Brightline Is Coming To Orlando & Walt Disney World… But I’m Skeptical

Filed Under: Travel

While I have no interest in going to Disney anytime soon (and that has nothing to do with coronavirus), this is still an exciting development for my favorite train service in the US. First a bit of background…

What is Brightline?

The US isn’t exactly known for its great rail service, though Brightline Florida is an exception. Before the pandemic, Brightline operated between Miami and Palm Beach, with a stop in Fort Lauderdale. Unfortunately the service has been suspended since March, and it’s anyone’s guess when it will resume.

Brightline used to be associated with Richard Branson and was going to be rebranded as Virgin Trains, but Brightline and Virgin cut ties a few months back. Brightline has had significant expansion goals in Florida, including plans to offer service to Orlando and even Tampa.

I reviewed the Brightline experience late last year, and it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to believe that this is in the US. The stations are gorgeous, the trains are new and well maintained, and the employees are consistently friendly.

Beautiful Brightline station in Miami

For an extra ~$15 you can typically book “Select,” which is the equivalent of business class, and that gets you access to lounges, food and alcoholic drinks onboard, and more.

Brightline Select lounge

Brightline Select cabin

Brightline Select snacks

Brightline is officially coming to Orlando

For a long time we’ve known that Brightline planned to eventually serve Orlando, though details were limited. Well, this week there’s an exciting development on that front.

Brightline and Walt Disney World Resort have entered into an agreement to construct a  train station at Disney Springs, which is a shopping, dining, and entertainment complex in Walt Disney World. The design concept for the station would include a lobby on the ground level, passenger facilities, and an upper level train platform.

This new stop is intended to provide connectivity between Walt Disney World and Brightline stations in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach, and planned stations at Orlando International Airport, Aventura, Boca Raton, and Port Miami.

Brightline claims that its expansion from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport is on track to be completed in 2022.

As Brightline’s President, Patrick Goddard, describes this expansion:

“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. 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.”

Brightline train at the Miami station

This sounds exciting, but I’m skeptical

As a Miami resident I absolutely love the concept of Brightline. The passenger experience is fantastic, and it’s a joy to take. However, I continue to remain skeptical about Brightline’s expansion, and for that matter am skeptical about its business model overall:

  • Brightline has really struggled on its existing routes between Miami and Palm Beach, making me wonder how sustainable that business model is in and of itself
  • While there’s huge demand for a train between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, I just don’t get where the market is for the rest of the network; a train between Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach and Orlando seems like a niche market at best, and not something where you could constantly fill trains in a profitable way
  • Maybe I’m just too much of a pessimist, but this project continues to be contingent upon all necessary government approvals, and I just feel like there’s an uphill battle there
  • While I recognize that Brightline is ultimately a real estate play, the economics of that work much better for short distance trains than long distance trains, since it’s all about the stations, etc.

Also, let me be clear when I talk about Brightline struggling:

  • In 2017, the company predicted that in 2019 there would be 2.3 million passengers and $112 million revenue
  • In 2019 Brightline had one million passengers and $22 million revenue
  • In other words, ridership was less than half of what was projected, and revenue was less than a fifth of what was projected

I’d love to see Brightline succeed and expand. It would be great to be able to take Brightline from Miami all the way to Orlando and (eventually) Tampa. At the same time, outside the major cities, Florida isn’t exactly the most populated state, and I just don’t see the market for this. A train concept like this hasn’t worked in any other markets, and I just don’t see it working in Florida either.

Bottom line

An agreement has been signed for a Brightline station to open in Walt Disney World, which will connect the parks to Orlando International Airport and beyond. This could happen as soon as 2022.

I think there’s merit to a train service between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World, given that Disney World is one of the few places in Florida where you don’t need a car, if you want to stay inside the Disney “ecosystem.”

However, I still don’t get how the overall Brightline network in Florida will be economically viable, for those traveling between Miami and Orlando.

What do you make of Brightline’s Orlando expansion?

  1. Read the comments on your prior Brightline posts – it’s a real estate play. Learn the history of Henry Flagler and the FEC, and the concept of land value-capture, and it will all make more sense.

