Walt Disney World Monorail Crashes, Shattering Dream

But it’s been creating all the wrong impressions about transit since 1959.

Early yesterday morning, two Walt Disney World Monorail trains slammed into one another, killing a conductor but injuring none of the passengers on board. It was the first accident on the resort’s primary transportation system since it opened in Florida in 1971. A similar operation at Disneyland in California has been shuttling families around the park since 1959 with no fatal accidents thus far — though there have been a few injuries over the years..

If measured by ridership, the Orlando monorail would be the United States’ ninth heaviest-used rapid transit system*, ahead of Los Angeles’ Red and Purple lines. Roughly 150,000 people use the network each day in America’s most visited travel destination, meaning that it plays an important role in shaping the American vision about how transit should work. Walt Disney’s influence on the popular imagination extends far beyond transit, of course, but the crash of one of the park’s trains raises the question of whether Mr. Disney has shaped a reasonable narrative for American society to follow.

In some ways, of course, the monorail set an intriguing precedent: it allowed a resort “city” to function without the use of private automobiles. In Florida, the trains travel directly between the Magic Kingdom, three hotels, a transportation center, and Epcot Park; in California, trains travel between Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom and the false-urban Downtown Disney. In each case, the system is convenient, getting passengers quickly and relatively easily between the park’s major destinations. It is also elevated, meaning that passengers get a view of the park as they arrive or depart, enhancing the excitement of the resort itself.

Disney’s transportation work — especially around Downtown Disney, as artificial as it is — does play on the idea of transit-oriented development. The stations aren’t close to everything in the park, but tourists can walk from the monorail to rides and shops in a comfortable amount of time, just like transit should work in a normal city. This is a significant counterpoint to the car culture that orients everyday American suburbs, in which people assume that they can drive to the front doors of the homes, businesses, and shopping locations without taking more than a few steps along the way. The monorails also encourage the idea that it is possible to ride in a vehicle with other people without suffering, a fear that prevents many from choosing public transportation.

But the fact that more Americans have probably ridden the Walt Disney monorail systems than have chosen to take advantage of their local transit offerings is problematic. That’s because Disney presents a space-age vision for what public transportation should be, and it’s that fantasy that many Americans want in their trains and buses, not the mundane services like light rail and buses that most communities can actually implement. Meanwhile, Disney can offer the convenience of rapid transit in a safe, well-monitored environment, something difficult to do day-in, day-out in a real city.

The most damaging effect of the Disney monorail is the pervasive idea among virtually everyone other than transportation people that it represents the ultimate in transit technology. That’s why cries for “monorails!” come up at every turn when communities consider new transportation systems, even though monorails are consistently more expensive and less reliable than their two-track counterparts. It’s a mystery why people find the idea of the single, elevated track so exciting, but Disney’s example may be one explanation.

Similarly, the Disney environment, in which everyone is a paying — and, therefore, an acceptable — guest, is completely inapplicable to actual urban environments. These parks encourage the idea that we should expect our transit systems to be clean as a whistle and full of kind, wonderful people, two expectations that are impossible to fulfill in a society where a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line. Urban transit systems aren’t usually clean, and they do sometimes have wackos on board, but they work. The fact that people want the Disney experience when they get on board is the problem, because they’re put off by the reality of smells and trash, all the while missing out on the significant commuting and environmental advantages of normal buses and trains.

Disney’s monorails will undoubtedly go back into operation in a few days, and they’ll continue to provide the kind of transportation experience that their guests can only dream about in their hometowns. If only we could take the excitement people feel about boarding the resort transit systems and funnel it into a popular push to improve and expand local public transportation. With normal people on board, and with two rails instead of one, urban mass transit won’t ever provide the Disney experience, but more investment would decrease the perceived quality differences between the two.

* For clarification: by rapid transit, I mean heavy rail (metro or subway) lines. Los Angeles serves about 135,000 daily trips on its light rail lines every day, so it has a larger ridership overall than Disney if you include light rail.

25 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Spokker

    “If only we could take the excitement people feel about boarding the resort transit systems and funnel it into a popular push to improve and expand local public transportation.”

    There already is a popular push to improve and expand local public transportation. Look at the November election last year. Many transit initiatives passed and none of them included monorail projects, as far as I know. Light rail and commuter rail is booming in this country, not monorail.

    I think you are looking for a problem that is not really there. Transit ridership is continuing its upward trend and I don’t think the Disney World Monorail, which itself hasn’t been upgraded or expanded since the 80s as Disney has opted to use buses to serve new hotels and parks, is hurting mass transit.

