The Current State of the Disney Monorail System
Two years ago, rumors percolated that Disney would overhaul its monorail system.
Reports suggested that a new line of monorail trains were coming at any moment.
Alas, that moment passed, the Disney Skyliner arrived, and then a pandemic struck.
Now, we have one monorail system fully offline, an entire monorail station destroyed, and a few new monorail trams remodeled.
What’s going on? Let’s take a look at the current state of the Disney monorail system.
Where were you in 1989? Were you even born? I ask because the Mark VI monorail fleet at Walt Disney World debuted that year.
Even the newest trams from that fleet turn 30 years old this year. If you had a 30-year-old car, you’d worry about starting it every morning, right?
Well, that’s where we’re at with the Orlando monorail system. Disney introduced its Orlando monorail line when Magic Kingdom opened in 1971.
At the time, the monorail resort line stopped at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort.
Guests staying at those hotels received the best possible amenity. They could board a monorail and head straight to Magic Kingdom.
In 1982, EPCOT opened to the public. As one of its amenities, Disney expanded the monorail line from the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC).
So, the monorail system consisted of three lines: the resort monorails, the TTC straight to Magic Kingdom and back, and the TTC to EPCOT and back.
Disney has made no attempts to expand the monorail in the years that followed. Yes, the last monorail update will turn 40 next year!
While the Mark VI fleet worked well initially, it’s since become arguably the oldest set of monorail trams in the world.
Meanwhile, the monorail stations have grown outdated in some ways as well.
Disney recently demolished the old monorail station at the Polynesian and has started from scratch.
The company chose this path to avoid having an outdated monorail station serve as a blemish during the upcoming 50th anniversary celebration.
Meanwhile, various individual monorail trams have had a rough go of it lately.
Over the past few years, Disney has suffered several high-profile embarrassments.
Over the past three years, the monorail has experienced comical but dangerous incidents like the time the doors opened in mid-ride.
Thankfully, nobody stood near the doors when that happened. Otherwise, someone might have fallen out.
Speaking of which, on a different occasion, someone in a parking lot watched a part of a monorail tram drop right in front of them.
That person narrowly avoided serious injury from the falling piece of scrap.
Perhaps the most embarrassing incident happened at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. A monorail door fell off!
Folks, these are not the sort of maintenance issues that occur with a working vehicle. If you’re driving and your door falls off, you need a new car.
The same logic applies to the monorail system. Disney should have updated the fleet several years ago. Period.
As a temporary half-measure, Disney has used the pandemic’s forced crowd limitations to rehab some of its monorail trams.
Social distancing requirements have made this a must. In fact, the EPCOT monorail line hasn’t even reopened yet!
Meanwhile, some members of the fleet have received much-needed TLC.
Disney has chosen this path for financial reasons, but the renovations matter a great deal. After all, we may be stuck with the Mark VI fleet for a while longer.
The Walt Disney World trams feature color-based names. As an example, Monorail Red received the most recent refurbishment.
This vehicle disappeared off the line for a while. When it returned in February of 2021, the tram had received a fresh coat of paint and new seats.
Remarkably, Monorail Red still showed signs of wear and tear and even some grime despite all the improvements. And that was after its refurb!
Thus far, Disney has chosen to refresh the exterior and interior of its fleet. Presumably, cast members are doing some work under the hood as well.
Admittedly, I may have lost count here, but I know that the following trams have received recent renovations:
So, that’s at least a third of the fleet that Disney has refreshed to make the trams feel more modern and less…dirty.
Disney deserves credit for trying to make the best of a bad situation. As I mentioned, the company had reportedly considered updating its fleet.
Then, the pandemic wiped out park revenue for the body of 2020.
Whenever we discuss the state of Disney’s monorail, we must compare potential construction to other projects.
After all, nothing has changed at Walt Disney World since the 1980s (!), and Disneyland last introduced new trams in 2007.
Neither Disney park’s monorail system added track, either, and that’s the sticking point here.
During the 21st century, Las Vegas has worked as the Guinea pig for new development.
In 2004, Sin City laid down 4.4 miles of track. This project cost – I kid you not — $654 million. That’s about $149 million per mile of track.
Building monorail tracks has grown price-prohibitive since the days of Walt Disney.
Meanwhile, the Disney Skyliner provides substantially better bang for the buck.
Recent gondola projects in municipal areas come with available financial records.
These documents indicate that gondolas cost as little as $3 million per mile. Even the most expensive projects top out at $12 million per mile.
Folks, that’s an average of $7.5 million per mile. If you could buy something for $7.50 or $149, and it does the same thing, what would you do? Exactly.
There’s a reason why Disney has crafted blueprints for an Orlando campus teeming with gondola stations. It’d be cheap.
Where does this knowledge leave the monorail? Well…
I think we can safely say that the monorail system isn’t going anywhere.
Uncle Walt intended for this form of transportation to demonstrate the future. Instead, it’s paradoxically become an intractable part of Disney’s past.
When people think about the monorail, Disney comes to mind first for the overwhelming majority of people.
Also, the link to Walt Disney ensures that management won’t tether that connection anytime soon.
However, the current price to expand the monorail seems absurd. Even switching out the old trams for a new fleet is a non-starter right now.
Most transportation experts believe that replacing the current monorails at Walt Disney World would cost nine figures.
Reasonable estimates provide a ballpark figure of $150-$300 million. That’s the price of an E-ticket attraction.
So, park officials must weigh the benefits of replacing what’s possibly the world’s oldest monorail fleet against spending the money in other ways.
You may recall that Disney already cut capital expenditures by almost a billion dollars during the pandemic.
Disney should have more money in two or three years than ever before, thanks to the projected revenue from its streaming services.
Even then, dropping a quarter-billion dollars on a monorail system feels like a dicey proposition.
That’s doubly true since the current lines appear to be the, well, end of the line for monorail expansion.
I just don’t foresee Disney dropping billions of dollars to expand the monorail to other parks or Disney Springs.
After all, the Skyliner system would be so much cheaper. It’d be financially reckless unless Disney had cash to burn, which it doesn’t.
So, the current tram refurbishments are likely the best we’ll get from Disney’s monorail system anytime soon.
At least the Polynesian station will look prettier, though.