Close your eyes for a moment and think about Disney theme parks. What's the first thing that pops into your head? You probably thought about Mickey Mouse and Space Mountain, as well as some happy memories from your youth. If you thought about it for much time, something else probably sprang to mind. It may even include the phrase, "Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas."
The monorail is arguably the most iconic aspect of Disney's theme park empire, inexorably linked with Disneyland and the company’s other theme parks since the beginning. This unforgettable transportation system embodies everything wonderful about Disney’s Happiest Place(s) on Earth. It’s a novelty that sets the tone for your entrance while also providing impressive utility for something so stylish, hauling a massive number of visitors in an organized and efficient manner. The monorail is the gold standard in concise, area-specific transportation even now, more than a half-century after its heralded Disneyland debut. And learning about its history is rich and engrossing, an apt reflection of Walt Disney himself.
So let's dive in and discover the full story of Disney's monorails...
Walt Disney envisions the future
The founder of The Walt Disney Company garnered a well-earned reputation as an innovator and forward-thinker, anticipating the needs of consumers well before even they knew what they wanted. First, he created cinematic shorts and features that built brand loyalty for a mouse named Mickey. Then, he designed animated adaptations of popular fairy tales, updating them with more benevolent messages to enrapture and entertain children. Finally, he fulfilled his ultimate dream when he crafted a unprecedented theme park brimming with his visions, ones that have stood the test of time.
Even though Disney didn’t bear witness to the success of Walt Disney World, his imprint upon both it and Disneyland is unmistakable. The decisions he made in building the two resorts were also revolutionary. Chief among them was the solution to the inevitable congestion problem of a popular tourist destination.
The problem with reaching a popular amusement park is the traffic. Even smaller locales struggle with this issue. For something as ambitious in scope as Disneyland, the idea of Los Angeles traffic was overwhelming, even in the 1950s and 60s. In the years Walt Disney spent planning his dream park, he understood and anticipated this dilemma. If Disneyland were to become the popular vacation spot he expected, its crowding issues could foster negative public perception. A place that’s hard to visit is less likely to attract repeat business from customers.
Walt Disney meets the floating train
An odd solution presented itself in Germany. When Walt and Lillian Disney visited the country during a business trip in the early 1950s, his discovery of the Wuppertaler Schwebebahn opened his eyes to new possibilities. The man who invented Mickey Mouse started interacting with the local railway employees, asking detailed questions about the structure. These conversations were difficult for a simple reason: Walt Disney didn’t speak German! This fact did nothing to dissuade him from learning everything possible about their hanging-rail transportation system. He found himself captivated by the technology.
The Wuppertaler Schwebebahn aka Wuppertal Suspension Railway provided an elegant means of transporting citizens across the region. Literally translated as “Wuppertal floating train,” the system operates almost exactly as it sounds, even to this day. Due to its sturdy build, it also survived World War II bombings with minimal damage accrued. To wit, it’s the oldest electric elevated railway with hanging cars in the world, a singularly unique architectural marvel that offers tremendous utility.
The genius of all rail systems is that they can achieve something that highways cannot. They can connect a traveler from point A to point B in the most direct fashion, proving the Archimedes adage that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Major interstates generally meander at angles due to regulatory restraints as well as changes in landscape. An above-ground transportation system generally has no such restrictions. When properly designed, it can move a large volume of passengers in a short period of time via the most direct path.
The Wuppertal Suspension Railway does exactly this, transporting approximately 25 million people each year. Its track travels across an 8.3 mile range, roughly four stories in the air. By removing it from the ground where it would conflict with vehicular traffic, the system provided unrestricted destination-to-destination travel at a quick pace. Allowing for stops along the way, a full ride takes a half hour, and the overhead railway has run efficiently in this manner for over a century now.
