Mickey Mouse standing in front of Disney's Magical Express bus
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Credit: Walt Disney World

Theme Park News: Disney World is ending Disney's Magical Express bus service and it's a huge deal

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Jan 12, 2021, 3:18 PM EST (Updated)

Hello and welcome to a packed week of theme park news! From a much-anticipated roller coaster's jaw-dropping nighttime display to major Monday morning news that'll change the way you visit Walt Disney World in the future, here's what you must know...

PLANES, TRAINS, AND AUTOMOBILES

Walt Disney World dropped some major news yesterday morning and confirmed your resort hotel stay of the future will differ from that of the past.

Come Jan. 1, 2022 — less than a year from now — Disney's Magical Express will no longer exist. The massive fleet of buses, operated by Mears Transportation, provided free transportation to any Walt Disney World resort hotel guest, offering convenient and complimentary bus rides between their hotels and Orlando International Airport since it was first introduced in 2005.

As primarily a solo traveler, hauling my luggage through the endless carpeted halls of Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge was just a low-key excuse for impromptu arms day, but for families, visiting Walt Disney World just got significantly more difficult. Not only does the cancellation permanently remove Disney's Magical Express luggage service — which was suspended in 2020 but was widely assumed would return once the pandemic subsided — but now creates a massive pinch point for families, particularly those with small children, to reach their final destination.

While the service will remain in place until the end of this year, Disney World's announcement comes at a time of sweeping change as the company navigates the current pandemic and the reality of visiting theme parks once we've moved past it.

Disney's airport bus service offered two hefty benefits for hotel guests staying on property: easy airport transportation and seamless luggage handling, the latter of which has been unavailable since the resorts reopened in July 2020. Utilizing special tags, guests would check their bags prior to departing flights and, like "magic," they'd appear in one's hotel rooms only a few hours after landing, providing a glimpse of what sets apart a Disney vacation from the get-go.

In tandem with the transportation news came additional information that Disney World would also be replacing its Extra Magic Hours benefit with a new offering: Early Theme Park Entry. Instead of providing up to three bonus hours at select theme parks each day, all Disney theme parks will soon offer early entry every single day, exclusively for guests of resort hotels and additional select hotels. (Park Passes are still required, a date for when Early Theme Park Entry begins has not yet been announced.)

With FastPass+ currently unavailable, Early Theme Park Entry puts hotel guests at an advantage for queueing in advance for in-demand rides, but signals a larger shift for guests missing their "home" that Disney World will not be returning to how it operated before the pandemic hit.

On one hand, it's simple to understand the logic behind the changes, given what the theme park sector has been through this past year. Staffs have been slashed, tourism in Orlando is understandably down, and COVID-era requirements limit the number of guests on transportation and attractions, at restaurants, and throughout all spaces of the resort. On the other hand, one can easily find themselves nostalgic not for The Great Movie Ride and The Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights, but when a bang could be had from one's buck. It wasn't so long ago that parks would routinely open at 7 a.m. and close after midnight, allowing hotel guests to exclusively ride rides in Adventureland past some bars' closing times. Even on the heels of a pandemic, shorter hours, fewer perks, and more burdensome arrivals aren't going unnoticed, particularly among theme park regulars who fulfill Disney's core audience.

This week's announcement also marks significant, permanent changes to Disney's on-property hotel guest benefits, most of which come in the face of a sweeping pandemic. Nearly every offering has been amended in some fashion since Walt Disney World's temporary closure in March 2020:

- Complimentary MagicBands, which are no longer complimentary as of this year

- Disney's Magical Express, which will end on Jan. 1, 2022

- Early FastPass+ booking, which is currently unavailable

- Extra Magic Hours, which has been suspended since July 2020 and will soon be replaced by Early Theme Park Entry

- Disney Dining Plan, which is currently unavailable

(Walt Disney World's theme park transportation — the series of monorails, buses, gondolas, and watercraft bringing guests between their hotels and the parks each and every day — remains intact, but is also available to the public.)

Having re-evaluated their business practices, some of these changes aren't necessarily to blame, but it's hard for a Disney regular to shake the feeling that they're getting less than they used to for the same price. Take, for instance, that within recent years, Disney-area hotels not operated by The Walt Disney Company have acquired specific perks like Extra Magic Hours and early FastPass+ booking for their hotel guests. With multiple tiers of hotels and rooms, Walt Disney World finds itself in the unique position of courting both luxury guests and deeply budget-conscious ones, both of whom may see a new reason to opt for somewhere off-property, like Disney Springs Resort Area hotels or Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, respectively. When both offer similar perks with better prices, it's hard to keep those blinders up to the outside world, no matter how much one prefers being "in the Disney bubble."

