Express is included with your stay. This will get you back and forth from the airport to Disney World. Once you’re on property, there is free transportation to the theme parks, resorts, Downtown Disney, and the water parks via an extensive system of monorails, boats, and buses.

This means that if you’re on a super strict budget and don’t want to allot any money toward in-vacation transportation, then you can certainly get around Walt Disney World without renting a car. No additional expense is required.

What are the rental car rates?

Depending on the timing of your visit, you may find rental car rates to be extremely high or extremely low. Using Priceline or Expedia, I’ve sometimes been able to find small car rental rates at Orlando International for less than $10 per day. Even adding tolls and gas this would put a weekly rental in the $100 range, a mere blip in the cost of many Disney vacations. A reasonable price may be enough to tip the scales in favor of renting.

If you’re comparison shopping, remember to consider any membership programs that may give you a discount (AAA, Costco) or credit points (some airlines, rental agency loyalty plans).

How many people are in my party?

If you’re traveling with a family of more than four or five people, then you would likely be forced to rent a larger, and thus more expensive, vehicle. For a large party, skipping the rental and using Disney transportation is even more likely to make financial sense.

You can get

Some Disney hotels are only served by bus transportation to the parks. Others have boats or monorails. This may impact your car rental decision.

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. (But remember, Swan and Dolphin guests do not qualify for Magical Express, so that’s another factor to consider.)

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 large moderate resorts 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. For example, I have one acquaintance with a moderate germ phobia. She finds that using a rental car gives her more peace of mind rather than using the “public” transportation at Disney World.

Your resort location may play a factor in whether you decide to rent a car.

Your resort location may play a factor in whether you decide to rent a car.

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.

Will I be arriving in the area via Orlando International Airport?

Disney’s free Magical Express service is only available at 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.

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 line will likely not have to fold a stroller to get to a monorail-accessible theme park.

Where will I be eating most of my meals?

When using Disney’s free transportation system, getting from a resort to a theme park is fairly straightforward. For the most part, you take a boat, bus, or monorail 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 Pop Century resort and want to get to a dinner reservation at 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian using Disney transportation, you’ll have take a bus from the Pop 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.

The possibility of renting a sweet ride might influence your decision.

The possibility of renting a sweet ride might influence your decision.

How long is your trip?

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.

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.

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 action; 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.

If you do decide to drive, be sure to note where you park. The lots can be confusing.

If you do decide to drive, be sure to note where you park. The lots can be confusing.

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 car.

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?

Taking an occasional 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 taxi alone. You may want to factor your feelings about this into your rental decision.

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? Are you pro or con rental? Have you changed your mind over the years? Let us know in the comments below.

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Posted on December 13, 2013

18 Responses to “Do I Need to Rent a Car at Disney World?”

  • When my girlfriend and I went earlier this year, we didn’t rent and were pretty happy with the decision. Granted, we’re both fairly urban people who are used to public transportation and walking extensively. We spent five nights at the All-Star Movies resort, and ate most of our meals in the parks, though getting to the Boardwalk area for a breakfast and mini-golf was a bit of a hassle. The cast members at the hotel were also not very knowledgeable about the bus system, causing some confusion and delays. Nonetheless, a few additional anti-rental points:

    1. The Immersion Effect. When you rely on Disney transportation, once you get off the plane you’re whisked away into a complete fantasyland with very little intrusion by the outside world until you’re back at the airport, which to me is kind of the point of a Disney World vacation. There’s just less to worry about, and there are little touches like the video on the Magical Express and the music and announcements on the park buses that keep you in the magic.

    2. Decompression Time. We’re the type to totally exhaust ourselves with 14-hour marathon park days. By taking the Disney buses, we were able to relax and even fall asleep on the way back to the hotel. Then we’d get back to the room and immediately crash in bed. Compare that to sitting in traffic as you try to exit a parking lot and navigating your way back to the hotel. In the mornings, the bus rides were a chance to wake up with a coffee, and build some excitement for the upcoming day, though I doubt that would be very different with a rental car, except for the Immersion Effect discussed above.

    3. Interpersonal Interactions. There’s something communal about being on a bus with a bunch of strangers that’s different than in the parks, where every person represents additional wait time and another head to see around. On the buses, you all have the same goal, and there’s no competition, so I find it easier to appreciate people and remember that you’re all there just trying to enjoy yourselves. Talk to people to get ideas, news, and recommendations. See the little girl in the princess costume who just can’t wait to meet her favorite character. Reminisce on your experiences when you were in the shoes of some of your younger co-transitees. (Middle school graduation trip, anybody?) Disney World is such a happy place, and I find the buses are an easy place to share in other people’s happiness, and spread some of your own. I have very positive memories of the satisfying feeling that comes from the extremely appreciative father who needed a hand with a stroller while balancing a child and three bags, or the woman who really needed my seat to relax while holding a sleeping child. And even the grumpy folks are great for laughing under your breath at, and telling stories about later. One way or the other, some of our favorite Disney moments came from the bus trips.

