Despite Disney canceling plans for a Brightline high-speed rail station at Disney Springs, the project is full steam ahead and will have a stop “at” Walt Disney World. This post shares everything we know so far: the opening timeline, construction progress, testing, how useful it’ll be for getting between Universal, Orlando Airport, and other destinations in Florida. (Updated September 14, 2023.)
Before we backtrack and run through the timeline of this train tale, let’s start with the latest developments. Earlier this summer, Brightline announced the completion of its higher-speed rail line connecting Central Florida to South Florida. Tickets then went on sale for the inaugural weekend, with service scheduled to start at the beginning of September 2023 for the popular Labor Day holiday.
Brightline indicated that the delay is due to the company working through the final stages of certification and crew testing, and as a result, Brightline wouldn’t make the opening weekend as planned. The company further indicated that they were working diligently to finalize details and would share an update soon. Good news, as we know have an opening date for the Brightline Orlando Station and route!
September 14, 2023 Update: Brightline has officially announced a grand opening date of September 22, 2023 for its passenger rail service between Miami and Orlando. with tickets available here. The route from Orlando to Miami takes about three and a half hours, and prices for adult tickets start at $79.
“As we start service to Orlando for peak holiday seasons, I encourage everyone to check calendars, make plans, visit our website or app and reserve a seat now,” said Brightline in a statement. The company had previously postponed the start date twice, but says this time, it’s really for real.
To that point, the official Brightline website is now showing availability starting September 22, 2023. Brightline offers two classes of service: Smart and Premium. One-way Smart fares between Miami and Orlando start at $79, and the service is described as comfortable business class. Brightline’s Premium service is akin to first class, and offers complimentary drinks and snacks in a dedicated lounge, priority boarding, larger seats, and more.
For reference, the cheapest one-way flights on the same date are $33. That’s via Spirit, though, which is a subsidiary of the Spirit Halloween empire, and will charge you fees for your luggage, refreshments, fresh air, on-time departures, and a safe landing. For an actual airline, Delta and American are the cheapest options at $119.
While I cannot speak to the quality or service of Brightline yet, my strong personal preference for this type of trip is high speed rail. Traveling by train is less chaotic and stressful, there’s usually more legroom and just a generally laid back quality, and even though the travel time is longer, the total time commitment is usually shorter.
It’s difficult to explain and probably even harder to understand if you’ve never used high speed rail, but we far prefer it to flying for trips of this distance and duration. We can’t wait to give Brightline a try, and are looking forward to taking the train from Orlando down to Miami.
With that said, this is not the line that’ll get guests into the tourist corridor of Central Florida, including Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. For that, let’s start from the beginning…
The current saga started when Brightline signed signed a letter of intent with Walt Disney World several years ago. At the time, Brightline had secured rights to issue $1.75 billion in tax-free bonds, and the 170-mile Central Florida corridor had 35 miles of new train right-of-way, built alongside the Beachline Expressway.
Then in November 2020, Walt Disney World revealed plans to significantly expand its transportation network by adding a Brightline train station at Disney Springs. The parties issued a joint announcement revealing that Brightline and Disney formalized plans and entered into an agreement on station construction.
However, that agreement was scrapped last summer, when Walt Disney World revealed that the company’s plans for an on-property station to connect to the multibillion-dollar Brightline project are no more.
“As many people who are involved in this project are aware, the new route configuration does not support a Disney Springs station and as a result, we don’t anticipate being part of this project,” said Walt Disney World spokesperson Avery Maehrer.
That wasn’t the end of it, though. Shortly thereafter, Brightline released a statement that although the original plan called for a single station at Disney Springs, a broad range of stakeholders came up with an alternative solution known as the Sunshine Corridor that would service more of the tourist corridor–and add another station to the line.
The Sunshine Corridor features two new stations and integrates Brightline’s intercity service with SunRail, through an east-west expansion. In addition to the airport, one new station will be located near Universal’s Epic Universe and Orange County Convention Center.
There will also be an alternative station placed near the original Disney Springs site, albeit not on land owned by Disney as part of the Sunshine Corridor plan. (From what we understand, the location is not significantly different–it’s Disney’s involvement and the lower likelihood that they’ll incorporate the station into Walt Disney World’s transportation network that have radically changed the equation.)
