What Will Happen with the Disney Monorails?
Nothing proves that you’re at a Disney theme park more than riding on a monorail.
Consumers identify this unique form of transportation with Disney almost exclusively.
However, the system that once seemed like the future of transportation has become a relic to many, a symbol that even Tomorrowland can grow old and tired.
What will happen with the monorail at Walt Disney World? That’s a nuanced question.
History of the Monorail
I only shill my books on rare occasions, but this plug is relevant. In Disney Demystified Vol. 1, I go into detail about the history of the monorail.
I recommend it to anyone who wants a deep dive into how this ride became synonymous with Disney.
The short version is that Walt Disney knew he wanted to build a family theme park long before he actually did.
So, when the world traveler visited foreign lands, he paid careful attention to memorable sights.
When Uncle Walt viewed the monorail system, he experienced love at first sight.
At that moment, Disney envisioned the future of domestic travel, something international that he could popularize in the United States.
The results speak for themselves. After a contracted company failed to progress with its monorail, Walt Disney handed the gig to Bob Gurr.
Only a few months later, the ALWEG monorail debuted at Disneyland, where it was an attraction rather than a form of transportation.
The monorail proved so popular, especially with children, that everyone involved with the Florida Project understood the obvious.
Walt Disney World needed a monorail.
Of course, Disney wanted something special, and so Imagineers designed a monorail resort loop as part of the main campus.
You know these stations as Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort, and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
The Contemporary highlights the monorail’s visual splendor, as the A-frame hotel’s opening allows the train to drive straight through the building.
The Grand Floridian station actually didn’t come until much later, as Disney didn’t open the hotel until 1988.
For more than 30 years, these resorts share a special connection to the monorail. And that’s also part of the problem.
The Aging Trains
Only two other monorail systems in the world service more guests than the one at Walt Disney World. It hosts more than 150,000 daily passengers.
However, Disney discovered something problematic with the Orlando version of the system. This one’s much more complex than Disneyland’s monorail.
Ergo, this monorail line costs significantly more to own and operate.
Also, since monorails never exploded in popularity as Uncle Walt had expected, few manufacturers are in the monorail business.
The lack of a supply chain increases the cost of maintaining a monorail system. In fact, replacing the trams has proven price prohibitive.
Since the opening of Walt Disney World, only two versions of monorail trains have operated.
The Mark IV Monorail line ran from 1971 until 1989. At that point, Disney replaced the old trams with the Mark VI Monorails.
Yes, those are still in use to this day. I don’t want to evaluate the situation unfairly, but it’s at least generally similar to driving a car from the 1990s.
At one point, the Mark VI trams were the envy of the monorail industry. Today, they’re headlines waiting to happen.
Just since MickeyBlog began, a large chunk of monorail has fallen several stories to the ground, narrowly missing a guest.
Justin Rapp, @Disneyland Resort Ambassador, recently got an insider’s view of the new Disney Editions book, “The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky” from two of the creators. 🚝 Check it out on Disney Parks Blog: https://t.co/b6r7gIObTV pic.twitter.com/Ovf3XRFqLN
— Disney Parks (@DisneyParks) September 14, 2020
Also, a door has fallen off a monorail in plain sight of guests at the Grand Floridian. Oh, and a monorail once drove from station to station with a door open.
Meanwhile, the monorails’ smell has remained an issue for several years, as each tram has witnessed countless diaper changes and protein spills.
Happy Monorail Monday…the Disneyland version! ✨✨✨
— DisneyDoItAll! (@HippyDisneyGuy) September 14, 2020
The Cost to Replace the Monorail
I don’t want this article to seem negative, as I’m such a fan that I have a toy monorail set on a shelf in the other room.
Still, for the past few years, Orlando residents and Disney analysts have speculated about when Walt Disney World would add new trams.
We have an exclusive (and fascinating) excerpt from a new book detailing the development of the monorail at #Disneyland: https://t.co/aEw8ZlbKAT#WaltDisney #Disney #Disneylife pic.twitter.com/EigOCA5ncv
— Frommer's (@Frommers) September 16, 2020
We’re talking about monorails built around the same time that Bette Midler released Wind Beneath My Wings.
If you were born in 1990, the current monorail line is the only one you’ve ever known.
Happy Monorail Monday 🚝! Wishing everyone a magical and safe start to the week! pic.twitter.com/6cX0orSiZO
— EverydayDisneyMagic (@EDisneyMagic) September 14, 2020
Let’s be honest here. Technology has changed dramatically since the 1980s.
All the maintenance in the world cannot turn a 1989 vehicle into a worthy vessel of today.
— Disney Pic A Day (@disneypicaday) September 14, 2020
So, people have waited for Disney to modernize its monorails ever since then.
In fact, I’ve had to follow the earnings reports for a company called Bombardier Transportation because that’s the foremost monorail manufacturer.
Bombardier built the Mark VI line and would presumably do another set of monorail trams.
Alas, the cost would be nine figures, which is to say at least $100 million.
Disney hasn’t wanted to spend that money, a regrettable decision. The company had the cash in 2016-2019 but chose not to do so.
Now, in the aftermath of a pandemic, the economy will struggle for a while, and Disney’s business model is especially imperiled.
Disney’s Switch in Tactics
Meanwhile, something changed at Walt Disney World back in the late-1980s.
When EPCOT opened in 1982, Imagineers extended the monorail line to that park. Technically, Disney created an entirely new line.
In 1989, Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened without a new monorail station.
A reasonable argument is that Disney didn’t need to add one yet, but the company never did.
Similarly, Disney’s Animal Kingdom arrived in 1998, all the way across the Disney campus. It did need a monorail station to enhance logistics…but never got one.
The reported reason comes down to cost. For example, the Las Vegas Monorail cost more than $650 million for less than five miles of track.
Now, Disney can build its system cheaper since it owns all the land and controls the traffic patterns in the area.
We’re still talking about a staggering financial investment, though.
Not coincidentally, park officials introduced the Disney Skyliner late in 2019.
This new transportation system takes place in the sky (thus the name), as gondolas ship guests from station to station.
This system has proven popular at ski resorts in mountain areas where logistics are challenging.
These gondolas only cost a few million dollars per mile, providing much better bang for the buck.
Disney already had planned a Skyliner expansion in a few years before the pandemic wrecked its finances.
Where the Monorail Stands Today
Due to current financial constraints, Disney finds itself stuck either way.
However, building more Skyliner stations will save the company a staggering amount of money over new
At some point, Disney must pony up to pay for new monorail trams.
That day doesn’t seem close at hand, though. And, as much as I hate the idea, Disney’s future appears to be the Skyliner rather than the monorail.
Realistically, I don’t think the current monorail system will ever leave, but I also think a significant expansion is unlikely.
I really want to be wrong about this one, though. I still dream of a Walt Disney World where you can get anywhere via monorail.
Feature Image Rights: Disney