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.
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!