By the co-author of The easy Guide to Your Walt Disney World Visit 2019, the best-reviewed Disney World guidebook series ever.

Available on Amazon here.





Review: Taking the Auto Train to Walt Disney World, Continued



By Dave Shute

(For the first page of this Auto Train review, click here.)

THE LORTON AUTO TRAIN STATION AND EMBARKING

Review The Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.netThe Auto Train loads and unloads passengers only at two points—Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, Florida.

That doesn’t mean it doesn’t stop elsewhere—it stops in Florence, South Carolina for fuelling and a crew change, and will stop at other points on the rail network (mostly CSX, a few miles of Sun Rail) when directed by dispatcher signaling.

But no passengers join or depart except at Lorton and Sanford.

The Lorton station is just south of Washington DC on I-95. The entrance is just to the east of the freeway—I found it badly signed. Or it found me badly attentive.

Palm Tree Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

A fake palm tree greets you at the entry, where you check in and are directed to an unloading area.

Car Arrival Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

Here your car gets magnetic numbers attached (which will be announced over the PA in Sanford so that you know when your car is ready). Grab your carry-ons and head inside—you’ll have no more access to your car until Sanford.

Inside you check in, get assigned a car and seats, and pick your dinner seating from among what’s available. The number (2-4) and time of seatings will vary by how crowded the train is.

A check-in hint: note that the train whistles all night at almost every grade crossing from Virginia to Florida. The locomotive couples onto the coaches for the southern trip, and the sleepers for the northern trip. If the whistle may annoy you, limit noise by asking for a car away from the locomotives…although this will give you more corridor traffic.

Lorton Lobby Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

The Lorton station has a large waiting room, but not nearly enough seats for all the people the Auto Train will hold. (The train has capacity for more than 700 people and 300 cars.)

Getting a seat in the waiting room is a reason to arrive early. So is getting your pick of dining seatings.

Auto Racks Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

But it is not true—though often written—that the first cars to load in Virginia are the first off in Florida. Loading the auto racks is much more complex than that. The only way to assure your car is one of the first off is to pay an extra $50 which will put you in the first 20 to unload.

So unless your travel plans give you no better way to spend the time, my advice is to arrive later rather than earlier. Amtrak would like you to arrive by 2p, and you must arrive by 2.30p. I’d target between 1 and 1.30 to give you some slack for travel problems.

(When you book, you can also sign up for schedule alerts. Do that—while the Auto Train is on time about 85% of the time, the trainset that departs at 4p is the same one that arrived at 9.30a. So if there’s a problem with the arriving train, you could be quite delayed.)

Lorton Shop Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

The Lorton station also has a good sized gift shop where you can get snacks…

Gear Lorton Shop Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

…and also souvenirs.

Ceci N'est Pas 32116

Ceci N’est Pas 32116

If all goes well you’ll be called for boarding around 2.30p. You’ll be called by car number, which will be on the paperwork you get when you check in. In passenger rail tradition, your car number is not what is painted on the car—that would be too simple. Rather, there will be a placard near the car with the car number.

Boarding Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

Sleeping car passengers board first, helped by the sleeping car attendants—one to a sleeper.

While consists vary, these days the Auto Train will typically have five to seven sleeping cars (one for the staff), with a diner in the middle for sleeping car passengers, four to six coaches with one or two diners for coach passengers in the middle of them, and a lounge car connecting the coach and sleeper groups, with armed guards keeping the coach riffraff away from the sleeping car passengers. (Not really hah.)

(Three constraints affect the consist. One is overall length, which CSX restricts to a total of 50 passenger cars and auto racks. This is thousands of feet shorter than many freight trains, so I’m guessing this limit is to make more (shorter) sidings available to the Auto Train for dispatcher flexibility. Second is the balance between auto rack and passenger capacity. Each bi-level auto rack can hold eight larger or ten smaller cars, while the passenger cars (averaging coach and sleepers) hold ~60 people each, so you need multiple racks for each filled passenger car. Third is the ability of the typically two GE P42 locomotives to handle the head-end power needs of the passenger cars (lights, heating and cooling, electricity, etc.) which is limited to 16-18 passenger cars. So a max consist will have on the order of 17 passenger cars, 33 auto racks, and two locomotives.)