  2. Well, for those who “stay inside the Disney ecosystem”, they are already spending quite a lot on their vacation. Disney admission itself is expensive, and their hotels and other accommodations are more expensive than alternatives outside their ecosystem, so usually when people book the “full Disney experience”, they’ve budgeted a substantial amount for it. Therefore, we can suppose that they wouldn’t mind paying a premium for smooth, comfortable, and easy transportation to their vacation spot.

    However, there are a number of big issues with this:
    1. Most of the Disney big spenders are not from Florida, they are from other states/countries. They aren’t likely to fly into Miami and take the train while Orlando has a perfectly serviceable airport to fly into.
    2. Most Floridians that enjoy Disney try to find the best deals, like discounted tickets at times, lower-cost accommodations, etc. This is not the prime demographic for an expensive fancy train with booze served along the way. In our case, for example, as a family of 7, there is no way we would ever take the train to Disney. Instead we pack into the minivan and drive for 2 1/2 hours. And then we have a vehicle there to get around when necessary.
    3. Even if government approves everything (and with the right political contributions they will), Brightline will need to find a benefactor-type of investor who is willing to sink a ton of money into something that will be money-losing for the foreseeable future (and probably forever).
    4. Finally, the whole idea is not really as practical as it seems. For example, pre-COVID, I would travel to Marlin’s Park 10 or 15 times a year for baseball games. And Brightline had a “special” fare on game days. And I really wanted to try it at least once. But their lack of train stops made their service essentially useless to me, I would have to drive at least half an hour, and find, and pay for parking, and then make that same drive on my way back. It made the total trip ridiculous. And even if they had a stop nearby, it would have been substantially more expensive than driving myself, and less convenient to boot (I usually stop for dinner out with the kids after a game).

  3. The beauty of capitalism people can put their money wherever they want and if they choose to lose money it is their choice…. @lucky you are a bit of a pessimist usually taking the safe road but in this case you might be right

  4. @goAmtrak correct. Brightline is not a transportation system, it’s a real estate endeavor.

    Bummer America hates trains so much. Hopefully with the new administration the California project will be able to finish.

  5. there are millions of cruisers and foreign tourists out of Ft Lauderdale and Miami who aren’t going to want to take a taxi to the airport, wait through security, and fly up to Orlando to retrieve bags and get a shuttle to Disney.

    I am not skeptical that this will pick up a decent number of pax, IF: a) cruising returns in full by 2022; b) foreign tourism picks back up again.

    the south FL play was real estate focused, and Brightline has gotten government $$$ to build and operate infill stations. so the network is expanding and it will become more convenient for folks throughout Dade/Broward/Palm Beach.

    all of that said, I think the cost-basis for the trains is still too high to make money at fares pax are willing to pay. if Brightline can continue to suck up subsidies for providing what is essentially commuter rail and continue to capture value in the commercial and residential real estate around the stations, maybe they’ll make it.

  6. There are tons of flights between Miami and Orlando (I think AA operated 8 flights a day pre pandemic, some on 767s). Additionally, Southwest flies several times daily from FLL to Orlando and Spirit and Silver do as well. Still flights are around 40 minutes and the cost of them is not cheap and factoring in the time at the airport, it’s not a huge time saver.

    The drive from Orlando to Miami is 3.5-4 hours depending on traffic and the route which is a bit long and can be a hassle (and expensive with tolls).

    Amtrack operated the route now but again takes longer because it is slow.

    I feel a high speed rail line between orlando in Miami that can do the journey in 3 Horus or so from MCO to downtown Miami could be a game changer as it is cheaper then flying and overall easier. Not to mention now people may feel more comfortable on trains than planes

  7. How about a partnership with AA. Then the Orlando – Miami route could be great for them. Otherwise, I think Orlando to Tampa would be great for both commuters and those looking to go to the gulf (if tickets are cheap, given that its only a 1 1/2 hour drive.

  8. I think @pwc has identified a likely segment that would use this option. Planes can be a pain around cruise schedules because you don’t know exactly when you’re getting off the ship so you need to plan some leeway into the schedule. But if a train ticket is more flexible, then that’s easier (and almost certainly faster) to take a train up to Orlando to take on a couple days before/after a cruise. RCCL/Carnival/whoever would probably love to be able to market this as a combined trip, essentially with a pre- or post-cruise excursion. I’m not sure if they do this for cruises out of Port Canaveral or not, but if they add Port Everglades and Port Miami, that’d be a good chunk of people.