It's difficult at this time to quantify how these changes will affect guest behaviors, but regardless, the cancellation of Disney's Magical Express does irrefutably open up a vulnerability to having Disney World's audience poached by the surrounding parks. Having a rental car on property sure makes it easier to hop over to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, while not banking on that sweet free ride back to the airport makes splitting a stay between Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort more feasible. (Universal, after all, has been quietly cornering the market on low-cost, family-friendly hotels that pack a punch.)

2022 may be a long way away to some, but don't forget: Walt Disney World's 50th anniversary is coming up later this year. Even if Disney World's 2022 hotel bookings have only just begun, the early stages of planning are already underway for some, particularly as vaccinations start to roll out nationwide and multiple banner attractions are on the horizon. (This is, after all, a legion of fans conditioned to book dining six months in advance and wake up as early as 4 a.m. to nab FastPass+ in normal times.)

Which raises the big question: How will guests get to and from Disney World going forward? With Disney citing a shift in consumer options and preferences for the change, Mears confirmed it does intend to "continue offering transportation services between the airport and all area theme parks and hotels." It's currently unclear but possible another coach bus service will emerge instead of this one, but in speaking with a spokesperson for Mears Transportation, SYFY WIRE learned that all of the company's business operations are constantly under review, and like so many other businesses, the pandemic has forced or accelerated operational decisions. (Mears was informed of Disney's decision regarding Magical Express the same day news was released publicly.)

There is also the promise of Florida's Brightline train, which will connect Orlando International Airport to Disney Springs, but the idea of lugging one's family suitcase from a plane to a train to a resort bus isn't ideal from the get-go, not to mention won't even happen for a while.

There are ample rental cars, but atop fees, Disney hotels charge up to $25 per night for parking. Taxis and hired car services work, but can be extremely burdensome with multiple small children needing car seats, not to mention waiting at the airport for all the baggage to come through. (Things are similarly more challenging if any guest requires a mobility scooter.) Disney's Minnie Van service, which is currently unavailable, boasted up to three car seats on airport transfers; one-way rides were a whopping $155.

It also leaves an open-ended infrastructure question for Orlando International Airport, with a higher influx of guests for the 50th anniversary now in search of new methods to reach their resort hotels.

That being said, the free buses were economical for families and environmentally friendly visitors but surely had their flaws. Lengthy waits at Orlando International Airport were common, and once onboard, buses inconveniently stopped at multiple resorts. Outbound buses were almost more burdensome, with guests needing to retain a paper slip delivered to their room the previous night to be able to board and have disembarkation times around three hours before their flights — cutting into precious and expensive vacation time.

Jokingly referred to as the "tragical" express, childless, TSA PreCheck travelers such as myself would opt out in favor of a reasonably priced, quick ride-share drop-off after a long cross-country flight so that we could squeeze a couple of extra hours of time in the parks prior to departure.

Whether or not it was ideal, Disney's Magical Express provided guests with one less thing to worry about on their vacation, all while being whisked into an all-Disney environment that shielded them from the rest of Orlando's offerings. With guests utilizing more ride-sharing apps now and into the future, we await what other changes may come to Disney World as the resort embraces and reinvents its pre-pandemic practices in the lead up to its 50th-anniversary celebrations.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Universal Orlando's VelociCoaster isn't the only major coaster coming this year — Busch Gardens Tampa Bay's Iron Gwazi is poised to be a doozy, as is Busch Gardens Williamsburg's Pantheon, the fastest multi-launch coaster in the world — but according to us? This one's most worth looking forward to.

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Epcot International Festival of the Arts is back, as are its colorful dishes and interactive exhibits.

- Florida's COVID-19 numbers are on the rise, hitting record highs last week and clocking over 10,000 new daily cases since Dec. 28.

- Disneyland will become Orange County's first "large-scale" COVID-19 vaccination site.

- Legoland's new addition: shade!

- How about that Disney's Contemporary Resort room refurbishment, eh?

- RunDisney races are still going digital, but fans are finding ways to make it special.

- A new donut shop debuted at Disney Springs and... people have thoughts!

- Disney Parks' TikTok has an exclusive Cinderella Castle tour!

- Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, the interactive game within Disney's theme park, is slated to end later this month.

- Disney replaced a broken audio-animatronic of Donald Duck with a sombrero on a plant, and just like that, it was gone!

- We don't love to comment on theme park rumors, but this Harry Potter one is too good to leave out.