Reexamining the Future of the Disney Skyliner
In November of 2019, I wrote about the future of the Disney Skyliner.
At the time, the service had only operated for a few weeks. However, Disney executives had already shown their hole cards regarding their ambitions.
So, I made many suppositions and evaluations based on a single flawed assumption – that Coronavirus would never become a thing.
Seriously, much of what I wrote is in dire need of reevaluation in the wake of the pandemic.
Today’s the time to reexamine the future of the Disney Skyliner.
The Pros and Cons before the Pandemic
These days, Walt Disney World feels like a Before and After diet ad. The Before picture appears comically inept compared to the After.
We now know what happens when Disney faces the worst possible circumstance.
To place those events in the proper context, we must consider what happened before then.
Here’s what we know about the first months of the Disney Skyliner. The service primarily performed as expected, albeit with some hiccups.
The most memorable Skyliner incident occurred during its first week in operation.
Critics had noted the speed with which the gondolas entered the station, wondering whether the system would prove reckless.
Soon afterward, the Skyliner justified those concerns when one gondola crashed into another.
This accident did more than break some glass and scare some passengers/nearby park guests. It also stranded some riders.
When I say stranded, I mean in mid-air, where they were beyond help for more than two hours.
As usual, Disney took guest safety seriously. Workers reconfigured the gondolas in a way that prevented such incidents from recurring.
Since that fateful night, the gondolas have operated without any additional collisions of note.
That’s not to say that they worked perfectly. Other year-one issues led to trapped guests in mid-air. They even had to open their emergency kits once.
That’s the troublesome part. Here’s the positive. The gondola transportation service worked just as Imagineers had projected.
The service provided reliable movement between two theme parks and four official Disney resorts, with two other hotels residing nearby.
For the first time ever, Disney guests knew when they arrive at their destination within a matter of minutes.
The Skyliner system functions like an Omnimover attraction in that it’s always in motion, keeping throughput steady and efficient.
The Skyliner during the Pandemic
I’ve told part of the story thus far. Even though this knowledge may shock you, the Disney Skyliner has operated more during a pandemic than not.
You can check my math here. It opened in late September and worked through mid-March, the time when COVID-19 closed all Disney parks.
Walt Disney World reopened in mid-July and is now well past the five-and-a-half months in operation before the pandemic.
Ergo, most of the data we have stems from a crisis situation, a time when Walt Disney World worked under constraints it had never faced previously.
How well did the Disney Skyliner perform during this unique circumstance? That’s the shocker.
Even the harshest critics of the gondola system before the park reopenings have come around.
When park officials announced the Skyliner, they trumpeted its ability to transport ten guests per tram.
Analysts latched onto the fact that Disney hadn’t added air conditioning to its gondolas. Instead, they include vents to circulate air.
Once Coronavirus struck, Imagineers reevaluated and plotted a new approach. They recognized that the Skyliner provides the ideal social distancing setting.
The only requirement called for cast members to load one party per tram. These guests now stayed in isolation with their traveling group.
Simultaneously, the vents in lieu of air conditioning eliminated the concerns about droplets and the potential air-bound spread of the infectious disease.
Somehow, the Disney Skyliner proved itself the ideal form of transportation during the unique events of 2020.
However, we’re (hopefully) at the tail end of the pandemic. Where does Disney go from here? Let’s read some tea leaves…
The Magical Express Replacement?
In early January, Walt Disney World shocked everyone with its announcement that Magical Express would end in 2022.
Nobody saw that coming, but perhaps we should have. After all, I spelled out Disney’s expansion plans for the Skyliner in the previous article.
Here’s a refresher course on the company’s thinking:
“The rationale here is straightforward. After the parks, Disney Springs claims the title of most visited location on the Disney campus.
The current bus system to and from Disney Springs has changed several times over the years, reflecting the difficulties in transporting guests to the area efficiently.”
A Disney Skyliner station at or near Disney Springs makes too much sense NOT to happen. It’s a foregone conclusion at some point. We just never knew when.
Well, Disney’s recent cancellation of the Magical Express program provides even more impetus.
You may know that Brightline intends to add high-speed rail systems at Orlando International Airport and Disney Springs.
Disney ended Magical Express in anticipation of guests using this service instead, which is annoying but forward-thinking.
As park guests, we’re only considering our needs. However, Disney must contemplate external factors like car traffic and environmental concerns, too.
Less traffic on the roads is a win for Florida residents and tourists alike. It’s a worthy goal, albeit one that stinks for Disney vacationers.
As I recently discussed, the monorail isn’t a viable replacement across the Orlando campus.
The potential expenses and upkeep concerns far outweigh any potential benefits. But what about the Disney Skyliner?
What May Happen Next…
For all the nightmare events of the pandemic, the grueling test functioned as proof of concept for the gondola station.
Disney officials know that it’s the most effective way to transport guests. It’s also healthier during times of turmoil, a serendipitous bonus.
Guests have fallen in love with the Disney Skyliner as a means of transportation. You’ll notice long lines at times, albeit ones that move quickly.
Part of the explanation involves the isolated seating during the pandemic. However, when packed crowds return, the Skyliner should scale accordingly.
When that happens, Disney must evaluate its plans for the next quarter-century on the Orlando campus.
I suspect that Brightline factors heavily into these calculations, even though it’s a different company.
In a perfect world, Disney would like to get out of the free transportation business, passing that cost along to guests instead.
From a business perspective, it makes perfect sense. From a customer satisfaction point of view, well, you know.
Still, let’s presume that the “new” style of airport transportation doesn’t involve buses at all. Instead, Brightline will carry guests to Disney Springs.
If Disney added gondolas here and other centralized locations on the campus, people could get to their hotel rooms efficiently.
Now, park officials must solve the luggage problem, as guests with baggage would clog the gondolas. That’s less than ideal.
I suspect Disney already has some plans in place here. So, let’s sidestep this issue for the time being.
Instead, the focus should remain on the Disney Skyliner system, which appears poised to expand dramatically over the next few years.
Gondolas look like the future of Disney park transportation. If anything, the pandemic proved that beyond any reasonable doubt.