Taken together, these three integrated stations will provide access to the largest economic and employment centers in Central Florida and offer the best opportunity for the success, according to Brightline and SunRail. Crucially for readers of this site, it means that Brightline will service Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and Walt Disney World.
The Sunshine Corridor will now take Brightline along State Road 528 and Taft-Vineland Road, through the International Drive corridor, and down Interstate 4. Walt Disney World’s previously-proposed plan had the route bypassing the tourist corridor.
However, representatives of I-Drive businesses, Universal Orlando, Orange County Convention Center and even the City of Orlando all pushed for the Sunshine Corridor route in order to service many more theme parks, hotels, and related businesses in need of rail transportation to the airport. Universal even pledged land and monetary support to make the Sunshine Corridor a reality.
Fast-forward to present day, and there have been plenty of recent developments. The SunRail Central Florida Commuter Rail Commission voted unanimously to approve a resolution in support of the Sunshine Corridor proposal. This paved the way for that route to move forward, although nothing is official with trains in Florida until it actually happens.
The SunRail resolution will help local governments solicit federal funding for the expansion, according to Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. A good working relationship between SunRail and Brightline will be vital to attracting federal grants in addition to the $15.9 million grant for the Tampa route awarded to Brightline over the summer.
In its latest monthly ridership report, Brightline indicated that it plans to start service for the Orlando to West Palm Beach route in the September 2023. The 170-mile expansion connecting Orlando to the service’s South Florida stations is now complete as of Summer 2023. (The above map is old–Brightline has not yet released an updated one.)
Brightline has also finished its 37,350 square foot station at Orlando International Airport’s new 80,000 square foot Terminal C. Brightline recently released concept art for this new station (below), which is three stories tall with modern design and luxury amenities as it connects passengers to the current rail line. The station and rail expansion are on different timelines, with the station slated to be completed first. (Not much good without a route, though!)
The MCO Brightlight station will be located off Terminal C’s glass atrium, and will feature several self-service ticket kiosks, check luggage, and a check-in counter that greets guests before they proceed through touchless turnstiles into the security screening area. Brightline is currently the only rail system in America that screens all passengers and bags prior to boarding.
The station will also offer upscale retail shopping and the Mary Mary Bar, serving hand-crafted cocktails and lite bites. The signature sit-down bar is positioned at the far end of the Brightline station and affords a panoramic view overlooking the train platform where guests can sit and watch as trains arrive and depart the platform. (That sounds like my kind of spot–no joke!)
Brightline is also now working on the engineering, design, and review process for its Sunshine Corridor, which is shared with SunRail and will allow connections to the Orange County Convention Center, Walt Disney World, and Orlando International Airport. The corridor will position Brightline to continue expanding toward its Tampa.
To my knowledge, there is not yet a firm timeline for the Orlando to Tampa route. Previously, construction was not even slated to begin on the roughly 16.7 mile route from Orlando International Airport to Disney Springs at Walt Disney World until sometime in 2024. The remaining 68 miles of the 85-mile route to Tampa would begin construction in the second quarter of 2025.
Presumably, the debate over routes has further delayed that timeline. Additionally, there’s a huge number of stakeholders involved in the entire process, which the Orlando Sentinel recently summarized as a case of too many “cooks in the kitchen.” Given the involvement of local, state, and federal agencies and politicians–plus associated businesses–it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see the above timelines slip by another year or two each.
However, Brightline did build a buffer into its plans, with planning slated to wrap up by the fourth quarter of last year. In theory, this is still feasible. That would result in construction on the airport to Universal/Convention Center phase ending by Q4 2025, according to Brightline. The second segment’s design phase will occur through third-quarter 2024. Construction of this segment work would extend past 2026.
Whenever the topic of the Brightline higher speed rail service comes up, the topic inevitably shifts to Disney’s Magical Express. As such, we should yet again reiterate that these trains were never billed as a replacement for Disney’s Magical Express. Brightline is NOT the “reason” Disney’s Magical Express ended; Walt Disney World had no intentions of replacing DME, either directly or indirectly. The (bad) decision to end Disney’s Magical Express was made for reasons having nothing to do with Brightline.
