Walt Disney World is eliminating two longstanding perks for people staying at the resort’s hotels — a move that travel experts say could save the company a lot of money.
Starting in 2022, Disney /zigman2/quotes/203410047/composite DIS -1.02% will no longer offer the “Magical Express” — a free shuttle bus that brought guests staying at Walt Disney World hotels to and from Orlando International Airport.
As part of the service, guests could even skip waiting for their luggage at baggage claim by putting special tags on their suitcases. Disney would collect the belongings and then bring them directly to people’s hotels. The luggage-related part of the service was suspended in 2020 due to the pandemic.
“As consumer needs and preferences change, we will no longer offer Disney’s Magical Express service starting with arrivals in 2022,” a Walt Disney World spokeswoman said. “At the same time, we’re also introducing new ways for guests to enjoy their visits, including early theme park entry for Disney Resort hotel guests.”
In a blog post , Disney noted that the change was made in light of the growing popularity of ride-share services from companies like Uber /zigman2/quotes/211348248/composite UBER +0.58% and Lyft /zigman2/quotes/208999293/composite LYFT -0.38% . The blog post noted that these services “save time and offer more flexibility” to resort guests. Disney will continue to offer transportation within its Walt Disney World complex, including the monorail, buses and the Skyliner gondola service.
Additionally, Brightline, an inter-city rail system in Florida, has announced plans to expand service to Orlando, including stops at the airport and Disney Springs, a shopping center located at the Walt Disney World resort. When completed, the Brightline train service could serve as another option for guests to get to Disney property.
Nevertheless, the choice to remove the “Magical Express” service was surprising to travel experts. After Disney introduced the free shuttle and bag fetching service in 2005, travel experts noted it served as a way to keep guests on Disney property rather than having them rent cars and travel to other nearby theme parks, such as Universal Studios /zigman2/quotes/209472081/composite CMCSA +0.92% and SeaWorld /zigman2/quotes/210357674/composite SEAS +8.12% .
Indeed, the company even seemingly reinforced this benefit in recent years by beginning to charge hotel guests for parking.
“That was a pretty effective moat that, when it was introduced, was supposed to keep people inside ‘the Disney bubble,’” said Len Testa, co-author of “The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” and president of travel website Touring Plans . “The rise of ride-sharing apps made it easier and cheaper for people to go offsite when they wanted (rather than renting a car or calling a cab), and so Disney was bearing the entire cost of getting people between the airport to their hotel, without getting as much benefit as they once did.”
Disney did not operate the “Magical Express” service; it was subcontracted to Mears Transportation, an Orlando-based company. As a result, Testa said the move was “absolutely a cost-cutting measure.”
“Walt Disney made us aware of their decision earlier today,” said Roger Chapin, spokesperson for Mears Transportation. “While we are disappointed Disney will no longer offer this service, we intend to continue offering transportation services between the airport and all area theme parks and hotels to meet the demand of visitors now and in the future.”
Separately, Disney confirmed that another popular perk that was suspended amid the pandemic will not return. Called “Extra Magic Hours,” this feature allowed guests who stay at Disney hotels to enter theme parks earlier than other visitors or stay in them later in the evening, sometimes adding an hour or more to their park stay.
Starting later this year, Disney will allow their hotel guests to enter theme parks before the general public, but the extra evening hours for hotel guests will not return. This new perk will allow visitors with a valid hotel reservation to enter any of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World 30 minutes early during their stay.
“The new early theme park entry benefit helps us better spread visitation across all four theme parks, while providing added flexibility by giving guests extra early park time on each day of their vacation and in the park of their choosing,” Disney said in its blog post.
Additionally, the early theme park entry should help to reduce morning crowds at the theme park in light of pandemic-related entry protocols, including temperature screenings. During the early entry period, people without proof of a hotel reservation will not be allowed entrance to the parks until normal operating hours.
Whether the elimination of the shuttle service and extra park hours will lead travelers to stay at other hotels rather than Disney-operated ones remains to be seen.
“Fans are understandably surprised by the news, but it’s tough to say if two ride-share rides and the inconvenience of carrying one’s own luggage will make or break an entire vacation budget,” said Carlye Wisel , a freelance theme park journalist.
With the other changes Disney has implemented in light of the pandemic — including eliminating the ability to book a “FastPass” to cut the line on popular rides — the Walt Disney World experience will be a lot different.
“Only time will tell if changes to Extra Magic Hours and Disney’s Magical Express put a permanent dent in Disney’s hotel business, but along with some other pandemic-era changes, like the current system of Park Hopping and pause on Disney’s FastPass+ program, it remains pretty clear that the Disney World hotel stay of the future will be different than one of the past,” Wisel said. (Park Hopping is the ability to visit multiple theme parks in one day without paying separate admission. Park Hopping was initially restricted after the parks reopened because of coronavirus capacity limits, but returned in a modified form at the beginning of the new year.)
The coronavirus pandemic forced Walt Disney World to overhaul its operations. The theme parks remained closed for many months when COVID-19 cases first exploded in the U.S., with the parks ultimately reopening in July .
The number of people allowed in the parks remains reduced, although the capacity limit has been relaxed since the parks first reopened. Guests inside the parks are required to wear masks at all times, expect when eating or drinking . Certain attractions and experiences such as character meet-and-greets are on hiatus due to the pandemic.
Most of Disney’s theme parks around the world have reopened, but Disneyland and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, Calif. remain closed due to the state’s more stringent pandemic-related protocols.