In researching the mechanics of the Wuppertal, Disney felt like it was the blueprint for future societal traffic solutions. His aspiration to follow this model aptly demonstrated his visionary ideas. He wanted to provide Disney customers with a ride to his signature theme park that didn’t stop with its utility. He also loved the idea of triggering sensory responses by starting the vacation a bit earlier than expected. Anyone who has ever ridden a monorail recognizes that they’re officially at Disneyland or Walt Disney World the instant they step onboard. The association is unmistakable due to the lack of monorails in most of our everyday lives.
Lillian Disney’s upset stomach changes Disneyland forever
Disney excitedly relayed his vision of bringing a hanging monorail to California to his wife. Then, the plan hit a snag. During her ride in Germany, Lillian struggled with the circular track of the Wuppertal Suspension Railway. She developed motion sickness due to the sharp turns. The cause involves the construction of the German system. While there’s an argument of semantics on the topic, most people would not describe the Schwebebahn as a true monorail.
The assumption people make with a monorail is that it rides on the top of a track, balancing on a beam for support. There is very little movement side-to-side, because stabilization is a key element of the architecture. A hanging train such as the Wuppertal is a bit different. Since the cart is by definition suspended from the railing above, some degree of side-to-side motion is inevitable. Engineers can reduce the swaying if so inclined, but it’s difficult to eliminate entirely, particularly around the corners of a curvy track. Lillian Disney discovered this issue during her initial experience on a suspension railway, and millions of travelers thank her for her temporary suffering.
While Walt Disney still loved the simple elegance of the monorail as a traffic solution, he had to take the health of potential customers into consideration. What if they responded as his wife had? Sick consumers don’t spend money on food and merchandise at the park while visiting, and they aren’t inclined to come back after the ill-fated visit.
There was secondary problem with the Wuppertal design as well. When you’re riding the monorail, you want to enjoy the gorgeous sights of the surrounding landscape. Disney himself noticed while riding on the hanging train that the monorail’s supporting girders were giant obstructions that often interrupted his view of the German terrain below. Because the train cart hung below, the girders were unavoidable.
For these two reasons, Disney deemed a hanging train too dangerous and unseemly, so the idea of a train-on-rail system gained momentum instead. It negated the motion sickness issues, while cleverly designed carts afforded the rider a panoramic view of the world outside, one unsullied by construction girders.
ALWEG comes to California
To bring his plan to fruition, Disney contacted Axel Wenner-Gren, the patent holder for the monorail design. In the 1930s, the Swedish industrialist was among the wealthiest people in the world. The owner of Electrolux, he found himself unable to remove his liquid assets from Germany. In the aftermath of World War II, the German government was sensitive to concerns about industrialists removing wealth from the country. Part of its end-of-war contrition involved historic economic sanctions that made daily life hard enough. Germans didn’t want wealthy visionaries to leave en masse.
Undeterred, Wenner-Gren instead plotted to use this wealth to make the world a better place. He tried to kick-start the future of transportation by turning the negative of his country-locked German currency into a positive. He employed it as seed money for the war-ravaged infrastructure of the country. The otherwise useless capital evolved into something amazing, a refreshing transportation alternative, the ALWEG (taking its letters from Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren).
This monorail style utilized a series of suspension springs and side wheels. Such cart apparatus provided greater stability. By balancing on a notched beam, the Wenner-Gren monorail reduced the chance of rider nausea while offering efficient, timely transportation. Strangely, no one in Germany ever chose to implement Wenner-Gren’s design. In order to entice a local or international government to build a monorail, he installed a full-size prototype complete with station at the end of the track in Cologne, Germany. Called the Fühlingen, it was the original test track, a name Disney would later repurpose at Epcot.
The ALWEG was an impressive architectural feat, and England and Brazil both contemplated building a monorail in populous cities to address growing traffic concerns. Each ultimately passed.
To garner further interest, Wenner-Gren and his people continued to streamline and perfect his monorail concept. No country could garner the requisite public support to justify the expense, though. Conveniently, Walt Disney was a visionary who answered to no one. He appreciated that Wenner-Gren’s monorail was ideal for the germinating Anaheim theme park, Disneyland.