By JESSICA GRESKO
Amtrak Auto Train
Some 238,000 people used the train last year, according to the company.
ABOARD AMTRAK AUTO TRAIN 52 TO WASHINGTON — All aboard on this train doesn’t mean just people. It means minivans, cars and motorcycles, too.
To board you have to be packing some serious luggage: every traveler must also be transporting a vehicle.
Amtrak’s Auto Train, the only one like it in the nation, has only two stops: one near Orlando, Fla., and the other in Virginia near Washington, D.C.
For more than 25 years it has carried vacationers and their vehicles, and a new $10 million station expected to open in Florida in 2010 may mean even more passengers.
I caught the train at its Florida stop in Sanford, about 28 miles from Orlando.
After handing over the keys to my 1996 Volvo, I watched as Amtrak employees attached a magnetic number to its side and drove it on to a special car-carrier, a bi-level car without windows. Then it was my turn.
“You’re in the adult car tonight,” the ticket agent told me.
“Is there a children’s car?” I asked.
The agent mumbled something about just getting off the Teacups.
I took a look around the station. There was a girl hugging a raccoon-sized Donald Duck, a man with Mickey-shaped holes in his Crocs, and a girl in a purple dress with Tinker Bell on the front, sitting beside a Cinderella pillow and drinking from a Cinderella sippy cup.
For a good part of the year, this is the Magic Kingdom Express — a way for families from the Northeast to visit Disney World and bypass what can be a 900-mile drive.
But the train isn’t just for families. It’s also for snowbirds escaping to Florida for the winter, for college students vacationing or visiting grandparents, and for the recently-out-of-college set using it to move to, or from, Florida and points north. Some 238,000 people used the train last year. Each train carries up to 600 people and a crew of about 30; Amtrak says it’s the longest passenger train in the world.
With planning, fares can be reasonable. Coach seats for passengers range from $93 to $228, depending on timing, and a spot for the vehicle costs $152 to $304.
For families who want to spend a little more, the train has compartments with seats that fold into beds and others with a private bathroom.
The train’s busiest months are April, July and August, and October through December. That’s when Amtrak recommends booking four to six months in advance.
I had a seat in coach, on the upper level of the two-level train. The seat was a little wider than on an airplane, but the windows are bus-sized, and the legroom is better. With my legs sticking straight out, I could just reach the seat in front of me. I was lucky to snag a seat without a neighbor.
As I settled in in Florida, another train was readying near Washington. One northbound and one southbound train leave every day at 4 p.m. from their respective stations. If all goes according to plan, they pass each other about halfway through the 17-plus-hour trip, sometime after midnight in South Carolina. Arrival is around 9:30 a.m.
The rest of the journey is regimented, too: with set times for a movie and meal services. Dinner is served in the dining car at 5 p.m., 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.; you pick the time at boarding, but my train wasn’t full, so if I wanted to eat earlier it wouldn’t have been a problem. The coach menu, meanwhile, is better than what you used to get when airlines regularly served meals, and it comes with wine, though it’s served in a plastic glass (first class gets the real thing). Kids can order choo-choo chewies (chicken tenders), but many travelers with children come toting coolers.
Talking with the stewards and stewardesses in the dining car is worth the trip on its own. When I arrived for the late dinner service, one stewardess told a story about the time a gerbil got loose on the train (there’s a no-pets rule, but some people don’t listen). And when I asked another where we were, he told me “Woodside” — short for “woods on both sides” and the fact that he didn’t know.
My dinner companions — a biochemistry major and a traffic controller at Andrews Air Force Base — were experienced Auto Train travelers. They recommend booking early and trying to snag an inexpensive private room. They also panned the movie that was playing on built-in TVs in the lounge car, where there are dinerlike booths and free snack mix.
Lights-out time was just after the last dinner service. I slept, but not well. The guy across from me — the one from the waiting area with the Mickey Mouse Crocs — was snoring, so I was still tired when the lights came on again around 6:30 a.m. I looked out the window and caught a glimpse of a sign for Charlottesville.
Breakfast was already set up in the dining car: orange juice, bagels and cereal from plastic cartons. This time my dining companions were a mom and her 17-year-old daughter, taking the train so the daughter could drive the car on vacation. Rental car companies typically require people to be older to drive their cars.
Back at my seat, I listened to a soldier chat up two students who had internships in Florida and were going back north to college. They traded Facebook contact information before we arrived at the station in Lorton, Va., about 30 minutes outside Washington.
After waiting for about an hour, Amtrak finally called the number that had been attached to my car in Florida: 197. With my keys back in hand, I headed to Washington, thinking it felt good to be in the driver’s seat again. Then, of course, I hit traffic.
XFor more information, visit tickets.amtrak.com/itd/amtrak/autotrain.