Brightline Miami to Orlando: Taking the Train to Do Disney Without a Car
It had its naysayers early on, but when Brightline kicked off service between Miami and Orlando in September 2022, the train delivered a major gift to Florida.
The only privately owned, multicity railroad in the United States, Brightline is still working toward its plan of extending the railway all the way to Tampa. Yet the service, which reaches Orlando at its northernmost point, is already profitable and is on track (no pun intended) to give 4.3 million rides between South Florida and Orlando by 2025.
That's an impressive debut, but it can't be called record-breaking—because it was never possible before. Florida, a flat peninsula linked by grueling toll roads and traditional highways, has never had fast rail service like this, so the new rail line is tapping into the hunger of a previously ignored market.
For the very first time, it's possible to travel between South Florida (including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Boca Raton, and West Palm Beach) and inland Central Florida without getting into a car.
Which means that for the very first time, people visiting Miami (about 27 million annual visitors) and Fort Lauderdale (where Port Everglades alone attracts more than 3 million cruise passengers a year) can now get themselves all the way to the theme parks of Orlando without the expense or stress of renting a car.
The ease of European-style rail travel has come to, of all places, the car-addicted swamps of Florida.
Frommer's tried out Brightline's service from South Florida to Orlando. Here's how it went.
While the current terminus, Brightline Orlando station, is the largest and most elaborate station on the line, all the others are freshly constructed, amply outfitted, and have comfortable indoor waiting areas with seating and air conditioning.
As of January 2024, Brightline's train schedule offers about 16 northbound trains a day and another 16 southbound trains a day, with at least one train per hour between 6:30am and 10pm no matter which way you're heading. From Miami, the ride takes about 3 and a half hours. (If you were to drive from Miami to Disney, you'd be behind the wheel for about 240 miles.) From Fort Lauderdale, the ride takes a little under 3 hours. Boca Raton is about 2:40, and from West Palm Beach the ride duration is usually about 2:15.
From major stations like Miami and Fort Lauderdale, Brightline is cultivating a network of shuttles (with reasonable fees) that can bring passengers to and from their trains and wherever they need to go in town, eliminating the need for a rental car on either side of the rail journey.
The photo above shows what you see when you enter the Fort Lauderdale station. The day I traveled, the arrivals and departures boards showed nothing but on-time arrivals and departures. When you fly locally within Florida, particually during the stormy months, even the shortest hops (Fort Lauderdale–Orlando would require about 1 hour and 15 minutes in the air) can be plagued with delays.
All stations are fully accessible, staffed with plenty of employees, and equipped with both escalators and elevators. And stations are extremely yellow.
My ticket, purchased via the Brightline app, was a QR code that I scanned at an entry gate following a quick airline-style baggage security check.
It's possible to drop your bags at the staffed check-in desk for a fee, and train porters will haul them from there. But as on most railways around the world, you can also carry airline-size baggage on board yourself for free. That's what I did, plopping my bags in the onboard luggage area and overhead racks. (Take a closer look inside the Brightline train carriages and see those bag facilities in our photo preview of what's aboard the trains.)
Escalators bring passengers to the upper-level waiting area, where they wait until called a few minutes before departure to ride back down and board the train.
The waiting area in Brightline's Fort Lauderdale station, as at all major Brightline stations, has a bar, a separate waiting area for passengers who paid extra for premium tickets ("Smart" fares, the equivalent of economy class, are just fine), and a standard waiting area with plenty of seating and phone charger points. There are also free water stations for filling up your own water bottle.
Additionally, small unmanned shops sell marked-up sundries ($2.50 candy bars, $34 charging cords, etc.). You'll need a phone equipped with Apple Pay or Google Pay to go into one of these shops—the entry gate scans your phone, and if you choose to buy anything you scan again on the way out and the total will be charged to you. Even though the gates access your payment details for entry, you won't be charged if you decide not to buy anything.
My train's departure was announced with plenty of advance warning, and my fellow passengers made their way in a calm and orderly fashion down to the train platform. That was a marked contrast to the reckless, lane-changing free-for-all that is I-95, which I was avoiding having to drive, thanks to my train ticket.
Travelers with mobility issues or wheeled luggage take note: Boarding Brightline train carriages does not require steps. This is what the level entry looks like.
The bathrooms on each car are accessible as well. (You can see a photo of the Brightline lavatory design in our photo feature about the train's amenities.)
My carriage was fairly full yet quiet. Everyone on Brightline reserves seating when they buy tickets, so there were no challenges for dominance during boarding to win the best spot.
Wi-Fi is free. It was flawlessly fast for my trip to Orlando. (On my return journey to South Florida, Wi-Fi was noticeably glitchy, but still good enough that I was able to book a future vacation on my smartphone).
The groovy lighting reminded me of the good old days of Virgin America, before Alaska Airlines bought it and ruined the vibe.
