Disney prepares to ramp up its popular airport-shuttle service

A little more than two years after its launch, Walt Disney World's first-of-its-kind, free airport shuttle has proved wildly popular with customers, ferrying 150,000 tourists a month between Orlando International Airport and hotels within the sprawling resort.

But fewer than half of those riders check their bags with Disney before leaving the resort for their flight home, a practice Disney executives want to boost in hopes of freeing up customers to spend more time — and money — on company property.

"That's something we're focused on growing," said Michelle Bentubo, director of Disney's Magical Express.

Disney expects to carry about 1.8 million riders on its Magical Express buses during the company's current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But only about 800,000 of those passengers will also have made use of the airline-check-in option, which allows them to obtain boarding passes and drop off their bags while still at their hotel. The next time those customers see their bags is when they pick them up at their home airport.

The check-in service should get a boost next week, when US Airways, the fifth-busiest carrier at OIA, joins the ranks of airlines that allow their passengers to use it. The Arizona-based airline says it plans to do so beginning Wednesday.

With US Airways on board, the number of airlines participating in Disney's remote baggage check in will have doubled since the company launched Magical Express in May 2005. It will also include eight of the top nine carriers at OIA.

But no airline is as important as the one that still isn't among them: Southwest Airlines carried nearly one-fifth of all the travelers who passed through OIA in 2006, making it Orlando's leading carrier.

Representatives for Disney and the company it contracts with to run its check-in service, Orlando-based Bags Inc., say they are still working on an agreement with Texas-based Southwest. An airline spokeswoman said it hopes to join by early 2008.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said much of the holdup stems from difficulties in ensuring that the two companies' reservation systems are compatible. "We just haven't had the technology in place . . . for our system to talk to Disney's," Mainz said.

Signing up airlines isn't the only hurdle Disney's baggage option faces. For one, the check-in service isn't available yet to international travelers, who account for 6 percent to 9 percent of Magical Express riders, Disney's Bentubo said.

Craig Mateer, president of Bags Inc., said his company has been granted approval from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration to begin processing travelers on international flights. Now it's a matter of working through security details and other logistics with the airlines.

The goal, Mateer said, is to begin offering the service to at least some international travelers before the end of the year. "It should be coming out shortly," Mateer said.

Disney's contract with the airport also requires it to drop Magical Express passengers off at least two hours, on average, before their departures. So the resort only offers the remote check-in option to passengers whose flights take off at 8 a.m. or later.

That cuts out almost 15 percent of travelers, Bentubo said. The company is studying whether it can open its registration desks earlier or check in early-morning passengers the night before their flights.

Disney hotel guests arriving in Orlando can have their luggage shipped directly to the resort, regardless of airline, because the check-in procedures at their home airports aren't affected.

And guests who can't, or don't want to, use Disney's remote check in when heading home are still permitted to ride Magical Express — each bus has space to stow baggage.

But getting more customers to take advantage of the baggage-check-in option is good business for Disney.

Travelers on a late-afternoon flight, for instance, are more likely to spend their final morning in a Disney theme park if they don't have to worry about storing their luggage for the day or getting to the airport early enough to trudge through check-in lines in the terminal.

The baggage option also allows Disney to control more of their customers' vacations.

"That's so big with them, to have [guests] . . . under Disney's care the whole way," said Jerry Aldrich, president of Orlando-based Amusement Industry Consulting. "Because they feel their care is better. And if you get a better experience, your chances are better of coming back."

Disney officials acknowledge the baggage service's boost to their bottom line. But they point out that the airport also benefits when more people use the service, because it means fewer people standing in line at ticket counters and less luggage clogging conveyor belts in OIA's main terminal.

Even now, Disney is handling about 5,000 bags a day. That's luggage that gets processed inside a hangar that Disney subleases from Delta Air Lines, instead of inside the main terminal.

As Disney handles more of its own luggage, it will free up more terminal capacity for non-Disney travelers, said Chris Schmidt, a deputy executive director at OIA.

"We're as anxious as Disney is to increase that," he said.

Jason Garcia can be reached at jrgarcia@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5414. 



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