How Walt Disney created his monorail

The Disney Monorail: The Amazing True Story of the "Highway in the Sky"

Walt Disney is renowned as a cartoonist, filmmaker, showman, and entertainment icon. But he was also a farsighted futurist, a transportation buff with practical roots in the past—and a visionary with sights set on the future.

From the start, Disney envisioned Disneyland not only as a destination for diversion and entertainment, but also as a means of presenting practical demonstrations of new ideas and new technology with real-world applications—and the monorail was imagined as a key part of that.

In this exclusive excerpt from The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky (Disney Editions), discover the parallel stories of the development of a new form of transportation and the evolution of Disney’s prophetic creative mind, which together resulted in the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere.
Disney's monorail: the beginnings of monorail technology
Monorails are actually an old technology

Sleek and swift, traveling with speed and silence, created on the cutting edge of science and technology—that’s a fairly succinct view of how monorails might be perceived in popular culture.

The reality is, as is often the case, quite different than the perception. In the 19th century, an inventor named Henry Robinson Palmer filed the earliest patent for what we might today consider a monorail: “a single line of rail, supported at such height from the ground as to allow the center of gravity of the carriages to be below the upper surface of the rail.” Propulsion was by horse. The patent (UK No. 4618) was dated November 22, 1821.

Pictured: an engraving of the “Meigs Elevated Railway,” originally published in Scientific American, July 10, 1886

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Disney's monorail: The meanings of Disney's World of Tomorrow
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The meanings of Disney's World of Tomorrow
Disneyland in 1955, the year it opened, was a symbol of society's postwar yearning for a new definition of the American identity. Americans celebrated their national ethos, looked through a rose-colored rearview mirror at their past, and treasured the fantasies of childhood.

Far too many visitors had recently returned from unwanted adventures in far-flung corners of the world, where they had often been in great peril. But the nation, as it sought to redefine itself, looked forward to where the future would lead—and people such as Walt Disney had an optimistic view of things to come as well as a notion of America’s progress and mankind’s destiny as parallel ideas. To reflect this, Disneyland also needed a future.

Pictured above: This exterior elevation of a Tomorrowland concept drawn in colored pencil by Imagineer Herb Ryman, circa 1954, notes that a “Miniature Monorail on Endless Track Spans Entrance.” 
Disney's monorail: The precursor to the monorail was the Viewliner
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A peculiar side trip for the Disney Monorail
Imagineer John Hench observed, “Walt was always looking for inventive new ways of moving guests around.” Although a practical monorail still eluded him when Disneyland opened, Disney had a need in 1957 to fill space and create some excitement in the park, so an unusual sightseeing train that would come to be known as the Viewliner was created.

The Viewliners were actually an oddly cobbled-together pair of miniature excursion trains. It was essentially a rail-bound automobile, much of it built from salvaged and repurposed automotive parts. The trains were designed by Bob Gurr, who ultimately based his vehicles on General Motors’ futuristic Aerotrain; that prototype was then running daily between Los Angeles and Las Vegas. The means of propulsion was hardly futuristic: a Chevy Corvette V-8 engine.

The train debuted June 26, 1957, as the Santa Fe & Disneyland Viewliner, running two passenger trains through parts of Tomorrowland and Fantasyland along a figure eight or “dog-bone” track. It only operated until September 15, 1958, before shutting down to make way for the construction of updates to Tomorrowland for 1959—a renovation that would bring the new Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System.

Pictured: Disney pilots the Viewliner, called the “Train of Tomorrow,” 1957. His copilot is Leo E. Sievert, executive representative of the president of the Santa Fe Railway.
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Disney's monorail: An accidental encounter led to the Disneyland Monorail
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An accidental encounter led to the Disneyland Monorail

A few years later, in the last days of June and first days of July 1958, Walt and Lillian were on another European trip. As they occasionally did during their travels, they decided to forgo a rigid schedule of planned events and went driving. This time, on a country road in Fühlingen, outside of Cologne, Germany, Walt and Lillian drove onto a road that ran between the grounds of two campuses of the Alweg Research Corporation (Alweg-Forschung, GmbH).

"As the story goes,” wrote Bruce Gordon and David Mumford in their authoritative book, Disneyland: The Nickel Tour, “Walt rounded a bend into a clearing just as the monorail train passed above the road right in front of him. Walt must have found it almost as hard to believe then as we do now."

"He’d discovered his monorail,” Bob Gurr said. “So he started a conversation with them, which led to a conversation with Joe Fowler [who was in charge of construction at Disneyland] and Roger Broggie [who headed the Studio Machine Shop] and myself, that now we were going to build this monorail based upon the Alweg design that he’d seen in Germany. So it’s just a case of serendipity. Thirty seconds one way or the other, we might not have had a monorail in Disneyland."

Pictured: On the Disneyland Monorail's opening day, Vice President Richard M. Nixon and his family participated in the inauguration ceremony.

Disney's monorail: The Disneyland Monorail is an official landmark
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The Disneyland Monorail is an official landmark
In December of 1986, the Disneyland Monorail System was named a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME). The program, initiated in 1973, recognizes international and regional landmarks each representing a step forward in the evolution of mechanical engineering with its own influence on society. As of 2019, 273 landmarks were on the ASME list of honorees.

