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Practical travel advice
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Lani Teshima, editor

Is LAX taxing, not reLAXing?

John Wayne Airport: Orange County's Hidden Oasis

John Wayne Airport sign
John Wayne Airport sign

Did you fly in and out of Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for your Disneyland vacation? How was your experience? Did you encounter delays? Big crowds? Long waits for luggage? How long was your bus ride to Disneyland? An hour? Longer? Hectic, crazy and stressful?

You're not alone. My first adult memory of "el-ay-ex" involved me schlepping a huge Pullman suitcase and inhaling bus exhaust fumes while I waited for the right airport bus to come around. [It was such a horrible experience that it prompted my attempts at trying to avoid checking in luggage altogether -- which finally grew into the Travelite FAQ Web site.]

As a flyer, did you know that you have a choice when traveling to Disneyland? Why get lost in the fourth busiest airport in the world, when you can have a relaxed, less stressful... dare I say, pleasant experience by flying in and out of John Wayne Airport?

September is a special month for John Wayne Airport, which celebrates the tenth anniversary of its Thomas F. Riley Terminal. Let me use that as an excuse to tell you about one of my favorite airports, and convince you that your flight to Disneyland should be in and out of John Wayne Airport.

John Wayne Airport is located in Santa Ana (hence its three-letter airport acronym, "SNA"), 35 miles south of Los Angeles. Originally called Orange County Airport, the airport was renamed on June 20, 1979 in honor of "the Duke," legendary screen star John Wayne, who had passed away just a week earlier on June 11.

John Wayne statue
The John Wayne bronze statue serves as the centerpiece for SNA

Compared to its behemoth cousin in LA, John Wayne Airport is miniscule. LAX is the fourth busiest airport in the world (behind Chicago O'Hare, Atlanta Hartsfield, and Dallas-Fort Worth), leaving SNA's 7.5 million travelers in the dust with over 64.3 million passengers last year. However John Wayne Airport serves a thriving business community in nearby Irvine, and can boast the fact that it is the nearest airport to Disneyland.

Airport terminal wing
One of the two "wings" of gates at John Wayne Airport: spacious, airy, and full of natural light.

LAX, with its nine terminals and over 140 gates for commercial airlines, can be a nightmare for connecting to different flights. Worse, it's anyone's guess as to how far you have to walk to get to your next flight if you have to change airlines. SNA on the other hand, only has one terminal and 14 gates. These 14 gates are located along the two wings of the terminal, leaving each wing with a spacious seven gates each.

If you checked any luggage in for your trip (which you shouldn't have had to if you read my Travelite FAQ Web site and learned how to travel with just your carry- on bags -- yes, I'm plugging my site again. Hey, it's a column about an airport, and air travel. Waddya expect?), the luggage carousel area is downstairs. There are two luggage "chutes" from which the baggage handlers distribute the check-in items, one for each wing. These chutes then transport your baggage to one of two carousels (for a total of four carousels in the airport).

Luggage carousel area
The luggage carousels at John Wayne Airport are well lit, airy, with very high ceilings. This keeps frustration levels down, although during busy times the area can get very crowded

Airlines & Airports

Many of the major domestic carriers service John Wayne Airport, including:

  • Alaska Airlines
  • American West Airlines
  • American Airlines: Admirals Club available
  • Continental Airlines
  • Delta Air Lines
  • Northwest Airlines
  • Southwest Airlines
  • TransWorld Airlines (TWA)
  • United Airlines: Red Carpet Club available
  • USAirways

You can fly to most of the major US airports from John Wayne Airport as well, including service to and from:

  • Atlanta, Georgia
  • Austin, Texas
  • Boston, Massachusetts
  • Chicago, Illinois (both Midway and O'Hare)
  • Cleveland, Ohio
  • Dallas / Fort Worth, Texas
  • Denver, Colorado
  • Detroit, Michigan
  • Houston, Texas
  • Kansas City, Missouri
  • Las Vegas, Nevada
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Minneapolis - St. Paul, Minnesota
  • Newark, New Jersey
  • Oakland, California
  • Orlando, Florida
  • Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
  • Phoenix, Arizona
  • Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Portland, Oregon
  • Reno, Nevada
  • Sacramento, California
  • Salt Lake City, Utah
  • San Francisco, California
  • San Jose, California
  • Seattle, Washington
  • St. Louis, Missouri
  • Washington, DC
  • West Palm Beach, Florida

From these large airports, you can easily catch a connecting flight to anywhere else. What this means is that while you might not be able to find nonstop flights from some of the minor airports, you can still easily get to Orange County with just one connection.

Shop around. You discover that a round trip to John Wayne Airport is not significantly more expensive than your round trip to LAX. If you do end up paying a bit more, don't forget to balance out the cost with the various additional things you would pay for if you use LAX (not to mention the extra time LAX saps out of you). The AirportBus, shuttles and taxi cabs are all cheaper if you go to Disneyland out of John Wayne Airport.

Car rental

Would you prefer renting your own car instead of riding a bus or shuttle? John Wayne Airport has your major car rental agencies located downstairs by the luggage carousel area.

