Home » Behind the Ride: The PeopleMover

Behind the Ride: The PeopleMover

The prototype for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (E.P.C.O.T) promised a revolutionary transportation system. The lowest “floor” of E.P.C.O.T. would feature automobiles. Walt Disney didn’t want the clutter of gridlock. The main “floor” of his utopia would host the residents and guests of E.P.C.O.T. This place would utilize monorails to transport guests across vast distances.

A different kind of vehicle would carry people to their final destination. It would negate the need for walking and thereby optimize transportation efficiency at E.P.C.O.T. That idealistic form of travel has evolved into a wonderful attraction but also a shell of its expected form. Let’s go behind the ride to understand why the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover is somehow one of the best attractions ever built but also something of a disappointment to the Imagineers involved.

The experience: a “Magic Skyway” that carries guests above trafficked areas

The trick: A revolutionary kind of ride vehicle/experience

One of the oddities of Tomorrowland at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom alike is that many of the quasi-futuristic attractions of yesteryear seem rather dated by now. Indulge me as I discuss the PeopleMover for what it represented in the 1960s rather than how you think of it today.

In the years leading up to the 1964 New York World’s Fair, Walt Disney’s team of Imagineers at WED Enterprises invented a new technology. This form of transportation would work as an above-ground conveyor belt, pushing guests along a set path. By utilizing the higher elevation, it would reduce traffic on the main walkways.

Uncle Walt famously got the idea while visiting Ford Motor Company. He watched an automated system transport hot metal. While a normal person would gaze in awe at the innovation, Disney conceptualized a different integration of the same scientific principle. He realized that a gigantic conveyor belt could host many cabs, thereby transporting human in the same way that the Ford system passed hot metal from station to station.

The experience: Forced propulsion at a regulated speed and time

The trick: Borrowing an idea from Matterhorn Bobsleds

Image: DisneyWED Enterprises demonstrated the first proof of concept of the PeopleMover at Ford’s Magic Skyway, one of the five most popular attractions at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. Guests marveled at the efficiency of timed arrivals at various set pieces. Meanwhile, transportation manufacturers expressed awe at the system’s means of propulsion.

The vehicle cabs aka the ride carts didn’t even have engines! Instead, Imagineers provided all of the movement from below the vehicles. The track employed spinning wheels at set lengths. Once the ride cart, the Ford car, reached the designated area, the hidden wheels would propel the vehicle to the next spot. This movement led to a secondary concern. Since objects in motion stay in motion, Imagineers needed a way to slow down and sometimes stop the ride carts.

Image: DisneyUncle Walt had intuited that the braking system in place on Matterhorn Bobsleds fit perfectly with the conveyor belt cab system. With a braking system, the Magic Skyway could have track that ran up or down. Without one, fender benders would have occurred frequently, leading to entire system shutdowns.

Imagineers could stop and start vehicles whenever they needed, thereby eliminating the chance of a traffic jam. In a way, Disney’s smartest employees produced a solution for all modern traffic woes more than half a century ago. Unfortunately, not enough people listened. Drivers require too much control of their travel, although the future of travel is computer automation. At that point, the PeopleMover will once again seem like a profound innovation.

The experience: a ride through all the best parts of Tomorrowland

The trick: Uncle Walt’s salesmanship creates accidental dividends

Image: DisneyHave you followed any of the Boring Company’s recent attempts to build an underground transportation system? While clever theme park tourists have noticed the unmistakable similarities to a roller coaster, this project along with Virgin Hyperloop One demonstrate that history repeats itself. Walt Disney once invented a new form of transportation that could change the world. Sadly, he lacked the capital to fund it.

Uncle Walt spent a great deal of his fortune on the Florida Project. Any form of major metropolitan system costs a great deal of money, something Elon Musk and Richard Branson face with their current projects. Despite the remarkable success of Disney’s World’s Fair pavilions, WED Enterprises couldn’t find any investors willing to bank on conveyor belt transportation.

Left with no other options, Disney came up with yet another elegant solution. He found a way to market the new transportation system at Disneyland. In the process, he also found a way to market new attractions at Disneyland. It was like a nesting doll marketing scheme.

