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.
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.
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Last week I spewed a lot of crazy talk about resort choice decision making. To briefly recap, in order to decide where to stay, you must first choose which resort characteristic you value the most. There is no right answer. Depending on your needs, you might decide to prioritize low price, good view, variety of dining options, or any of a number of other possibilities.
Can where you stay influence how much time you can spend in the parks?
Here I’ll be discussing how to decide which resort is right for you if your number one priority (or value criterion) is reducing time spent in transit. In other words, where should you stay if you want to spend the least amount of time in a bus/boat/monorail/car during your precious vacation?
Lucky for me, wacky Uncle Len Testa has already provided a handy-dandy analysis of Walt Disney World travel times on pages 388-389 of the 2012 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Thanks Len!
In performing my analysis, I’ll be running the numbers twice: the UG’s AVERAGE travel time using Disney’s free transportation, and the UG’s AVERAGE travel time driving yourself in a car. Yes, those are just averages; your actual experience may be slightly better or worse, but we’ve got to start somewhere.
To evaluate which resort necessitates the least amount of travel time, you must determine to where you’ll be traveling. Thus, your first step will be to create a trip itinerary. Let’s take my hypothetical Smith family. These imaginary guests will be at Walt Disney World for a seven day visit with Park Hopper tickets. Because they’re sensible souls, they often heed the common-sense rule to take a mid-day nap/swim break. Their imaginary travels will take them to each of the four theme parks at least once, Downtown Disney, a water park, and two evening meals at resorts. In other words, a typically busy Disney visit.
Here’s their sample itinerary:
- Day 1: Arrive at WDW mid-day. To Magic Kingdom. To Chef Mickey’s for dinner. Back to resort.
- 3 transportation moves: Resort to MK, MK to Contemporary, Contemporary to Resort.
- Day 2: Resort to Epcot. Back to Resort for nap. To Magic Kingdom for fireworks. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to Epcot, Epcot to Resort, Resort to MK, MK to Resort.
- Day 3: Resort to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. DHS to Resort for nap. Back to DHS for Fantasmic. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to DHS, DHS to Resort, Resort to DHS, DHS to Resort.
- Day 4: To Blizzard Beach. Back to Resort for nap. To Downtown Disney for dinner/shopping. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to BB, BB to Resort, Resort to DD, DD to Resort.
- Day 5: To Animal Kingdom. Back to Resort for nap. To Epcot for Illuminations and dinner. Back to Resort.
- 4 transportation moves: Resort to AK, AK to Resort, Resort to Epcot, Epcot to Resort.
- Day 6: To Downtown Disney (forgot to buy a gift for grandma). To Magic Kingdom. To Hoop Dee Doo Revue for Dinner. Back to Resort.
- Variable transportation moves: Resort to DD, DD to MK, MK to FW, FW to Resort.
This is the trickiest day. There is no direct free Disney transportation from DD the theme parks. Therefore, in order for the Smiths to get from DD to the MK using Disney transport, they’ll need to make a transfer. For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the first logical bus that arrives at DD is heading to the Grand Floridian. The Smiths will take the bus from DD to the GF and then transfer to the monorail to get to the MK. At the end of the day, the trip back to the resort may have more than one leg depending on the hotel we’re considering. This is noted on the spreadsheet footnotes.
- Day 7: To Disney’s Hollywood Studios for another spin on Toy Story. Back to Resort. Depart.
- 2 transportation moves: Resort to DHS. DHS to Resort.
Obviously this is exactly not what your family’s itinerary will look like, but my guess is that will be similarly messy, with pockets of sanity (scheduling the Hoop Dee Doo on a Magic Kingdom day) and pockets of insanity (was that extra trip to Downtown Disney really necessary?).
How much time will you really save by renting a car?
And just so we get this out of the way, I’m also assuming that the Smiths are relatively new to Disney travel and are in “see it all” mode. A frequent Disney visitor might be able to optimize the travel time factor by concentrating their touring based on attraction proximity to resort. For example, personally, when I’m staying at the Contemporary, I spend most of my time at the nearby Magic Kingdom, and when I stay at the Beach Club, I spend the bulk of my time at nearby Epcot. The Smiths are more conventional guests.
Crunching the Numbers
With all their transportation moves in place, I’ve created spreadsheets of the Smiths’ time spent in transit during their vacation depending on where they stay. The first analysis looks at vacation travel time assuming that the Smiths decided not to rent a car and are using only Disney’s free transportation.
