Disney World Cancels Brightline Train Station
File this under least surprising news ever: Walt Disney World has cancelled plans for a Brightline high-speed rail station at Disney Springs. This post shares details about the derailment, why this was never intended to be the replacement for Disney’s Magical Express, and why none of this is the least bit surprising. (Updated June 28, 2022.)
Brightline signed signed a letter of intent with Walt Disney World nearly four 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.
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.
“Brightline will offer a car-free connection to the millions of visitors from around the state and the world who plan to make Walt Disney World Resort part of their vacation plans,” said Patrick Goddard, president of Brightline. “Our mission has always been to connect our guests to the people and places that matter, and Walt Disney World Resort is a tremendous example of this.”
“We’re excited to work with Brightline as they pursue the potential development of a train station at Walt Disney World Resort, a project that would support our local economy and offer a bold, forward-looking transportation solution for our community and guests,” said Jeff Vahle, president of Walt Disney World Resort.
Given the number of high-speed rail project proposals that have come and gone over the years, we expressed skepticism at the news and a “we’ll believe it when we see it” attitude. As it turns out, we will not see it. At least, not at Walt Disney World.
A Walt Disney World representative confirmed to Orlando Business Journal 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,” Disney spokesperson Avery Maehrer told Orlando Business Journal.
June 28, 2022 UPDATE: Ben Porritt, Brightline’s senior vice president of corporate affairs, said the following in a statement to WPTV: “Late last year, we were asked by several community leaders to explore alternative alignments for our planned expansion from (Orlando International Airport) to Tampa.”
“The original plan called for a single station at Disney Springs. Along with a broad range of stakeholders, we have identified a solution now known as the Sunshine Corridor, which contemplates 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 at the Orange County Convention Center and an alternative station will be placed near the original Disney Springs site, albeit not on land owned by Disney,” Porritt explained.
“Taken together, the three integrated stations provide access to the largest economic and employment centers in central Florida and offer the best opportunity for the success of Brightline and SunRail.”
“This concept was recently awarded a federal grant to assist in its advancement and as an indication of its potential to drive regional impact. We look forward to working with all key stakeholders on expanding smart mobility that connects Orlando to the rest of Florida.”
Brightline’s current route is expected to take it along State Road 528 and Taft-Vineland Road, through the International Drive corridor, and down Interstate 4. Back when Walt Disney World announced the station at Disney Springs, the planned route for the Brightline had the train heading down State Road 417 and bypassing the tourist corridor.
Representatives of I-Drive businesses plus Universal Orlando Resort, the Orange County Convention Center and even the City of Orlando all pushed for an alternative route for Brightline that would service more of the tourism corridor. These proponents argued that the route would be able to service many more theme parks, hotels, and related businesses in need of rail transportation to the airport.
In fact, Universal pledged to donate land and money for an Orange County Convention Center-area train station that would be used by Brightline and SunRail, the Central Florida commuter rail system. All of this eventually led to that proposal winning out over the State Road 417 proposal.
Once that happened, it was more or less a foregone conclusion that Walt Disney World would abandon its plans for a station. While it still would’ve been possible for Walt Disney World to have a station along the revised route, that apparently will not happen.
If we were cynical, we might surmise that Walt Disney World’s original motivation for being amenable to a high-speed rail project was because the Disney-endorsed route blocked out most of the tourist corridor.
The statement from the Walt Disney World representative that the “new route configuration does not support a Disney Springs station” is only partially true. It’s correct that the new route doesn’t support that exact station in that exact location. However, a station connecting to Walt Disney World still would be feasible with the new route.
With their preferred route that blocked off Universal, SeaWorld, and the tourist corridor no longer in play, it’s possible that Disney didn’t want to be part of the project. Maybe Disney no longer saw any upside with the modified route, or that they didn’t want to participate in a project that could help some of its captive audience venture to Universal and other theme parks. (Of course, Disney more or less conceded last year that the rise of ridesharing services eliminated that–it’s doubtful that a train route would really move the needle much further.)
In actuality, this isn’t just the cynical analysis. Rather, it’s the “history repeats itself” one. Pretty much this exact scenario has played out in the last two decades with past high-speed rail proposals. This “new” route has actually been proposed before, and it was actually Disney that got it modified with their proposal for a Disney Springs station back in late 2020.
Obviously, the big winner here is Universal. In a statement to the Orlando Sentinel, John McReynolds, senior vice president of external affairs at Universal Orlando, said rail transit will be critical for a swelling employment base.