Image: DisneyThe official name of this attraction was the PeopleMover, Presented by Goodyear. Called the PeopleMover for short, this ride debuted on July 2, 1967, barely 18 months after the 1964 New World’s Fair closed (in October of 1965). Uncle Walt hosted it at the Happiest Place on Earth in order to show off the cutting edge transportation technology.

His attempts were quite successful. Guests marveled at the technology, stunned by how the propulsion engines weren’t onboard the vehicle. They’d stare out at the mechanical wheels hosted in the tracks and attempt to decipher the scientific principles at play. During the late 1960s, many Disney fans perceived the PeopleMover as the sequel to the Monorail.

The new Tomorrowland attraction seemed like the future of transportation, marrying it beautifully to the themed land’s core concept. Any visit to Tomorrowland required a trip on the PeopleMover, thereby building its awareness among investors.

Simultaneously, Imagineers laid out the track of the PeopleMover in a special fashion. They ensured that its path would carry guests by the many new and recently improved attractions at Tomorrowland. Disney invested a lot of money in modernizing the futuristic themed land. Thanks to the path of the PeopleMover, guests could appreciate just how much Tomorrowland had improved. Yes, the PeopleMover sold Tomorrowland while a ride around Tomorrowland sold investors on the PeopleMover. Walt Disney was a business genius.

The experience: Bringing the PeopleMover to Magic Kingdom
The trick: Making the best of an impossible situation

Image: DisneyYou’ve likely deduced why the PeopleMover never became a viable transportation solution. It suffered in the absence of its strongest advocate, its inventor. Walt Disney died in December of 1966, barely six months before the opening of the attraction at Disneyland. His health tragically deteriorated mightily over the course of 18 months. The shock of it prevented any viable plans for securing his legacy.

After his brother’s death, Roy O. Disney helmed the Florida Project. To his credit, it’s become one of the most popular paid tourist attractions on the planet. At the time, Uncle Walt’s older brother faced an impossible choice, though. He could attempt to construct the E.P.C.O.T. that Walt Disney had envisioned, almost certainly failing in the process, or he could create a place worthy of the Disney name. He understandably chose the latter, and history has proved him right.

The byproduct of this decision is that Disney never needed the PeopleMover as anchor transportation for Progress City. Why would they? There is no Progress City. Left with no other options, Imagineers felt driven to honor their founder’s wishes in some way. The output of this aspiration is the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, an attraction rather than a legitimate form of transportation.

Image: DisneyThe PeopleMover wasn’t a part of the early years of Walt Disney World. It wouldn’t until four years later in 1975. At the time, it was called the WEDWay PeopleMover, and it was actually a huge improvement on the original model. Imagineers had since learned how to utilize linear induction motors in lieu of a propulsion engine.

This innovation came with an odd downside, too. Goodyear had no interest in sponsoring this version of the PeopleMover since it negated the need for their product, the tire. I mention this not just as an amusing anecdote. Goodyear’s fear of the ride hinting at their obsolescence is additional proof of how progressive the PeopleMover was during the mid-1960s through late-1970s. The technology truly could have changed the world.

Instead, fans of the PeopleMover at Magic Kingdom receive a bittersweet visual treat toward the start of each ride. On one side of the path, guests receive an up-close look at part of the original model prototype of Progress City. It’s almost ghoulish, like a Twilight Zone episode wherein someone comes face to face with an alternate reality that demonstrates what might have been…and what might have been is oh so much better.

Image: DisneyDespite this ghoulish piece to the ride experience, the PeopleMover has remained an integral part of a Magic Kingdom experience for nearly 45 years and counting. It’s the place where guests go to get off their feet and get swept away in a serene 10-minute trip around Tomorrowland.

This version is similar to the Disneyland one that closed forever in 1995. The journey of the PeopleMover sells the high spots of Tomorrowland, building buzz for other attractions. Simultaneously, it hints at the true purpose of the PeopleMover, an efficient transportation system that could have ended gridlock and vastly improved metropolitan travel. Walt Disney was so brilliant that some of his best ideas were impossible to bring to life without him.