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If you build more hotel rooms (at Disney World), they will come — and they are toting their luggage and taking the Disney Magical Express. Not much magic too it, just people on their way to new hotels.
Traffic aboard Walt Disney World’s airport shuttle-and-luggage service rose 3.3 percent last year, the biggest jump in five years for the bus service that ferries tourists between Orlando International Airport and Disney World’s various hotels and time shares.
New airport figures show that Disney’s Magical Express carried nearly 2.3 million passengers from OIA in 2013, about 73,000 more than the bus service transported in 2012.
It was the largest annual increase since 2008, when the number of arriving passengers rose 3.7 percent to just under 2.2 million. Ridership aboard the Disney shuttle had remained relatively flat since then, even as occupancy in the Walt Disney Co.’s U.S. hotels — the vast majority of which are at Disney World — slid from 90 percent during Disney’s 2008 fiscal year to 79 percent during its 2013 fiscal year, which concluded in October.
Disney would not comment specifically about what drove the increase. Spokesman Bryan Malenius said only that Magical Express ridership is affected by “a variety of factors.”
Outside observers credit a pair of projects. The first is the mid-2012 opening of Disney’s nearly 2,000-room Art of Animation Resort, which increased Disney World’s hotel inventory to roughly 24,000 rooms. The second is the late-2012 opening of most of Disney’s $425 million Fantasyland expansion. Company executives say it has driven even higher attendance inside the Magic Kingdom, which already was the busiest theme park in the world.
Duncan Dickson, a professor at the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, noted that Disney has marketed Art of Animation as a “value” hotel, its cheapest category. That makes it more appealing to price-sensitive travelers, who are more likely to forgo renting a car in favor of riding Disney’s bus.
“Any time you add rooms, it’s going to add to your ridership, if you market it correctly,” Dickson said.
Disney says Magical Express ridership figures are not a barometer for measuring its business. But traffic aboard the Disney World airport shuttle has closely mirrored the number of people staying in Disney’s U.S. hotels each night over the last year or so, according to daily ridership data and Disney’s regulatory filings. About 90 percent of Disney’s domestic hotel rooms and time-share suites are at Disney World.
For example, the number of people taking Magical Express to Disney World and the number staying in Disney’s U.S. hotels each night — also known as “occupied room nights” — both rose by about 4 percent during the first quarter of Disney’s 2013 fiscal year.
Shuttle traffic climbed 7 percent during the second quarter and 6 percent in the third, while occupied room nights rose 5 percent and 8 percent over the same periods. And both Magical Express traffic and occupied room nights rose by less than 1 percent during Disney’s fiscal fourth quarter.
The occupancy rate — the percentage of rooms filled — in Disney’s hotels declined during the same year, primarily because the company had more rooms to sell with the opening of Art of Animation.
Magical Express ridership inched up by less than 1 percent during Disney’s most recent quarter, the first of its 2014 fiscal year. Occupied room nights were flat during the same period, which ended Dec. 28.
Shuttle traffic is down by a little bit more than 1 percent during Disney’s current quarter, according to airport data through the end of January.
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