Planning a trip to Mickey’s Florida home? I know a lot of families on the East Coast drive to Walt Disney World, but since I live in California, my only reasonable option is to fly. Even if you live closer to Orlando than I do, there are often good deals to be had, so it is sometimes equally cheap to fly – even for families of four or more.
Before you book your flight and make your trip, it is important to be prepared, especially if you are taking a trip to Walt Disney World for the first time or don’t fly often. Here are my very best tips for flying to Walt Disney World.
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Flying to Walt Disney World: Planning & Arrival Tips
1. Check all your airport options.
Traveling to Walt Disney World is always better when you’ve gotten a good airfare deal to Orlando. To do that, you need to know the full range of air travel options available to you.
Orlando International Airport (MCO)
The largest airport in the area is Orlando International Airport (MCO). It’s served by all the major airlines, including international carriers, so most travelers will find the best itineraries and prices into MCO. The vast majority of Disney World travelers will end up using this airport.
Although most Disney World travelers fly into MCO, have you ever checked alternate airports? Since Disney’s free Magical Express bus transportation has gone away at MCO as of 2022 (more on that below), there is less of a reason for many travelers to constrain themselves to one airport.
Orlando has a second smaller airport, Sanford International (SFB), that could work for Disney trips. It’s only served by a few minor airlines – most notably low cost carrier Allegiant as well as quite a few charters. It’s a longer drive to Disney World – about 45 minutes instead of the 20 minutes from MCO. Another option is Tampa International Airport (TPA), which is only about 1 1/2 hours away.
If you plan to make Walt Disney World the part of a bigger Florida road trip, you may even want to look farther afield. Florida is teeming with airport options!
2. Pick the right airline & flight.
Once you’ve decided on which airport you are going to use, the next important step is in picking the right flight. And that starts with evaluating the airline options.
If you live in a smaller city, you may only have one or two airline options reasonably available that get you to Orlando with a minimum of connections at a decent price. Non-stop flights are usually preferable to avoid misconnections and delays, so go with those unless truly cost prohibitive.
If you live in a bigger city or are within driving distance of several major airports, you may be comparing a lot more options. If you have choices, it’s important to realize that not all airlines are created equal. The rules and extra costs can really differ these days between different airlines. Make sure you read the fine print when it comes to your travel situation – particularly if you are traveling with kids. And certainly do your research if you are considering any of the ultra low cost carriers (Spirit, Frontier, Allegiant) or are considering booking a basic economy ticket on any airline.
For those less experienced in booking flights, remember as well that Southwest Airlines flights are not listed in airfare search engines like Expedia and others. You need to go directly to Southwest.com to search for and book Southwest flights. Southwest is one of the largest carriers into MCO, so don’t miss out on some of the best potential deals by forgetting to run a separate search!
Also consider flight times carefully. I can tell you from experience that 6:00 am flights can be very challenging with young kids when you consider how early you have to wake up to get the family to the airport. And redeye overnight flights may not be the best way to start off a Disney World vacation. If you are an inexperienced air traveler, give yourself more buffer room for success.
3. Prepare your kids (and yourself) for flying.
Most families don’t fly quite as much as my crazy family does, so a trip to Walt Disney World may very well be your child’s first time on a plane. And that may be intimidating for many.
But never fear! With a little preparation, the vast majority of kids do quite well with air travel. If you think your child might be a nervous flyer, read a book or two about flying and talk about what they will see and experience.
As a flying parent, I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to be prepared, especially if you have younger kids. This means having the equipment and supplies you need to make flying with kids a success. Pack plenty of snacks and entertainment (electronic as well as old-fashioned tech free options). I have dozens of posts on this site that cover all aspects of flying with kids so give a few of these a read:
- Top Tips for Baby’s First Flight
- 5 Essential Things to Do the Day Before Flying with Kids
- How to Survive Flying with a Lap Toddler
- The Ultimate Diaper Bag Packing List for Air Travel
4. Consider a variety of ground transportation options.
Disney World used to offer free ground transportation to all guests of Disney hotels, called the Magical Express. Sadly in 2022, that was retired forever. A lot of families are now finding new ways to get from the airport to their Disney hotel.
If you have kids ages 5 and under, be sure you’ve planned for car seats as Florida law requires them. See my post Do I Need a Car Seat for Disney World to evaluate all your options.
Generally speaking, the major ground transportation options at MCO now include:
Motorcoaches. Several motorcoach companies have stepped in to fill the gap left by the Magical Express. Mears Connect is operated by the same company that used to operate the Magical Express. The Sunshine Flyer – a company that has motorcoaches that look like historic locomotives – is another service new to the scene with real promise and a similar price of about $118 roundtrip for a family of 4. Taking a motorcoach has the advantage for families of not requiring car seats, so it may be more convenient for travelers with younger kids (even if not always the cheapest or fastest ground transportation option overall).
Car Rental. Even in the days of the Magical Express, many guests chose to rent a car for the freedom it gives you to tour on your own schedule. Picking up and returning a car at MCO is about as easy as it gets for a major airport, with car rental counters all located within the airport proper. Car rentals can also be quite inexpensive in Orlando (although recent rental car shortages have driven up prices somewhat).
Taxis & Ridesharing. The usual taxi operators and ridesharing services are alive and well in the Orlando area. For those of you who are Uber and Lyft fans, you may remember that they used to be be banned at MCO. Thankfully, the are now allowed to pick up curbside at MCO as of July 1, 2017. Prices are about $40-50 each way for a standard vehicle, although surge pricing or needing a larger XL vehicle will drive the price up. Taxis will usually be pricier but make some travelers more comfortable. For anyone with young kids, however, Uber may be a better option because Orlando is one of the few cities in the US that offers the Uber car seat service if you are traveling with little ones.
