Disney's free buses leave cabs in lurch
By Steve J. Collins
Sentinel Staff Writer
July 6, 2005
The parents of 3-year-old Noah Hockenberry weren't looking forward to shepherding him through Orlando International Airport while dragging the family's luggage.
So for their Orlando vacation they chose a new Walt Disney World program -- Disney's Magical Express -- that allowed them to skip the baggage carousel and walk straight to a free bus that took them to the Pop Century Resort. After checking their luggage at a West Virginia airport, the Hockenberrys didn't see the bags again until they were delivered to their room.
Visitors such as the Hockenberrys rave about the 2-month-old service. But some in Orlando's tourism industry say Magical Express is causing not-so-magical financial distress for cabbies, limo drivers and the other little guys who could always count on the bucks they make from Disney visitors.
Some cab drivers report losing as much as 90 percent of their business, and limo services say business is down by more than a third. There's even evidence that car-rental agencies have been affected.
Then there's the possibility that the new bus service will result in fewer guests leaving Disney property to frequent restaurants, shops and theme parks.
Disney officials wouldn't provide specific figures but said "hundreds of thousands" of guests have already used the service since its debut in May. Those are hundreds of thousands of people who didn't take a cab, limo or rental car from the airport to their hotels.
"The question we ask is how is this going to affect our local community, and we think it's going to hurt," said Randy Terranova, president of 5 Star Limousine Service.
Disney World officials see a brighter side.
"We believe that Magical Express and programs like it will drive additional tourists to Central Florida, and that benefits everybody," Disney spokeswoman Kim Prunty said.
Few would dispute Disney's right to battle for every dollar it can get its hands on, just as its competition does. However, some suggest it's not always a fair fight.
"You've got a large Mouse, and this Mouse casts a very large shadow," said Mark I. Hopkinson, a public-relations consultant retained by a group of limo drivers. "It's a David and Goliath story with the images reversed."
If Magical Express is a dream come true for families such as the Hockenberrys, it's closer to a nightmare for the Banol family.
Thirty-seven-year-old Alcy Banol drives a cab to support his wife and three children. Banol said the Disney buses have made a tough job even more demanding. "Oh, they're just killing us," he said.
He used to be able to count on two or three runs from Orlando International Airport to Disney World each day. Each trip meant at least $50 plus tip. Now, he says, he might take three trips a week to Disney.
Already working six days a week, he says he has been forced to work a couple of extra hours each day to make up for lost fares to Disney. Twelve-hour days or longer are routine.
"My son is 7, so now he's protesting: 'Daddy, when are we going to play soccer?' "
Fami Raja, co-owner of 1A Orlando Airport Transportation, said his business is down about 90 percent since Disney introduced its shuttle service.
"We're going to go out of business," Raja said. "I'm looking for a new business already."
Banol and Raja are not alone. On a recent afternoon at the airport's "bullpen," where cabbies wait in line to be called to pick up the next fare, more than a dozen drivers talked about how Magical Express has cut dramatically into their business.
Cabbie Sony Saint Fleurose says that more than 80 percent of his business has evaporated, and he no longer makes any trips to Disney in a typical week. Like many drivers, he spends even more time in his taxi now than before.
Driver Rick Bryant says summer is always a slow time for cabbies because it means fewer conventioneers.
"The buses take away probably 50 percent of the business, and now this summer is going to be even worse than normal," he said.
Officials with the Greater Orlando Livery Association, which represents 180 limousine companies with 600 vehicles, say their members are reporting that business is down 30 percent to 40 percent from last summer.
"It's not our intention to put anybody out of business, but we are trying to look at new ways to enhance the customer experience," said Bill Jennings, executive director of Orlando International Airport. Airport officials will meet with representatives of the livery association today to discuss their concerns.
Jennings noted that this is an 18-month pilot program under evaluation by the airport and Disney.
Magical Express is just the latest Disney initiative designed to get people to spend more time and money on Disney property. "They want to ensure that, when you get to Walt Disney World, you're staying there and your dollars stay there," said Deb Wills, a longtime Disney observer who operates a Web site aimed at Disney visitors.
If Disney's strategy is successful in keeping more people on its property, observers say, then that money has to come at the expense of some other local business.
For example, the Hockenberrys had considered staying at a relative's time share in the area.
"Once we heard about Magical Express, we said, 'This is definitely the way to go,' " Kelly Hockenberry said. The family never left Disney World during its week in Orlando. If the family had stayed in a time share, she said, it would have rented a car and tried to squeeze in trips to SeaWorld and Universal Studios.
Whether the Hockenberrys are the exception or the rule remains to be seen.
"It's still early for this experiment," said Abe Pizam, dean of the Rosen College of Hospitality Management at the University of Central Florida. "You need a period of time before you'll know the effects."
Pizam said that, although Magical Express' effect on the region's overall economy is likely to be negligible, it will produce individual winners and losers.
"The rental-car business will be affected, there's no question," he said. However, he doesn't see a big effect at this point because most visitors still want the "freedom" of a car.
Hope Osamor, a district manager with Orlando Rental Car, agreed.
"Disney isn't going to drive you to Daytona Beach," he said.
Airport officials don't yet have figures on the number of rental cars leaving the property since the start of Disney's bus-and-luggage service, but there's anecdotal evidence to suggest that Magical Express may be reshaping the rental-car landscape.
"It's hard to say if we're being affected or not, but I know we're seeing a decrease in business for this time of year," said Sherri Stapp, a supervisor at U Save Auto Rentals.
John Moran, a manager overseeing rentals for Disney hotels, said Alamo is seeing fewer rentals at the airport and more rentals on Disney property, though he declined to provide specific figures. If more people wait until they get to their hotel to rent a car, that's a decided advantage for National/Alamo, which has an exclusive contract to rent cars on Disney property.
"The other competitors we have, they're not real thrilled" with Magical Express, Moran said.
John Padgett, vice president of Walt Disney World products and services development, said the free bus-and-luggage program has created about 500 jobs, some within Disney and others with contractors. In addition to the bag service, customers of many airlines can pick up their return boarding passes while still on Disney property.
"It's pretty much a total transformation of the guest arrival and departure system," Padgett said.
That's good news for Disney but potentially bad news for the folks who profit when Disney visitors get out on the town.
The limousine association's Terranova worries that his members are just the first people to feel the effects of Disney's latest move.
"This is just the beginning," Terranova says, "and we're on the front end of it."