    4. ENVIRONMENTAL CONSCIOUSNESS!!! (This one really should be in the article, Erin.) The Disney buses run on compressed natural gas, which is much cleaner than standard gasoline, and public transportation is pretty much always a more eco-friendly transportation alternative.

    • Wow – thanks for adding such a detailed analysis. Your points 1, 3, and 4 are excellent, but I really think #2 is an “it depends” situation. I agree with you about 2 if you’re alone or with a group of adults. However, if you’re going back to your hotel after the fireworks on a crowded bus trying to juggle a few sleeping kids and all their gear, you’re not getting very decompressed.

      Thanks again for your thoughts.

    • by Laurel Stewart on December 13, 2013, at 10:15 am EDT

      Tom nailed it in his first paragraph. Unofficial Guide research has told us that for many folks Disney transportation is their first experience with shared transit. If you’re used to driving everywhere at home, taking (and waiting for) a bus is going to be something to get used to. We found that people who are accustomed to public transit are far happier with Disney transit than those who aren’t.

      • I rely completely on public transportation at home, and I find the Disney system to be really annoying. At home I can track individual buses and trains and know precisely when I need to get to a stop. I get text alerts when the bus will be at my stop. With Disney buses you never know if it’s going to be a 3 minute wait or a 30 minute wait.

        In addition, the point to point system of Disney buses is obviously less confusing to guests, but not exactly the most efficient public transportation system.

  • Great article. I’d encourage people who are having a difficulty finding a reasonable rate on a rental car to continue checking. The last time we rented a car at WDW, we reserved a vehicle but found a deal 3 days before we left that saved us about 70%.

    Also, a tip I picked up from the WDW Today podcast guys: if you rent a vehicle, sign up for the company’s VIP service. It’s usually free and can save a lot of time with check-in and check-out. When we rented our vehicle, we bypassed a line of 15 people and went right up to a clerk literally doing nothing–we got our vehicle and were on the road in 10 minutes. It was like FastPass for rental cars! :)

  • by Laurel Stewart on December 13, 2013, at 10:18 am EDT

    Tip for those arriving by Amtrak – book your rental car for pick up at the airport, then catch a very short cab ride from the Orlando (not Kissimmee) station to MCO. It’s usually way cheaper than renting from the station where there’s not as much competition.

  • Going to Disney World with our young kids, renting a car is a must because of all the gear (strollers, change of clothes, etc.) that we want to have with us. We also have driven to Florida from Missouri, so that makes it easy too.

    When they get older, I might change my tune if we decide to fly. I doubt it, though. The bus system is not as sharp as it once was, and the headaches that it causes at the end of a long day isn’t worth it. I’d rather stroll out to the car, drive back to our nice condo, and actually enjoy spending time away from the crowds.

    I will say that I went on a solo trip, I’d ditch the car and just enjoy not having to mess with it. But that’s my preference; my wife has a different opinion.

  • We live in SC and always drive to WDW, but we rarely use our car unless we have reservations for dinner at a resort. We’ve stayed almost exclusively and Port Orleans Riverside and rarely had issues with bus service; we are usually on the first bus of the morning, often with the bus driver, and hearing their stories is always interesting.
    We’re headed there next week with a bigger group than usual,so we’re staying at Art of Animation. We’re lucky enough to be in the Nemo area, which seems to be close to the bus, but I’m nervous about how quickly the buses will be running during such a high capacity time (we usually go the second week in September). Fingers crossed that a car is not needed.
    BTW – Car or no, I would always recommend taking a bus to MK. Having to go the transportation and ticket center first is a pain.

  • We live in SC and always drive to WDW, but we rarely use our car unless we have reservations for dinner at a resort. We’ve stayed almost exclusively at Port Orleans Riverside and rarely had issues with bus service; we are usually on the first bus of the morning, often alone with the bus driver, and hearing their stories is always interesting.
    We’re headed there next week with a bigger group than usual,so we’re staying at Art of Animation. We’re lucky enough to be in the Nemo area, which seems to be close to the bus, but I’m nervous about how quickly the buses will be running during such a high capacity time (we usually go the second week in September). Fingers crossed that a car is not needed.
    BTW – Car or no, I would always recommend taking a bus to MK. Having to go the transportation and ticket center first is a pain.

  • We always rent a car going to WDW, because our time is valuable to us, and because we are usually going somewhere outside the resort. On our last trip, we took a Disney cruise, picked up a car at Port Canaveral after disembarking, then drove to Universal, spent a few days, then drove to WDW and spent a few more days. We’re planning on doing something similar this June.

    But even on WDW property (we like to stay at the Epcot Resorts) we like the rental car. Frankly, waiting for the busses just takes too darn long. We have done that before and swore never to do it again. From the Beach Club (our preferred resort) we can walk to the back door of Epcot and walk or take the boat to DHS, but AK, MK and Downtown DIsney are must-drives. Even Epcot is a must-drive if we want to be there for rope drop, as the Beach Club will only let you in the International Gateway (which is too far away to grab early morning FP or make the first round of Sum of All Thrills). We hop in our car (which isn’t any further a walk than the bus stop itself) and immediately we’re off. Since parking is free for hotel guests, there’s only a minimal gas cost (given that we have the rental car already). We’re at the front gate of whatever park we wish to go to long before the bus would ever arrive. It’s worth it to us to have that extra 30-60 minutes that would otherwise be spent on transportation. We are city (suburbs) dwellers, and while we are used to public transportation, we prefer driving ourselves, because we like being in control of our movement. It would stress me out more being on a slow-moving bus than driving my own car.

