(Update: On April 5, Tavares City Council voted to approve negotiating a contract with the train operator and anticipates operations to begin by year's end. Routes will not include Orlando due to track's schedule.)
The community was left brokenhearted when its beloved excursion train, Orange Blossom Cannonball, departed the station for the last time. On Wednesday, the City of Tavares will have a chance to mend some of those hearts.
The city council will decide on April 5 whether to approve a proposal from Orlando Northwestern Railway LLC (ONR), a vintage train operator proposing weekend "Explorer" excursions connecting Tavares, Mount Dora and Eustis with adult ticket prices of $20.00.
The company will base its operations out of Tavares and also plans for two to four trips per month to Orlando for Magic games during the NBA season, plus trips to other Orlando sporting and special events with tickets costing an estimated $50.00 to $60.00. Those trips will depart from Tavares and take the western and southern route around Lake Dora.
Seasonal train experiences are also proposed that include a Polar Express Train, Dead Freight Haunted Train, Peanuts Great Pumpkin Patch Train, and a State Theater Wine & Cheese Train. Ticket prices for those trains will vary according to level of service.
"I hated to see the Orange Blossom Cannonball leave, but we turned lemons into lemonade," said Bob Tweedie, Economic Development Director for the City of Tavares. "We got really lucky. This is like no other train service the area has had."
ONR will have five coach cars ranging from 44 to 64 seats each, as well as a dining car and a dome coach car offering expansive views. All cars will be air-conditioned.
The train operator is owned by Mid America Railcar Leasing, a company built around its fleet of well-maintained vintage Amtrak passenger cars. Neil Baugus, long associated with the area's vintage excursion trains, will be managing the operation for ONR, according to Tweedie.
The projected first full year of ridership for the Lake Dora and Lake Eustis "Explorer" trains is 15,000 passengers.
If the city accepts the proposal, the operator will formalize an agreement with Florida Central Railroad, the owner of the tracks.