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.