Traffic! (you can't get there from here)
January 8, 2021
This is a map of Walt Disney World, pulled from their web site. Notice how the roads wind and merge. There are almost no intersections where you have to stop. Most of the time, cars and buses keep moving to their destination. The roadways are designed to keep traffic flowing smoothly. There are monorails that connect some of the parks and hotels. Buses, sky lifts, and boats are used to take guests from place to place. This is part of the plan to make your day in the parks the best day ever. It works, most of the time.
This is a map that shows the area to the south and west of the Walt Disney World property. This is the part of Touristburbia I live in. Note that there are large areas with no major roads running through them, only around them. This means, for people that live here, there are limited ways to get from one place to another. These large areas include the Disney complex, the Celebration community on the other side of I-4 from Disney, Championsgate just southwest of Disney on he north side of I-4, and Reunion, just southwest of Celebration on the south side of I-4.
Note that two of the major highways that loop around the Orlando metro area, toll road 429 and toll road 217, do not connect. All the cars that need to continue the loop have to get onto I-4. Note that 429 ends at I-4. All 429 traffic that doesn't exit further north has to add to the I-4 traffic. Same with 417. Highway 192 goes past the east side of Celebration, and then curves west, ending at highway 27. Highway 27 is a major north-south route through central Florida. It intersects with I-4 further southwest from Touristburbia. You can't go from there to Disney, Celebration, toll road 429, toll road 417, without getting onto 1-4 or making a very long detour. Traffic coming from Orlando, and traffic coming from the Tampa area can expect major slowdowns daily from well west of highway 27 and from well east of Disney and Celebration.
Just northeast of the end of 429, and across I-4 from Disney, is Celebration. Celebration had a population of almost 10,000 permanent residents in 2018. There are more now. More houses, condominiums, and apartment complexes are being built, rapidly increasing the permanent population. There are also tourist accommodations, hotels, great restaurants, schools, churches, hospitals, a library which serves that part of Osceola County, businesses, office buildings, and outdoor markets. All these generate lots of traffic.
THERE ARE ONLY TWO WAYS TO GET IN AND OUT OF CELEBRATION. One is on highway 192. The other is on I-4. They are both at the north side of the community. You can't get in or out from the south.
If you are going from Celebration west onto I-4, you have to merge with traffic coming from Disney on World Drive, traffic heading west on highway 192, which is a major artery through Osceola County, and traffic coming from toll road 217. All these crowded roads get funneled into one long entrance ramp that then narrows from two lanes to one lane before merging with I-4 west. Traffic heading east on I-4 also has to merge with 429 traffic and Disney traffic in the area around Celebration. Think of it like the confluence of the Ohio, Tennessee, and Missouri Rivers into the Mississippi, only the Mississippi is already flooding and not nearly wide enough.
South of Celebration and Championsgate, the road in the lower right corner of the map is called OBT or Orange Blossom Trail (Highway 17.) OBT is a major thoroughfare connecting Kissimmee to the rest of the world. It also handles all the traffic coming north from Poinciana. It is where the Sunrail commuter train route ends.
You cannot get directly from Celebration to OBT. This means if you are south of Celebration, you cannot drive through Celebration to get to I-4. If you are in Kissimmee or Poinciana, you have to go around Celebration to get to points north. You cannot get directly from OBT to I-4 anywhere near Disney or Celebration except on the two lane Osceola Polk Line Road. Osceola Polk Line Road was not designed to handle this many cars.
In the Disney property, the way the roads loop and connect give you multiple choices to get from point A to point B within Disney. In downtown Orlando, if a road is blocked, you can usually drive a block or two our of your way to detour around it. In Touristburbia, you can't do that. The detours take you miles out of the way.
Since there are only two ways in and out, and both are on the north side, traffic cannot go through Celebration as an alternate route if I-4 is gridlocked. Why not bypass on the north side? Disney is there. Disney roads are great for moving around Disney, but they are designed to discourage through traffic. If I-4 is backed up, alternate routes have to go so far out of the way that they can add an hour or more to your commute time.
To the southwest of Disney and Celebration is another planned community called Reunion, with several Reunion-adjacent developments. Like Celebration, you can drive in and out, but you can't drive through. Only Osceola Polk Line Road and Old Lake Wilson Road go around Reunion. Celebration and Reunion effectively block any viable alternate routes if I-4 is backed up.
