Orlando: The Road Less Traveled

Headlines of news reports this time of year read like this: “Millions of Labor Day Crowds Hit The Roads.”

Not entirely true.

They hit the air, too.

This brings up a timely question.

No, two questions.

  1. The best way to get to Orlando.
  2. And the best time to visit.

One of these questions is easier to answer. So we’ll start with that.

An estimated 35.5 million Americans traveled Labor Day. The vast majority, or 86 percent, traveled by auto. But that means millions more chose another route:

Train or air.

But mostly air.

Most visitors to Orlando, in common with Labor Day travelers, arrive by auto.

It’s almost always cheaper. And it’s more convenient to already have an auto here rather than having to pay for renting one.

But millions still arrive by air.

The vast majority fly into Orlando International Airport.

Nothing wrong with it, except that it is busy.

And crowded.

And not always cheap, either, when you go past the basic ticket prices to pay for “add-ons” such as the bag of clothing you might consider somewhat essential to staying somewhere longer than one day.

Increasingly, travelers who have the choice come via Orlando Sanford International Airport (www.orlandosanfordairport.com).

If you have not heard of it, maybe you wonder.

The name alone for some time has created confusion.

This is Sanford, not Orlando though they still use the later name as well.

You can get here from Sanford

But there are huge differences here.

Orlando’s own version is near the theme parks, 20 miles or so south of Orlando’s downtown.

Sanford’s much smaller version is about an hour’s drive north of Orlando.

The smaller one until recent years was poorly served by regular airlines.

It had a few charter flights. Little more.

But times have caught up with it.

Today, there are many advantages of Sanford, which in the past was mainly known for overseas travel.

News stories in recent times keep coming about new routes.

Low-cost carriers coming here

While the major Orlando-based airport gets a lot of media attention as fast-growing, it has also happened at Sanford. Flight activity has been up 71 percent in just a few years.

“Some small airports, including Orlando Sanford and St. Pete-Clearwater International in Florida, have seen huge percentage increases in flights thanks to low-cost carriers like Allegiant Air starting service,” writes The Wall Street Journal.

The downside to Sanford is that it still mostly serves charter flights from the United Kingdom and Brazil.

For domestic travelers, Allegiant is the most common carrier.

The Pittsburgh-based airline is supposedly low-cost. But of course it has fees for just about everything.

New routes were recently introduced from areas as Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Rochester and Raleigh-Durham, NC, among other areas.

The Sanford version (SFB) is admittedly not close to Disney. It is about 50 miles from the theme parks, compared to 22 miles or so for Orlando. A cab ride from Sanford is more than $100, while it’s only about $60 from Orlando (there is bus service as well).

Sanford’s transportation system has steadily improved in recent years.

Pinpoint-transporation.com advertises shuttle rates from Sanford to the Disney area for as low as $21.

Parking rates are as low as $13 at Sanford’s airport (it used to be an even better deal: free).

That compares to $17 on-site at Orlando International (though there are a lot more discount parking places to choose from just outside the airport itself, meaning you will have to take a shuttle bus to the airport terminal). Visitors leaving from Sanford can walk to the terminal.

Security lines are much shorter there.

Crowds fewer and a walk to the terminal

And crowds in general are far less, um, crowded.

Orlando has the the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport hotel. Fairly expensive, but a great place to relax and leisurely eat a meal.

The Sanford airport has the Royal Palm Lounge.

Admittedly, not everyone likes it.

Some reviewers have compared it unfavorably to larger airport watering holes.

But the Palm does have two home theatres, unlimited soft drinks, and free wi-fi. For kids, there’s a youth entertainment center. Also Playstation games at a children’s playroom.

And if you need a hotel, there are many nearby (though not at the airport itself).

Using Sanford instead of Orlando might be a good idea if you can get there from where you are because of its lower airline prices than you’ll generally find in Orlando. Also, airline fees are low enough so that it pays for renting a car.

What others think

Bloggers have raved about the advantages of Sanford.

“Having flown to Orlando airport 5 years ago I compared it to a cattle market I decided to try Sanford and for the last 4 years it has been superb.”

“Sanford is a joy to fly in and out of. Generally flights are spaced out; parking is easy; rental cars are easy. As others have said it’s clean and friendly. I use this airport 4-6 times per year and have never had any negative experiences. I’ve travelled alone and with the family – kids were treated nicely by security.”

“So much quicker and easier than MCO…Great service and really quick. Generally driving down within an hour of landing. Plenty of car hire desks. Signage on leaving the airport could be a little clearer though – fine when you get used to it but not clear first time.”


You get it.

Sanford is the winner, if you are flying here.

Of course, there are far fewer regularly scheduled flights here from other US cities. And from Europe (Though Thomson has a lot of them).

So you can’t always get here from there.

The very best days

Which brings us to our second question.

The best time to visit.

You don’t want to hear this but it does depend.

There are inevitably two major elements to consider: price, and crowded conditions.

Theme park ticket prices remain the same generally year-round. So no discounts during slow times.

So if price is your main objective, for other supportive services such as airfare and hotels, the least crowded times have the best prices.

One other far more minor consideration: attractions being updated or refurbished.

Missing rides?

If you’re worried about missing rides being refurbished…

Consider skipping January and February, which is when most rides are closed. For water parks, October through March are generally when some rides are closed.

Be aware that September is also the month when minor attractions and quick serve restaurants also closed to gear up for larger holiday crowds at Thanksgiving and Christmas. But minor inconveniences, and the parks always keep you up to date.

Which makes sense, since those are the colder times (relatively speaking, of course).

Simple as that.

The lowest prices come during what are called “Value Season.” Usually the first couple of weeks in the year, and during July and August (the hottest months, climate-wise).

The second consideration: crowds.

And wait time to get on the rides.

Your average wait time can be anywhere typically from 15 to 90 minutes.

FastPasses speed you up, of course.

Avoiding parks during special events

If you want to avoid crowds, skip the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival and the Star Wars weekends. (yes, believe it or not, some visitors plan their entire vacations around these dates).

Other non-scheduled events such as large groups of visiting tour school children or others are generally out of your control. So don’t worry about them.

If you take the view of professionals (say travel agents), we can view the travel calendar as high, low and shoulder season.

High or busy season is March to April, mid-June to mid-August, and mid-December to early January.

Shoulder season, otherwise known as the time between high and low, is in February, late May to mid-June. Also mid-August to October.

Low season or less popular season: May, September, and November to early December, as well as January.

In the simplest explanation possible, theme parks are most crowded when kids are not in school.

The busiest time is spring break in March and April. The weeks around Christmas and New Year’s are also kid-busy. Memorial Day to Labor Day is another peak time.

There are generally bigger crowds on weekends and other holidays

Here’s a great time to visit any park: during Super Bowl Sunday next year.

Spend Super Bowl in Orlando

Everyone…and we do mean everyone…is home watching the game.

 If you like rain, try to be at the parks during that time.

The weather discourages a lot of visitors.

September usually sees the fewest tourists and lowest rates. But weather can play a part here.

That’s when hurricane season is at its peak.

Other other slow months such as January, May, and November (excluding major holidays) could be better contenders for best time.

But apart from that…if you have to choose the very best time to visit, our suggestion is early December.

Crowds are low or moderate.

Resort prices are lower and often more reasonable.

And if you can arrange it…perhaps you are near one of the Pittsburgh-based Allegiant’s non-stop destinations…get here through Sanford’s airport.

Do you by chance live somewhere in Pennsylvania? ###