Brightline Train to Disney: Look Inside the Cars of the New Fast Railway Between Orlando and Miami
The United States desperately needs more railway options to ease crowding in the skies and on the roads. One of the country's most promising new train options, open as of September 22, 2023, finally links the major population centers of Central Florida with Southeastern Florida, known widely as South Florida.
The privately funded Brightline railway connects the Orlando area (which has about 3 million residents) with the megalopolis of Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach (about 10 million people). That's a lot of locals to serve, but the real boon will be for tourists who want to see more of the state without having to bother with car rentals.
Now, rather than braving the unbridled mayhem of I-95, where multitudes of reckless Florida drivers have apparently never even heard about the technology of turn signals, or parting with high fees on Florida's Turnpike or the state's many privately funded toll roads, tourists can simply hop aboard a newly built, modern train carriage and zip between the two tourist centers in slightly less time than it would take to drive.
Brightline is being built and opened in stages. The first section of the train's route, from Miami to West Palm Beach, was adapted from a previously existing right-of-way and opened in 2018. That segment now includes stops in Miami, Aventura, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach.
But the addition of the Orlando leg north of West Palm Beach required a lot more investment, including the construction of entirely new rail beds. Future expansion plans include pushing the line all the way to Tampa, on Florida's west coast.
Brightline estimates that a trip between Orlando and West Palm Beach takes about 2 hours; going all the way between Orlando and Miami would take about 3 hours and 30 minutes. Driving the same full distance would usually take you 4 hours, but would cost you a lot more in stress (as you try to survive the Darwinist jungle of Florida's seemingly lawless highways) and, at other times, dozy boredom (as you cross Florida's mind-numbing swamps).
The train's scheduling is convenient and plentiful. In late 2023, Brightline trains depart Orlando for South Florida 16 times a day between 5am and 8:50pm, which puts the last train of the day in Miami at 20 minutes after midnight.
Going north, from Miami to Orlando, 16 daily trains depart for Orlando at regular intervals between 5:45am and 9:45pm. No matter which direction you're traveling, you'll never have to wait more than 2 hours for the next train between 6am and 10pm.
For all this, a standard one-way ticket between Orlando and any station in South Florida costs $79 each way (peak hours favored by commuters may be $99). You can also buy "Family" tickets for four that start at $199. That costs much less than airfare usually costs for the same trip, and it saves hours of wasted time at airports.
How did Americans manage to make train travel so convenient? What is this—Switzerland?
If you're waiting for the wrinkle, here it is. In South Florida, Brightline cuts a convenient path right through the population centers, and in Miami the station is smack in the heart of the downtown district.
But in Orlando, because of endless squabbles and stonewalling in Florida's eternally dysfunctional politics, the train doesn't go directly to any of the theme parks. It stops at the (also) newly constructed third terminal at Orlando International Airport (MCO), which is about 17 miles east of Walt Disney World or 20 circuitous miles from downtown Orlando.
On the one hand, what good is train service if it simply forces you to use a car at the end of the rail line?
But on the other hand, few American airports are as replete with additional on-the-ground transportation options as Orlando's is. After all, the airport serves the most popular vacationland in the United States. Disney's Magic Kingdom alone attracts more than 20 million visits every single year.
From MCO's Brightline Orlando station, a fleet of shared vans and buses can take you to the theme park resort areas for one-way rates as low as $4 (public bus) or $20 (shared shuttle van). MCO is also one of the world's busiest locations for car rentals, so it's not unheard of to pick up a rental here for as little as $20 a day. You can also book a rideshare, either on your own (there's a pickup zone at MCO) or via the Brightline app. For that, $35–$40 would be a typical price to ride to Walt Disney World.
International travelers, who already know the humanity-confirming value of a civilized railway network, will undoubtedly be ecstatic to find they can now avoid driving in Florida altogether.
Tickets can be purchased at stations (like here, at Orlando's stop), via the Brightline app or at GoBrightline.com.
For food, you'll mostly have to rely on grab-and-go kiosks at the stations, because full meals are not served aboard trains. You can get snacks and beverages, including booze, during your ride, although the options are somewhat simple (here's the menu).
Brightline provided this image of its quad table-style seating, which is the same business-class style for everyone. Note the shallow overhead storage space for smaller bags that's available throughout the carriage.
There are also traditional non-table seats that face one way (could be forward, could be to the rear) and have pull-down tray tables. Those traditional seats are available in pairs or as singles with no seats beside them.
Seats in the standard class of service (which Brightline calls SMART) are 19 inches wide, and Premium seats (fares from $150) are 21 inches wide.
SMART seats are automatically assigned by the reservations system; the more expensive Premium fare gives you the option of selecting your spot, and also comes with free snacks and nonalcoholic drinks as well as access to a special lounge in the stations.
Yes, you stand the chance of getting a seat facing a stranger, but that's not unusual for train travel worldwide, and Brightline trains are rarely packed to full capacity anyway.
Wi-Fi is free and doesn't require a password, no matter which ticket fare you pay.
You'll also find charging ports (American-style power and USB Type-A or USB Type-C ) at every seat, even if the seat is not at a table, as the ones in this photo are.
You are allowed to take two carry-on items for free (plus strollers and car seats), as long as they're not grossly huge or heavy. Most tourists should be able to skate by without paying to check larger items for $25 each way. Just as on European trains, luggage can be stored on the racks in each carriage or kept near you.
One warning: If you read that Brightline allows bicycles on board, don't believe it.
When Brightline Florida started rolling, it did permit bikes (and even released this photo of a bike rack to promote the perk). But in September 2023, the train company backpedaled.
"Bicycles and e-bikes, due to their size and configuration, have presented challenges in terms of space within our train compartments," a Brightline representative told South Florida's New Times.
The toilet cabin operation is touchless, and washrooms have plenty of space and privacy. The atmosphere is a big upgrade from the sanitary conditions that car drivers must endure when they pull over at the Turkey Lake Service Plaza off the Turnpike.
We never thought we'd live to see the day when the major tourist centers of Florida were linked by clean, quick, affordable rail. Now that it's here, long may Brightline thrive, and may more places in the USA get on track next.