Vacation Time Spent in Transit During Sample Vacation, Using Free Disney Transportation
When I looked at the results, I was shocked. Like many Disney veterans, I’ve had firmly rooted opinions about the transportation situation. There were some hotels that I was 100% were the “good” hotels with the best transportation, and others that I’ve avoided because of perceived transportation insufficiencies. My preconceived notions were wrong.
Looking at the “Using Disney Transportation Only” chart, you’ll see that the time spent on internal Disney transportation, given this sample itinerary, ranges from a high of 14.8 hours to a low of 7.6 hours. That’s a difference of 7.2 hours – nearly an entire day’s worth of park time you’ll forfeit in travel depending on where you stay.
The transportation situation here isn't obvious.
The “loser” was Fort Wilderness where, given this sample itinerary, the hypothetical Smiths will spend 14.8 hours on transportation getting from place to place. Not far behind was the Wilderness Lodge, with an average of 14.4 hours spent in transit.
The Wilderness Lodge is my DVC home resort. I’ve stayed there many times. Never in a million years would have said it was one of the worst for transportation. It’s in the Magic Kingdom area; it’s got to be good. Right?
Um, sorry, not right at all. Clearly, when you’re measuring time spent in transit, there is a significant difference between boat and monorail access to the Magic Kingdom. For example, the Contemporary clocked in with about 4 hours less time spent in transit than the Wilderness Lodge. When following a good touring plan, that could mean you’ll have time to see as many as a dozen fewer attractions if you stay at the Wilderness Lodge instead of the Contemporary.
And who was the big transportation time winner? That’s a resort that I would never have guessed – Saratoga Springs. On the sample itinerary, the Smiths would spend only 7.6 hours of their vacation time getting from place to place. I, for one, am going to take a much closer look at Saratoga Springs when I make my next Disney travel plans.
On average, the majority of the other resorts clocked in somewhere between 9.5 and 11.5 hours of travel time per vacation. Depending on what your issues are, that may or may not be enough time to influence your choice of resort. Is a sacrifice or gain of two hours worth compromising on based on other resort advantages or disadvantages?
Let’s See if the Transportation Picture Changes if You’re Renting a Car
Vacation Time Spent in Transit During Sample Vacation, Using A Car
With access to a vehicle, the three monorail resorts come out as clear winners. Guests at the Contemporary, Polynesian and Grand Floridian can take advantage of the quick monorail access to the Magic Kingdom and can also use their cars for efficient access to the other parks. Of monorail hotels, the Polynesian comes out the winner by a nose, with the guests on our sample itinerary spending just 6.6 hours in transit during their vacation.
On the high end, guests with a car would spend the most time in transit at the Pop Century and the similarly-located, soon-to-be-opened Art of Animation resorts. My big takeaway from the with-car analysis is that having a vehicle is the great equalizer in terms of time spent in transit. While there was more than a seven hour difference between the high and low resorts for guests using only Disney transportation, there was just over a three hour difference for guests with a car. If you have a car, transportation time is more of a non-factor.
Making Your Decision If Reducing Travel Time is Your #1 Priority
Based on the sample itinerary and analysis, I’ve come to the conclusion that my previous assumptions about travel time were not valid. If you had asked me a week ago, I would have said that the Polynesian has a much better transportation situation than the Pop Century. The numbers show that if you’re only using Disney transport, you may be better off at the Pop, from a transportation time standpoint. It would take some real creative thinking to justify the significantly higher cost of the Poly over the Pop based on a Disney transportation argument. (Remember that the Poly has other advantages – view, dining, room size, etc. We’re only talking transportation here.)
These numbers have also made me revisit the ever-popular no-car/car topic. With this itinerary, guests will save, on average, about two hours of travel time if they rent a car versus if they don’t, no matter where they stay. You can change the argument if you dine off site or visit other area attractions, but if you’re not going off-campus, you’ll have to do some real thinking about whether a possible savings of two hours is worth however many hundreds of dollars the rental car will cost. The answer will vary from guest to guest.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the Saratoga Springs anomaly again. This was the only resort where, using this itinerary, the guest was better off using only Disney transportation rather than making use of a car. I’ll leave it to a braver soul than I to run more sample vacation schedules to see if this holds true with other itineraries. Let me know how it goes if you choose to run your own numbers.