Why not trains to move masses to, from and within Disney World?

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Sunday, January 15, 2017

I spent New Years week with extended family at Walt Disney World in Florida at the behest of my step-nieces who are six and nine years old. This was my only visit to the gigantic theme park complex since a high school class trip in April 2004. Of course, one of my favorite things about the Disney parks is the plethora of train rides and train-themed rides, which exist thanks mainly to Walt Disney's own unabashed love of trains. 

A Walt Disney World Monorail train passes the entrance to the Magic Kingdom theme park in Bay Lake, FL. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Mickey Mouse came into Disney’s imagination over the course of a long-distance train trip from New York to Los Angeles, and one of the first things he did when he and his wife bought an L.A. estate in the late 1940s was build an extensive garden railway. Today, visitors to Disney's parks can experience both throwback and futuristic train rides, including an actual steam-powered, open-air train that runs circles around the Magic Kingdom on five-minute headways for most of the park's hours. There is also the famous monorail connecting the Magic Kingdom to Epcot and several resort hotels. 

However, the vast majority of transportation to and within Disney World is road-based, with each of the parks and resorts surrounded by oceans of asphalt -- massive parking lots and four-lane access roads. An extensive bus network -- whose ridership is not tallied, but which is likely to rank among the country's most patronized if it were counted as an urban transit system -- runs dozens of routes within the complex. Motorcoaches also provide half-hourly service between each Disney resort and Orlando International Airport that is complimentary for resort guests. 

There are even airline check-in counters at the hotels where bags can be pre-checked and boarding passes obtained. But guests who wish to arrive at or depart from Orlando or nearby Kissimmee by train are on their own to find, book and pay for transportation between the resorts and the train station. Though Disney certainly doesn’t *need* the modicum of additional patronage that a better Amtrak connection would bring in, Amtrak would benefit greatly. Disney World is the only dot on the current Amtrak System Map that is not connected to either a red (denoting a train route) or green (denoting a Thuruway bus route for which Amtrak offers through ticketing) line, and Orlando is the busiest Amtrak station in Florida behind the nearby Sanford Auto Train terminal.

A SunRail commuter train arrives at the Orlando Amtrak station (historic Atlantic Coast Line station), the busiest intercity train station in Florida. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
One of the main reasons people visit Disney World is to escape from everyday American life and briefly live in a utopia where one's every desire is fulfilled. For many, this means leaving the car, and the suburban stress it represents, behind. Given this, one is left to wonder why there is not a more extensive rail-based system linking more of the parks and resorts. The 27,000-acre domain that is Disney World is comparable in size to San Francisco, but is only 35% developed. While this would appear to suggest low density on the surface, nearly all of the travel demand within the complex is confined to designated routes and there are heavy traffic flows between a finite number of distinct nodes (four theme parks, 21 resorts and one shopping and dining cluster). 

Funds for road construction and maintenance within the complex ultimately come from the Walt Disney Company, as all roads (except a few state highways and Interstate 4) are either privately owned or maintained by the Reedy Creek Improvement District, a quasi-independent government body formed by the State of Florida at Disney’s behest in 1967 (before the first theme park and resorts opened in 1971). The District’s funds come from taxes paid by landowners within the District, of which Walt Disney Parks and Resorts owns over 95% of the land, and several Disney executives own small parcels. 

The District, first created primarily to engineer what was mostly swampland so that development could take place, spent $1.1 million on roadway repairs and maintenance in fiscal 2016, out of a total of nearly $110 million collected in property taxes. This makes Disney World a unique case study in transportation economics, both in terms of the cost dynamics and in terms of the sheer numbers of people regularly being transported within one area, many of whom are not using private automobiles. 

In most places, rail systems are at a disadvantage compared to roads as the latter receive state and federal largesse and drivers and vehicle owners who use them pay only a fraction of the cost of building and maintaining them. Rail transit systems, however, must cover all their operating and maintenance (of both vehicles and right of way) costs from a combination of fares and public funds. In the case of Disney, however, the company pays for the maintenance of the vast road system and parking lots, along with that of the monorail, and the percentage of these costs that is covered by “user fees” (either parking charges or some portion of park admission or resort stays) is unknown. 

A panel on 'Walt's Railway Dreams' in an exhibit on Disney's career at the Disney Hollywood Studios theme park. Photo by Malcolm Kenton.
Given this, one wonders why the company did not opt to rely on rail to move people between the parks and resorts -- given rail's greater bang for the buck in terms of moving the maximum number of people per unit of infrastructure. Two railroad tracks can carry the same number of people per hour as 16 lanes of highway, according to a 1993 Worldwatch Institute report, and maintenance costs per mile of rail are generally lower than those per mile of roadway (this would presumably extend to monorails). But beyond the economics, passenger trains are an attraction in and of themselves, in part because of their novelty factor ― they are not a major part of most Americans' lives, and can thus be seen as different and exciting. 

At a recent international transportation research conference, the CEO of a global economic analysis firm pointed to Florida’s attractions ― including the Orlando-area theme parks and the Space Coast ― as examples of places that would greatly benefit from the ability to attract tourists (primarily from abroad) who may be uncomfortable with driving or using buses and taxis. Of course, Brightline will help with this, but it will only get people to and from Orlando International Airport (at least initially). What if Disney and other entities reliant on tourism invested in building rail connections between their attractions, the airport and central Orlando, that could eventually pay for themselves with ticket sales and ancillary revenue?

That Disney World was not built initially around better rail connectivity largely reflects the prevailing attitudes of the era in which the attraction was designed. But given Walt Disney’s affinity for the rails and his reluctance to shy away from projects in the face of steep costs and other challenges, having trains be the backbone of transportation within the vacation empire that bears his name would be fitting.

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