There is a Disney fan site called www.disneydining.com that is not affiliated with the Disney organization, but it reports news about what’s happening on and around the Disney properties. On June 27, the site carried a picture of a Brightline train standing at a station. On the platform was Mickey Mouse, walking away from the train with his hands in his pockets and a glum expression on his face.
Krysten Swensen, a reporter for the site, explained in her story, headlined “Disney Pulls Out of Brightline Project – No Stop Coming to Disney Springs,” that “both Disney and Universal were working with the train company to create stops at their respective resorts, which would give guests more airports to be able to fly into to get to the parks. However, in a move that not many saw coming, Disney announced that it is pulling out of the project.” This is far from being just a “Mickey Mouse” story, though. It is serious enough that Kevin Spear also reported it in the Orlando Sentinel the same day.
Brightline’s expansion from its current northern terminal at West Palm Beach to Orlando Airport is now under construction, and the railroad expects to begin revenue service there next year. Beyond the Orlando area, Brightline plans to extend its line to Tampa on new railroad yet to be built. We previously reported that plans had called for a station at Disney Springs, on the grounds of the Disney Park, which would be the only intermediate stop. The Disney organization did not comment for those reports, but Orlando media report that Disney is commenting now. According to Disney spokesperson Avery Maehrer: “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.”
Swensen reported: “The new route would take the Brightline through International Drive, which is right near the Universal Orlando Resort, which is why the Resort is still a part of the project. Universal Orlando is currently building a massive third theme park called Epic Universe and will be adding 14,000 new employees in the coming years to work there.” Alex Galbraith reported the development the next day in Orlando Weekly, quoting Maehrer and reporting: “The new plan routes the train through the tourist corridor along International Drive, bypassing the resort. When Disney joined the project, the plan called for a route that followed State Route 417 and entered Disney property. The new route is expected to include a stop near Disney on I-Drive, without crossing over into the resort.” “I-Drive” is International Drive, a busy commercial strip with various businesses and other potential tourist destinations like the Orange County Convention Center and Sea World, in addition to the Universal complex.
As we reported, Brightline had planned in 2020 to build a station at Disney Springs, but stations are now slated to be built at the Orange County Convention Center and near Disney Springs, but across I-4, a major highway, from Disney property. Julius Whigham II reported the locations in the Palm Beach Post.
A statement released by Brightline described how the change came about: “Late last year, we were asked by several community leaders to explore alternative alignments for our planned expansion from OIA (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.”
The statement continued with a description of the locations of those stations: “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. 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.”
Much of the opposition to the former plan came from Orlando’s Right Rail, which describes itself this way on its website, www.orlandosrightrail.com: “Orlando’s Right Rail is a community coalition sponsored by the International Drive Chamber of Commerce made of up businesses and individuals who want our community to benefit from a mass transit plan with the vision to serve our entire community. Coalition members strongly support mass transit. But they believe a plan currently being pushed by Brightline, a private railroad company, is not right for our community.”
The original proposal would have built much of the line along State Route 417, to the south of the airport. Right Rail’s campaign against it began in earnest last fall, following a legal challenge filed by residents of the community of Hunter’s Creek, who claimed that bringing the railroad would reduce their property values (reported by Richard Bilbao in Orlando Business Journal on September 13): “A settlement in 1991 for the eminent domain agreement between CFX (Central Florida Expressway Authority) and the Hunter’s Creek master developer American Newland said there would be no non-roadway right-of-way usage, and construction plans at the time showed only roadways and no rail, [plaintiffs’ attorney Thomas] Callan told Orlando Business Journal. ‘In 2021, [CFX] didn’t acquire the legal right to do that. So they don’t have the legal right to do it as it exists now.’”
At the time, Right Rail promoted the alternate route this way on its website: “This route would follow SR 528 through mostly industrial areas, while connecting Orlando International Airport to the Orange County Convention Center and the I-Drive tourism corridor and supporting 75,000 jobs in the area. It would also help spur the much-needed connection and expansion of local public transit systems such as SunRail.” The push was bolstered by a decision from CFX to back away from the Route 417 alignment, as reported by Kevin Spear in the Orlando Sentinel on July 20, 2021: “The Central Florida Expressway Authority agreed unanimously Tuesday to delay indefinitely a decision over whether to allow Brightline Trains to build passenger rail beside the agency’s State Road 417 on the way from Orlando’s airport to Walt Disney World and Tampa.” Spear’s report continued: “The vote came after nearly 3.5 hours of discussion dominated by a coordinated push from representatives of the International Drive tourism strip and the Hunter’s Creek residential community to deny access by the private rail company to the tolled S.R. 417 expressway. Such a denial would force Brightline to consider a significantly more costly route to the tourism strip.” Spear also reported that Brightline estimated the cost of the Route 417 alignment at $1 billion, while the building on the competing alignment could cost up to $700 million more, and a price tag as high as $2.2 billion was possible.