    It should be noted that Walt Disney had little to do with Walt Disney World as it exists today. His vision for Disney World, with his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT not the Epcot that exists today) at the center of it all.

    In a way the Disneyland Monorail (in Anaheim) was the experiment, and EPCOT was going to be the application. Monorails would do the heavy lifting, covering regional travel between the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT and an airport. People Movers would jut out from the downtown area like spokes on a wheel and take people to their homes. Automobile traffic would be underground. When Disney introduced his vision for EPCOT, it was called a place where the pedestrian is king.

    Learn about the original plan here. It was certainly ambitious, if not a little crazy.

  • Good post. Darrin Nordahl’s recent book My Kind of Transit, which includes a discussion of monorails, is useful for understanding why some urbanists think all transit modes should be chosen based on their degree of resemblance to amusement park rides. I reviewed the book here:

    http://www.humantransit.org/2009/04/the-disneyland-theory-of-transit.html

  • Paz

    It’s just a facet of a larger anti-urban narrative that is weaved into the way Disney World works. The Monorail, Main Street USA, it’s an escapist reality that we willfully indulge in. Not that that is right or wrong, but the problems come when the fantasy is blurred with reality.

  • Main Street USA is anti-urban? Really? Even though it’s exactly the sort of pedestrian environment most urbanists want to reconstruct?

    And while I’m not as crazy about monorails as I used to be, I still question the idea that they’re necessarily more expensive than similar alternative modes of transit. They’re intended to provide heavy-rail levels of service at light-rail cost, and barring outliers like what the Seattle system evolved into, that’s largely borne out by the data.

  • NikolasM

    I too don’t think that monorails are necessarily more expensive than other systems. You are raised above the 2-D world of structures that already exists and makes ROW easier to attain. You can also prefab most of the pieces other than the support columns. I think it would have worked well in Seattle.

  • Paz

    Daniel,

    I don’t want to get too culturally critical, but just because Main Street USA looks like an urban environment doesn’t mean that it is, not by a long shot. It’s carefully choreographed and artificial. That’s all well and good, but when people start viewing that spic-and-spam town as the paradigm, it’s an unrealistic fantasy, as Yonah describes with the Monorail.

    I’d reccomend “See You in Disneyland” by Michael Sorkin.

  • @NikolasM: It might have worked well, but there were a number of elements to the political process and culture in Seattle that made planning and execution of the project somewhat more difficult than most expected. I’m not sure how to undo that; it’s the same forces that have led to overruns and such WRT rail planning, the Alaskan Way controversy, etc.

    @Paz: Well, it’s kind of silly not to admit there’s a lot of choreography and artifice to a theme park. But various “Truman Show” arguments about New Urbanist aesthetics aside, however valid they may be, there are many elements of such places that make them desirable, and I don’t think it’s inappropriate to see how they can be incorporated in functional ways.

  • jon

    I have my issues about Disneyland as much as anyone else here. But before you dismiss it too much, observe its successes. I see it as a big petri dish for seeing how American families take to “public space”, “urbanity”, “transit” and “urban design.” I put them quotations because of course it lack authenticity and isnt true public space, but I think there is a lot one can gather from people’s use of and love of these very things at Disneyland yet whom wouldnt think of using or enjoying in their lives outside the gates. Other than the phony inauthenticity of the place, whats wrong with a clean public space or designing a public space with an attention to detail and where people feel ‘centered’ and comfortable.

    There’s a reason Allen Jacobs put Main Street USA in his book Great Streets and there’s a reason the noted architect and architectural theorist Charles Moore talked and thought a lot about Disneyland.

    Yeah I am skeptical of monorails but hell, people want to ride them, so why not build transit that people really want to ride? It can be a gateway to other transit. I grew up riding the gold-plated BART system and that was the only transit my family would use, as I grew older I explored Muni Metro and the bus system. Now I use ordinary transit daily and I’m even talking about transit on a transportation blog.

  • GunHillTrain

    I watched the third part of Walt’s video where the EPCOT transportation plan is discussed in more detail.

    You can quibble with certain technical details about the plan – the types of vehicles used and so on. But he points out some valid concepts. The main thing is that public transit can be comprehensive, the major mode for trips within an urban area. Automobiles are used, but they don’t dominate the landscape. There is room for non-mechanized travel by foot and bicycle.