  9. FYI they are planning on adding stop along the way in places such as Adventura, Boca Raton and Cocoa. They’re also in talks to start a commuter service between Miami and Adventura.

    Diversifying their services whilst maintaining current quality standards just might be worth it.
    Lastly, long term they are aiming at connecting Tampa and Jacksonville to the network. But the strip from Cocoa to Orlando (and Disneyworld I suppose) will initially be single track service which suggests it won’t be a high volume enterprise for now.

    This might be a real estate project, but anything that helps improve the reputation of trains in the US is good news.

  10. They also recently announced that Brightline will “take-over” the long planned but still not in service Tri-Rail Coastal Link from SFRTA. This is a commuter train, separate from Brightline, but operating on the same tracks.

    For now, it will only be service within Miami-Dade, but extensions to Broward and Palm Beach are 100% possible later. From Miami Central to Aventura with stops in all the neighborhoods along the way (Wynwood, Design District, etc)

  11. I’ve used Brightline and it is a great experience. But it’s hard to compete with $39 one way fares between FL cities. The other issue is that their stations are located downtown with little parking, a hassle for a family. But I hope they succeed because it’s not just another race to the bottom in consumer travel.

  12. Good to have that heads up about the Dublin lounge. Also, my next-door neighbor’s dog’s test results came back negative.

  13. Not regular Florida visitor. Does Brightline currently (when operating) stop at MIA, FLL, and West Palm Beach airports?

  14. @JohnC

    No, Brightline does not stop at any of those airports. However, the downtown Miami station is connected to MIA by Miami Metrorail.

  15. In normal times I could potentially see this being popular with foreign travelers. Many who are destined to Disney World also travel to other Florida destinations. Disney, as well as Miami are extremely popular with Brazilian and British families notably. Not needing a car once in Disney/Miami, I could see this being a viable option for those types of travelers to wishing to make a Florida holiday.

  16. I don’t understand this article Ben. It’s almost as if you are not from Florida.

    Florida is the third most populated State in the union. The amount of business travel between Miami and Orlando has grown tremendously in the last decade. The number of people with families between both cities is enormous. And the number of families that fly into Miami to be at the beach and shop before going to Disney is even bigger.

    I drive the route all the time. Pre-pandemic this was NOT a 3.5 hr drive. That was back in the early 2000’s. The drive is now easily 4.5 hrs with normal traffic. I’ve done 6 hours from Brickell to downtown Orlando. The “Florida crazies” on the road are a real thing too. Very dangerous.

    This play made sense 25 years ago when MCO was tiny, and makes even more sense now. This is brilliant and will make a ton of money when it’s finished.

  17. Especially with them adding the potential Cocoa area stop, I could see it getting used for cruises from Port Canaveral and possibly the Kennedy Space Center as well, which are both common destinations in conjunction with Disney World trips, and I’ve had friends who were visiting both Tampa and Disney World.

    Whether it’s enough to justify I don’t know enough to say, but there’s definitely some significant market potential there.

  18. If the MCO-WDW spur connects with SunRail, then woohoo, it’s of some use (at least in replacing the bus transfer currently required to access MCO via SunRail.) But as everyone has pointed out, there’s already a perfectly serviceable ground transportation system running between MCO and WDW, including the Disney Magical Express with direct hotel service.

    But hey, if that’s how they procure the money to up our rail game, fingers crossed. I’m just not gonna hold my breath.

  19. Burritomiles
    the california high speed train is a boondoggle with stations in no where places. They have two notrhsouth rail lines that could have been double tracked and had decent speeds for a fraction of the price. The bonus the lines go through population centers. High speed rail was a way for the political cronies to make money.

  20. There is a huge amount of traffic between South Florida and Orlando, particularly Disney and especially on weekends. Anyone who has taken the turnpike back to South Florida from Orlando on a Sunday will know that. The road gets jammed packed. On weekends it can easily add another hour to the trip due to the traffic.

