Spotter's Report: Orlando International Airport (MCO)
(with a few tidbits on Sanford Airport also)
by Andrew Abshier, DVM
 
When I first moved to Florida in 1977, Orlando Int'l was known as the McCoy Jetport, and seven or so airlines operated from a ho-hum terminal that consisted of a single concourse connected to two converted missle barns left over from the airport's days as McCoy Air Force Base!   Initial momentum to build a modern air terminal was provided by tourist traffic, but The Mouse was not the only draw for travelers.  Orlando was building itself as a technology center, so business traffic was on the increase as well.  What they got for their money is one of the best-liked air terminals in the world.

MCO's terminal area is stunning in design.  I have yet to see a more beautiful airport.  Incorporation of the many small lakes as moats have precluded security fence usage in the terminal area, which gives the airport a very open feel.  It is possible to take photos across the ponds of individual aircraft; note that you will have to park legally somewhere and walk to the various spots as the "No parking" signs along the access roads are strictly enforced.  I didn't take photos like this on my 1998 stay.

The top floor of the parking garage is said to be a great location for spotting, but is probably too far away to photograph most aircraft.  I didn't try this spot for myself, so I can't say for sure.

On my visit to Orlando, I used outside vantage points exclusively.  Trying for photos of taxiing aircraft led to frustration.  The obvious spots along Bear Road, the road that runs north towards the old terminal, are double-fenced; even with a ladder, fence lines from the far fence would have been visible in the shot.   On the other side, the employee lot--the site of the soon-to-be constructed Airside 2--looked like it had a nice view of Runway 17/35, but the lot was gated and guarded so that only employees could enter.  With the nearest legal public parking looking very distant, I decided walking in was too much work.

On the other hand, MCO has some great approach spots, so if that's your thing, you have come to the right place!  Before picking an approach spot, consider what airplanes you want to photograph.  Runway 17/35, on the east side of the airport, handles mostly Delta, DL Express, ComAir, and the non-North American international movements.  On the other side, Runways 18L/36R  handles all other U.S. flag carriers, the Canadian carriers, and all North American charters.  I used two really first-class approach spots, which I'll describe now.

The first was the Delta Airlines Cargo parking lot, just off Cargo Road heading east from Airport Blvd.  There was ample parking, and even some trees for shade!  The pace of movements was a bit slow, but since Delta was in the process of changing to the new livery, there were enough interesting subjects to make my time there worthwhile.  What a spot it is, too; see my Delta Express 737-200 and Virgin Atlantic 747-400 shots for examples.  An 80-200mm zoom will get everything, even the regional types.  Since you're facing east from the Cargo lot, afternoons are best.

The other great spot is accessible from a road just east of the old terminal.  The road is marked "USDA Parking".  There is a small parking lot and an absolutely fabulous view of the approach action on Runway 18L!  As for subject matter, there is no shortage of action or variety.  In just 45 minutes I photographed ATA 727-200s in all three liveries: old colors, new colors, and the stunning 25th anniversary colors!  As basketball sportscaster Dick Vitale would say, "trifecta, baby"!   Since you're facing west, mornings are best, and there's plenty of charters bringing in the tourists to see The Mouse.   Like the Delta cargo spot, an 80-200mm zoom is good for everything.

From this same spot you can also photograph aircraft taxiing onto the 18s for takeoff, but the aspect is decidedly 3/4 rear.

There is no corresponding spot of similar quality for the 18s in the afternoon, but Frontage road, an east-west road just to the north of the Bee Line Expressway, does have a parking area for plane-watching, and you can take good, but not great, photos of approaching aircraft from there.  The shots there are a bit high-angle for my taste, but others might like it.  The lot also draws some of Orlando's seedier citizens, so caution is advised.

Before you go, visit Orlando International Airport's official site, for maps and airline schedules.  It's a great site that covers a great airport that, IMHO, is well worth your time.

This is hardly a comprehensive review of the airport so I welcome anyone's comments or additions to this report.
Email me here.


A few words about accomidations in Orlando.  Your best bet, if you have a car, is to stay not in Orlando but Kissimmee, just to the south.  Kissimmee has the best selection of good but cheap hotels in the Orlando area.  The Sunshine Inn, near Highway 17/92/441, was where I stayed, and I highly reccomend it.  The rooms were clean and quiet, it was near fast-food places, and room rates in April were very reasonable at US$35.00 a night for a single.  There's a good "back way" route to MCO from there; if you want to know about it, email me and I'll explain it to you.
 


While most carriers flying to Orlando use MCO, a small but growing number have started operations at the new terminal at Sanford Airport, located in the town of Sanford, 28 miles (45km) from Orlando.  Four British-flag charter carriers--Monarch, Brittania, Air 2000, and AirTours--operate from Sanford.  Several US-flag carriers also operate there, mainly on gambling charters to Atlantic City.

I didn't take photos there, so I can't speak about the vantage points.  The official site for Sanford Airport has an excellent aerial photo of the entire airport, taken from directly overhead, which might help you determine good spots to stand at.  There's also a flight schedule there, which is an important stop because, at maximum, Sanford gets only 7-8 airline movements a day, and some days are better than others.   Thursdays through Sundays seem to have the most movements.

Other ramps bear exploration, since airliner-size aircraft can be seen. Just days before my visit, in February 1998, a devastating tornado had hit the residential areas just to the north of the airport, so all access roads to the northern perimeter were closed.  They should be open again by now.  I didn't find the L-1649 Constellation that had been at Sanford for many years on my visit, but two readers informed me that the aircraft still exists, and has been moved to the east side of the airport.
 

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