roomette in the auto train

Taking the Amtrak Auto Train to Disney World and Orlando Amusement Parks

Camping Disney is one of the best (and cheapest!) ways to do Disney.

If you’re a camping enthusiast or a fan of Disney, Fort Wilderness should be high on your list of places to visit.

It’s the cheapest resort at Disney and comes with the key perks of staying at a Disney property for a fraction of the price. It’s also one of the nicest private campgrounds around.

You will find impeccably groomed campsites, clean restrooms, beautiful landscaping (think camping under palm trees with Spanish moss), two pools, nightly outdoor movie showings, horseback riding and free transportation that shuttles you to the parks.

Most importantly, the campground offers a peaceful respite from the crowds.

But if you live up north, you may have crossed Fort Wilderness off your list because you don’t want to drive to Disney.

That was our predicament 18 years ago in Ohio when Rich and I were dating. With a mutual love of Disney and camping, we wanted to stay at Fort Wilderness, but we didn’t want to drive there to do it. So we came up with an ingenious idea (or so we thought) of flying to Disney with our camping equipment.

We purchased the largest duffle available at the local Army-Navy store and stuffed it to the brim with sleeping bags, pillows, two Therm-A-Rest mattresses, a tent from Sierra Designs, cooking equipment and clothing. We still use the mattresses and the tent, all these years later. They were great investments.

Today, that would be difficult to do. Luggage restrictions would limit the amount of camping gear you could bring. And camping without the necessary gear is, well, no vacation! Unless you’re a fan of sleeping on a picnic table, lol.

Our campsite in 2021. A level parking pad and lots of shade made for a perfect spot.

Enter the Amtrak Auto Train. The updated version of our ingenious idea.

The Auto Train began as a private company in 1971 and was later acquired by Amtrak to serve snowbirds wintering in Florida. There are two segments: passenger cars, including sleeper and coach cars, and huge, double-decker, tube-shaped rail cars that carry the vehicles.

Cars rolling off the Auto Train in Lorton, Va.

The “car train”, as it’s also called, has just one route: from Lorton, Va., located half an hour outside Washington D.C., to Sanford, Fla., about 45 minutes from Disney World. These towns are the route’s only stops, not counting a late-night stop the train makes to change crews, where you cannot get off. Our conductor told us people all the way from Canada are regulars on the Auto Train.

What’s it like riding the Auto Train?

The Auto Train is a neat experience, maybe especially so if you aren’t a snowbird and riding for the novelty of it. The trip is long, about 18 hours, but you will (hopefully) be sleeping through a good chunk of it, and you can expect to be treated well on your ride.

There is a high level of service on the Auto Train. Each sleeper car has its own attendant who takes care of passengers. The attendant welcomes you aboard, takes your dinner order, serves your meal in your room, makes up the beds, and converts them back to seats in the morning. There is a call button if you need something (extra towels or toiletries, for example) or have a question. Each sleeping car passenger receives this level of service – no first-class ticket needed!

The warm hospitality, complimentary and delicious dinner, served with a glass of wine if you wish, and crisp linens are reminiscent of airline travel years ago when it felt special.

What are the options for riding the Auto Train?

One important thing to know about the Auto Train is you cannot ride it without a vehicle. But you do have options:

Coach Class Seat

The least expensive ticket, starting at $89 per passenger, one-way. You get a seat and sleep in it. The seat reclines much farther than typical airline or rail seats, and there is a nice-sized footrest, allowing you to stretch out. The bathrooms are shared and there are no showers in coach.

Roomette

The cheapest sleeper room option is called the “roomette.” It’s a tiny cabin with two seats facing each other, bordered by two large windows and a sliding door. The lower seats form one of the two beds in the roomette; the other is an overhead, Murphy-type bed that is lowered to make a bunk bed.

Our family traveled in two roomettes located directly across from each other. The seat in our second roomette was empty, and we didn’t have to pay for it. Marco chose to be alone and loved having his own little “man cave”, which gave us some rare and cherished alone time in the other roomette.

