Express Yourself to Disney World

It sounds almost too good to be true. Check your bags at the airport and never see them again until they arrive, as if by magic, in your hotel room at Walt Disney World Resort. Well, that’s the promise of Disney’s new Magical Express program and a recent trip to Mickey’s realm gave me the perfect opportunity to try it out.

Here’s how it works. After making your reservations at a Disney Resort, just provide Disney (or your travel agent) with your flight numbers and arrival and departure times. In a few weeks, you receive a cute little ticket brochure with an amusingly retro look. It contains peel off luggage tags bearing the name of your resort and a bar code to assure easy routing.

With your bags tagged, your off to Orlando where cheery greeters waving stuffed Mickey hands meet all arriving passengers as they enter the main terminal. Blissfully bypassing luggage claim, you check in at the Disney Magical Express counter, which has now joined all the rental car companies on the bottom level of the terminal. Present your ticket brochure and moments later you are directed to a rats maze of queues that will guide you to the correct bus for your trip to Disney.

The transportation, standard issue tour buses, feature video screens that fill the time with previews of what awaits you at WDW, along with plugs for upcoming Disney films. Less than half an hour later, you arrive at your resort, wonderfully unencumbered. Your bags follow a little later and are usually delivered to your room about two hours later.

Tip: Because of this slight delay, remember to pack anything you’ll want immediately (like swimming togs) in your carry-on luggage.

When it’s time to leave, the process is repeated in reverse. Tag your bags, check in at a special desk in the resort, get your boarding pass, and wait for your bus to the airport. No luggage schlepping until you reach your home airport. Resort check-in service is only available for domestic flights (including Puerto Rico) on American, Continental, Delta/Song, JetBlue, and United/Ted.

And what does this exceptional level of service cost? Exactly nothing. Yes, forget what you know about Disney and its neverending efforts to squeeze a few nickels more out of every guest. Magical Express was created as part of the Most Magical Celebration in honor of Disneyland’s 50th anniversary and through 2006 it’s absolutely free.

After that, who knows. No announcements have been made, and this is officially just a short term thing. It’s hard to imagine, however, that the program will not be an immense hit with guests and that it will convince people such as myself to forego their rental cars and consign themselves to Disney’s care for the duration of their visit. It’s also hard to imagine that Disney won’t inaugurate a fee. The rumor I heard was that when the 50 Anniversary Celebration is over, Disney will take over the Magical Express operation from the contractor that is running it now and make it an in-house affair.

Disney’s Magical Express has its detractors, mainly the cabbies, independent transportation companies, and car rental companies who stand to lose big if the idea catches on. Ditto for other Orlando attractions and businesses who see potential business being sucked away by the mighty Mouse. I suspect it’s also not too popular with the Disney bellstaff who deliver bags to empty rooms and receive no tip.

The Greater Orlando Livery Association, which represents 200 bus, van, and livery car drivers, has gone so far as to petition the Orlando International Airport to bar the new service, alleging that Disney is violating airport rules by soliciting passengers who have not already signed up for Magical Express.

There has also been some grumbling that the program is a thinly veiled attempt to “kidnap” Orlando visitors by sequestering them in Walt Disney World with no rental car and no viable way (save very expensive ones) for getting away from the Mouse. There’s probably something to that. I felt a certain “separation anxiety” without ready access to wheels, but I adjusted.

And the program has not been without its glitches. In the early days of the experiment it earned the nickname “Tragical Express” as baggage went missing or took 24 hours to show up in resort rooms. Based on my experience, however, it seems the kinks have pretty much been ironed out, although when I left there was some confusion among the Magical Express staff as to exactly what constitutes a Magical Express bus. Most buses shuttling passengers to the airport have a distinctive Magical Express design. However, it appears that some Mears buses (Mears is a major transportation company in Orlando) sometimes fill in gaps in the service.