"The landmarks program illuminates our technological heritage and serves to encourage the preservation of the physical remains of historically important works,” the ASME declaration said. “It provides an annotated roster for engineers, students, educators, historians, and travelers and helps establish persistent reminders of where we have been, where we are, and where we are going along the divergent paths of discovery.”

Pictured: A plaque was installed at the entry of the Tomorrowland Monorail Station.
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Disney's monorail: A Walt Disney World of Monorails
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A Walt Disney World of Monorails

For Walt Disney, Disneyland was as much a showcase of ideas as it was a “family fun park.” When he embarked on his ambitious “Florida Project” in the 1960s, he was absorbed with demonstrating the possibilities of the future. “With Walt Disney World, you know Walt didn’t spend any time on the park,” said past Imagineering president Marty Sklar. “His whole focus was on EPCOT, an 'experimental prototype community of tomorrow'…to bring new technology that would influence and inform people’s lives in a way that they would understand and perhaps be introduced to."

Of course, in order to link all the elements of the new Florida Project, innovative mass transit would be required. “They were going to be automatic trains that came on, based on demand,” recalled another past Imagineering president, Carl Bongiorno. “You’d go to a station, you’d push a button, and if there wasn’t a train coming or if a lot of people pushed the buttons at various stations, new cars would come on the line…as demand decreased, then cars automatically went back into the barn…Walt always said, ‘I want a car there within three minutes.’ He had some great ideas."

From the very first property plans, including one drafted by Disney himself, the Monorail was a key element of what would become the Walt Disney World Resort.

Pictured above: A 1966 acrylic painting by Herb Ryman of an idea for Walt Disney’s original planned community concept. Here, separate transportation systems interconnect: the WEDWay PeopleMover system and the high-speed Monorail system for rapid transit over longer distances.

Disney's monorail: About Walt Disney World fleet of Monorails
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Monorails, on your Mark!

Each succeeding revision and update to the Disney Monorails is designated by a “Mark.” Walt Disney World opened with the Mark IV (1971–1989), and is now running the Mark VI fleet. Bombardier, a leading Canadian manufacturer of planes and trains, partnered with Walt Disney Imagineering to manufacture 12 all-new Mark VI trains.

The six-car trains are 203 feet and 6 inches long with a seated-passenger capacity of 20 per carriage, plus an additional capacity of 40 standing passengers. Each train can accommodate up to 364 riders. On a typical day, more than 150,000 guests take Monorail transportation.

Each of the 12 Monorails is identified by a colored stripe: Red, Blue, Gold, Orange, Yellow, Green, Lime, Coral, Silver, and Black (Pink and Purple were retired in July 2009, and Peach and Teal joined in 2011).

Pictured: Even after decades of service, the Walt Disney World Monorail System still evokes grace, speed, efficiency, style, and futurism.

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Disney's monorail: an international attraction
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An international attraction

"With Disney, it’s never just about moving people from one place to another,” says past chairman of Disneyland International, Jim Cora. “It’s about moving people through their experience as efficiently as possible while maintaining the proper atmosphere of theme and show. As we began the expansion at Tokyo Disney Resort in the late 1990s, the resort property just got too big to walk around. It became clear that we needed a more efficient and elegant means of getting guests around what was now several discrete destinations."

So as part of the expansion that brought Tokyo DisneySea, the Disney Resort Line opened to passengers in July of 2001. The system is an automated monorail loop line that moves guests between four stations within the Tokyo Disney Resort property and is operated by Maihama Resort Line Co., Ltd., a subsidiary of Oriental Land Company, Ltd., which owns and operates the Tokyo Disneyland resort.

“[The Japanese people] are pretty used to trains and practical transportation systems, so the idea of a monorail was not a big deal," said Cora. "Where we brought the Disney difference into the potentially mundane was in making the size of the windows larger and making them in the shape of Mickey. . . . Even the familiar Mickey silhouette is integrated as a passenger hang strap. These are not practical necessities—they make a transportation system into an attraction.”

Pictured above: In Japan, the Disney Resort Line trains on the loop line travel in a counterclockwise direction; a circuit of the route takes about 13 minutes. 

Disney's monorail: Disney and the Monorail: pop culture icons
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Disney and the Monorail: pop culture icons

Monorails began as a utility that Walt Disney introduced as an optimistic fantasy. In doing so, it became an icon.

The Disneyland Monorail is not just a means of transportation or a tourist attraction. It remains a potent symbol of a kind of cultural aspiration, of the science fiction future that is always on its way to becoming a reality. At the same time, it is as attractive and friendly as any Disney character—even while it is actually an attraction. As such, the Disneyland Monorail became a popular thematic, decorative, and storytelling component of a wide array of products and merchandise, such as this board game from 1960.

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Book cover: The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky
The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky
Since June 1959, this mid-century modern marvel has captured the hearts and imaginations of theme park and Disney fans everywhere. It has inspired, as Walt Disney hoped, the creation of working monorails in practical transit applications in varied locations all around the world.

This feature was adapted by the authors of The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky (published by Disney Editions), a visual celebration of one of Disney’s most impactful and beloved creations. For the book, Disney supplied unique historical photographs and rare concept and development art—much of it never before published. 
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