    That is precisely what wasn’t done in the new growth areas of the last forty years. Transit was reduced to a minor, almost negligible role. Walking is difficult, if not impossible. Arguably a big opportunity was missed.

  • HamTech87

    Nice article.

    On my family trip to Disneyworld last year, I got to talk extensively to a park employee about the future of the monorail. His take was that there would be no new ones without public investment from Orlando.

    Most of the hotel rooms are now accessible only by bus (see link below), and those buses look and feel A LOT like New York City buses.

    http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/resorts/

  • adirondacker12800

    that they can drive to the front doors of the homes, businesses, and shopping locations without taking more than a few steps along the way.

    But it doesn’t bother them when they go to the big box store. The walk from you car to the door can be longer than a walk through a suburban “downtown”. That just gets you to the door. Then there’s the football field sized store to wander through…. Malls are almost as bad, especially if you want to go TWO places in the mall.

  • Spokker

    “You can quibble with certain technical details about the plan – the types of vehicles used and so on.”

    Of course. In the initial vision for EPCOT, it doesn’t matter what mode of transit is used. I personally oppose building monorail transit in our cities because they are incompatible with existing transit lines. They were studying a monorail option to be built above Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles. That’s stupid precisely because you’re going to be forcing a transfer from the existing subway to the monorail for no good reason. The right option, and the one that was ultimately picked, was to extend the current subway.

    But in Florida there was nothing but “virgin land.” You might as well have built a monorail. But the same thing could be accomplished with steel-wheel on steel-rail electric trains, though.

    One thing to remember about the EPCOT presentation is that it was a starting point (Walt Disney died two months later) and that he explicitly stated, “We don’t presume to have all the answers.” And it wasn’t like the idea was supposed to get people to go, “Gee golly, what a nice place.” and go home and never ride their local bus. It was to be a showcase to the world. Walt Disney was saying, these ideas can be implemented in your town too. Some of the stuff in those films is weird, but I really like the transportation aspects of it.

    EPCOT wasn’t a theme park.

  • GunHillTrain

    One of the things the EPCOT concept had was a lot of grade separation of modes. It appeared that most of the transit – whether it was called a monorail or people-mover – was elevated. Not really a new idea – the same basic idea was invented in New York in the 1870s and Chicago in the 1890s.

    The only reason to build a monorail would be to make it less “visually intrusive” and thus politically acceptable to have an elevated line in an existing urban setting (and saving the cost of tunneling). There was a design for a single-beam monorail (trains operating on either side of the beam) that would have fit that standard. (I don’t necessarily mean Wilshire Boulevard would be the right place for that kind of thing.)

    But the monorail at Las Vegas doesn’t look much different from the conventional two-rail Skytrain in Vancouver, or the Docklands Railway in London.

  • Eli Sokol

    I first wanted to say that this is a really interesting discussion.

    In 1963, renowned urban planner James Rouse called Disneyland “the greatest piece of urban planning in the country.” There is definitely truth to the fact that people will never get the “Disney experience” in a real city environment. However, this is not to say that we cannot learn from the lessons that both Disneyland and Walt Disney World present.

    I think that these parks are overlooked because of their association with artifice, as well as the kitschy optimism of the space age era that inspired them. Nonetheless, what Walt Disney created in Anaheim was a tribute to a past that never was, and always will be.

    While there was never an American Main Street as clean and ornate as Disneyland’s, the Disney model shows us that we have the tools to create a better urban environment.

    The tragedy of the monorail, and Disney parks for that matter is that they are often overlooked and not taken seriously because of their presentation as a theme park, and nothing more. However, look closely and you will find that few other places in this country function at such a high degree and carry out their goals in serving people with such efficiency as Disneyland & World.

    However, given that Disney introduced the first monorail to the western hemisphere, he inadvertently created an aurora of fantasy around the transit system, that will leave a lasting legacy that monorails are inpractical in a “real world” environment. But after examining the true architecture and planning that goes into every square inch of a disney park, you may find yourself questioning which side of the gate reality really lies on.

  • Spokker

    “But after examining the true architecture and planning that goes into every square inch of a disney park”

    Except for California Adventure, of course :)x

    “I think that these parks are overlooked because of their association with artifice, as well as the kitschy optimism of the space age era that inspired them.”

    Actually that stuff is sort of being downplayed these days in favor of movie-rides. Disney Parks are pretty much turning into Universal Studios where you “ride the movies” and synergy is king. I mean, these days they won’t open up the People Mover again unless they can theme it to a Pixar movie. The Submarine Voyage was closed for a decade and it only came back thanks to a Finding Nemo motif.

