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New Wawa sparks $2.99 a gallon price war near Orlando airport

Wawa opens with $2.99 gas while competitors charge $5.99

By Mark Schlueb, Orlando Sentinel

10:49 AM EDT, August 29, 2013

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UPDATE: Wawa’s promotional gas price of $2.99 per gallon caused lines of cars dozens deep to overflow onto Semoran Boulevard on Thursday. In response, a 7-Eleven and Racetrac about a mile north also lowered their price to $2.99.The two closest to the airport – Sun Gas and Suncoast Energys – remained high at $5.95 and $5.99 – but were drawing few customers.

Neither City Hall, a court battle nor the news media could make the two Central Florida gas stations with some of the highest prices in America change their ways. But will Wawa succeed where others have failed?

Thursday morning, Wawa opened its doors — and its gas pumps — just a block from the two gas stations closest to Orlando International Airport that charge much higher than market prices: $5.99 a gallon. Those prices leave a bad taste in the mouths of unsuspecting vacationers in a hurry to top off their rental cars before flying home.

Wawa, the convenience store with a cultlike following, will feature a bright electronic sign advertising its normal market-rate gasoline. To promote its opening, Wawa was charging $2.99 a gallon this morning, well below the Orlando average of $3.45 per gallon of regular.

That's good news to consumers stuck paying the inflated rates.

"This is ridiculous," businessman Joseph Kutka said this week after paying $70.40 to gas up his rental at Suncoast Energys before catching a flight back to Wisconsin. Like most customers at Suncoast and across the street at Sun Gas, Kutka didn't notice the price until the fuel was flowing. "They're scamming their customers. I would have stopped somewhere else if I'd known."

After years of complaints, will Wawa and the free market force prices lower? It's possible.

"At this point, we haven't made a decision," Sun Gas co-owner Larry Nieves said Wednesday. "We haven't decided what we're going to do."

Currently, the closest station along Semoran Boulevard is a 7-Eleven a mile north.

With Wawa's made-to-order hoagies and hot pretzels, the company born in the Mid-Atlantic states 48 years ago has exploded in Central Florida since opening its first store here 13 months ago. On his many business trips to Orlando, Wawa CEO Chris Gheysens would shake his head as he passed the gas stations just outside the airport along Semoran Boulevard.

"Every time I rode by there, I'd think to myself, 'Boy, we need to bring some competition to this corner,'" Gheysens said.

Gheysens said Wednesday that when Mayor Buddy Dyer gleefully cuts the ribbon and unveils Wawa's price sign, it would show "the lowest price anywhere."

Fed up with frequent consumer complaints, the city even passed a law requiring the stations to post their prices on roadside signs. That sparked a lawsuit, and though the city ultimately won, the new signs are often concealed.

Dyer, who battled the stations in court, hopes competition will be the thing that finally convinces the stations to be more transparent with their pricing.

"You think about the Orlando experience that we try to create … and then the last thing visitors have happen to them in Orlando is to be price-gouged," Dyer said. "I've had people say, 'I'll never come back' because of that."

Kutka, still stinging from his expensive fuel bill, had his own idea: Let Wawa put up another sign — warning consumers of the sky-high prices just up the road.

mschlueb@tribune.com, 407-420-5417 or Twitter @MarkSchlueb