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Richard Branson, watch thief.
Richard Branson, watch thief.
Virgin Trains USA

Richard Branson Hypnotized Me and Stole My Watch

It's about 5 p.m. and Richard Branson is visibly tired. 

The owner of Virgin Atlantic Airways, Virgin Hotels, and Virgin Galactic — to name a few of his hundreds of enterprises — has just officially announced the transformation of the Brightline to Virgin Trains USA. The 68-year-old spent the entire day holding pressers, riding trains, taking selfies, and even serving tea to unsuspecting passengers. Now he's wrapping up the last interview of the day with me.

As we rise to shake hands, Branson gently takes hold of my wrist, his blue eyes meeting mine. "I'd like to hypnotize you," he says while a circle of people looks on.

"Have you ever been hypnotized?" he asks. "No," I reply, then gamely say I'm willing to let him try. After all, how many times does a billionaire knight, philanthropist, and owner of a space travel company ask to hypnotize you?

Branson puts his hands behind his back and asks me to do the same. He then places his hands, palms down, in front of him and asks me to put my hands, in the same position, under his without us touching. Then he asks me to look deeply into his eyes and says he will now give me a suggestion I won't remember.

In a heartbeat, he drops his hands and snaps his fingers. I say I don't think anything happened. "What time is it?" he asks. I look for my watch. It isn't there.

Nearly giddy, Branson lifts the cuff of his crisp white shirt to reveal my watch on his wrist. With a look of sheer delight, he points to it. "You put it on my wrist, " he says, suggesting he, indeed, put me in a trance.

In fact, the multibillionaire has just taken time out of his grueling schedule to perform a bit of sleight of hand to entertain the group and himself too.

That's the charm of Branson, an entrepreneur who's as much known for his sense of adventure and wonder as his business acumen. This Willy Wonka of transportation wants people to remember how joyful it is to fly in an airplane, cruise on a ship, or travel by train. Branson revolutionized air travel by providing first-class service to passengers in coach seating. Now he's concentrating on rail travel.

Though word that Virgin Trains USA was taking over the Brightline had been out for some time, as if by magic, the MiamiCentral station was transformed overnight from yellow to Virgin's signature red. Two-story-tall LED screens touted trips to London on Virgin Atlantic as travelers walked the pristine halls.

Branson has big plans for Virgin Trains USA, expanding service from its current Miami–Fort Lauderdale–West Palm Beach route to Orlando and beyond. His plans for Miami are expansive. A Virgin hotel is being planned for the downtown area, and Virgin Voyages will set sail from PortMiami in 2020.

The goal, Branson says, is to ultimately have holiday travelers take Virgin Atlantic to Orlando and then head to Miami by Virgin Trains USA, where they will board a Virgin Voyages cruise and stay overnight at a Virgin hotel before hopping their Virgin Atlantic flight home. "We have a number of flights coming in from Britain on Virgin Atlantic, so we can bring a lot of holiday people into this region. A lot of people go to Disney, and we can bring them down to Miami afterward."

Richard Branson at the official launch of Virgin Trains USA.
Richard Branson at the official launch of Virgin Trains USA.
Virgin Trains USA

All of this travel makes people hungry and thirsty, and Branson has that covered, too. Virgin MiamiCentral's food hall, Central Fare, is set to open at the end of the month. Tenants will include World Famous House of Mac, Buck's Galettes & Crepes, Delicatessen Patagonia, Bio Bio Gelato, and the wine bar Art de Vivre, in addition to La Estacion American Brasserie by Juvia Group. Parliament Coffee & Espresso Bar is already open, and two other concepts — Rosetta Bakery and 800 Degrees Woodfired Kitchen — are set to open this summer. Branson's goal is to open food courts in other key cities, with Orlando and Las Vegas natural contenders. "I walked around Central Fare, and everyone is in great spirits."

The transportation mogul says he wants to bring value to his customers but not necessarily offer the cheapest way to move them from point A to point B. "Virgin prides itself in offering really good-quality service at a price that's less than what people would expect. You're not going to have every single person able to afford it, but it's cheaper than going by car or plane, and it's twice as quick."

Branson also says he has a soft spot for Miami. "Our office is based in Miami, and my wife's got a flat in Miami and she invites me to visit occasionally." Asked if he, in turn, invites wife Joan Templeman to stay on Necker Island, his private paradise in the British Virgin Islands, Branson quips, "Only if she's a good girl."

Virgin Trains USA also has plans to begin rail service from the Los Angeles area to Las Vegas. Asked if there's a possibility of connecting the two coasts via Virgin Trains USA, Branson balks, saying, "Just planning that would make it a nonstarter. The sweet spot, he says, is in city-to-city service of between 250 to 350 miles. Possible other city-to-city routes include Charlotte to Atlanta and Chicago to St. Louis.

With planes, trains, and ships taken on, there's one mode of transportation left for Branson to master: space travel. Asked how long before we can take a train to a rocket for space travel via Virgin Galactic, Branson gets a twinkle in his eye. "The train to our spaceship? We were talking about that today; it's possible. Cocoa [on Florida's Space Coast] is very close to Orlando."

If Branson can slip someone's watch off and put it on his own wrist undetected while a dozen people watch, he can surely persuade people to fly into space in a red rocket ship — no hypnosis required.

Virgin MiamiCentral. 350 NW First Ave., Miami; 305-520-2300; virginmiamicentral.com.

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