The Not-So-Magic Bus: Walt Disney World and Orlando’s LYNX Public Transportation System

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The LYNX route 50 bus from downtown Orlando to Walt Disney World.

The LYNX route 50 bus from downtown Orlando to Walt Disney World.

Most visitors to Walt Disney World must decide between renting a car at Orlando International Airport for the length of their vacation, or relying on Disney’s free Magical Express and internal transportation system if staying in an on-property hotel. But a small number of guests, and a much greater number of employees, rely on Orlando’s public transportation system — known as the LYNX bus — to get to and from the theme parks each day.

I’ve lived less than thirty miles from Walt Disney World’s main gate for almost 20 years, but in all that time I’d never taken public transit to the parks. That changed last month, when I participated in the Transit Interpretation Project (or TrIP) an educational experiment organized by arts activist Patrick Greene, curator of downtown Orlando’s Gallery at Avalon Island. Greene gathered a diverse cross-section of Orlando’s artists, writers, and performers to each dedicate a single day in November to riding LYNX buses and documenting their experiences.

I selected Wednesday, November 13, as my day to ride LYNX bus route 50, the most direct bus from downtown Orlando to the Magic Kingdom. For the purposes of the project, I was provided with a $50, 30-day unlimited ride bus pass to use, which was transferred each day from TrIP participant to participant. Ordinarily, a single one-way bus trip costs $2, while a one-day unlimited-trip pass costs $4.50; only cash is accepted on board the buses, and exact change is required.

My adventure began shortly after 10 a.m. as my wife dropped me off at the LYNX Central Station on Garland Avenue in downtown Orlando, less than ten minutes from my home. LYNX’s station is clean, modern, well-lit, and patrolled by police, though it does attract members of Orlando’s indigent population after dark. Commuters, many of whom must take the same route every day, had already self-organized a queue for the 10:16 a.m. departure before I arrived; Foursquare tips suggest you line up early for this route during peak commuting times,which seems like a good idea if you want a seat. The bus loaded promptly, despite my amateur fumbling with the ticket scanner, and by 10:19 a.m. we were on Interstate 4 en route to Lake Buena Vista.

LYNX buses are considerably more comfortable than the yellow bus you may have taken back in high school, with wide padded seats similar to those on the Community Coaches I sometimes take from the New Jersey suburbs into Manhattan. I used an iPhone audio recording app to document my trip, hoping to capture some sociologically insightful interactions with my colorful fellow passengers, but the hard truth about bus travel is that hardly anyone acknowledges each other’s presence, much less makes idle conversation with strangers. In fact, I’m not sure I even heard the English language spoken (except in heavily accented whispers) during my entire day aboard LYNX.

The most memorable passenger I encountered was the woman with a bird’s nest hairdo who sat across the aisle from me during the first leg of my voyage; despite being slumped over asleep, or perhaps unconscious, she managed to balance a bag of pretzels in her perpetually outstretched hand without ever spilling one, while continually sinking lower and lower in her seat, in an apparent miracle of instinctual acrobatics. She was certainly more entertaining to observe than the young man sitting next to me, who sat listening to music on a Sony voice tape recorder circa 1998, something I wasn’t aware was still possible.

With no traffic on I-4 to speak of, we smoothly passed Universal Orlando by 10:27 and exited onto State Road 528 (a.k.a. The Beachline) at 10:30. Until this point, the bus’s populace appeared to be exclusively locals. But by 10:40 an influx of out-of-towners had boarded at the hotel-adjacent stops near SeaWorld and International Drive, including a European family with several small children and a Japanese couple eagerly perusing a Wizarding World of Harry Potter guidebook in kanji (hope they weren’t too disappointed to arrive at WDW and find the wrong magical castle).

Here’s the funny thing about public transportation: it only took under 30 minutes to make it from downtown Orlando to Palm Parkway, a trip that would take almost the same amount of time in my car. But congestion in the Lake Buena Vista roads is so bad that it took another 7 minutes to make it onto Vineland Road near the Crossroads Shopping center, 4 more to make the turn into Disney property on Hotel Plaza Boulevard, and another 9 to park at Downtown Disney West Side. Traffic past the former Pleasure Island entrance is particularly poorly engineered, and will likely only get worse as construction on the new Disney Springs development progresses.

It was 11:11 a.m. by the time my bus arrived at the Transportation and Ticket Center, 55 minutes after we departed downtown and nearly half an hour after approaching the edge of Disney’s property. Unlike Disney’s own internal transportation, LYNX buses are not allowed to drop off at the Magic Kingdom’s bus loop, so travelers must use the monorail or ferry boat to get to the park, itself.

Ironically, on the day of my visit “high winds” disabled the ferry service, so I availed myself of the temporary bus service to avoid the overloaded monorail queue.

After a few hours in the park, it was time for my return trip, this time on on a double-length “green monster” accordion bus. There is no shelter in the TTC’s bus parking lot, so the wait for our 3:03 p.m. departure was particularly chilly on this windy day; I’d hate to have to stand out there in the rain. This time, my 20-odd fellow riders observed a zombie-like silence, staring straight ahead. We departed Downtown Disney at 3:16, exited Disney property at 3:27, and passed SeaWorld at 3:36. After a detour onto John Young Parkway to avoid congestion approaching Orange Blossom Trail, we arrived at the downtown depot where I started at 4:02 p.m., a 59 minute one-way voyage.

I survived my LYNX route 50 experiment unharmed, having saved gas and vehicular wear-and-tear, while only sacrificing minutes out of my day. For the vast majority of Mickey’s guests, LYNX is something that they will likely never utilize, though they’ll be grateful it’s available if they ever need it. But next time you see one of these colorful buses, think of the hundreds of Walt Disney World cast members who must spend hours every day riding LYNX to work so that they can make the magic happen.

