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Amtrak to Disney World: great experience at minimal cost

I want to go to Disney World. I want to go by train. I want to 'ride the rails' like they did in the old time movies. Visions of the 'Orient Express' cloud my mind.

Amtrak station in Orlando.
Amtrak station in Orlando.Amtrak
If you're heading off to the Sunshine State, why not do it by rail?
If you're heading off to the Sunshine State, why not do it by rail?SVG Cuts

OK, the 'Orient Express' part might be a stretch, but taking a train trip to Florida certainly isn't. My desire to do so began about fifteen years ago, when I made frequent business trips to DC. I would usually fly into BWI (Baltimore), and catch the train into the city. On occasion I'd ride Amtrak.

Consider it partly curiosity, partly just looking for new experiences, but then and there I decided I wanted a train experience longer than 30 minutes, and since I frequently go to the Orlando area, that seemed like the place to start.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that from where I live, (near Nashville), it would take nearly three days to get to Orlando by train! To do so, you'd have to:

  • Catch a midnight train in Fulton, Kentucky to Chicago (the drive to Fulton alone would be longer than a direct Nashville to Orlando flight)
  • In Chicago, board a train headed for either Washington or New York
  • In New York or DC, change to my final train heading to Mouse heaven

Dream shattered. C'est la vie!

Trains require those annoying little things called tracks, and my travel plans were a slave to them. They just didn't point right for me! So I abandoned that idea for another time. I really wanted to experience train travel, but I really DIDN'T want to be on a train for two or three days! Especially when you consider that that length of trip lends itself more to having a sleeper cabin, which pretty much blows the budget.

That would have been the end of it, if not for my friend 'the rail guy'. He is a guy I worked with years ago, and he and his wife are now 'train people'. The last three years, for each vacation they've journeyed out west on Amtrak. With each picture he would show, and each story he'd tell, I'd be a little more determined to somehow figure out a route.

So, armed with my limited knowledge of the trains on the Eastern Seaboard, (and particularly with the help of Amtrak's website!), I set out to find a combination rail/air trip, within budget that would allow me to "ease my train pain", not take too much time, and get me to my beloved Magic Kingdom, all without breaking the bank.

And by golly, it CAN be done!

First off, this is not about 'saving time'. Far from it. It is about a bit of Americana, riding the rails on a vacation. So enjoy the experience. It might be tiring. But you'll come away with an experience you and your family won't forget. Here's how to do it.

Step 1 - Determine if this is really for you. Do you want to take a small child on a 19 hour trip in a limited space with limited entertainment outlets? If Wifi is a concern, trains probably don't have it, although it is available at many stops along the way. Is the experience worth a full day of your vacation? Can you spend one night sleeping in a reclining chair on a moving train?

Step 2 - Find your Amtrak station. Needs to be one that serves Florida on a direct route. You'll find them all up and down the east coast, between New York and the sunshine state. (For me, its a quick plane ride to Baltimore, which has bus service for the five minute ride between BWI and the train station)

Step 3 - Determine which train schedule suits you best. You're going to spend roughly 20 hours on trains, so do you want to get to Orlando earlier in the day, or after lunch? (The Amtrak search engine gives you all your possibilities! For me, I'd rather leave earlier, wake up in the Florida sunshine and enjoy a few hours travel before arrival.) You also have to determine your final destination. Did you know you can get off the train in Orlando or in Kissimmee? Do you prefer the Silver Star? The Silver Meteor?

Step 4 - Is 'coach' going to fill your needs? If you have those 'Orient Express' thoughts, forget it. For the budget minded, you're going to get a nice, regular seat that reclines. Nice legroom, but amenities are limited. If that doesn't suit your needs and you start thinking sleeper cabin, then the budget goes out the window. Also, WIFI will be limited, although many stations along the route have it available. (Amtrak's search engine gives you an idea of each train's features.

Step 5 - Determine your return trip? After a wild week at Disney, I don't think I'd want to reverse this process, so I'd look for a quick flight back to my home city, having 'scratched my rail itch' along the way.

Finally, how do costs compare? Train travel is surprisingly affordable, so you might be pleasantly surprised. In a cost analysis, I was able to plan my initial flight, my train experience and my return flight for anywhere from 25-35% more than a direct flight would have cost me. Small price to pay for a great new experience!

This is not 'apples to apples' compared to a direct flight or driving. You're adding an experience most of us probably haven't done. If you don't have to add that extra flight to get to your Amtrak station, the cost may actually be cheaper than flying.

Amtrak offers a world of travel experiences at great costs and even full vacation packages. If you'd like to read more about rail travel in the US, read 'All Aboard: The Complete North American Train Travel Guide'. It's available from Amazon here.

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