    This actually makes perfect sense and I’d be quite happy to get on board one of these nice trains for a weekend at Disney. There’s a lot of people in South Florida who frequent Walt Disney World on weekends (pre-pandemic of course). When the world does return to normal, I can see this working. I can’t wait to take it.

  21. Sounds like a great idea to me. I could see lots of tourists using this.

    When I’ve visited South Florida in the past, I’ve often wanted to tack on an Orlando/Disney side trip. I tried driving Fort Lauderdale to Disney once – very boring drive that’s just long enough to be exhausting, i.e. not fun for a 1-2 day side trip.

    But a relaxing train trip would be a great alternative, ESPECIALLY if it goes right to Disney Springs!

  22. @ ChadMC

    Right on. That’s why I did not understand this article at all. This is not a matter of opinion. The economics are there or the train would not exist. I was doing 6 hrs on weekdays and couldn’t afford to fly although it would have gotten me there faster.

  23. @Burritomiles what does a new presidential admin have to do with .CA train? I guess a new admin could print more $ but that train project is a disaster in design, routing and profitability. Americans don’t hate trains. It’s just with such a large country they are impractical…unlike a very small country like Japan where they make sense and $. Train projects like the Texas Central are more likely to succeed since they are driven by private markets and not dimwit politicians with vainglorious goals.

  24. Is this a dedicated right-of-way or are they mixing with freight? For this to work in the US there needs to be service when people want to travel, not one train every hour that might arrive an hour late because it was held due to freight traffic. Frequency. On-time performance. Reliability.

  25. For connections to FLL airport, although not ideal, the Brightline station adjacent to the Bus Terminal. Bus 1 takes you to the airport for $2 one way for a 20 minute ride

  26. @Timo
    Honshu alone is most of the north-south distance of either the east or west coast of the US, your pick. There are a lot of rail corridors in the US that make sense and could take a sizeable market share from highway and air travel, and SF to LA is one of the biggest markets. It’s not the NYC-LA route that every rail opponent seems to equate to any new HSR project regardless of the actual planned route. This market pre-COVID was already pretty much at capacity with respects to both air and road travel, and is one of the busiest business travel corridors in the world, so it stands to do quite well once finished. Yes there’s myriad problems with it, mostly stemming from US refusal to look anywhere outside of North America for case studies on how and how not to build rail infrastructure along with endemic issues with how Californian infrastructure contractors, but at the end of the day it’s both a necessary infrastructure expansion and will be a valuable learning experience for future US infrastructure projects.

    But to answer your question, the difference is that Biden regularly took Amtrak from his home in Delaware to Washington DC as a senator and VP, and is likely to be more favorable to infrastructure bills supporting railway expansion. By comparison, Trump tried to block federal funds for the California HSR project that were already approved in a political slapfight. So yes, Biden in the White House would definitely be better for new rail infrastructure projects than Trump.

  27. ” I just don’t get where the market is for the rest of the network; a train between Miami/Fort Lauderdale/West Palm Beach and Orlando seems like a niche market at best, and not something where you could constantly fill trains in a profitable way”. That seems like something a person from Florida would say. I can foresee a lot of tourists and foreign travelers who fly to Florida would definitely be interested in something like this. Lot of people want to see disney world but have interests in visiting Miami and Fort Lauderdale as well, but it may be too much hassle for them going to the going to the airport, then flying and then commuting in from the airport. If there are train stops that are centrally located and the train is reasonably priced I could definitely see the potential for profits here during the peak season.

  28. Honestly, people “staying inside the Disney ecosystem “ will not use this train coming from MCO. Disney already provides bus transportation to their individual hotels free (well included in the room rate ) on the Magic Express busses. Why pay for a train that doesn’t even take you to your hotel. Then, if you are staying offsite, you need a car. I can see it working for those hotels scattered around Disney Springs possibly if they have a good shuttle system. But many hotels are by International Drive so I don’t see any use there either. You need a car unless you are staying onsite.

  29. As others have said the real money is in the real estate that they already owned. Since rehabbing their existing railroad they’ve attracted interest from other freight and passenger carriers. That’s more money.