There are many new housing developments being built to the south which also use Osceola Polk Road or Old Lake Wilson Road to access I-4. If there is congestion, or a breakdown on I-4, these can get blocked up for miles. Parts of Lake Wilson Road get blocked up daily during key traffic times. Businesses have been allowed to build at key intersections on Lake Wilson Road. Many of these do not provide an easy way to get in and out of their parking lots, because the traffic on the surrounding roads is blocked up so badly. For an example, check out the new business area at the intersection of Osceola Polk Line Road and Old Lake Wilson. You can only exit the parking lot onto Old Lake Wilson if someone in line for the traffic light is nice enough to let you out.
Two years ago, a Walmart super store opened at the intersection of 192 and Old Lake Wilson. An already overly congested interchange became a nightmare. This had been our chosen route to get to Disney without getting on I-4. Now the traffic at that intersection is just as bad as the traffic on the interstate!
North of Reunion, on the other side of I-4, is Championsgate. When we moved here in 2012, Championsgate had a couple of restaurants, a small strip shopping center, a hotel, and a housing area for permanent and vacation homes. Now the shopping areas have more than doubled. The number of restaurants has more than quadrupled. A multi tower apartment complex has opened. Many more housing developments, some related to Championsgate and some not, have been added to the north and west.
The main road through Championsgate becomes Osceola Polk Line Road after it crosses I-4. All the traffic from Championsgate and its surrounding communities meets all the traffic from Reunion, Kissimmee and Poinciana from the south at exit 58 on I-4. During peak traffic hours, traffic can be blocked up for miles each direction with cars trying to get to the entrance ramp to merge into the already congested interstate. There are still backups, although smaller, even in the lightest traffic periods. On I-4, traffic can come to a standstill every day, in both directions, around this interchange. Traffic trying to exit from I-4 west onto exit 58 can back up for up to a mile onto I-4, reducing that stretch of road from three usable lanes to two. Traffic is worse at this interchange, at least 30 miles from any sizeable town, than it is in downtown Orlando!
New resort communities, housing developments, and apartment complexes are being added constantly. Most of these are zoned for vacation rentals. The people driving in and out of these are driving on unfamiliar roads looking for unfamiliar places. Many of them feel like they are driving on the wrong side of the road from what they are used to. Add to that the unusually high number of drivers, many of them locals, who insist on following less than a yard behind the car in front of them, and you have a recipe for almost daily car crashes that endanger lives and further clog the roads. I used to blame the traffic on tourists. For most of 2020, though, the pandemic kept most tourists away. The traffic was still horrible.
What does all this mean for Touristburbia? For many times of the day, we are trapped. In the late afternoon, evenings and weekends, if I had to get from my house to the hospital in Celebration, it could take over an hour to drive the eight miles to get there, even on a good day. While I was working, my insurance was only good at the hospital downtown where I worked. During peak traffic times, that drive could take two or three hours. There were a couple of times when I may have had a serious medical issue. Due to the traffic, I had to wait until early morning, before the sun came up, to try and make the drive. It wasn't safe to risk my health stuck in my car in a traffic jam for hours.
For eight years, I only went downtown to get to and from work. My hours were flexible, so I left home at 6:30 AM to get to work by 7:00 AM, and left work at 3:00 PM to get home by 4:30 PM. By the time I retired, that commute time had increased to 45 minutes in the morning and two hours in the afternoon coming home. Now that I am retired, I avoid going downtown. Cultural events, sporting events, a dinner downtown, an urgent visit for medical care, etc., are just not possible.
The good news is that more hospitals are being built near my neighborhood. More shopping is coming in that doesn't require a long drive on I-4 to access. The bad news is that one new hospital will be in a large new shopping district right at the intersection of I-4, Osceola Polk Line Road, and the main road through Championsgate. This intersection already sees long waits to get on and off I-4. The wait line to get onto I-4 east backs up daily well beyond where the entrance to the new hospital and shopping center are.
There is talk of reworking the 1-4 interchange at Championsgate. There is also talk of widening 1-4, and completing new connection roads from Poinciana to I-4. They may even find a way to connect toll road 429 with toll road 417, eliminating the need to merge onto I-4. If there are final plans, though, I haven't seen them. Making these roads connect independent of I-4 will likely require adding a highway through Championsgate, Reunion, and/or Celebration. Their lobbyists will fight this.
Developers have a free reign to build anywhere, with no regard for how the new housing units and business will affect traffic patterns. It will only get worse. In the parks, if you stay at a Disney resort, you don't have to get into your car until your stay ends. There are multiple options for free transportation to all the Disney properties. That's why they call it a vacation. For those of us who live nearby, it's not a vacation any more.