“Universal in the next 24 months will be adding 14,000 new employees at Epic Universe,” McReynolds said. “That is going to take, when you get the indirect jobs that are going to be created, the I-Drive community to well over 100,000 jobs. When you add in the corridor out to the airport, you are now talking 130,000 to 140,000 jobs in one corridor.”
The underlying expectation is for major federal grants to finance much of that corridor. The Florida Department of Transportation along with several local partners all are working together to bring this project to fruition. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer applauded the wide political spectrum advancing the initiative, and said that partisan politics have not been an issue in pursuing this common goal.
The state DoT has taken the lead on SunRail’s behalf in coordinating and lobbying federal rail agencies for funding. To make a link happen, Universal and the International Drive community are offering ridership guarantees, backing financing bonds, and paying operational costs of an I-Drive station.
Brightline expects to start service from South Florida to Orlando International Airport by mid-2023. Brightline’s West Palm Beach to Orlando expansion is roughly 80% complete and expected to finish construction by the end of 2022.
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 Disney Springs station until sometime in 2024. Presumably, the debate over routes has further delayed that timeline. So we’re probably looking at 2026–not long after Epic Universe opens–that the I-Drive station is greeting guests.
As a general rule, this blog refrains from indulging in the “Walt would be rolling in his grave” or “Walt would/not have wanted…” statements. In practice, it’s mostly a thinly-veiled way for fans to project their own likes or dislikes onto Walt in an attempt to give their own opinions more credibility. (For better or worse, the opinions here are my own. No need to give credit/blame to Walt for them!)
There’s also the simple fact that Walt Disney was a master marketer who carefully controlled and cultivated his image. While he was undoubtedly one of America’s great visionaries and innovators, his folksy status was likely at least in part manufactured. Also, he’s been dead for decades so it’s really impossible to say how his opinions would have evolved over time.
Two things we do know that Walt Disney loved are chili and trains. His passion for railroads is well documented, and his ambitions for a city of the future involved efficient mass transit. I’m not going to pretend to know what he’d think about this news, but it’s probably safe to say that Walt would’ve had a stronger opinion on these Brightline plans or the Walt Disney World Railroad being down for several years than he would about Genie+ or Starbucks on Main Street.
This is disappointing news, but we should remind yet again that the Brightline rail was never billed as a replacement for Disney’s Magical Express. (We’ve mentioned this several times, but claims by fans that Brightline is the “reason” Disney’s Magical Express ended keep coming up in the comments–despite that being demonstrably false.)
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, from train frequency to transfers from Disney Springs to hotels.
The (bad) decision to end Disney’s Magical Express was made for other reasons, so don’t expect that airport shuttle to magically be restored now that the Brightline station is off the table.
While many fans focused on the “Disney’s Magical Express replacement” angle given the timing of the announcement of that airport shuttle service ending and the announcement that Disney Springs would get a Brightline station, the two were never really connected.
Rather, the benefit Walt Disney World, Universal, and other businesses in the tourist corridor saw from Brightline is connecting Orlando to Florida’s Gold Coast. Guests from South Florida are a growing demographic for Disney, and this high-speed rail would facilitate easier weekend getaways for them. (I can’t speak to whether it’s a growing demo for Universal, but I assume so; based on my highly-scientific count of Miami Heat jerseys in the parks, that would seem to be the case.)
The Brightline high-speed rail would also be beneficial for high-spending convention-goers to travel within the state. Those are the two big benefits of this 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.
Ironically, the one thing that could cause Walt Disney World to bring back free airport transportation (eventually) is increased competition from Universal Orlando Resort. In particular, if the many relatively new hotels Universal has built in the last decade offer better value for money, are easier to access, and offer on-site perks at Epic Universe that consumers find compelling.
As discussed at greater length in our 2022 D23 Expo Predictions, Walt Disney World cannot afford to lose overnight guests to Universal. Those are its most lucrative visitors, and if Universal is able to siphon some away–even just 10%–that’s a huge blow to Disney. With Universal offering more affordable accommodations and on-site perks for a brand new park, that’ll be a given come 2025. And a totally different dynamic from when the Wizarding World first debuted over a decade ago.
If Walt Disney World intends to have an unofficial answer to Epic Universe in an attempt to draw some attention away from that new park–and offer a compelling reason to stay on-site at Walt Disney World, the announcement essentially needs to be made now. Given Disney’s glacial pace of construction, any major additions for 2025 need to commence work in the very near future. With the Brightline route now serving Universal instead of Disney, there’s an even greater sense of urgency for Walt Disney World to compete with Universal’s third gate. Unfortunately, my expectations for Disney to actually do something are about the same as with the original Brightline proposal: I’ll believe it when I see it.
