As the number of domestic passengers flowing through Orlando International Airport decreased nearly 7 percent last year, there was one segment of travelers that continued to grow.
The total number of people riding Disney's Magical Express, the door-to-door shuttle and baggage service between the airport and Walt Disney World hotels, increased 1 percent in 2009 from the year before, to 2.2 million, according to airport records.
As one Disney executive put it shortly after the resort began the program in 2005, it's about as close as you can come to "approximating a high-speed rail model" with a fleet of buses.
While the service was initially met with a blizzard of criticism over everything from how it would affect the airport's revenue to how many independent cab drivers would be put out of business, Magical Express turned out to be one of Disney's most brilliant innovations of the decade.
It's a privately-funded mass transit system that lets families say goodbye to their luggage at their home airport and — here's where the pixie dust comes in — reunites them inside their Disney hotel room.
Moms and dads don't have to think about renting a car and finding driving directions while lugging suitcases along with the stroller and, of course, the tots through the airport. And Disney gains a larger share of its visitors who are completely captive without a rental car or other means to spend money off resort property.
Even Jeffry Fuqua, chairman of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority who was hugely skeptical of the program when it started, said that five years later he's now a fan.
"It's turned out to be a great thing for Disney and a good thing for the airport," Fuqua said.
For a glimpse at just how much impact the service has had on the airport, consider this: Magical Express transports, on average, about 6,000 people each day or about 7 percent of the airport's total 30.7 million domestic passengers last year.
Magical Express' share of total domestic airport traffic increased 1 percentage point in 2009 from just two years ago.
Allegiant Air, a small low-cost carrier, moved two of its flights from Orlando-Sanford International Airport to OIA just last week — and plans to move 10 flights by March — in large part so that it can participate in Magical Express.
"Disney in general is a big reason," said spokeswoman Tyri Squyres. "The infrastructure from a customer experience, our customers told us that is important."
So what will happen when high-speed rail begins?
Disney has been clear that Magical Express isn't going anywhere and has become an "expected" part of its guests' experience.
Florida Transportation Secretary Stephanie Kopelousos said the rail line is expected to generate enough ridership without picking up Magical Express riders.
But will it?
That remains to be seen. It's hard to imagine the estimated $2.6 billion rail system could replicate the service and volume that Disney has already fashioned for much cheaper on its own.
Fuqua term ending, jockeying begins
Speaking of the airport, 2010 will be a year of big changes. In addition to the search for a new executive director to replace Steve Gardner when he retires in August, the airport's longtime chairman is on his way out.
Jeffry Fuqua, who has sat on the GOAA board for a total of 19 years since 1986, will be forced out by term limits in April along with Vice Chairwoman Jacqueline Bradley.
Fuqua, who owns Amick Construction, appointed a committee several months ago to begin the search for a new executive director, but said he hasn't "interjected too much" as of late.
"I don't want any criticism that I'm trying to handpick the next guy," he said.
Gov. Charlie Crist will select new board members for the two soon-to-be-empty seats. Early applicants include Orlando developer Picton Warlow; Dr. Jason Pirozzolo, director of sports medicine for Florida Hospital Centra Care; and engineer Richard "Scott" Batterson of Professional Engineering Consultants Inc.
Beth Kassab can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5448. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times