Car rental agency counter
Alamo and Avis Rent- a- Car are just two of many car rental agencies with counters at John Wayne Airport


Besides convenience and fewer crowds, one of the strongest reasons for flying in and out of John Wayne Airport is the architecture. Now, I'm no architect or design engineer. I can tell you however, that the design of the airport leans heavily towards an an open-air feel, with great emphasis on natural light. There are very few places in the airport that have no natural light at all; in fact, the opposite is true. The central courtyard by the food court is built like an open atrium, with extremely high ceilings, and floor-to-ceiling glass windows. This atrium area houses coffee tables and chairs, potted plants (real ones!) and recessed couches.

Center courtyard atrium
Central atrium area. Note the very high ceiling level, and the large panes of glass. You can see the tail of an American Airlines aircraft in the right background.

If you are the type who likes to just sit and watch the planes go by, this atrium is a great place for it. Grab yourself a cup of coffee (an expensive one from Starbucks if you wish; they're in the food court), sit down and just enjoy the view. I realize the photo (above) makes the seating area look dark, but that's not the case. Everything inside is well lit. The photo does however, emphasize how much light comes in through those tall windows. The first time I came here, it literally took my breath away!

Dad and son watch airplanes take off.
A dad carries his son on his shoulders at the airport's central atrium area, as they watch airplanes take off on the runway

If the wooden lawn-furniture type chairs are not comfortable enough, turn around and face the food court. The chest-high wall that separates the food court from the atrium is lined with recessed couches that are long enough for you to actually stretch out on. While airport personnel probably don't want everyone sleeping on all those couches all the time, the surface is vinyl and sheds dirt really easily. I've usually spotted a few people snoozing when I've walked by.

Couches by food court
Note the long cushioned couches in front of the food court

Other areas of the airport are equally as well lit. If you look at the next picture, you'll see the high arching ceiling (reminiscent of airplane hangars), with a very clever lighting technique: the edge of the ceiling that meets the wall is a glass window. By providing natural light this way, these areas enjoy bright ambient light. Better yet, for most of the day the sun never actually shines through the window directly, so the light is warm instead of harsh and intense.

Curved benches
How considerate and thoughtful can the designers of an airport get? This bench is curved and half- moon shaped, allowing a large group of people to face toward each other and chat. Whether you're sad to see a loved one leave or you're enjoying time with your family, it's just nicer to be able to look toward one another instead of just looking straight ahead.

"Airport food"

Doesn't the phrase give you the heebee- jeebees? Most people equate airport food with high school cafeteria food, or worse (since high school cafeteria is usually not horribly overpriced, thanks to government subsidies).

While John Wayne Airport does have a sit- down restaurant, you have quite a few choices considering the airport's petite size. Each wing of the terminal has its own McDonald's counter (no sit- down area) for those who just want to grab a quick bite. If you're a nervous flyer who has to have that drink before the flight, each wing also has a small bar.

If you have a bit of time to walk around but don't feel like eating at a full-service restaurant, head toward the center of the terminal, where you find Starbucks Coffee, Pizza Hut Express, Mrs. Fields Cookies, TCBY frozen yogurt, and a Juice Works all in the food court. Nothing fancy, but you are ensured the same chain-fast food quality that you find consistently everywhere.

Oops, forgot to buy souvenirs?

If you actually forgot to buy enough souvenirs for everyone after all the Disneyland shopping opportunities you had inside the park, don't despair! The airport sports a number of small souvenir shops, include a few that carry mouse-eared merchandise.

Your last chance to buy Disney-related merchandise in Anaheim is at John Wayne Airport's souvenir shops, filled to the brim with stuff just in case you forgot to go shopping while at Disneyland. In addition to your regular gift store, the airport has a couple of stores selling toys.

Free tours

If all of this wonderful information isn't enough to convince you to fly to John Wayne Airport, how's about a free guided tour of the airport? Yup! If you're an airport buff and you want to learn a bit more about the airport, you can make arrangements to have a guided tour of the airport free of charge. Tours are offered Monday through Friday from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. and after 6:30 p.m. Weekend tours can be arranged. Young ones need to be at least six years old to participate. You can email the guided tour office or phone them at 949-252-5168.

Not quite sure you're ready to try John Wayne Airport yet? The following are some relevant Web sites that can provide more information so you can make a wise decision. Have a safe journey!

Relevant Web sites (clicking on these links opens up a new browser window):

LAX v. SNA at a glance

Passengers per year:
• LAX: 64.3 million
• SNA: 7.5 million

Terminals and gates:
• LAX: Nine, 150+
• SNA: One, 14

Miles from Disneyland:
• LAX: 35 miles, 40 min
• SNA: 13 miles, 20 min

Bus to / from Disneyland (one way / round trip):
• LAX: $14/$25 45-60 min
• SNA: $10/$18 20-30 min

• LAX: $12-40/person
• SNA: $8-12/person

Taxi to / from Disneyland:
• LAX: Prohibitive $100+
• SNA: Approx. $28

Parking (varies; these are examples):
• LAX: $3/2hr, $16/day
• SNA: $1/hour, $11/day


Contact Lani Teshima if you have any travel tips or questions about trip planning.

A Hawaii ex-patriate, Lani is a technical writer for a San Francisco Bay Area software company.

When Lani is not managing the copy editing tasks here, you can usually find her at the gym, slogging away those slow miles on the treadmill as she trains for the WDW Marathon (held in January). She also maintains her internationally recognized Travelite FAQ.

In the occasional spare moment, Lani and her husband, Alex—our MousePlanet CEO and MouseAdventure event coordinator—attend baseball games, and drive down to Disneyland in their 2003 Honda Civic Hybrid (which gets 50mpg).


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