Guest Author: Beth Skarp
When traveling to Disney, one usually either flies or drives straight through to Walt Disney World. If you live close to Virginia, as we do, you have the option of taking the Auto Train. Amtrak offers a straight shot Auto Train that runs from Lorton, Virginia (near the Washington, D.C. Beltway) to Sanford, Florida (approximately 1 hour away from Disney).
We have ridden the Auto Train many times. For us, taking a wheelchair and all the “stuff” we need for special needs guests means we can and do have a fair amount of luggage, depending on how long we will be staying at Disney. Sometimes our youngest finds it difficult for one reason or another, due to her limitations, to quickly transfer from her chair into a seat or to walk (with assistance from her Dad) onto the plane—especially during peak travel times or when rushed to board a plane. For this reason alone we love taking the Auto train.
Getting to Lorton is easy for us since we live just outside of Philadelphia—across the river in New Jersey. It takes us about 4.5 hours to get there—but we stop for potty breaks and a leisurely lunch along the way.
Trains leave from both stations—Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida—at 4 PM daily and arrive at their end destinations around 9:00 AM the following day. When you make your reservations on the Auto Train, do take into consideration that you will be traveling during the overnight hours and arrive approximately 16 to 17 hours after you leave your train station. The Auto Train is a straight shot, however, they make an early morning stop (around 2:30 in the morning or so) to change crew and to refuel. Chances are you will not even notice this stop, but it does add time to your travel time.
Amtrak begins loading your vehicles at approximately 11:30 AM. When you arrive, you will be asked to remove anything from on top of the vehicle and to fold-in your side mirrors. An Amtrak employee will then take a video of your vehicle, noting any external damage clearly visible to the vehicle. You will then sign a waiver, stating that you are in agreement with the damage noted by the Amtrak employee.
You will then be asked to place your vehicle in the loading area and leave the keys in the ignition. The bottom of the waiver you just signed is a card stock claim number for retrieving your vehicle at your destination (either in Sanford or Lorton). At this point, you have about 15 minutes to grab your carry-on items and head into the Amtrak lobby to wait until Amtrak is ready to begin loading passengers.
Vehicles are loaded into the train cars in the manner in which you pull up. So…if you arrive early to Lorton, your vehicle will be loaded up early and you will be one of the latter ones offloaded in Sanford. The same is true for the Sanford to Lorton trip. If you wish to start touring the World right away upon arrival, you will want to make sure that you get to the train loading station a little closer to actual departure time so you will be offloaded right away—able to begin touring as soon as you arrive at Walt Disney World.
Fair warning though—the last cars to be checked into the loading area are at 3:30 PM. In the past, Amtrak has been fairly strict about enforcing this time limit. Showing up at say 3:40 or 3:45 may mean you are turned away. It takes Amtrak a little bit of time to video, note any damage, fill out the vehicle waivers then issue you your claim tickets, and finely safely and securely load the vehicles. Amtrak strives to leave and arrive on time, so they ask repeatedly that you do the same.
There are kiosks available for grabbing a quick bite to eat both in Lorton and in Sanford. These places are expensive to say the least, and the options for purchase are rather limited. We found that bringing our food onto the train was not only more cost effective, but truthfully, tastier as well. At the Lorton train station, we found a strip mall about a half-mile away that was fairly easy to walk to and grab some to-go beverages as well as a light meal. The strip mall had several fast food restaurant associated with it, and the supermarket had some wonderful salad bars as well as easy to-go sandwiches that were quickly made up.
Dinner is included in the cost of the Auto Train. You are asked which dinner seating you want to attend—so that each and every rider on the train gets to experience a nice sit down meal. You are asked to make a dinner selection prior to boarding the train, as the meals are pretty much pre-plated. Also, they want to make sure that each guests who wishes to dine in the dining cars has a hot meal waiting for them when it is time for them to dine.
I remember we had a delicious fish, veggies and a yummy Oreo cookie dessert the last time we rode. For a pre-plated meal, it was actually very good. We had assumed that the fish would be dried out and flavorless, but that was not the case at all. Oh…and for those who like some wine with their meals we were also offered a small carafe of I think white wine, a nice touch. You can also order the standard coffee, tea, iced tea or sodas as well.
Since your train leaves the station as a later hour, relatively speaking, there is not too much to see out the windows. I have to admit, some of the areas we go through are pretty “rough” looking, especially when starting out in Lorton or leaving Sanford. Other areas are rather scenic. Take advantage of the scenery as you can—for when the sun goes down in a few hours there is really not much to see at all.
There are electrical outlets at every seat (great for plugging in the DVD player or playing online games and keeping the battery charged). You can also view a movie, usually for children, in one of the train cars on the upper level.
Sleeping is not bad at all. If you want, you can always purchase a car. Fair warning, unless you are small in stature, these beds are quite small. Think of being on a hospital gurney…that is how small they are. We have never felt the need to spend money for small sleeping areas. The seats recline fairly nicely. Having a pillow to support your neck and perhaps a light throw for over your arms and you can grab a fairly decent nights sleep.
You will pull into Sanford fairly early. In fact, we arrived at 8AM one time, long before the Sanford station was staffed or open. Our engineer moved us to a side rail track and got us ready for offloading the vehicles. It sped up the process for vehicle retrieval once Amtrak employees arrived at the station—just a short 30 minutes later. .
There are several areas on the train to freshen up a bit. There is a lounge car specifically for women. This particular car has an entire wall that has a mirror, a small vanity desk of sorts, and padded seats placed strategically in front of the mirror. Each seat has an electrical outlet on the vanity desk underneath the mirror, so one can plug in their curling iron or what not to beautify themselves prior to their arrival. There are also showers on the train, besides the ones that are in the berth cars that are purchased. If you are willing to be an EARLY riser, you can make use of the showers unimpeded, otherwise you will need to make the showers available to those who have purchased roomette cars.
Usually, we are off the train, with our vehicle, around 10:15 to 10:30 AM. This works out well for us, since everyone else has hit the road and we can move at a more comfortable pace. We can arrive at our destination—in this case the Beach Club—around noon, ready to start touring.
Here is a photo journal of sorts of our trip from 2009. This is an all adults trip, so we only had the one wheelchair with us.
Taking the Auto Train really is easy. If you have at least 4 adults flying and have the time, the Auto Train is cheaper (usually) then the cost of a round trip airline ticket—even factoring the cost for gasoline. Not only can you bring more with you, you have a vehicle at your disposal while at Walt Disney World. While this is true for us, it may not work for everyone. If you don’t live fairly close to the D.C. Beltway, you need to factor in travel time and additional costs for a hotel, gasoline and meals. Who knows, maybe we will see you on the train the next time we head off to Disney.