If you're traveling to the Orlando, Florida area for your summer vacation, you’ll be one of the millions who visit every year. According to Florida’s marketing corporation, Visit Florida, over 126 million visitors came to Florida in 2018, a 6.2 percent increase from last year. Orlando’s tourist association, Visit Orlando, reports that Orlando welcomed 72 million out-of-state visitors in 2017.
And, as you can imagine, that means millions of people, both visitors and residents, are driving on Orlando’s busy highways and byways every day. This is especially true for the area south of downtown Orlando, which is locally known as “the attractions” — primarily, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Florida, and SeaWorld.
The most common way to get to the attractions is on an interstate called I-4. The highway is 132.3 miles long and runs southwest to northeast from Tampa to Daytona Beach, cutting through the heart of downtown Orlando.
The I-4 Ultimate
If you haven’t visited Orlando in the past few years, you may not be familiar with the I-4 Ultimate. This isn’t a new theme park or roller coaster. It’s an extensive construction project which broke ground in 2015, focusing on a 21-mile stretch from Kirkman Road (exit 75) northwest to SR 434 (exit 94). The construction project’s primary goal is to alleviate the mounting traffic headaches in the area.
Besides extensive rehabilitation of the now 60+ years old interstate, I-4 is going under a major overhaul to accommodate four variable toll express lanes called 4 Express. Fifteen major interchanges are also being constructed.
The I-4 Ultimate project is expected to end in 2021. So until then, you may encounter extra traffic and delays due to construction. But you don’t have to be caught unawares.
The construction project’s website, I-4 Ultimate.com allows you to sign up for email and text alerts. You can receive alerts a week in advance, a day in advance, and an hour reminder. You’ll be alerted for detours, highway and road closures, and ramp closures.
The I-4 Ultimate is divided into four areas along its 21-mile stretch. If you’re coming to visit here, Area 1 what you’ll most likely be focusing on, The Attractions. This area starts at Kirkman Road and ends at John Young Parkway. This is where you’ll find Universal Studios Florida, the Mall at Millenia, and the Florida Turnpike. International Drive (locally known as I-Drive), with its outlet shops and restaurants, is also nearby, located in between I-4 and the Turnpike.
Typical Traffic Around the Attractions
Around the attractions, you can expect typical rush hour traffic during the morning (starting as early as 6:30am and ending after 9am) and evening (which can start as early as 4pm, ending after 6pm) — especially as people try to join the Turnpike.
Beyond the rush hour and construction closures, another traffic concern that you may encounter while traveling on I-4 is when the parks close. So here are some closure times to remember:
Universal Studios Florida and Universal’s Islands of Adventure close at 9pm.
Universal’s Volcano Bay closes at 8pm.
WDW Magic Kingdom closes at 10pm (with Extra Magic Hours extending to 12am).
WDW Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom close at 9pm.
SeaWorld typically closes at 6pm, but can have extended hours starting Memorial Day weekend, closing at 9:30pm.
From the Walt Disney World exits (exits 64-67) to the Turnpike, you will find variable heavy traffic. You can be traveling at the speed limit and then seconds later applying your brakes. You’ll find this going in both directions as people leave the parks.
If you need to be on I-4, plan to either leave early or late, or be patient and allow for extra travel time and drive under the speed limit. Friday night tends to be the worst day and time for this kind of traffic, including on I-Drive.
Another Orlando traffic consideration is the weather. Central Florida has a humid, subtropical climate, so in the summertime, it usually rains every day during evening rush hour. That’s also during the typical hotel check-in time of 3pm or 4pm. Consider an earlier check-in time if you can. And, if you can get off of I-4 before 4pm, you’ll miss the thunderstorms and the rush hour traffic.
Other Tips on Driving on I-4
Driving on I-4, other toll roads, and surface streets can be overwhelming. There are overpasses, long ramps, multiple lanes, and left-hand exits to navigate and reach in time.
Florida blogger Dee Dee Weber has one tip for tourists to handle I-4 traffic, construction, and delays: let someone else drive.
“I suggest using a driving service such as Uber or Lyft. Even as someone familiar with the area, I utilize these services. It greatly reduces stress due to traffic congestion. These services are great from quick trips between the resort and park or evening entertainment,” she said.
If you’re driving north of the attractions, especially into downtown, there are more construction areas to consider. Orlando accident and injury lawyer Tina Wills at Tina Wills Law suggests avoiding downtown altogether, due to several accidents which have happened in the area.
“If possible, vacationers to our theme parks would be wise to stay close to the theme parks, or at least somewhere that doesn't require them to drive through downtown Orlando or Maitland [a town just north of downtown]. If they must drive through downtown, then it's always a better idea to travel during non-peak times of day,” she advised.
Finally, you should remember that as you drive through a construction zone, you should drive the posted speed limit for that zone and to drive more cautiously while looking for construction crew members.
For more safe driving tips and travel tricks visit DriversEd.com