Switcher Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

After boarding, the train is assembled, brakes checked, and it departs. Both of our departures were early. Because everyone has to check in by 90 minutes before departure time, there’s no issue with waiting for last minute arrivals. If the train is ready, and the dispatcher has a place for it on the tracks, off you’ll go!

Opinions on the views from the Auto Train vary. To start with, winter trips will have little daylight anyway. And trains kinda go through everywhere but the nicest parts of town.

Aquia Creek from the Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

(Though see the sunrise over Aquia Creek from my phone on the trip back from Florida.)

I love the views because I find everything fascinating—farms to decayed industries to small towns to military bases to railroad facilities. It is authentic—there’s nothing Disneyfied about the Auto Train routing. But some do find the views uninteresting…

DINING ON THE AUTO TRAIN, THE LOUNGE, WI-FI AND SUCH

Two meals come with your ticket, dinner and a continental breakfast, both served in the dining cars. (Note that the schedule is such that you’ll want to plan something for lunch on your departure day. We brought sandwiches that my sister made (and a lot of snacks) that we mostly ate in the waiting room. The gift shop sells sandwiches and such as well.)

Dining Car Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

Dining cars are two levels, with the kitchen on the lower level and tables on the upper level.

Dinner Set Dining Car Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

Tables seat four, and if your party is smaller you may be seated with strangers—fun for extroverts, a pain for introverts.

Sleeping car attendants will get meals for their passengers on request, a boon to those with walking impediments. Don’t forget to tip them… It’s also appropriate to tip the bartenders in the lounge, and the people who take care of you in the dining car.

Dinner Menu Dining Car Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

The menu is now the same in both the sleeper and the coach diners, and all customers now pay for alcohol. (Sorry about the image quality…I’ll get a clearer shot on my April coach trip…) Seatings are announced over the train’s PA system. The announcements can be hard to hear in the sleeping compartments.

We had among us the beef and the salmon, and thought both OK under the circumstances. Not remotely fine dining, not as good as what you’ll get in airline first class, much better than anything offered in domestic airline coach.

Continental breakfast is served as a cold buffet, and eaten at the tables (my sister snuck bananas back to her roomette). It begins at 6a, but is not announced until 7a.

Lounge Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

Between the coach section and the sleeper section you’ll find a lounge car (the dedicated sleeper lounge has been discontinued). Here you can get drinks and snacks, and movies are also shown in the evening.

There’s two WIFI access points in the lounge car as well, each of which can take ten devices. In other words…if WIFI is important to your trip, bring your own hotspot.

THE SANFORD AUTO TRAIN STATION AND DISEMBARKING

Sanford Lobby Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

The Sanford Station is similar to the Lorton station…

Sanford Shop Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

…except the gift shop is smaller…

…and because of shorter platforms, there’s a little more complexity to passenger loading and unloading—not all the passenger cars can be on the platform at once.

The train will arrive before you do–it takes a while for everything to be safely switched. Then you grab your gear, get off the train, and wait for your vehicle number to be called. It’s kinda like bingo from hell, as it can take a couple of hours with a full train, and somebody has to be last.

Specifically, on our trip down, ours was the very last car to be unloaded!! After a while the wait became a little comic. We might have been annoyed to have been second-to-last, but last—now, there’s a distinction!!

Someone Has to Have the Last Car Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

That’s my sister and dad–anonymized a bit, aren’t you jealous of my image-manipulating skills?–at the end of our lonely wait for our car…

My sister asked—she was told there used to be a prize for the last car, but not any more…

Even before our car was unloaded I had laid out the $50 to be unloaded in the first 20 cars on the way back to Lorton. Whether it’s worth the money to you would depend on how you’d spend the hour or two you might potentially save from this. In our case, once I arrived in Lorton I’d then be driving an hour to drop my dad off, another hour to drop my sister off, and then 6 more hours to get back to Ohio, so it was worth it to me…

From Sanford Disney World is about an hour’s drive. Left, left, three miles, then left again onto I-4 West. But I-4 is about to go into massive construction along almost all of this route, so the longer (and tolled) route via FL-417 may be a wiser choice as this project unfolds.