The roomette reminded me of our camper van. The feel of a well-engineered, cozy compartment where nary an inch is wasted. Very modular, very German.

You definitely want to pack light for the roomette. There is very little room for luggage – a couple of small shelves (that double as steps to reach the upper berth), and a hook to hang coats or a garment bag. But there’s nowhere to put a suitcase, even a carry-on sized one. Unless you stow your suitcase between the seats, which would mean you’d have no legroom. If you have a soft-sided bag that’s not too big, you could stash it under the seats.

When considering this, remember that you only need to pack for one night.

Roomettes are equipped with:

  • Individual climate controls
  • One outlet. You could bring a power strip or choose to unplug and look out the window.
  • Table that pops up between the seats
  • Shared bathrooms
  • Shared combination shower/changing rooms

We never waited to use the restrooms or changing rooms. The stalls are much bigger than in the larger family bedrooms (see below) that come with their own in-room baths. They are stocked with fresh towels and soap but lack hair dryers. The shower I took had decent water pressure that fluctuated when nearby toilets were flushed. Amtrak labels these bathrooms as “private” on its website, but that refers to each rail car (not roomette), which I found confusing. If you book a roomette, you will not have your own bathroom!

Roomettes are available on both upper and lower levels of the train. I wish I would have requested the upper level for the views and proximity to dining. On the flip side, the lower level roomettes are closer to the bathrooms, which are located on the first level.

Here’s a little video I shot of our car, including the roomette bathroom and shower.

At six feet, five inches tall, Rich reported he was comfortable in the roomette. I loved it because the view was spectacular – much better than the larger “family bedrooms”, which have just one, smaller, window. And, as a BIG bonus, it felt like we had a tiny date night!

Snuggled into his roomette, Marco snapped the curtains shut, put his feet up on the empty seat across from him and slipped into a video-game coma for the evening.

Family Bedroom

The Family Bedroom option sleeps up to four – two adults and two children. There are fewer family bedrooms available, so these tend to sell out quicker than the roomettes. Plan to book early.

We originally booked a family bedroom for a trip we planned in the spring of 2020 that was canceled because of the pandemic. That trip was planned months ahead; a year later, when we booked just a month out, family bedrooms were sold out.

We ultimately felt it worked in our favor: we saved about $500, our son got his own bedroom and we all enjoyed some much-needed privacy after being together in the camper all week.

Family bedrooms have a different footprint than roomettes but are the same in concept.

Both options lack space for luggage and make use of upper bunks for beds. Family bedrooms are perpendicular to the window at the end. There are two seats opposite each other near the window, just like the roomette, then two additional seats forming a bench on one side.

Amtrak Family Bedroom sleeper car
Sleeping at right angles: the Family Bedroom on Amtrak’s Auto Train
photo courtesy of Amtrak

I peeked into a family bedroom and it looked dark and cramped. There is only one window, and it’s smaller than the roomette’s. The beds form right angles, butting together the passengers’ heads. The upper beds aren’t big enough for adults, hence the stated: “two adults and two children” capacity.

The big advantage is these rooms come with their own bathrooms, which include a shower. These bathrooms are smaller than the shared bathrooms, and I’ve read that it’s difficult to get dressed in them, so expect to suit up in front of the family. Usually not a problem for families who camp!

For families with smaller kids needing more supervision or not ready to bunk alone, family bedrooms are a great option. Family bedrooms are located on the lower level, sharing cars with roomettes.

Bedroom and Bedroom Suites

The remaining two options are really the same option – the bedroom, which can be doubled to form the Bedroom Suite.

The standard bedroom option, which Amtrak calls the Superliner Bedroom, accommodates two adults and is twice as big as the roomette.

The beds are longer and the bottom one is wide. If your child is small, you could make a case for fitting the three of you in one bedroom. But you’d have to do that by speaking to an agent. The online booking process requires you to enter the ages of travelers and automatically options the number of rooms you’ll need for your trip. So if you’re thinking of stuffing an extra person in a sleeper car, you’d be out of luck.