Right Rail disputed those numbers in a post dated October 21, which included a report entitled “Orlando-Tampa Intercity Rail Alignment Cost Comparison” submitted two days earlier. The report found no significant difference in cost for the 90 mph speed at which trains would travel on either alignment: “The primary factor which has changed since the review completed in July  was the reduction of the target design speed of the 528 alignment (previously 120 mph) to match the target design speed of the 417 alignment (90 mph). By equalizing the design speeds, Kimley-Horn was able to create a much more cost effective 528 alignment—one with the same geometric and operational criteria used for the 417 alignment. Applying equal standards also made it possible to position the alignment within the south side of the I-4 corridor in a way that does not interfere with the existing design or any potential value engineering for the Beyond the Ultimate plan, and thus avoiding unnecessarily inflated costs” (at 2). The report found the Route 528 alignment to be less-expensive than the Route 417 alignment: $1.250 billion, as opposed to $1.272 billion; $22 million, or 1.76% less.
Orlando’s Right Rail had already posted the entire case against the Route 417 alignment; all 416 pages of it with many exhibits, on Oct. 2. Right Rail claimed to support a rail system that would connect all of Central Florida, and summarized its preference for the Route 528 alignment in Paragraph 5 of the Executive Summary of its presentation (at 1): “To that end, we have looked at the impact of Brightline’s proposed route, and compared it to the route previously supported and approved by so many people and agencies—the Taft Vineland Road to SR 528 to the Convention Center route (‘the TVR to Convention Center route’). We have looked at the impacts both of these routes would have on existing Central Florida homeowners and businesses. At your request, we have reviewed the data regarding construction costs. Our Chamber members have many decades of experience analyzing the proper way to realistically evaluate even minimally designed proposed projects.”
The report continued (Paragraph 7, at 2): “Despite our continuing philosophical support for the Brightline rail service, our members know that all of us must look at this proposal objectively and thoroughly. Currently, there are unmistakable residential, environmental and business problems with the SR 417 route that do not exist with the TVR to Convention Center route. It would be a mistake to ignore the members of the public who do not want the Brightline route in their neighborhoods, or to ignore the positions taken by the regulatory bodies. It would be a mistake to ignore environmental issues, because we know the responsible state and federal agencies will not ignore those issues when a proposal is put before it.” The report went on to make its case in 107 more paragraphs. Supporting documents included the FRA’s 2010 Record of Decision (ROD) concerning the Florida High-Speed Rail Project (Exhibit 1), an Economic Impact Analysis of the I-Drive corridor by the local Business Improvement District from 2019 (Exhibit 20), various letters of support, and voluminous technical data. Exhibit 2 shows a map of the two potential alignments (at page 102 of 416).
A notable feature is that the Route 528 alignment will include track to be shared between Brightline and SunRail, the local service in the Orlando area. The eventual service plan would include trains going west from Orlando Airport to serve the new stations in the area that Brightline would use, as well as east of the airport to connect with SunRail’s existing line. Plans call for daily service every 15 minutes on SunRail, with hourly service on Brightline. Since its inception, Sun Rail has focused on peak-commuting-hour service and now runs at those times and during mid-day, but not on weekends.
According to the Right Rail website, “The new route is called the Sunshine Corridor and will connect Orlando International Airport with the Orlando County Convention Center and beyond. This will allow SunRail to provide expanded service and connect with both the airport and the International Drive corridor.” Orlando’s mayor recently appeared to promise expanded service on SunRail, too.
On June 29, Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, who is also Chair of the SunRail Commission, announced that he was also on board, with a video praising the project. He said: “We have a moment in time to address the needs of our community related to transportation, and that’s by expanding our transit system; specifically SunRail. I get more questions about expanding SunRail to the airport, and then going seven days a week and expanded service. We have an opportunity to address that. Take SunRail to the airport. Take SunRail to the Convention Center, I-Drive. You’ll address 100,000 working people with those two expansions, and the time to do it is now.”
Brightline is also on board. The Brightline statement quoted earlier in this report also indicated that the railroad agrees and is anticipating some government funding. It included a quote from Ben Porritt, SVP for Corporate Affairs, who said, “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.”
So it appears that the trend points toward the Route 528 alignment, which has gathered significant support lately. Everybody seems pleased with it, except the Disney organization. Plans call for a station near the Disney park, but across the highway from it, and a shuttle would be required to take riders to the park. In addition, the line would serve other destinations, including a competing resort, not a preferred situation for Disney.
Special-purpose and “fan” sites seemed to cover this story as much as general-circulation media. The Big Bubble Miami, a site that covers real estate and cultural affairs in the Miami area, ran a story headlined “Disney World Cancels Brightline Station Because the Railroad Will Serve Other Attractions, Too” on June 29. In his story, Sean McCaughan did not pull his punches. He began by saying: “Like a whiny child that hates to share, the Disney Company has abruptly announced it is pulling out of the plan to build a Brightline train station on Disney property.” He then reported the quote from Maehrer that we reported above and that was originally reported in the Orlando Business Journal. He then continued: “Mr. Maehrer didn’t elaborate further, but like any good spokesperson he still managed to say very little and a whole lot at the very same time.” As his headline stated, Disney apparently pulled out because that organization did not want to host trains that could also deliver riders to other, similar destinations in the area. We will have more to report as this story develops over time.