If you think that the coming Brightline train service to Disney Springs is going to replace Magical Express, I’ve got a castle to sell you…
When Walt Disney World announced that Disney’s Magical Express service would be discontinued as of January 1st, 2022 (and luggage service has been discontinued for a while now and will not return), no free or even branded replacement service was mentioned, only that there were plenty of alternate options, such as taxi, Uber/Lyft, private car service, or even renting your own car. Many people were up in arms, forgetting that it wasn’t that long ago that we had to use those services (that existed then) before Magical Express existed.
Others latched on to the previously announced Disney Springs station for the high-speed Brightline train service that is in the process of being extended to Orlando International Airport, and then eventually to Tampa by way of WDW, as if this would somehow replace the ultra-convenient, and free, service WDW was providing. However, there are many reasons why Brightline will NOT be replacing Magical Express.
First off, Brightline isn’t even going to reach OIA until sometime later in 2022. While 2023 has been batted about for the Disney Springs station, keep in mind that is ambitious – Brightline doesn’t even have a right of way for the tracks nailed down yet to even get to Disney Springs, or plans drawn up for a station, or even permits yet. 2023 is extremely ambitious. [Update: The current estimate from Brightline to reach Disney Springs is now 2026…]
Brightline is also an inter-city service. It isn’t providing service just between OIA and WDW like Magical Express, but would be coming all the way from Miami and eventually Tampa in the other direction. These trains are not large capacity either, seating about 248 people each. I’m not sure the exact capacity of a ME bus, but conservatively I’d say that no more that 6 buses could handle that. Given they are coming from further away than OIA or DS, then there will be people already on board so not all the seats are available. And you have to get a ticket in advance – think of this more like getting an airline seat than some sort of commuter rail or subway service. Plus, the price is per person, whereas a taxi or ride service is typically per car. The cheapest advertised ticket for Brightline was $10 (before the pandemic shutdown), so for a family of four it would be $40 for Brightline, where a Lyft XL to fit the family and luggage is $50-55.
Now add to the fact that Brightline currently advertises an hourly schedule – if they are able to maintain that once the full service to Tampa is established, your potential wait time just at the station is already double and on average equal to how long it would take to get to WDW. Then you still have the travel time, which I estimate to be no better than 15 minutes.
And lastly, all the currently available options take you directly to your resort, whereas the train will only take you to Disney Springs – where you’ll have to disembark and then board a bus, if available, or a ride service just to get to your resort. Add at least another 10-30 minutes or more. In the end, there isn’t any appreciable way that the train will be any faster than a personal ride service, and could be much, much slower.
It really doesn’t make time or economic sense with the other options available.
Where Brightline DOES make sense is that it opens up more flight destinations to WDW guests. Previously, OIA was your only option if you were going to take Magical Express, plus Sanford if you were renting a car or getting a ride service. Now this opens up airports like Tampa, Ft. Lauderdale and even Miami if the options to get to the Brightline station are available (none of them seem particularly convenient), the flights are cheaper and you don’t mind a longer transportation time. I’d even consider spending some time in Tampa and then catching the train to WDW. You could consider it a cheap (maybe, not knowing ticket prices) option to get to WDW from those airports.
How could a train actually work between OIA and WDW? The obvious ideal would be a dedicated shuttle service between the two on a dedicated right of way. But absent of that, it is possible for a shuttle service to time share the Brightline tracks. You could use trainsets that are more like commodity commuter equipment with about double the capacity per car and can operate up to 79MPH which is good enough for the distance covered. Two trainsets could potentially run shuttle with dwell times 30 minutes in each direction, with a potential throughput of 1000 passengers an hour. Magical Express averaged about 6300 passengers a day based on 2013 numbers – but there are peak times that the extra capacity would be needed.
But…and there are several BIG buts…this would be a completely independent operation from Brightline, would likely defer to scheduled Brightline trains when necessary creating delays, would need to share platforms at OIA and DS stations which would be complicated (unless you build separate platforms – increasing costs significantly) – and you have to obtain and maintain the equipment, which is expensive if that’s all the service you are providing – a city’s commuter service would have advantages of scale, but there is no such thing in place here. You can’t feasibly run such a service for free. And you still end up at Disney Springs and have to get to your resort somehow. So really, what does this save?
In the end, Brightline itself is not replacing Magical Express, no train service at all has been announced to replace it, and it is very unlikely that a train will ever replace it unless Disney wants to do it itself. And if it does, it should be a proper monorail like Walt envisioned…
Update 3/8: I just learned tonight, although it is not NEW new (first discussed last October that I can see), that Brightline has been talking with SunRail to study sharing the corridor between Disney and somewhere east of MCO (possibly Innovation Way), giving SunRail access to the airport and an East-West corridor. I mention this because SunRail is a commuter system – their railcars have twice the capacity of Brightline. While luggage would still be a problem, the capacity needed could potentially come from SunRail. However there has been no agreement to date.