During the train ride, you can get up and walk around whenever you want. Overhead illuminated signage tells you if your car's bathroom is currently occupied; when it's your turn to use the lav, you'll find it well-maintained, clean, and private. Compare that to the immersion in microbes that vehicle drivers must brave at Florida Turnpike's Fort Drum Service Plaza, a roadside purgatory that has been demoralizing Disney-bound family carpools from South Florida for more than half a century.
If you're seated in a standard seat and need to power your laptop or phone, there are standard outlets (not a USB slot) located between the seats in front of you.
The trains have some four-seater tables for groups and families, and those tables have outlets built in as well.
Take not, airlines: There's another double power point in between the seats at hip level.
That's four places to plug in within arm's reach.
Once or twice a journey, crew members roll by with a trolley, airline-style, to sell drinks and snacks. (If you have a Premium ticket, which costs much more than a regular Smart fare, you can avail yourself of free drinks and snacks.)
Booze on my winter 2024 trip was $8–$14, sandwiches and salads cost $12–$14, and bagged snacks were $4. Here's a link to the onboard menu; prices and menu items are subject to change.
All that adds up to a calm and civilized experience, but Brightline trains have made one major miscalculation in passenger comfort. The entire carriage is wrapped in advertising, which obscures the view from the windows.
This practice isn't uncommon in travel nowadays—airport shuttles, city trains and buses, and even Disney World's modes of transportation block windows partially or fully to promote products. But this undermines the experience for passengers. If you want to look out the window of a Brightline train to see Florida, you may have to peer through perforations in sponsored advertising to glimpse any scenery.
The Brightline Orlando station is actually part of of the Orlando International Airport (MCO) complex. So once you arrive, you can use all the many types of onward transportation the airport offers, including taxis, rental cars, affordable Mears shuttles to the theme parks, or even flights headed elsewhere.
It's odd to think that it's now possible to be in Miami or Fort Lauderdale and take advantage of a cheap international flight out of Orlando, but Brightline makes that pretty easy. If you're planning to vacation in South Florida, add MCO into your flight searches, too—all it takes to reach that airport now from South Florida is a $59 ticket on Brightline.
For my ride up to Orlando, the train arrived precisely on time. On the ride back south, though, my train was about 20 minutes late—a consequence of having to share a rail line, in some areas, with freight lines.
There have been some unfortunate deadly collisions between Brightline trains and passenger vehicles, although none of those accidents have been blamed on the train company. Florida drivers have a reputation for impatience; with that comes an unwise tendency to try to squeeze around safety gates at train crossings. As a consequence, cars keep getting hit by approaching trains. Frankly, it's that kind of driver behavior that makes taking a train preferable.
The Orlando airport's tram system, which is already familiar to passengers for connecting airline terminals, now extends to the Brightline station. In this shot taken from a window at the Brightline Orlando station, you can see the airport tram scooting toward the main airport.
All you have to do is switch platforms (indoors, via escalators or elevators) to catch your quick free ride to the main airport.
But I was heading straight to Disney.
Because the Brightline Orlando station feels so much like the airport, I felt the urge to kick back with a cocktail at Mary Mary. I'd heard the Brightline bar served excellent bloody marys—and it was true.
Hey, you can do this when you're not driving.
I priced a ride with Lyft to a Walt Disney World resort hotel, the Animal Kingdom Lodge, as soon as I arrived at the Brightline Orlando station. Here's what the prices were around lunchtime on a Monday. (When I returned back to South Florida in the late morning 2 days later, the prices were about $8 lower.)
Rates to Universal Orlando are similar, but if I had wanted to, I could have caught a more affordable mode of transportation at the Orlando airport terminal.
The rideshare pickup area is located right outside the Brightline Orlando station. All you have to do in order to find your driver is take the escalator or elevator downstairs.
One warning: Orlando slaps a $7-per-ride fee on all rideshare trips departing from the airport—the highest fee of its sort in the U.S. Lyft did not disclose that surcharge when I booked my ride or on my receipt afterward, and the airport does not warn about the fee on its website. The surcharge was completely concealed from me as a consumer. That strikes me as extremely oily.
After taking Lyft and dropping my bags at the hotel, I was able to hop on the free Walt Disney World transportation bus system to get me the rest of the way.
It was kind of revolutionary. Even including the stop at the hotel, I went from Brightline's Orlando train platform to the gates of the Magic Kingdom within 75 minutes. Best of all, because I had spent the previous 3 hours reading a book and walking around the train to stretch my legs instead of trying to stay alert through traffic chaos and tedious stretches of empty swampland, I arrived still full of energy and ready to attack the park. And if I had driven a car, I would have had to pay $30 a day to park at the theme parks.
I did it. I woke up in Fort Lauderdale and had lunch in Tomorrowland without having to drive a car. It isn't merely possble—it's far better than driving. And I'd do it again.
Jason Cochran is the author of Frommer's award-winning consumer guide to Disney World, Universal Orlando, and Orlando, available in e-book and paperback.