In 2003 Disney played a game of chicken with the state of Florida and Universal Studios that had billions of dollars on the line. Disney won and then in 2004 they lost along with everyone else.
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Orlando Business Journal
“Brightline partners with Virgin Group as it plans expansion into Orlando” (Nov 16 2018)
“Brightline wins key approval for Tampa-to-Orlando intercity passenger rail” (Nov 28 2018)
The Orlando Sentinel
“Which rail route?” (Oct 26 2003)
“Direct-to-Disney rail line chosen” (Oct 28 2003)
“Disney in bullet train battle” (Jun 24 2003)
“Train may survive voter backlash” (Dec 31 2004)
There was a lot going on when it came to the Florida elections in the year 2000 so understandably this wasn’t making headline news. However a referendum had passed that election night that amended the state constitution with a mandate to build a high-speed rail system for Florida. Bullet trains were pretty appealing at the time. Over the following few years the newly created Florida High Speed Rail Authority looked at a Tampa-Orlando connection as their first phase, with plans to finish it by 2009. That involved coming up with a route between the two cities, and this is where the trouble began.
The initial route, known as the Bee-Line Route, was planned to start at Orlando International Airport and make stops at the Orlando Convention Center, potentially Universal Studios and Seaworld, and then Walt Disney World, before continuing on to Lakeland and Tampa.
Disney, well, they didn’t like that idea, and for good reason. The route would be ferrying tourists and passengers directly to some of their biggest competitors before them. It also made it easier for guests to leave Disney property and go spend their money elsewhere. Disney decided to instead propose an alternative route if the state wanted their cooperation. The Greeneway Route, as it was called, also started at Orlando International Airport. However it then went south, bypassing all those pesky competitors and going directly to Walt Disney World, before continuing on to Tampa.
It was entirely self-serving, but then again, that was their job. Just as Universal and Seaworld backed the Bee-Line Route because it benefited their bottom line, Disney backed the Greeneway route because it benefited theirs.
So what happened? Where’s our high-speed rail stop and why is Magical Express still around? Well as all of this drama played out, Governor at the time was against all of it. He argued that the state couldn’t handle the financial burden that a state-wide high-speed rail system would bring. With the 2004 elections right around the corner, he made an active push to repeal the amendment mandating the system, and guess who threw in a few bucks to promote the repeal when election season rolled around? Universal and Seaworld. They weren’t getting their train stops, so why should anyone else?
The amendment would successfully be repealed that November, and while that didn’t formally end the Florida High Speed Rail Authority, it was a major symbolic roadblock. They pledged to keep working on a high-speed rail system but without the state funding they’d need and without a deadline looming, it just never happened.
Over the following years there would be other attempts at high-speed rail proposals, and even just recently we saw news of a possible Disney World stop with Virgin Trains USA looking to expand from West Palm Beach to Orlando and Tampa.
Will we eventually get a Walt Disney World rail stop? Who knows? But if history shows us anything, it’s that Disney is a heavyweight in the Central Florida region, and so if we do get one, it’ll probably be on their terms.