Sunshine Flyer transportation service makes a dull ride to and from Orlando International Airport to the Walt Disney World resorts an engaging start to a magical holiday, says the company’s Vice President, Tony Glibkowski.
When Walt Disney World’s Magical Express airport pick-up and drop-off service ended on January 1, 2022, it left an opening for new ventures to step in. That’s when Tony Glibkowski and the team at Sunshine Flyer had the bright idea of making the transfer from the airport to the “Most Magical Place on Earth” feel like a themed adventure before guests’ main vacations even starts.
What can you tell us about the Sunshine Flyer?
We are a themed transportation experience to go from the airport [Orlando International Airport] to the Walt Disney World resorts. When the Magical Express ended at the end of last year, that left a lot of Disney guests in a spot. They still needed transportation to and from the airport, so we threw our hat in the ring. We came up with the concept of 1920s rail travel; the fun bus style, our staff dressed in that regalia. The idea was to turn something that’s kind of procedural – just a boring airport ride – into something we wanted [riders] to consider the official start to their vacation.
How did the project come together?
The general story was, the parent company, TMS (Transportation Management Services), its focus is moving large amounts of people for large events. I think we moved 100,000 people at the Kentucky Derby and we have about 400 people in Qatar — we’re working with FIFA on the World Cup over there – so we’re very familiar with what it takes to move mass amounts of people, and when we saw that Disney was sunsetting the Magical Express we looked at the idea and said, “Hey, this mirrors a large event, but it just happens every single day. That got us thinking, and then we got more serious about it.
And the buses’ train theme? How did that come about?
We were sitting around the boardroom one morning and we were talking about what drives the experiences at Disney and how they’re the best in the business at making something ‘more’ and turning it into an experience. I was commenting that, every time I went to Disney with my kids we’d sit at the monorail and they were always staring down [the track], going, “Oh my gosh, I hope it’s the red one!” or “I hope it’s going to be the black one this time!”
I said, “Why don’t we do something like that? Why don’t we make the buses cool? Something that kids are excited about.” We started throwing out random ideas, then we got to the idea of how much Walt Disney like trains, and then started Googling old trains, and a couple months down the road we’ve got 29 of them wrapped and driving daily in Florida.
We knew we wanted to do it, but we also knew we wanted to do it as more than just a standard ride on a white bus. Families, and specifically kids, they’re about to start their Walt Disney World vacation. When your flight lands in Orlando, for some reason the kids think Walt Disney World is right outside the door. They want something fun right away, so hopefully we can provide that stopgap of fun until they arrive at their resort. [The buses are] wrapped as trains, and each one is different. They’re wrapped as either old 1920s train engines or passenger cars. We’ve even got one small, nice Sprinter van dressed as a caboose. We use that one as ancillary help, when necessary.
Are the buses accessible for those with mobility needs?
All of the motorcoaches are wheelchair accessible; the van is not.
During what time frame does Sunshine Flyer run?
We service flights that land and depart at 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., so if you have a 7 a.m. flight there’s a chance you might need to get picked up at 4:30 a.m. The plan is to get all guests to the airport two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.
There were issues initially with the booking platform. Are you integrating to a new platform?
We will be, shortly. Hopefully by the end of this month [June 2022] we should be live with it. It’s a new custom-built platform. We’re learning from our first three or four months of service what is working and what is not. It’s going to have a large focus on helping out the travel agents and the resellers. We can have a built-in platform or portal for the reseller so they can log in and manage their clients’ bookings. They can make adjustments in a concentrated space where we can keep control of the commissions that are paid back. More of an intuitive view for the travel agents.
Will it also be easier for guests who book direct without using a travel agent?
The new one is only going to ask the questions that are necessary. It’s more intuitive. If you type in “American Airlines flight 555” it automatically populates the time that flight lands at the airport. If you type in “American Airlines flight 55” it would say, “This one doesn’t go to MCO,” and you can recheck your flight information. The guests can log back in if they so choose, to make adjustments to their reservation or they can call or email us as well.
There were also issues initially with pick-up time confirmation. Has that been solved?
Yes. That’s another piece that’s coming out in the next 30-60 days. We’re having a completely new back-end system for our customer service team. But in the meantime, we’ve solved those growing-pains of getting out the emails and the text messages for the guests.
What happens is, the day before your departure you’ll get an email and a text that says, “Hey, we’ll pick you up tomorrow at 10:15 a.m. at the Grand Floridian,” or whatever the specifics are. That’s still somewhat of a manual process that we do now, and that’s getting rolled into the overall system when it’s live. All that stuff is going to be automated and tied specifically to your account. Even though it’s more work, we’ve mastered the manual stop-gap that we’re doing currently.
If a guest’s resort is the last resort the motorcoach stops at, how many other resorts can they typically expect to stop at before they reach their own?
The answer isn’t necessarily resorts, it’s time. We have it scheduled in our system that no one will be on a bus for longer than 65 minutes. That generally equals about three resorts.
One of the Sunshine Flyer’s selling points is that kids receive activity books, conductor badges, and trading cards, and there are TVs that show cartoons. Is that on all of the motorcoaches and the shuttle?
All of the large buses have the TV monitors throughout. We curated an entertainment program that starts with the safety information, then rolls into some old-timey cartoons for the kids, then there’s trivia questions for the adults. The cartoons are period-specific, meaning 1920s to 1950s; old cartoons, and some are train-related. The trivia is not geared toward Disney characters, specifically.
It’s [also] got a GPS geolocation so when you pull into the Grand Floridian it’ll say “Welcome to the Grand Floridian,” and give you a heads-up on where you’re located. That’s on all the larger coaches. The Sprinter van we have, and ones we have upcoming, aren’t decked out with TV monitors.
With regards to giveaways for the kids, as we were designing this, we always had in our forefront, what are kids going to like? What do they want? As we all know if we’ve traveled with our kids, that’s the most important thing. What makes them happy makes us happy. Currently we’ve got little conductor hats that all kids get as they board the bus or shuttle at the airport. The activity books are just being finished up now. We should have those printed within the next month or so.
What can you tell us about the trading cards?
Our trading cards are being designed. The idea of those cards is similar to how you see the pin trading at Disney. If we have a kid who gets off the bus and the train car that he just rode was the Iguana, or he was on the Armadillo, or whatever the bus is –they’re all named after various animals, depending on the design scheme – it’s another fun thing to do. We’re always looking for another way to entertain and keep kids active, and keep them engaged and happy for the 45 minutes they’re going to be on the bus drive, until the start of their real vacation.
You do charity focused initiatives with Make-A-Wish. What can you tell us about that?
Yes, the donation we did was, for the first 50 days of service we donated 50 percent of our sales to Make-A-Wish. The 50 days and 50 percent was a nod to Disney’s 50th anniversary. Two weeks ago, we had an event where I had the comically large game show check for $279,220.75 that I was able to hand over to Make-A-Wish for a donation that’s going to supply roughly 30 wishes to kids in the local Orlando area for Make-A-Wish. We’re more than happy to do it.
We do things with Give Kids The World, too. We have some staff who volunteer at Give Kids The World, so they ask us if we can bring a bus out to various events – the kids think it’s super awesome when the big train shows up. We’ll do that whenever we can, as well.
Sunshine Flyer facts:
Sunshine Flyer services the Walt Disney World resorts, including Shades of Green. At this time, it does not service the Disney Springs area resorts.
Pick-up and drop-off at Orlando International Airport takes place at Terminal B, just opposite where Disney’s Magical Express used to be.
For more information or to make a booking visit SunshineFlyer.com.