Heading north from Sanford to Lorton, all the key points–including departure and arrival times–are the same.

AUTO TRAIN ALTERNATIVES

If you want to take the train to avoid flying and I-95, but don’t need your car, consider Amtrak’s Silver Meteor and Silver Star.

Amtrak_Silver_Service (1)

These sister trains (route map above; they have a sisterly quarrel over the Carolinas) provide many more places to board than Lorton, drop you off in downtown Orlando rather than Sanford, and don’t charge the vehicle fee.

Because of the extra stops, the elapsed time on the Silvers is longer for an equivalent Auto Train trip—e.g. the Silver Star leaves DC about an hour earlier, and gets into Orlando about an hour later. But since you don’t have to arrive at least two hours early, and don’t have to wait up to two hours for your car, it’s about a wash.

Follow yourfirstvisit.net on Facebook or Google+ or Twitter or Pinterest!!

RELATED STUFF

39 comments

1 Kristen { 08.10.15 at 8:24 am }

We’re taking the auto train from Lorton to Sanford soon (two kids and 2 adults) and pretty excited. This is the best review I’ve read; chocked full of useful information and well written and funny to boot. I may have missed it, but how long did you have to wait for your car in Sanford – you said you were the very last car, curious what that was in minutes. Thanks!

2 Dave { 08.10.15 at 5:13 pm }

Hi Kristen and thanks so much! Like a knucklehead I did not time how long it took. More than 90 minutes, less than 2 hours, is my estimate…

3 Jeanne-Marie { 08.23.15 at 4:36 pm }

thank you so much for your review. I booked one way, going to see how it goes before booking the return trip. We booked lower level, now I am wondering if I should change it, if possible.

4 Dave { 08.25.15 at 11:11 am }

Jeanne there are pros and cons to both upper and lower, as noted on the first page of this review. Both levels have luggage racks.

5 Mo { 08.24.15 at 12:47 pm }

Dave, not sure I like trains but willing to try based on your review does the train go through any tunnels?

6 Dave { 08.25.15 at 11:12 am }

Mo, I’m sure there are tunnels, though I don’t recall any. And Amtrak will let you book anything you want that is available, but you might want to do it over the phone.

7 Jeanne-Marie { 08.24.15 at 8:53 pm }

I have to ask, are there overhead racks on the lower level?

8 Jane { 11.30.15 at 9:42 am }

Hi Dave, just wanted to say that our 2nd WDW visit, and 1st time taking the auto train, were fantastic! Your article about the auto train really put me at ease, and the whole train experience was great. We would definitely do it again. Our family of 5 (with small kids) fit very well into the family bedroom. So much nicer than driving 2.5 days and cheaper than flying. Train was delayed a lot coming in but still we arrived at WDW only an hour behind what I had imagined. On the way home it actually showed up an hour early, so that was a nice surprise. It was exciting to take a train, b/c none of us had ever done so.

9 Dave { 12.01.15 at 11:47 am }

Jane I’m so glad the Auto Train worked out!!! My dad, sister and BIL are taking it in a couple of weeks (second time in a year for dad and sis) so we’ll see what they think this time.

10 Lori { 04.25.16 at 11:46 pm }

Very nice report. we’ve taken the Auto Train twice now and will be taking it again very soon. We must be train people because we’ve enjoyed it both times. My kids actually liked the train ride more than their first trip to Disney World!

I’ve looked at a number of sites (yours is probably one of the best) but can’t find what I’m looking for. What is the peak season for heading North? I know a lot of snowbirds ride the train when they leave FL, but couldn’t find “when” they would be most likely to be on the AT. Any idea?

