Disney squeezes rivals
Walt Disney World's Magical Express airport shuttle is on track to handle nearly 2 million passengers this year, but its success has come at a price for small rental-car, limousine and bus companies.
The first-of-its-kind free service shuttled 186,238 passengers in April — its peak month — from Orlando International Airport to the Disney resort, with eight of the past 15 months tallying more than 155,000 passengers.
The figures underscore Disney's significance as a driver of airport traffic. Vacationers heading to Disney accounted for more than 10 percent of all passengers who flew into the airport during the first six months of this year.
For the airport, there is no significant change in revenue as a result of the service, which launched in May 2005.
Money the airport takes in from ground-transportation companies, including Disney, is up 2.3 percent for the first seven months of the year over the same period last year. That growth is consistent with the 2.4 percent increase in the number of passengers flying into Orlando during that time.
"So it's pretty much even-steven," Deputy Executive Director Chris Schmidt said. "It looks to me like everybody's doing well."
Claims of monopoly
A closer look at the numbers, though, shows some small companies are struggling.
Rental-car companies that cater to budget-conscious leisure travelers report downsizing their fleets and staffs to stay out of the red. They say the service gives Disney and its bus operator, Mears Transportation Group, a monopoly on lucrative trips to the resort.
"Disney Express has taken enough of the business in the Orlando market that it has driven the rates way down, even below in most cases what they were last year for the same month," said Eric McCandless, operations manager for E-Z Rent-A-Car and USA Car Rental LLC, both off airport property.
Feeling even more pressure are rental-car companies at the airport. Only one — Vanguard Car Rental USA Inc., which operates as Alamo Rent A Car and National Car Rental — showed a revenue increase for the summer months of May, June and July compared with the same period last year.
The other four experienced flat or decreased revenues despite a 3.6 percent increase in incoming passengers for the three-month period.
L&M Car Rental, for example, experienced a 12 percent drop in revenues for those three months this year compared with 2005. It has decreased its staff and car fleet by nearly 40 percent, Vice President Hesam Sahraian said.
"We have had successful operations until this event," Sahraian said. "I never thought it would affect us in such a way."
In addition, Beeline Ground Transportation, the bus and shuttle-van company that competes with Mears, is also suffering.
Beeline has laid off 50 employees since Magical Express started 16 months ago and is now operating with a skeleton crew, owner Dr. Owen Fraser said.
"We're not getting any walk-up business at the airport," Fraser said. "Magical Express is taking away all of that business. We're doing maybe 100 passengers or 200 passengers a day. Very, very little."
Fraser, who was awarded the airport's transportation contract for a minority-owned company, said he plans to try to turn the business around.
The numbers show Magical Express is growing in popularity, with passengers increasing 11.5 percent for the three-month period of May, June and July — the height of the summer travel season — over those same months last year.
Disney Senior Vice President Jerry Montgomery said the shuttle is a boon to the region and that there are no plans to begin charging passengers directly for the service.
"After only a year of operation, Disney's Magical Express has set new travel-industry service standards, created more than 600 new jobs in Central Florida, reduced crowding and wait times throughout Orlando International Airport, and cut down on area roadway congestion," he said in a statement. "Overall, we've received very positive feedback about Disney's Magical Express."
The financial data also for the first time shed light on just how many people who fly into Orlando visit Disney.
Because Disney does not publicly release attendance figures, the passenger numbers for Magical Express offer a rare glimpse into the ebb and flow of crowds at the resort.
According to the data, it's not uncommon for Disney to transport more than 7,000 people in a single day from the airport to its resort. The number reached a high at 10,439 people Oct. 1, 2005.
Because the airport charges Disney a fee for each passenger it picks up at the airport, the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority stands to make more than $1.5 million from the service next year if it continues at the same pace. The passenger fee will increase from 50 cents to 75 cents in January as part of the airport's contract with Disney to extend the service through 2011.
On a recent morning, two families from St. Louis waited at the airport for the shuttle to take them to Disney's All-Star Music Resort. The families, with a combined seven children, bypassed baggage claim and headed straight for the shuttle. A few hours later, their bags were delivered to their rooms — a key component of the shuttle service.
Once the families arrived at Disney, they stayed put, part of the company's plan to keep its customers' money from leaving its property.
"We did not leave the resort," Rachelle Cartwright said of her family's two-week trip. "When we're doing a Disney vacation, we use all their transportation that they have."