Behind the Attraction: Trains, Trams, and Monorails
While technically not the season finale of Behind the Attraction, I intentionally saved this episode for last. This is because it’s the one dearest to my heart.
For once, Imagineers get to brag on one of the unheralded accomplishments of Disney theme parks: the transportation.
Frankly, Disney campuses function better than most metropolitan areas in this field. But how did they succeed where countless urban planners failed?
Let’s go Behind the Attraction to learn about Trains, Trams, and Monorails.
The Man Who Loved Trains
Authors have written literally millions of words about Walt Disney’s favorite hobby. The man loved trains.
Early in his entrepreneurial career, Uncle Walt bought himself a toy train and promptly broke the thing.
Undeterred, Disney maintained a passion for this form of transportation.
His adoration for train sets led to the construction of one in his backyard, much to the chagrin of his wife, Lillian.
She fretted that this project would uproot her garden, a non-starter. So, her husband promised, apparently legally, that he would leave it alone.
Later, when Disney planned the world’s first theme park, he similarly felt fear about transportation options at the park.
I mean, you never think about it, but when you drive to Disneyland or Walt Disney World, the first thing you ride is…the parking tram.
Then, when you reach Main Street, U.S.A., you’re gazing upon a modern-day recreation of the Disney brothers’ hometown.
This place wouldn’t be complete without a train. Thus, the Disneyland Railroad and Walt Disney World Railroad are among the first things you see at the park.
Of course, Disney dreamt of a steam engine train, which wasn’t something that seemed possible in the greater Los Angeles area…but there it is at Disneyland anyway!
First, he built that steam train, which he promptly named Lilly Belle. Here’s a story about it from the Parks Blog.
Later, the Grand Canyon observation car at Disneyland gained the name and style of the Lilly Belle. So, you can still ride in a version of it today.
By the way, the modern version of the Disneyland Railroad utilizes biofuel instead of diesel.
So, the updated train system is better for the environment and smells better for the onboard guests.
According to this episode, the average guest walks eight miles a day during a Disney theme park visit!
Obviously, that’s a lot of tread on your tires. So, Disney officials have always weighed the best options for reducing your walking.
We even get a recurring gag about jet packs to drive home the point that all options have been on the table, although that’s clearly a joke.
Instead, from early on, Walt Disney knew exactly what he wanted. The Happiest Place on Earth would embrace several forms of transportation.
Even horses and the monorail were part of the plan. So yes, an image shows a (differently designed) monorail in the original blueprints for Disneyland.
Walt Disney had fallen in love with the idea during one of his family’s impactful European vacations.
These trips proved so essential to Disneyland’s development that Disney’s Riviera Resort works as a loving tribute to these trips.
Many of the pictures on the walls here come from family photos taken back then.
On one such trip, Disney noticed a hanging monorail system in Germany. He apparently chased the tram (!) back to the station.
The German-speaking workers there directed the hypnotized American tourist to the place where he’d just been. It was…a monorail construction firm.
At this point, Uncle Walt decided to take the monorail idea and Disney-fy it. The existing monorails of the era looked boxy and decidedly unsophisticated.
Disneyland needed something with allure. So, Bob Gurr designed something that he described as “impossible to build.”
In fact, the Imagineer had to go to a sheet metal shop and ask for unique fabricated pieces for his monorail.
Another New Form of Transportation
Obviously, nothing identifies as closely with Disney transportation as the monorail. So, the episode focuses on it a great deal.
Amusingly, Disney published a great deal of false advertising for years. The documentation suggested that guests would ride the monorail from the hotel to the park.
That’s…not how it worked. That’s STILL not how it works. Still, the marketing team felt it sold people on a visit to Disneyland. So, it stayed.
Uncle Walt loved the monorail so much that he petitioned the mayor of Los Angeles to add this form of transportation across the city.
That didn’t happen, but it underscored Disney’s obsession with solving traffic congestion problems.
I can’t help but wonder how unhappy he would be with the problem today.
Anyway, Disney believed that guests would need more than one form of transportation for the theme park of tomorrow.
He settled on this philosophy after an unexpected epiphany during prep work for the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
The Imagineers needed a way to move Ford vehicles down the line at a steady rate.
Flippantly, Disney said that the cars could stay on tracks that would propel them forward thanks to a series of spinning wheels.
Folks, that’s the genesis of the WEDWay PeopleMover right there!
The Walt Disney World Transportation Options
As you know, Uncle Walt invented a grand vision for the PeopleMover and the monorail.
He wanted to build the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (E.P.C.O.T.)
Disney reviled the idea of car traffic within eyesight of this place. So, he planned a multi-level transportation system.
On the bottom floor, people would park their cars before they entered E.P.C.O.T.
Then, on the main campus, guests would use the monorail system to travel vast distances. For shorter distances, they’d ride the PeopleMover!
This brilliant plan collapsed after his death, but Imagineers still found a way to honor his love of the monorail.
I’m referencing the A-frame design of Disney’s Contemporary Resort, which somehow allows a monorail tram to pass through it dozens of times a day.
Walt Disney would have loved the Contemporary because of this feature.
Frankly, we take it for granted too often. It’s something that shouldn’t be possible, which IS Disney’s specialty.
The episode mostly glosses over ferryboats and the Disney Skyliner, which I wish weren’t the case.
Still, the Imagineers speak with pride and a radiant glow whenever they discuss the modern transportation systems in place at Disney theme parks.
You can tell that they believe Walt Disney would feel pride in knowing that monorails and the PeopleMover remain in use today.
Still, I believe it’s watching the trains that would have given him the most glee.
Imagine what he’d say about the Brightline Station coming to Disney Springs!