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What do you think about Walt Disney World cancelling plans to participate in the Brightline project? Hopeful that Disney will rethink the decision and push for a station somewhere other than Disney Springs? Disappointed about the relocated route? Or, do you think it makes more sense for the high-speed rail to connect to the tourism corridor? 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!
So help me out here. We’ve been visiting Disney for 34+ years… and the removal of magical express has been depressing, to say the least, especially now that we have two little ones.
So how will this train help? Even if it does have a secondary station near Disney? Packing my family and all of our crap onto a bus to be dropped off at our resort seems like way less work than packing my family and all of our crap onto a train, then transferring us and all said crap onto another mode of transportation to reach our resort? Like…what’s the benefit? It wouldn’t even be saving the environment, because we would still need to get from the train station to our resort.
Anyone see a benefit that I’m missing?
Brightline probably wasn’t intended for WDW guests such as yourself. Now it is cancelled and not intended for anyone. People speculated Brightline was somehow related to the DME decision but that idea never once came from Disney.
I’m happy that I’ll be able to fly into MCO then take a train to the Port of Miami for a cruise. Makes it easier to add a little WDW stay to the beginning or end (or both!) of a cruise vacation.
Walt Disney world did not cancel Bright line. Disney got cancelled! Everyone should cancel Disney until they get there priorities in order.
I never thought the Disney Springs stop made sense (imagine thousands of guests clogging up the already impossible to get through walkways in DS with LUGGAGE? Oh the horror.) So the fact that it will be in that general area but not ON Disney property, still makes more sense than literally going into Disney Springs. We will have to see what happens from there. Personally I’m in camp “private car service from MCO to my hotel” and so are 90% of my clients. Excited about the I-drive corridor and Universal getting some train access. But the real winner will be people going on cruises. Getting from Orlando to Port Miami easily is a HUGE thing! And hopefully Port Canaveral and Fort Lauderdale, too. And if I can eventually take a train to Tampa from Orlando as well, even better.
My family has been traveling to Disney World for the past 40 years, and bought two time shares to Disney Vacation Club in 2005. Since they time we have gone every year at least twice a year, sometime three. Our last trip was in October, 2021, and we were very disappointed with how everything has been revised, for the worst. I never got the feeling that Disney was a money hungry business, although I realize they were in it to make a profit. This last trip I just had the feeling that all the changes were only made to get the most money out of the visitors. As a result we returned home and sold our DVC membership. I am not saying we will never go back, but it won’t be as DVC members.
I would love for Universal to build a monorail from the convention center station that connects all of their hotels and theme parks. Eliminate the need for buses when staying at their resorts. They could even include the Brightline from the airport to the convention center as a perk for staying at one of their hotels.
A monorail will never happen. Monorails are cost prohibitive to build and maintain. Disney itself has said that they will never build more monorails.
Excellent and thoughtful analysis from the best Disney writer out there. Bad short term decisions that keep snowballing, and that will eventually cost WDW. No vision at all. I still can’t believe they are building the blandest hotel ever next to the beautiful Poly.
Prediction for D23 Announcement: WDW will introduce a new, exciting concept in airport transfers. You and 35 of your Best Pals (TM) will enjoy exclusive, luxury transportation between MCO and selected WDW resort hotels (ie, Deluxe resorts only). Tickets, at $1000 per guest per one-way Express the Magic (TM) luxury coach (ie, chartered buses), are limited, and will first be made available to members of Disney groups to whom you do not belong. Additional fees may be charged for excess luggage (excess to be defined at time of departure).
Just goes to show that Disney doesn’t give a rat’s arse about the fans….it’s all about the money, and it should be, but sometimes you gotta give back to the fans that support the business.
Been going to DISNEYWORLD most of my adult life (now I’m 60), going in December for 10 days , and while I love changes and new ideas , I definitely do not like DISNEYWORLD now with all the complicated ride bookings and park reservations system . Adding a train stop at Disney springs I think would make it even more congested than it already is so definitely glad the deal didn’t go through. DISNEYWORLD used to be so much better staying on site than Universal . Free magic bands , etc. were such a nice added perk. But now everything stressful and over planned and ridiculously expensive.
Very disappointing. I guess I’ll be using Minnie Vans as long as they exist and factoring in the increased cost by taking shorter trips and spending less money. Though considering all the other reasons we have for shortening our trips due to bad decisions from Disney, this is definitely costing them money. Hoping at some point their choices will impact their bottom line and not just lose them ardent fans. If they can fill hotels and parks anyway, there’s not much hope.