    And Leslie, I can understand what you’re trying to do by taking the bus to the MK, but for us, part of the fun is taking the monorail. For DH and myself, it brings back memories of when we were kids and MK was the *only* park, and the monorail was our first real Disney experience. The kids remember riding in the front car, going into the Contemporary Resort (where we were staying on that trip). If you want immersion, the monorail is the only way to go when traveling to the MK! In fact, being rope drop aficionados, we like to park early at the TTC and walk to the Polynesian to pick up the first monorail of the day.

    But maybe that’s just us.

    • Not just you! We love taking the monorail or the ferry boat over to the Magic Kingdom. It is part of our experience.

      We usually drive but we tried the Disney transportation on a few trips and really disliked it. You have to budget in so much extra time to get everywhere. We have run a few experiments where my husband heads to the buses while the kids and I walk out to our car and we see which one gets to our next destination faster. Disney transportation has never won (not counting the monorail). Not park to resort, resort to park, or park to park.

      I understand the total immersion idea, but I like to just get where I am going in the least amount of time.

      I suppose

    • HelenB, that make sense! I do consider the monorail a must do, as well as a visit to the Polynesian/Captain’s Cook for some Tonga Toast. We usually have one day where we start in MK and finish up in Epcot, so we get the ride in then. :) Reliving traditions is a great part of the WDW experience.

  • After traveling without a rental in 2011 and with this year, my verdict is:

    1. If you’re planning to have more than occasional resort-to-resort travel, get a rental car. For my October 2013 trip, part of the point was to go to resort signature restaurants using our upgraded free dining. CSR to Yacht Club by bus takes at least an hour; CSR to Yacht Club by car is 5 minutes.

    2. If you’re staying at a resort outside the MK or Epcot areas, and you’re not from a non-driving city (e.g., not from New York City or London), get a rental car. Resting on your way back to the resort sounds great…and then you realize that you only maybe get to rest if you get a seat, after waiting 45 minutes for a bus at closing time. Also, at most moderates, your room will have parking much closer than the bus drop-off. Not sure if this is true at the values, and POFQ is an exception because it’s small. I didn’t mind the transportation that much in 2011 when we only had one resort-to-resort meal planned (and Hoop Dee Doo has better transportation than others), we were at POFQ near the main building, and we lived in New York. Now that I live in a Chicago suburb and drive everywhere, I don’t think I have the patience to wait 30 minutes for a crowded bus.

    3. But if these don’t apply to you, Disney transportation is better at keeping you in the “Disney Bubble.” Tom’s points 1 & 3 above are right…they just don’t outweigh the pain of taking an hour each way on the bus for a 5 minute trip by car. Also, park-hopping is easier on Disney transportation because you don’t have to hop back. We did feel a little silly on our trip going to DHS, taking the boat to Epcot for lunch, then taking the boat back to DHS just to get our car.

  • I like the buses and will continue to use them. However, we always budget $60 for taxies in case a bus is taking too long. On our last trip we only had to spend about $40 of the $60, which was worth it.

    But please be careful, we were exhausted after a HS visit and wanted to take a cab instead of the bus, and there were a group of taxi drivers waiting. We chose one because he said he had a van and car seats, and he led us to his personal van. He obviously was moonlighting, but we didn’t feel safe.

    Also, on our first trip we took a cab and he told us that car seats weren’t necessary in a cab, just like the buses, because we were on property. I later found out that this was not true. Cabs, even the bigger vans, require car seats.

  • We did just one trip where we didn’t rent a car. We were staying at Coronado Springs, and the bus wait wasn’t terrible on most days. However the Magical Express trip back had us leaving the resort a couple of hours ahead of when we would have if we had driven. That trip we were at the airport completely checked in and through security and still had over two hours before our flight departed! I would have preferred to have the extra sleep instead. I like to have to option to drive or use transportation, plus we will generally go offsite to purchase some snacks for the room as well.

  • For my first ten trips to WDW, I stayed on property and used their transit with few problems. Hotels on monorail are obviously the most convenient but buses were typically OK.

    In January 2013, we went to WDW with many family member and rented a minivan. BEST decision we made! What an easy way to travel. I tried the bus one day when my husband had to drop off family at the airport. We were staying at Port Orleans – French Quarter. We waited 45 minutes for the bus to Animal Kingdom and then had to make several stops at Riverside before we were on our way. It was miserable. We just wanted to get to the park.

    So while I thought our stay at Port Orleans was just the worst of any WDW experience we’ve ever had, the bus system seemed to just confuse me even more as to how anyone likes this resort. At least with All Star hotels, you are paying a lot less.

    If staying at Port Orleans French Quarter or Riverside – trust me – rent a car!

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