June 22, 2024

Disney World Open to On-Site SunRail Station

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After canceling plans for an on-property Brightline high-speed rail station two years ago, Walt Disney World is now open to a SunRail train station on-site at Disney Springs. This post shares details about the development




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After canceling plans for an on-property Brightline high-speed rail station two years ago, Walt Disney World is now open to a SunRail train station on-site at Disney Springs. This post shares details about the development and what’s changed, how much it’ll cost, plus commentary including why this was never intended to be the replacement for Disney’s Magical Express.

Walt Disney World shared in a statement to Orlando Business Journal that they would be open to discuss a SunRail station at Disney Springs. The shared Sunshine Corridor between Miami-based Brightline and the Central Florida commuter rail system would include stops at Orlando International Airport, Orange County Convention Center and South International Drive.

“We have long been open to discussions around the proposed SunRail expansion to Disney Springs and have been engaged with state and community leaders on the topic,” a Walt Disney World spokesperson wrote in a statement. “This is not to be confused with the agreement we previously had for a Brightline station that Brightline decided not to pursue.”

Walt Disney World has been absent from Sunshine Corridor discussions for the past two years, including during the recent dispute between Governor DeSantis and Disney over control of the former Reedy Creek Improvement District and current Central Florida Tourism Oversight District.

Despite this, Brightline has remained interested in a station at Disney. The Sunshine Corridor study unveiled Thursday depicts riders and costs associated with a stop at Disney Springs, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

“In the past, Disney has expressed to the [Florida’s Department of Transportation’s Central Florida district] that they are very interested in expanding SunRail to Disney,” said John Tyler, secretary of the department. “We have continued to focus on getting a connection to that point. It makes sense from a transportation standpoint and we have no reason to believe we shouldn’t be pursuing that.”

The Florida Department of Transportation released that statement as part of a presentation in late April 2024 that included cost and ridership estimates on the corridor. Expanding SunRail to Orlando’s airport and the region’s tourism corridor would boost ridership at least sixfold in the first year of operation but come at an eye-popping cost of at least $4 billion. The presentation included the potential for a Disney Springs station, which could cost $173 million to $247 million to build.

Tyler said the department’s yearlong study found that linking SunRail to airport and tourism stops would increase ridership from the current 1 million annually to 6 million annually–and that’s likely to be an underestimate. He also pointed to an estimate that the link would reach an estimated 9.4 million riders by 2040, and indicated the study results were extremely positive.

The problem will be funding. Those ~$4 billion in costs would have to come from the taxpayers, with a combination of local, state and federal funding, as well as significant private contributions. That’s the biggest roadblock for the Sunshine Corridor–Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings is very bullish on the project and supports a sales tax hike to fund the project, but other mayors and city commissioners on SunRail’s board are more mixed.

Without a dedicated source of funding, it’ll be difficult to get the Sunshine Corridor done. The same was also true of Brightline to begin with, and the project was viewed as improbable after plenty of failed rail projects in the past couple of decades. Not only is Brightline now operational, but the group is already working on another line from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. I might’ve bet against this back in ~2019, but not anymore.

For those who are unfamiliar with this whole saga, the Sunshine Corridor and the Brightline and Sunrail plans, we’ll quickly bring you up to speed. Several years ago, Brightline signed signed a letter of intent with Walt Disney World. 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. It was an ambitious plan, but there have been a lot of ambitious train plans for Central Florida that haven’t gone anywhere.

Things got more real in November 2020, when Walt Disney World revealed that the company would help 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 back in June 2022, 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. This occurred after the proposed route for Brightline changed from along State Road 417 to go closer to International Drive, with the new route known as the Sunshine Corridor.

“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 at the time. 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.

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.

The Sunshine Corridor would feature two new stations and integrates Brightline’s intercity service with SunRail. In addition to the Orlando International Airport, one new station would be located near Universal’s Epic Universe and Orange County Convention Center. Brightline revealed that there could 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.

Basically, it became a classic case of Walt Disney World vs. Universal Orlando, with the latter mounting an effort to change Brightline’s preferred route and garnering support from other businesses and the city itself. Universal also pledged money and land for the project, which certainly didn’t hurt their cause.

