Disney defends its shuttle-bus service
Some critics of Disney's Magical Express say the resort's free shuttle has made deep cuts in their business.
Beth Kassab | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted December 14, 2005
Walt Disney World executives say their free shuttle-and-luggage service between the resort and Orlando International Airport has boosted airport revenue by $1.6 million and helps move passengers so efficiently that it could delay the airport's need for a second terminal.
The analysis prepared by Disney came in response to criticism of the 18-month pilot project, Disney's Magical Express, which began in May.
Critics -- mostly other ground-transportation companies at the airport -- have said the service has cut deep into their business and that portions of Disney's original contract with the airport gave the entertainment giant an unfair advantage.
Greater Orlando Aviation Authority Chairman Jeffry Fuqua declined to comment Tuesday on the figures provided by Disney. He said airport officials are working to prepare their own analysis of the shuttle service's effect on airport finances and operations.
"What do you expect them to say?" Fuqua said of the Disney analysis. "I would expect them to do nothing else than toot their own horn."
The recent back and forth between the airport and Disney is a rare public power struggle between two dominant forces in Central Florida tourism that typically work out their disagreements behind closed doors.
Since Disney's Magical Express began seven months ago, the airport has changed several key parts of the service -- over Disney's objections.
In August, the airport reduced the number of parking spaces available to the shuttle service's buses from six to four. And in November, it banned Disney greeters -- employees who wore oversize Mickey Mouse gloves -- from the main level of the terminal because no other companies were allowed to meet customers there.
Disney's Magical Express, which is provided free to people staying at Disney-owned lodgings, is the first large-scale passenger-and-luggage service operating at a U.S. airport and is changing the way airports operate, said Jerry Montgomery, a Disney senior vice president.
"It's transformed, in a unique way, the airport experience for folks," Montgomery said. "When you change the paradigm in the market, there's going to be some shifts. There's no doubt about that."
He said the airport's $1.6 million net increase in revenue from May to September when compared with 2004 is the result of rent Disney pays, a 50-cent-per-passenger fee, and fees generated by Mears Transportation Group, which operates the shuttle, and two luggage-transport services.
Still in question is how much money, if any, the airport is losing because of downturns experienced by other businesses, such as rental-car companies and limo services.
In addition to the revenue, Montgomery said, the Disney service is also extending the airport's capacity.
Airport operations are streamlined by the bus service, he said, because about 20 percent of OIA's luggage is screened outside the main terminal, in space Disney rents from Delta Air Lines.
That frees up space at airline ticket counters and within the terminal's baggage system, which in turn could delay the need for the long-talked-about south terminal by seven years, he said.
Airport Executive Director Bill Jennings and Finance Director Maureen Riley were not available Tuesday to comment on those claims, spokeswoman Carolyn Fennell said.
Jennings has said the south terminal would be built after 45 million passengers pass through OIA in a single year. About 34 million are expected to use the airport this year.
Montgomery said Disney's Magical Express has done with private money what backers of a high-speed rail system had hoped to do with public dollars by "approximating a high-speed rail model" with a fleet of buses.
Fuqua, the airport board's chairman, acknowledged that the Disney service is a form of mass transit -- something the airport will need as it continues to grow.
"If you have an airport designed for 80 million passengers, it's relatively easy to draw the conclusion that it's going to be very difficult to move 80 million passengers out of the airport in small vehicles," he said. "At some point, you're going to have to build transit, because you can't build enough roads out of the airport. And this [Disney's Magical Express] is a form of transit."
"The question is: How disruptive is it and how financially disruptive is it?" Fuqua said. "I don't really know the answer to this question."
Today, the airport authority will consider proposals that would keep Disney from greeting customers near the baggage claim, where transportation companies typically find their passengers.
Airport officials want Mears employees, not Disney workers, to perform that role for Disney's Magical Express. Both Disney and Mears have objected to that change.
Meanwhile, Disney officials are trying to come to terms with airport officials on how the service will operate after the pilot program ends in December 2006. Because it plans its vacation packages a year in advance, the company wants to know by early next year what the service will look like in 2007.
"No one really forecast how successful it would be," Montgomery said