    The original Tomorrowland and its 60s remake was all about showcasing new ideas and technology like the monorail and the People Mover, but now it’s practically Pixar Land.

  • Norman Brown

    Is “renowned urban planner James Rouse” the same as the “mall in the city” planner that leveled the bustling rustic market at Haymarket in Boston to replace it with Gap and Brookstone stores?

  • AlexB

    There is a big difference between Futurism and Tomorrowland, Main St and New Urbanism, and the Disney monorail and elevated trains. The different aspects of Disneyworld are caricatures of things that exist in the popular imagination, not urban planning proposals. Relating the monorail and the park to a city is a fascinating idea, but only by analogy. To say that the theme park influences the city or people’s perception of it is not accurate.

    As a kid, Main St was an annoying place I had to get through to get to the rides. I hated “It’s a Small World” then and I do now. When I passed the ice cream parlor, I knew even then that it wasn’t a real ice cream parlor and the people working there did not live down the road in the thing that looked vaguely like a house. That’s where my mom got me the Mickey Mouse ears hat. I knew the difference even as a little kid between the things that made me smile and the things that excited me. Tomorrowland is where you ride Space Mountain, NASA is where they design the space station. I didn’t need a college degree for that.

    Just because an idea is represented in a pleasing way doesn’t necessarily mean the representer expects the idea to become reality. We often look at pictures of our childhood and think about fond memories and tell stories. We don’t necessarily want to go back to high school. Disney World is fantasy, it’s escapist. It’s based on our sense of nostalgia and memory about places we have been or imagined or seen in movies. Disney created an amazing piece of theater based on real places, but that is very distinct from a proposal for any kind of urban ideal. To portray it as so is to assume people are way less intelligent than they are and miss the point of having fun.

  • Peter

    “Similarly, the Disney environment, in which everyone is a paying — and, therefore, an acceptable — guest, is completely inapplicable to actual urban environments.”

    Technically, if you feel like it, you can go and ride Disney’s transit system for completely free. Park at Downtown Disney or Wide World of Sports and then enjoy all the buses or monorails to your heart’s content.

    “These parks encourage the idea that we should expect our transit systems to be clean as a whistle and full of kind, wonderful people, two expectations that are impossible to fulfill in a society where a significant percentage of the population lives below the poverty line.”

    So poor people are mean and dirty?

  • Nathanael

    ‘The only reason to build a monorail would be to make it less “visually intrusive” and thus politically acceptable to have an elevated line in an existing urban setting (and saving the cost of tunneling).’

    I think you’ve got it. Monorail fans really like to show images of…

    ‘There was a design for a single-beam monorail (trains operating on either side of the beam) that would have fit that standard.’

    …that design.

    However, it doesn’t meet modern safety standards, because it’s too difficult to get out of a stuck train. Add escape walkways and you end up with something which looks pretty much just like a normal elevated train.

  • Disney said it was the first fatal crash in the monorail’s 38-year history in the park.

  • Excellent article. I’ve posted a link from my blog and have added the transportpolitic to my blogroll. Keep up the good work.
    Michael Dresser
    The Baltimore Sun

  • AaronS

    I’m stunned by this article and some of these comments. People decry the “artificiality” of DisneyWorld. Tell me — what city is NOT “artificial”? If Disney is able to implement a higher standard, what is wrong with our culture that allows us to accept “good enough” in the places we live?

    People who think that light rail is better than monorail obviously haven’t paid much attention to the news of late (save for news of the first monorail death in 38 years from Orlando). In the past month, there was one monorail accident world-wide.

    Two teens were killed in a light rail accident in MD, dozens were injured in a light rail accident in CA, a garbage truck got turned in to garbage and two people injured in a light rail accident in NJ, a car got creamed by a light rail train in Seattle, a cab got nailed in AZ, and two accidents near Trenton resulted in a bicyclist losing his leg and another person getting killed. Seriously, just Google it. There’s more, but I quit counting.

    Give me grade-separated monorail ANY day of the week.

  • Tell me — what city is NOT “artificial”?

    Depends. What “city” keeps out non-paying customers?

  • Daniel Prats

    ‘Tell me — what city is NOT “artificial”?

    Depends. What “city” keeps out non-paying customers?’

    All of them, just try not paying your taxes and see how long it takes them to kick you out.

  • my kids love to go disneyworld, i think every kid would love to go there;;.

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