Universal was successful, but in so doing, the company dramatically delayed the project–because it once more had to go through layers of approval–and caused Walt Disney World to back out. It was always going to be Universal or Disney winning, so it was essentially a foregone conclusion that Disney would take its ball and go home if its preferred route didn’t win out.

Turning to commentary, nothing that’s happened prior to 2024 has been particularly shocking. It is at least a little surprising that Walt Disney World is reentering the foray, and seems amenable to making an on-site SunRail station happen.

The first thing that always comes up with discussion of Brightline is Disney’s Magical Express. So we’ll start with the reminder that this rail was never billed as a replacement for DME. Some fans continue to claim that Brightline is the “reason” Disney’s Magical Express ended, but that is demonstrably false.

If the train were replacing the bus, it stands to reason that Disney’s Magical Express would not have ended 5+ years before the proposed/cancelled/proposed again 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 benefit to businesses in the tourist corridor is connecting Orlando to Florida’s Gold Coast. Guests from South Florida are a growing demographic for Disney, and rail would facilitate easier weekend getaways for them. It 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.

As inefficient as it is, Mears Connect Driven by Sunshine is probably easier and faster than this rail will be for getting from MCO to a specific hotel at Walt Disney World. With that said, if the Disney Springs stop were a proper train station complete with luggage lockers, I could see taking the train in and hitting the ground running with arrival day at Disney Springs–then heading to our hotel. Especially if we arrived before our room was ready.

As for Walt Disney World rethinking its decision about an on-site station, I think there are a couple of possible explanations for this. The first is that Walt Disney World had hoped that backing out of the project in 2022 would’ve killed it, or at least made it less likely to succeed.

That was their play at the time. It was an unsurprising one because Walt Disney World has always acted in its interests to preserve the “Disney Bubble” and not make it easier for tourists to bounce freely between on-site and off-site attractions.

It’s possible that now that Disney sees the Sunshine Corridor continuing forward, they’d rather be part of it than left out completely. That’s one possible explanation, but the line is still far from a sure thing. Walt Disney World’s involvement can be viewed as a hedge, but it also can be viewed as increasing the likelihood of success for the line.

The key difference between mid-2022 and 2024 is top-level leadership, with Bob Iger replacing Bob Chapek as CEO. (WDW President Jeff Vahle and Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro were in place then and now.) This seems like a decision that would be made at the CEO level, so it’s possible that Iger is in favor of this and Chapek was not. The latter could definitely be accused of being shortsighted, and I’d argue that’s what the 2022 decision was.

Another possibility is that the company’s calculus has changed. Walt Disney World has already recognized that the Disney Bubble has been punctured thanks to the rise of rideshare coupled with more rental cars and abundant transportation around Central Florida.

That’s precisely why they ended Disney’s Magical Express. But that decision was made before the one to back out of the Disney Springs station in 2022. They already knew it was going to be more difficult to maintain the captive on-site audience going forward.

A final possibility is that, with Epic Universe opening in 2025, Walt Disney World now sees the free flow of guests as a two-way street. No longer will they be “losing” guests for a day or two at Universal by making it easier to venture off-site. Going forward, more guests will also stay on-site at Universal Orlando and want to make day trips to Disney. Think of this as a spin on the “rising tide lifts all ships” line of thinking.

My best guess is that it’s some combination of the above. Having an integrated station on-site at Disney Springs is the smart move, and one that plays the long game. It recognizes that Mario and Harry Potter and dragons are going to draw more tourists to Central Florida, and those people might also have an interest in Encanto, Indiana Jones, whatever is Beyond Big Thunder, and mice.

Disney playing ball is obviously the guest-friendly move, but I think it’s one that’s also good for the long-term future of Walt Disney World. And while we don’t play this game often, it’s what Walt would’ve wanted (he loved two things: chili and trains). Here’s hoping that it actually happens!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think about Walt Disney World being “open” to having an on-property rail station? Optimistic that Disney will view this as a good thing in the long-term and build a station at 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!




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