11 Dave { 04.26.16 at 8:51 am }

Lori, the way to know is to price a trip day by day and see when the northbound fares skyrocket. I have not done that…

12 Lori { 04.26.16 at 4:27 pm }

I thought about that myself, was hoping someone already had the answer. Really just looking for a general time frame of when it would most likely be very crowded.

Thanks anyway!

13 Dave { 04.28.16 at 11:01 am }

Lori, if you find it, let me know and I’ll post about it!

14 B.D. { 05.23.16 at 10:19 am }

Thanks for the current review, Dave. I last rode the Auto Train some time last century. Now I’m considering going with my family — 2 toddlers, who sleep with bed rails. What’s the considerations on the family bedroom with no in-room lav vs. two bedrooms, and how toddler-safe are the two options? Both for moving about and for sleeping.

15 Dave { 05.25.16 at 9:26 am }

BD the beds have belts and such mean to keep you in them, but for sure I’d bring my own bed rails. Two bedrooms would let you put the kids at the lowest level, but would be much more expensive.

16 Jo { 11.20.16 at 4:04 pm }

What invaluable info, pictures, etc. I so appreciate your giving us the ability to set realistic expectations for our first trip. Many thanks for a great job, Dave.

We’ve booked a bedroom (not a roomette), and I’d welcome your thoughts re how much/what kind of luggage can be stowed out of the way in there. Would an airline carry on suitcase fit under the sofa or chair? Or should we use only soft-sided totes, backpacks, etc.? Does the closet provide out-of-the-way storage space for a suitcase? (We won’t be hanging any garments in there.) Thanks in advance for any guidance.

17 Dave { 11.22.16 at 7:46 am }

Hi Jo and thanks!! First, recall that you only get two carry ons. I did not measure the closet, but would guess it is more for a garmet bag than a typical rolly bag. These spaces seat 4 but only sleep 2-3, so you should be able to put your carry-ons on a seat if they don’t fit the closet.

18 Sarah { 11.29.16 at 12:30 am }

Hi! Thanks for this info! I have a question.. I am driving from New York down to virginia with a friend in January to take the auto train, and I just bought my ticket with the car, and she was intending on buying her ticket separately but as we are both taking my car down to Virginia she doesn’t have a car to register with her ticket. How did your daughter be able to get a ticket for the train when this similar situation happened to you? I don’t know how my friend will be able to get a ticket now because I already purchased mine with my car. Thank you!!

19 Sarah { 11.29.16 at 12:34 am }

Sorry I meant sister instead of daughter!

20 Dave { 11.30.16 at 9:56 am }

Sarah, call and add her to your ticket.

21 cherry { 12.03.16 at 7:35 pm }

Great review. very detailed and so helpful. thanks to you, I am taking my sleeping sheet ( sleep sack ) and a blanket and pillows. Had not planned such details. And I always take noise-cancelling Bose earphones on DC metro. So , that was useful too. I will then be driving north to gainsville in my 2-seater Smart. thanks again

22 Dave { 12.04.16 at 1:16 pm }

Great Cherry!!

23 Ellen { 01.17.17 at 7:49 pm }

Hey, Dave – Thanks for this GREAT info. I’ve booked a business class seat on the auto train from Lorton in early Feb. I gather that business class service doesn’t start unti Feb. 1, so I haven’t been able to find any info on that service variation. Do you know anything?
Also, how early do people start lining up for seat assignments? Thanks!

24 Dave { 01.19.17 at 7:58 am }

Hi Ellen, here’s what business class offers:
Business Class on the Auto Train from yourfirstvisit.net

I don’t see any overwhelming perks here, so let me know what you think after your trip and maybe I’ll book it for my June trip!! I’ve seen people arrive as early as 10.30a. I am not sure why–the only merit of an early check-in is your choice of dinner seating times.

