Southwest is my family's airline of choice. Unless they have to fly straight into Daytona. Then it's Delta.
Five years after starting its airport shuttle-and-luggage service, Walt Disney World has finally signed up Southwest Airlines, the busiest carrier at Orlando International Airport.
By the middle of next month, Disney says, nearly all of its hotel guests flying home on Southwest will be able to check in for their flights and drop off their bags before leaving the resort. The remote check-in service is a key component of Disney’s Magical Express, which also includes free bus transportation between Orlando International and Disney’s on-property hotels.
The Southwest deal is a boon for Disney and its Magical Express service, which, since launching in May 2005, has helped the resort claim an even larger share of its guests’ vacation spending by eliminating their need to rent a car and reducing the number of trips taken off Disney property during their stays. Southwest carries nearly one-fourth of all passengers at OIA — more than 7.6 million people last year — and the Dallas-based low-cost carrier caters heavily to the leisure travelers who visit theme parks.
While Southwest customers staying at Disney hotels have always been able to ride the Magical Express shuttles to the airport, they previously had to carry their luggage with them and check in for their flights themselves once they arrived at OIA. Now they no longer have to worry about such airport hassles — potentially freeing them to spend a few extra hours spending money on Disney property before departing for home.
“Not only has their departure pattern changed, but their departure attitude has changed,” said Steve Schreiber, general manager of the 5,544-room Disney’s All-Star Resort, where Disney and Southwest have been testing the service since October. “Your luggage is not the fun part of your vacation. When it’s taken care of for you, it’s totally off your mind, and those last few hours now become an extension of your vacation, instead of a burden trying to manage luggage.”
Disney’s Magical Express ferried about 2.2 million passengers to and from OIA last year. Disney estimates that, once Southwest is fully incorporated into the program, about 75 percent of Magical Express riders will use the remote check-in service, up from only about 45 percent of riders in 2007.
Disney has been trying to strike a deal with Southwest for several years, but an agreement was slowed by hurdles such as incompatible computer systems. Southwest also had expressed concerns that the volume of its traffic — the airline has said it expects at least 25 percent of its Orlando passengers would use the Disney service — could overwhelm Magical Express.
Last June, the two companies launched a pilot program to test the service at the 2,880-room Disney’s Pop Century Resort, a sprawling budget resort. The test was then expanded to the All-Star Resort, Disney World’s largest hotel.
Schreiber said Disney had to add employees to handle the extra baggage. Otherwise, he said, the testing proved “a very smooth, seamless progression.”
Disney began expanding the service to Southwest passengers staying at its other hotels earlier this month, adding as many as three resorts a week. The rollout will conclude next week.
At that point, only two hotels will not be included: the 761-room Disney’s Old Key West Resort and the 2,112-room Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. Disney says it is in the midst of expanding the luggage drop-off facilities at Old Key West and that it is considering similar changes at Caribbean Beach.