    They’re also operating in the 2nd busiest tourism market in the US behind California with the #2 and #4 ranked cities for international visitors. 127 million people visited Florida last year. Tens of millions of them flew here with Orlando being the largest rental car market in the US. The demand for travel is insane. The demand for a semi-redundant rail line that only has 3 stations between Miami and WPB – not so much.

    But the mistake that you and many others who don’t ride trains make is thinking of a railroad as only two possible station pairs – usually the terminal stations. Think of it this way, on the Northeast corridor, which carries 75% of all passengers in the combined air/rail travel market between NYC and DC, (and is about the same distance as Miami to Orlando) that NYC-DC trip has a plurality of travelers but not a majority. The second biggest station pair is Philly to NYC and the third biggest station pair is Philly to DC. Miami to Orlando will be a huge part of the market but it won’t be most of the market.

    You’re missing trips like Lakeland to MCO, Stuart to Fort Lauderdale, Cocoa to Miami, Tampa to Disney Springs. With 12 stations between Tampa and Miami there are 66 station pairs. That’s a lot of potential travel. Sharing stations with Sunrail and Tri-Rail is going to boost ridership further.

    There’s a reason this route ranked high on Obama’s HSR list. Outside of a route connecting San Diego to Santa Barbara via Anaheim and LA, there’s no route in the US that makes more sense.

  30. I saw twice in the comments something like, “who will ride from MCO to Disney Springs? They already get a free bus.”

    Some people will but the station isn’t really for them. Brightline will be using the Sunrail tracks for a short stretch after it leaves the airport and stopping at Meadow Woods Station before transitioning to the 417 right of way then the I-4 right of way. The train will already be going within 40 yards of the Disney Springs Grapefruit Garage en route to Tampa. Given that DS is a major Disney Transit hub it would be dumb not to stop there.

    MCO passengers are not the target although undoubtedly they’ll be a big part of it. The target market is the people coming from the other 10 stations. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the traffic on I-4 but 100% if I lived in Tampa I would take the train to DS. Same if I was in Cocoa.

    Also, as there seems to be some confusion about it, the Sunrail/Brightline negotiations at present revolve around brightline being able to use the SunRail tracks between the airport wye and 417. Brightline would also be able to use the current Meadow Woods station. In exchange SunRail would get access to MCO on the tracks that brightline is building. There is also talk of SunRail getting access to Disney Springs station. I live in Orlando and if that’s the case, 100% I will park in Winter Park, take the train to Disney Springs, and never drive there again.

  31. @Timo Why is it that you seem to have the opinion that only the private sector is capable of effectively operating passenger rail systems. In fact, as Ben identified with Brightline passenger and revenue figures, passenger rail service generally isn’t profitable. This is true except for a very specific set of circumstances (i.e the Train Operating Company environment in the U.K.), none of which are present in Florida. In most places of the world, passenger rail is viewed as a public service. The idea that passenger rail service should be required to make a profit is largely only a construct of American Conservatism.

    I’m throwing shade at the State of Florida, which didn’t have the political will to do a project like this. If private sector involvement was absolutely necessary, Florida could have formed a Public-Private-Partnership, although even this is no guaranty of success given the Maryland Purple Line light rail system fiasco that blew up in the face of Republican Governor Larry Hogan.

    Florida needs a passenger rail system, but the Brightline business model is unlikely to work.

  32. I’d be willing to drive to Orlando from Georgia then take the train to the Cruise terminal in Miami if the price is right. I’m not a fan of the Orlando to Miami drive. Especially going home where I drive Miami to Middle Georgia in one day.

  33. I think this a great idea. I believe that it will open up opportunities for individuals to work not only in Orlando, but outside the Orlando area where your salary can be quite a bit more. My husband currently works/lives in Pompano Beach during the week and comes home to Orlando on the weekends. This train would open up an opportunity for him to live at home and keep his job in Pompano Beach. It would also save money on the wear and tear of his vehicle as well as not having to pay for a second place to live. I am all for it, and I hope that they find a way to make it work for all individuals. I am trying to be hopeful for this project to be a success.

  34. This is completely about the real estate around the stations. The developers own 22 acres in downtown Fort Laudedale alone surrounding the station. They own thousands of acres around the other stations.

    I live in South Florida and know tons of people with annual Disney passes. The trains will be packed when they start running.

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