 

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Posted on December 17, 2013

15 Responses to “The Not-So-Magic Bus: Walt Disney World and Orlando’s LYNX Public Transportation System”

  • My husband had a conference in Orlando and we decided to make a mini vacation out of it. We were staying at the Orlando Conference Center attached to the mall. We took the Lynx system so we could go Disney World for a few days. It was a bit different from using magical express or having a rental car. But it was definitely a unique experience.

  • This post embodies a long-outdated assumption about public transit in America. The whole tone that riding an “Ooh, Scary!” public bus is something to avoid is insulting to the thousands of us who read this blog from our homes in cities that heavily rely (and work very well) on public transit. Public transit ridership across the United States is at its strongest level in decades. Cities across the country are improving rail and bus service, and headlines about how useful that service is are numerous. I’m really glad you “survived” your ride on LYNX. Frankly, it doesn’t sound that different to me than the smells, sights, and people you encounter on Disney’s own buses and monorails. These are the real people you happen to share Orlando and WDW with. Why do you find them more appealing on a Disney bus than a LYNX bus?

    • As someone who lives in a big city, giving up my car, and relying heavily on public transportation, I can firmly say the only thing scary about a public bus is not knowing the routes and exactly where they are going.

      What is amazing to me is that the Lynx bus left both stops (downtown and TTC) on schedule. When is the last time a Disney bus did that? Oh wait… there is no schedule for Disney buses. Unlike the Lynx bus you can plan your schedule around, on Disney buses you are completely at the mercy of Disney waiting 3 minutes or 30 minutes for the next bus. This is an area where Disney transportation is really lacking.

    • Thanks for your feedback Michael, I’m sorry if you felt that way but I think you may have missed the point of the post. It was intended to be an evenhanded look at one day in the life of route 50, with both positives and negatives.

      Most WDW visitors will never take Lynx because of the preconceptions you note, which is exactly why I wrote this article. Aside from the clearly tongue-in-cheek use of the word “survived” I’m not sure where you got the impression that I found Lynx passengers less “appealing” than those on Disney transport, especially since I’ve written rants about awful experiences on WDW’s buses in the past. And like I mentioned, I grew up taking public transportation into and around NYC so I have no issue rubbing shoulders with fellow commuters; in fact my biggest complaint in the article is that I didn’t get enough of the interaction I observe on the NYC subway because everyone was in their own bubble.

      Lynx has its downsides — chiefly the amount of time it takes to get somewhere — but the “smells, sights, and people” are not ones I criticized. On the contrary, as I say in the closing, these are largely the employees who make the magic happen for guests every day.

      I participated in the TrIP project, as I have in local forums on Sunrail and other transportation issues, because I care about the topic. But attacking journalists who try to deal honestly (if humorously) with the common public perceptions of mass transit doesn’t further the cause.

      Thanks again for reading, and for your input.

    • I commuted by public bus for multiple years, and I took no offense at this post.

      The majority of people in the United States (and certainly a car-centric metropolis of sprawl like Orlando) knows nothing about riding a public bus. The point of the project in which Seth participated is to capture life on public transit–both the good and the bad. If public transit is working well in Orlando (and I suspect it is, since LYNX has won awards and such), the project should be a positive thing for mass transit in the area.

      More relevant to this blog might be something about a trip between a transit hub (the airports, bus, and train stations) and the tourist areas via LYNX, or between WDW and SeaWorld and Universal Orlando (based on this article, obviously the 50 bus can easily work for WDW-SeaWorld trips). Once you start hauling luggage and/or making transfers, public transit can certainly become an adventure, but it’s one that I enjoy when traveling.

      Also, to Seth’s disappointment about missing out on communication on mass transit, I think the iPod has largely killed that. You’ll find a lot more conversation among strangers on Disney Transportation than on any bus or train full of commuters.

  • As someone who lives in east Orlando close to Waterford/UCF I’ve contemplated taking a LYNX down to Disney one day but my biggest problem with it are the less than direct routes that I’d have to take…according to the LYNX site it’d take me two hours to get from my nearest stop to the TTC because of having to connect through downtown…yeah, no thanks…the 3 hours of time I’d save round trip is worth the $7 in tolls and 2 gallons of gas I’d use…now if they offered a UCF-TTC route using 417, then I’d think about it again

    As a comparison, I love using mass transit in other cities as it is often the most efficient and easiest way to get around…the Muni is San Francisco has to be the best run bus system I’ve ever been on

    • that said…I am still going to try it one day, but it’ll have to be a day where I have nothing planned at WDW

    • A UCF/WDW bus could be a great idea, considering how that area has grown & how many students don’t have reliable vehicles. Or maybe someday a train…

      • ahhh…a train from UCF to MCO to WDW would be a dream for me…of course train projects in this state never seem to ever go anywhere and even though Sunrail is close to going online, I have my doubts about it expanding to the rest of the area to be useful for anyone unless going from Deltona to the airport

    • I used to live in Orlando, and I completely agree. The routes don’t really seem too convenient to some parts of the city. I didn’t have a car at the time so I mostly relied on co-workers who lived in the same complex to take me back and forth to WDW for work. It was a lot of effort. I grew up (and now have returned) in Denver, CO. Our transportation system is awesome. I can get to most places very easily and I’ve never lived more than 2 blocks from a bus stop. Its definitely a place that you could live without a car.
      I also agree that SF-Muni is pretty awesome. So many options and lots of routes and easy transfers and lots of pick-ups you aren’t waiting long if you are on the hills.

  • where do you get the bus tickets or passes to ride the lynx #50?…. is there anywhere near downtown disney to purchase the tickets/passes???