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.