Each bedroom has a bath, shower, and a seat Amtrak calls a recliner that faces two beds, the lower one serving as the couch during the day. There are two big windows in each bedroom.

How much does it cost to ride the Auto Train?

The Auto Train isn’t cheap. Like the regular passenger service Amtrak provides, it’s less expensive to drive (or even fly) to your destination.

The appeal of the Auto Train is skipping the traffic, experiencing a sleeper car and, depending on where you’re coming from, saving a precious vacation day you’d otherwise be spending in the car.

As owners of an old VW camper, we also were incentivized by the miles we’d be sparing the van. Round-trip, peak-season car train tickets would have broken our budget, so we decided to split the difference: we drove the van to Disney and rode the Auto Train home.

Rates fluctuate, depending on season and demand. Here is the breakdown of our one-way trip:

Car fee$258
2 adult fares$286
1 child fare$72
2 Roomettes$466
Total$1,082
Your sleeper car fare does not include your train ticket on the Auto Train.

Tips for riding the Auto Train

Pack light

Leave your big suitcase in your vehicle and pack a small overnight bag with essentials.

Download movies before boarding

There is free wifi, but frequent Amtrak riders know that Amtrak wifi is not regular wifi! You can usually get online, but browsing is slow and downloading next to impossible.

Know your vehicle dimensions when you book

Vehicle tickets are determined by size. If you’re a van camper, pay special attention to height. Our van is lower than newer vans at 84 inches, and it just barely met the maximum height requirement of 85 inches.

Amtrak DOES make exceptions for “special” vehicles, including “small trailers, limousines, jet-skis, trikes and choppers” on a case-by-case basis, provided there is room. You’ll need to call reservations to inquire: 1-877-SKIP-I-95 (1-877-754-7495).

StandardExtendedMotorcycles
Maximum length: 192 inches (16 feet)Maximum length: 216 inches (18 feet)Maximum length: 102 inches
Maximum height: 85 inchesMaximum height: 85 inchesMaximum height: 72 inches
Maximum width: 84 inches, including mirrorsMaximum width: 84 inches, including mirrorsMaximum width: 51 inches
Ground clearance: 4+ inchesGround clearance: 4+ inchesGround clearance: 5+ inches
Maximum tire width: 14 1/2 inchesMaximum tire width: 14 1/2 inchesTire maximum: 7 inches wide, 2 1/2 inches deep

Enjoy the ride

You will see a different view of Florida than you’re likely to get on vacation: swamps, shacks, newer subdivisions, and pineapple groves were part of the scenery that made the ride interesting. Rooms on the upper level have better views.

Call to book your reservation

Amtrak’s website is notoriously kludgy. Use the back button and risk having to start your reservation over. Nuff said!

Don’t stress over arriving early. You don’t have to.

My pre-trip research led me to believe I needed to show up super early – basically right at 11 a.m. when Amtrak begins checking people in. But that wasn’t necessary.

I read advice that said “the sooner you get there, the sooner your car gets on the train!” But the order of cars on our train was random.

Each vehicle is assigned a number on the train. When you arrive at your destination station, you’re given that number. Then the waiting game begins.

Amtrak calls out the numbers as the cars are driving off the train. They aren’t in order – far from it. If you are, say, number 205, and they call 204, you’re not likely to be next.

For $60 extra, you can buy “priority off-loading” that guarantees your car will be one of the first 30 unloaded from the train. Priority off-loading quickly sells out. If you aren’t able to get it, don’t stress out: the average wait time of regular offboarding is about an hour. Keep in mind that even priority status holders have to wait a bit.

If you do arrive early, take the free shuttle to downtown Sanford

Hop on the shuttle at the Amtrak station and you’ll be dropped off at the retail strip in downtown Sanford in less than 10 minutes. There are restaurants, a used bookstore, antique shops and a few boutiques to explore. A nice way to stretch your legs before the ride.

Last but not least

Don’t forget to tip your attendant 🙂

We made it!

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