25 Ellen { 01.20.17 at 5:20 pm }

Thanks, Dave. Is there any seat selection advantage to being early at check-in? For those not crazy about dining with children, I assume late dinner seating is advised?

26 Dave { 01.21.17 at 6:30 am }

Ellen, not that I can think of, because your biz class ticket will be aimed at a defined car or section of a car in the train. The main value of seat selection is picking a car that is far from the locomotive to lessen the noise of the horns at the grade crossings.

Re dinner, if there are three seatings (the number can range from two to three, sometimes even four depending on how many passengers are aboard), most will avoid the first if there are three or more seatings, so that becomes filled with late arrivals. There aren’t that many kids on the Auto Train–the demographics skew to middle aged and elderly. There are even fewer kids in the sleeping cars (you will be dining in the sleeping car diner) because of the extra expenses of those spaces.

27 Ellen { 01.21.17 at 3:40 pm }

Thanks, Dave. You’ve been a great help! I’ll write a report of how it goes.

28 Jenn { 01.29.17 at 8:19 pm }

Thank you for a great post! I’ll be riding in March with my husband and toddler (23 month old). We booked a family bedroom. What are your thoughts about bringing a stroller on board? I’m just a bit concerned while we’re waiting for our car at the station. Also, do you know if we can opt to have our dinner in our room as opposed to going to the dining car? Thank you!

29 Dave { 01.29.17 at 8:26 pm }

Jenn, the stroller is a fine idea. You won;t be able to use it on the train, but it’ll be handy as you note when you debark. Yes, sleeping car passengers can ask your attendant to bring you your meals. Remember to tip them at the end of the trip, and extra for this service!

30 Lisa ONeill { 06.07.17 at 9:51 am }

Gosh such great information!! Thanks! Are there restrictions on snacks and drinks? What’s the security like……long lines, shoes off? Is it like airplanes where we have to purchase drinks there?

31 Dave { 06.08.17 at 10:09 am }

Hi Lisa, I’ll know more after my next ride (in July) but historically there’s been no security, and no limit (other than the bag limit) on what you can bring yourself and dine on/drink at your own seat or compartment.

32 Sara Hunt { 11.05.17 at 8:00 pm }

My husband and I have rode the train several times. The parents with little ones are during the month of July and early August. The movie was usually child related. I am a pickie eater so I Bring my own.

33 Dave { 11.06.17 at 8:54 am }

Thanks, Sara!

34 David { 11.14.17 at 7:41 am }

Thank you for sharing the experience and the photographs. So, very, very, informative (nothing that hasn\’t already been pointed out).

35 Dave { 11.14.17 at 11:50 am }

Thanks, David!

36 Dianne { 10.09.18 at 1:05 am }

Where would you say is the best seating for someone with limited mobility? I have ridden the Autotrain before and am concerned about the tight stairs going to the upper level coach seats. Thanks.

37 Dave { 10.09.18 at 6:50 am }

Dianne, the first page of this review includes car diagrams. There is lower level seating available, and you can also book as a person with disability.

38 Jackie { 10.16.18 at 6:40 pm }

Hello! We are only able to afford coach seats for our family (3 adults and 2 kids under 10). Will we be ok?

39 Dave { 10.18.18 at 6:30 am }

Jackie, the coach seats are large and have a TON of legroom. They don’t fold flat, and so are a little harder to sleep on. Most people–by far–take coach, so you should be OK!

Leave a Comment | Ask a Question | Note a Problem

My response to questions and comments will be on the same page as the original comment, likely within 24-36 hours . . . I reserve the right to edit and delete comments as I choose . . . All rights reserved. Copyright 2008-2018 . . . Unless otherwise noted, all photos are by me--even the ones in focus--except for half a dozen from my niecelets . . . This site is entirely unofficial and not authorized by any organizations written about in it . . . All references to Disney and other copyrighted characters, trademarks, marks, etc., are made solely for editorial purposes. The author makes no commercial claim to their use . . . Nobody's perfect, so follow any advice here at your own risk.