Car services. If your budget is bigger and you’d like more service, there are plenty of black car style operators in Orlando too. Mears Connect operates a private shuttle option ($250 RT for up to 4 people).
5. Pack a full change of clothes for everyone and any other essentials in your carry on bag.
If you are checking bags on your way to Orlando, you should still plan to bring a carry on bag with the essential items you need for your traveling party for at least your first day. Bags can get lost or delayed during air travel.
This means you should carry the basics that you need with you in your hand luggage. Think: medicines, clothing changes, baby supplies (diapers, food, formula), and bathing suits if you plan to hit the hotel pool while waiting for check in time. If you plan to visit the parks right away, make sure you have your Disney daypack packed and with you, along with MagicBands if you plan to use them!
If and when services like Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer start offering bag delivery services (both are considering it), a carry on bag will be even more essential. It will likely take several hours for your checked bags to be delivered to your room, as was the case with the Magical Express.
6. Know where you need to go upon arrival.
MCO is a fairly easy airport to navigate, but I always recommend taking a look at the airport map before your trip to save time. You do want to get to Walt Disney World as fast as possible upon landing, right? There’s now even an airport app that may help you find your way around and locate essential services as well.
Roughly speaking, MCO has four separate sets of gates each connected to a central airport building by air trains. This central building is separated into the Terminal A and Terminal B, which are really just opposite sides of a long rectangular building. The Hyatt Regency is right in the center of the main level of this central building. Luggage claim is on the lower levels of both Terminal A and B, so check which terminal your airline uses before heading down the escalators.
Note particularly that the motorcoach services that replaced the Magical Express depart only from the lower level of Terminal B. There are, however, car rental counters and taxi pickups in both the lower levels of Terminals A and B so no need to change terminals after you get your bags to make other ground transportation connections.
Flying Home from Walt Disney World: Departure Tips
7. Plan & time the return trip to the airport.
No matter what your ground transportation method, it’s essential to think through the timing and logistics of your departure day. If you plan to head straight to the airport when you check out of your hotel in the morning, the planning is fairly straightforward. But if you plan to go to the parks for some part of the day, then you need to think through steps like taking Disney transportation back to your hotel, picking up your checked bags at the hotel bell desk, the timing of transportation to the airport, etc. Each one can present the potential for delays.
Of course, it’s essential to book whatever ground transportation service you plan to use to get back to the airport well in advance so you understand how that fits into your overall schedule. Motorcoach options may have less frequent pickups, meaning you need to wake up earlier or cut down on park time to use them. Even in-demand options like ridesharing can sometimes have waits so plan accordingly.
If you are driving a rental car, be sure to give yourself enough time for contingencies as well. While Orlando traffic isn’t terrible compared to some major metropolitan areas, Orlando does get its fair share of traffic jams. And definitely be sure to leave a few extra minutes to fill up on gas and return your rental car.
8. Be prepared for airport bag check lines (and avoid if you can).
Once you’ve gotten to the airport, the next potential chokepoint is checking your bags for the return trip home. The lines at the MCO airline ticket counters can be epic. If there is any way for your family to make do with carry on bags only for a Disney World trip, I highly recommend that just to skip these lines!
For longer trips or those with young kids, checking bags is pretty unavoidable. Consider using the Skycap services as those may save time over the indoor bag check lines (always tip appropriately!). My family often divides and conquers at this step, sending one adult family member to stand in line while the other parent entertains the kids in the airport shops and center atrium of the airport. Just be sure that you have enough people in line to be eligible to check the number of bags you have (on Southwest Airlines, one person is entitled to two free checked bags, which is what my family usually shares, so this process works out for us even if only one adult is in line).
9. Shortcut TSA airport security backups.
Last but certainly not least, the final step is airport security. Orlando has some of the most notoriously long TSA lines in the country. If you are departing at a peak time, lines can truly appear daunting on some occasions. If you have no way to shortcut the lines, leave a ton of extra time if you are traveling at the end of a holiday weekend or other peak time. But I highly recommend trying to find ways to cut the line!
I have had great luck with service called CLEAR that worked like a charm in Orlando for cutting the lines. It is pricey and probably out of reach for infrequent travelers. If you do have it, then you will get your money’s worth at MCO!
Consider also getting TSA Pre-Check (it works alone or in combination with CLEAR). And make use of elite lines, family lanes, or whatever other tricks you are eligible for to get through the crowds. See my guide complete guide for speeding through airport security for more tips.
CLEAR has also recently partnered with MCO to test a new free service called the Reservation Lane. Travelers can make a reservation time to go through regular security screening with shorter waits. It’s still a pilot program, but it’s helping to make things a little more predictable for some travelers too.
Where to Book Your Walt Disney World Vacation
Planning a visit to Walt Disney World? Book your Disney vacation with trusted Trips with Tykes partner, Get Away Today. Get Away Today sells park tickets at a discount, helps you find great deals at both on-property and off-property hotels, assists with all the logistics of a Disney World vacation with its free concierge service, and provides complimentary price monitoring so you can lock in newly-released discounts.
2 Ways to Save:
- Discount Tickets: If you only need park tickets, don’t purchase direct from Disney and pay more! Book discounted Disney World park tickets from Get Away Today here.
- Discount Vacation Packages: To take advantage of hotel and other package discounts from Get Away Today and get concierge service for free, request a full vacation quote here.