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Taking the Brightline to Disney World: Why I switched road for rail

Simon Calder’s Travel

The train’s golden surface glimmers in the Florida sun as it hisses to a stop along the old freight track. We’re in my hometown Boca Raton on the platform to board the Brightline, the high-speed rail service that is going to take my family to Orlando for a long-awaited trip to Disney World.

It’s a train that my mum and I have waited more than three decades to experience, the train that I wanted to take my father on before he died from cancer last Christmas. Like most of the roughly 1.4 million British tourists and 128 million Americans who visit Florida annually, he would have happily driven to Disney World. However, he became mobility-impaired toward the end of his life and the train would have offered an easier route.

In February, I finally decided to make the journey along with my mum, my partner and our four-year old daughter, who my father had always wanted to take to the Magic Kingdom. 

With five stops in South Florida and an Orlando terminus that opened in September last year, the Brightline’s route between Miami to Orlando is the newest American rail experience. Its advantage over driving is that you are elevated above the highway and can see Florida’s sights en route. The disadvantage is that you can’t stop to enjoy them.

Chau-Jean and her family boarded the Brightline in her hometown, Boca Raton (Brightline)

Talks about the high-speed rail project began when I was a child – I remember them as early as 1989 – with proposals of magnetic levitating trains and estimated costs of $2 billion in private financing. Back then, the anticipated train would run up to 300mph from Miami to Orlando, a journey of just 90 minutes compared to roughly a three-hour drive.

But there were hiccups on the way. With construction delays, a failed partnership with Virgin Trains USA during the Covid-19 pandemic, and costs spiralling to $6 billion, the project finally opened but did not fully accomplish what it set out to. What emerged was the first privately financed American rail system in over 100 years, which now uses many of the same tracks as Henry Flagler’s Florida East Coast Railway. The rail journey never achieved its 90-minute goal; the train trip now takes almost as long as driving.

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