If the train were replacing the bus, it stands to reason that Disney’s Magical Express would not have ended ~4 years before the proposed/cancelled Brightline station at Walt Disney World actually went into service. There were also a range of practical reasons why Brightline was never intended as a DME replacement.
To that point, Brightline probably will not be a practical option for many out of state guests flying into Orlando International Airport and staying on-site at Walt Disney World. That would be even more time-consuming than taking any of the current options due to train frequency and transfers from Disney Springs to hotels.
If you need assistance choosing the best ground transportation from the airport to their hotel for your needs, we cover the range of options in our Guide to Airport Transportation for Walt Disney World. We have used Uber and Lyft on a number of occasions in for getting between Walt Disney World and MCO since Magical Express ended. These services are our recommendation for anyone who values their time and doesn’t want to break the bank with a private transfer. Alternatively, Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is our top recommendation for shared shuttle services.
Rather than out of state tourists, the benefit Walt Disney World, Universal, and other businesses in the tourist corridor will see from Brightline is connecting Orlando to Florida’s Gold Coast. Guests from South Florida are a growing demographic for Disney and Universal, and this high-speed rail will facilitate easier weekend getaways for them.
The Brightline high-speed rail would also be beneficial for high-spending convention-goers to travel long distances within the state. Those are the two big beneficiaries of Brightline from the perspective of the theme parks. It was never about replacing an airport shuttle bus. There were–and are–better ways to accomplish that. Brightline makes the most sense for the longer routes in Florida, not the short leg between MCO and the two tourist corridor stops in Orange County.
Ultimately, plans to connect South Florida to Central Florida to Tampa are rolling right along despite some slowdowns along the way. That much is to be expected when it comes to high speed rail and Florida, and although we’ve been down this (rail)road before, it really does appear that this time will be different.
Brightline is actively constructing a new rail line to connect stops in Miami, Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach to Orlando. The company has been working with public and private stakeholders, and it’s exciting to see the expansion plans starting to come to fruition. With service connecting South Florida to Central Florida opening in September 2023, this is really starting to feel real–and like it’ll be a viable transportation option between Orlando International Airport, Universal, and Walt Disney World in only a few years.
While I don’t think Brightline will be a gamechanger for traveling between MCO and Universal or Walt Disney World, there will be some use cases for such journeys. Moreover, there are the aforementioned South Florida visitors wanting to do long weekends at the theme parks without driving up.
My sincere hope is that Walt Disney World has a change of heart and opts to work with Brightline rather than taking its ball and going home. Not just because it’s the right thing to do rather than taking the anticompetitive tact, but because it’s safe to say this is what Walt would’ve wanted. I know, I know. Invoking Walt’s desires decades after his death is poor form. He was a complicated man with tremendous business acumen who was also unpredictable, and his views likely would’ve evolved over time.
But I also know that Walt Disney loved trains, and once a train lover, always a train lover. That’s just science. His passion for railroads is well documented, and his ambitions for a city of the future involved efficient mass transit. When it opened, Walt Disney World was billed as a “city” of the future, with innovative transportation that lovingly paid tribute to the company’s founder.
In Disney’s defense, they’ve actually done more along these lines recently with improved bus dispatching technology and app tracking (it’s not perfect, but it’s a start) and the Skyliner gondolas. I don’t know how Walt Disney World could integrate the Brightline station into its transportation network and turn it into a hub of sorts connecting the on-site and off-site spheres, but I also have no doubt that they could pull it off and increase the usefulness and efficiency of the higher speed rail.
It’s all a matter of appetite and ambition, and right now, Walt Disney World seems more intent on creating a walled garden and insulating itself from the competition than it does improving mass transit in Central Florida. While I can absolutely understand the company’s viewpoint from a business perspective, it still breaks my heart as a fan of Walt Disney, his legacy, and the promise of mass transit in the United States.
What do you think about the Sunshine Corridor and Brightline’s plans to connect South Florida with Orlando International Airport and Central Florida’s tourist corridor with Tampa? Wish Walt Disney World didn’t cancel plans to proactively participate in the Brightline project? Hopeful that Disney will rethink the decision and be actively involved with the station near Disney Springs? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!