Planning a trip by plane down to Orlando to meet Mickey Mouse? With any travel – especially if you are bringing the kids – a little preparation before your trip goes a long way. Our Frequent Flyer TravelingMom flies to MCO often and offers her very best tips for navigating the airport, picking the right ground transportation, having a magical time aboard the Magical Express, and more.
For many families, a trip to Walt Disney World requires a plane trip before the fun can start. For anyone who isn’t a frequent flyer, flying can sometimes be the most anxiety-producing part of a family vacation. Navigating a new airport and trying to figure out the best ways to get from the airport to your destination can be confusing, especially if you are planning to do it all with a baby or toddler in tow as I often do.
But never fear! For Disney-bound travelers, Orlando offers a pretty seamless air travel experience. It is an airport I frequent, and I’ve learned how to navigate it with ease. Keep reading and you’ll be a MCO pro in no time, in plenty of time before your trip to meet the Mouse. Here’s what you need to know about flying to Orlando.
Which Airport to Orlando?
Although most people assume a flight to Orlando means a trip through Orlando International Airport (MCO), Orlando actually has more than one airport. Sanford International (SFB) is also located in Orlando and is served by low-cost carrier Allegiant as well as several charters. Book the wrong airport and I can guarantee your trip won’t start out on the right foot.
TMOM Tip: For deal seekers, also consider Tampa International (TPA). TPA is a major airport, and it’s located just an hour and a half away with no major city traffic to traverse when driving to Disney.
All things being equal, however, MCO is a much better option than the alternatives, even if flights there are a few dollars more expensive. It is closest to Disney World and also has a myriad of ground transportation options, including Disney’s Magical Express (free to Disney resort guests). Just don’t overlook alternate airports when real flight deals arise.
Orlando Airport Overview
It always helps to know how your arrival airport is laid out so you aren’t confused once you step off the plane. Luckily, MCO is pretty easy to navigate. It consists of one major center building with Terminal A check-in counters and baggage claim carousels on the north side and a mirror image of the same on the other side at Terminal B on the south side. There are two security checkpoints off of the center atrium of the building, each leading to two different sets of gates on the west and east ends of the airport. The center building is connected to the gate areas by a short train ride (one train for each of the four gate areas). This handy MCO map shows the exact layout.
When you arrive at MCO, you’ll immediately jump onto a train that will transport you from one of these gate areas to the center atrium building. Once in the center atrium, simply follow the signs to the baggage claim of your airline in the correct terminal (or head for one of several ground transportation options if you don’t need to grab bags).
Magical Express Tips
If you are staying in a Disney resort hotel, Disney offers an amazing – and free – service called the Magical Express at MCO to transport you to your hotel via motorcoach. Disney’s Magical Express is probably at its most magical when it comes to the luggage service offered. In most cases, Disney will handle your checked bags, taking them straight from baggage claim to your room for you.
Knowing how to use the Magical Express in the easiest way possible, however, does require a little attention to detail and pre-trip preparation. Before your trip, make sure you’ve booked your Magical Express transfers well in advance. You can enter this information on the My Disney Experience site or you can call Disney directly to add the information. Disney will then send you luggage tags about 4-6 weeks in advance to place on your checked bags before you fly. When you arrive at MCO, no need to stop by baggage claim. Disney will grab your pre-tagged bags and deliver them to your room for you a few hours later.
TMOM Tip: Disney does not offer airport-to-room luggage service if your flight arrives after 10 p.m. If you have a late flight or a flight that is delayed and arrives after that hour, you must retrieve your luggage yourself before heading to the Magical Express.
Once you get off the plane at MCO, follow the signs for the Magical Express with whatever carry on luggage you have. The Magical Express is located on the lowest level of Terminal B (a level below baggage claim). In my experience, signage could be a little more clear, but a convenient shorthand is to make sure to exit towards Terminal B then head down two escalators and turn right. It’s a bit of a walk, so a stroller for the little ones isn’t a bad idea.
TMOM Tip: One advantage of the Magical Express for parents of babies and toddlers… no car seat needed! Since transit is aboard a motorcoach, you can leave the car seat at home. Having one less bulky thing to carry is a big bonus.
Upon arriving at the Magical Express checkpoint, cast members are available to put you in line for the correct bus. If you already have Magic Bands, you need only swipe the bands. Otherwise, make sure to bring the printout that Disney will send with your resort reservation information when sending your luggage tags. Once you get on the Magical Express, Disney does the driving and gets you seamlessly to your Disney resort hotel.
TMOM Tip: If time is really of the essence on your Disney vacation, you may want to skip the Magical Express. You can sometimes wait 30 minutes or more for a bus, and each bus then makes up to four stops at different resorts.
Orlando Car Rental Tips
Many Disney guests want to have the freedom of a car on vacation, and car rental really doesn’t get any easier than at MCO. There are rental car counters for all the major companies on site near the baggage claim areas in both terminals A and B (lower level). Check in there and walk to your car. No shuttles or long lines needed. Plus, Orlando is known for offering extremely inexpensive car rental rates so you’ll probably be able to snag a deal. Just remember that Disney charges parking fees for non-resort guests so factor parking costs into your budget too!
If you have young kids and are renting a car, remember to bring (or arrange to rent) a car seat or booster seat. Florida law requires them until age 5. My favorite money-saving hack is to rent through Hertz with my AAA membership, as Hertz offers a free car seat with each rental to AAA members (substantial AAA discounts are also usually available).
Other Ground Transportation Options
If you aren’t renting a car and aren’t staying at a Disney resort hotel that will make you eligible for the Magical Express, what are your other options upon arrival at MCO? Mears Transportation has quite the taxi monopoly in Orlando. Consequently, a cab from MCO to most Disney hotels could run you $60-80, so it is quite pricey. Uber and Lyft are not yet allowed to operate on airport property, so you’d have to walk off-site at the airport to use a ride-sharing service. Given the significant cost savings of using a ride-sharing services over a taxi, however, this little inconvenience might not matter for those traveling light or with older kids.
Leaving Orlando to Head Home
When your Disney vacation is over, you have to return to MCO and do it all in reverse. Make sure your Magical Express reservations are booked to avoid confusion. Disney will slip reservation information under your hotel door the day before so if you don’t get it, call!
TMOM Tip: If you are taking the Magical Express, don’t miss the bus! Disney won’t necessarily transport you on the next one if you miss your reserved time. It’s a mistake that may end up costing you $80 in cab fare so plan ahead.
One possible choke point to think about on your return trip, particularly if you are getting yourself to the airport rather than taking the Magical Express, is airport lines. Yes, even though you’ve been waiting in lines all week at a theme park, MCO likely has a few more for you. Be sure to give yourself at least two hours (and up to three on peak holiday periods) to get through. MCO’s TSA lines are notoriously bad. If you’ve been thinking about getting TSA Pre-check, Global Entry, or CLEAR to skip some airport security lines, get these services in place before your Orlando vacation.
Have you flown to Disney World? What are your best airport tips for MCO?