When I originally read about the cancellation I thought it was a poor ego based decision by WDW. Being an optimist, this might be golden opportunity for Brightline. It’s possible BL may construct their own station near I-4 around West Orlando-Lake Buena Vista-Celebration and provide Brightline+ buses to Disney’s Transporation Center, maybe even a hotel and other development. We’ve visited WDW a lot over the years so as it stands now, once BL is up and running to Tampa we won’t feel bad or miss driving treacherous I-4, speeding past WDW traffic to Universal for a day or weekend trip. I bet Universal will offer deals with BL that include park tickets and train fare since they’re guaranteeing 13M in farebox revenue to BL.
Since the pandemic, I’ve been waiting for anything positive for Disney guests, and other than a couple of new “rides” and opening back up I haven’t seen anything positive for the average guest. (But plenty of negatives.)
It appears to me that if you look at where things are heading, and project out 5 years, Universal will be ahead of WDW. I wouldn’t have believed that this was even thinkable 5 years ago.
With Disney CEO earning $32,000,000 a year, I would think Disney could hire a better CEO.
Not for another three years at least, according to the article this morning.
This is a superbly well-written article. Your knowledge shows and this is much more a journalistic piece than what I be comes to find on a typical blog. Keep up the good work! Oh, and if we’re counting votes, as an owner of two DVC memberships, I vote we bring back the Magical Express (along with all the other perks that have been stripped away in recent years).
It would have been wonderful for Floridians to be able to use Brightline for Disney or Universal. The businesses have different ideas of course and strategies. If you google the time from Disney springs to magic kingdom or Epcot, it’s about 9 minutes by car. If a stop is at the convention center it’s about 15 minutes to magic kingdom/Epcot by car. So it doesn’t really add to much time. Would have been cool to have a stop right at a Disney park. I’m confused by disneys strategy of allowing a Universal stop in the absence of a Disney stop.
The price for a one way ticket from Miami to Orlando has been published at $100. A family of four would need to spend $800 round trip. I don’t see how that would be economically viable for most travelers, resulting in a loss of ridership for Disney or Universal. It would make much more sense to drive and spend that money on a nice resort room and restaurants, while also allowing freedom of movement to visit all of Orlando’s other attractions. JS
If Disney doesn’t do something soon for their customers like bringing back Fast Passes, Dining Plan, Disney Magical Bus. Families are going to start vacationing more at Universal then Disney or somewhere else. Disney is losing it’s magic and it’s really sad.
I’m strongly considering staying off site for my next trip. Honestly, the on site advantages are just getting fewer and fewer. Why wouldn’t I stay offsite for half the price at a very comparable hotel?
They keep pushing me away I have been there 24+ times I just got back Sunday I had a good time but it was more hectic because of Geni+ Housekeeping was terrible and I missed the dining plan Need some perks to go back Discounts were not good
No one’s saying anything about DeSantis taking away the deal Walt Disney made with Florida some 50 odd years ago?
That now the property that Disney World is sitting on will no longer be controlled by Disney?
Disney has no more desire to expand.
They made Florida a tourist attraction.
They have brought in more money into Florida than any other business, period.
But homophobic DeSantis wanted to play hardball.
Florida needs Disney more than Disney needs Florida.
Why else would anyone outside of the state go to the state of it wasn’t for Disney World?
His authoritarian political mindset is going to make Florida back into a nothing, hot, humid, flatland.
If Disney World decides to close it’s doors, the city of Orlando will shrivel up.
The only good thing about Florida, other than Disneyland, it is a good place to leave the state on a cruise.
This has nothing to do with the Reedy Creek Development, and don’t worry, Disney isn’t going anywhere. You obviously aren’t aware that there is much more to Florida than Disney (e.g., beaches, the Space Center, wildlife, the Florida Keys, not to mention Universal, SeaWorld, and LegoLand). Disney is doing it’s best to drive away customers. It doesn’t need anymore help.
For the first time in our twenty visits over the last 25 years to Walt Disney World, we stayed onsight at Universal’s Cabana Bay Resort instead of on-site at WDW. We went to the Universal parks three days and to Disney parks three days. Their family suites there were cheaper and there are no longer any benefits for our family to stay onsite at Disney nor renew our annual passes. We did miss the “Disney Bubble” but by raising their prices while at the same time, reducing the perks and benefits of staying onsite and purchasing annual passes, when we return for our next trip we will stay either insight at Universal again, or offsite.
Last visit we went to Universal for the first time. For the most part we found it crowded and unappealing. There were a few high points but mostly it reminded me of an upscale carnival.