Walt Disney World’s proposed railway link from Disney Springs to Orlando International Airport (OIA) has been ditched after rail company Brightline announced plans for an alternate route on their proposed Orlando-Tampa high-speed service.
The surprise news was revealed by the Orlando Business Journal (OBJ) on June 27, 2022, and followed up by local media, who were shocked to see Disney effectively ruled out of what could be a high-profile new transport link in the heart of Central Florida.
Brightline is in the process of completing its high-speed rail link from OIA to West Palm Beach and Miami in early 2023, but was already planning an additional line direct to Tampa.
Disney had looked to be a key partner on this link, as it was originally proposed to run from OIA along the 407 Central Florida Greeneway direct to a station at Disney Springs before continuing to the Gulf Coast city, as Attractions Magazine reported in November 2020.
But this week’s announcement by Brightline of a revised route along the 528 Beachline Expressway that will include a station at the Orange County Convention Center on International Drive prompted an immediate response from Disney.
Quoted in the Orlando Sentinel and OBJ, Disney spokesperson Avery Maehrer said, “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.”
However, Brightline insisted there will still be a station close to Disney Springs, both as part of the rail line to Tampa and an expansion of the SunRail commuter rail system.
Ben Porritt, the senior vice president of corporate affairs, explained, “Late last year, we were asked by several community leaders to explore alternative alignments for our planned expansion from OIA to Tampa. The original plan called for a single station at Disney Springs. Along with a broad range of stakeholders, we 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 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 [will] 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.”
Crucially, the new alternate route has the support of Universal Orlando Resort, whose Epic Universe theme park development is adjacent to the Convention Center, and a Universal spokesperson confirmed the company was fully on board with the project.
Quoted in the Orlando Sentinel, John McReynolds, Universal’s senior vice president of external affairs, stated, “Universal in the next 24 months will be adding 14,000 new employees at Epic Universe. 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 proposed expansion of the rail system through the key hubs of OIA and International Drive, as well as along highway I-4 to Tampa, would address Orlando’s urgent traffic issues along I-4, I-Drive and around the theme parks, but it would be 2024 at the earliest before any construction could be under way.
Brightline estimates that the link from OIA to I-Drive could start by the first quarter of 2024, with the remaining section of the 85-mile route to Tampa beginning work in the second quarter of 2025.