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Lost Legends: Disney's Forgotten Skyway and its Return to Disney World's Skies

Grounded

Image: Disney

For decades, the Skyways continued to operate at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World (up to and including, for example, the debut of Magic Kingdom's New Tomorrowland, above. Yes, the Skyway co-existed with Lost Legends: Alien Encounter and The Timekeeper!).

Sure, they were remnants of another time in Disney Parks history. If the ride were built from scratch in the mid-90s, fans would decry its reality-shattering views of Fantasyland’s industrial rooftops; its story-breaking connection between a European village and a city of the future; its pastel buckets passing through a mountain…. Indeed, in the Eisner era of immersive, E-Ticket thrills, the Skyway wouldn’t pass muster. Could you really imagine its technicolor buckets floating over Wizarding-World style New Fantasyland?

But “grandfathered” in, they were a simple, joyful, passive, and beloved part of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom, and Tokyo Disneyland.

Image: Disney, via davelandweb.com

Disneyland’s Skyway closed first, on November 9, 1994. Disney cited metal fatigue, noting that the Matterhorn’s support tower had developed cracks that would be unfixable without disassembling the mountain structure itself. More than 150 million guests had sailed over Disneyland aboard the Skyway in its lifetime of over 38 years.

Within weeks of its closure, the Skyway’s cables and supports were dismantled, and soon after, the Matterhorn’s holes were filled in. Imagineers today admit that – in the budget-conscious era after the financial pitfall of Disneyland Paris – executives considered the parks to be zero sum units, requiring that any new attraction be balanced by an older ride's closure. For the Skyway, its counterbalance was the opening of the Modern Marvel: Indiana Jones Adventure, its Cast Members and operating budget being "transferred" to the much higher-capacity ride.

Image: Disney

(In May 2015, the Matterhorn re-opened from an extensive reburbishment with brand new Audio-Animatronics of the dreaded Abominable Snowman, and a new fly-by scene of a snowy cavern filled with things that the mountain guardian had hoarded over the years. His treasure trove of memorobilia included a crashed Skyway gondola, as if the creature had ripped it off the cable and stashed it away decades earlier!)

Exactly five years to the day after the closure of Disneyland's ride – on November 9, 1999 – Magic Kingdom’s Skyway closed as well, after an impressive 28 year life. Two days after its demise, an article in the Orlando Sentinel explained the reason:

“‘It’s part of our ongoing efforts to phase out some of the older attractions and introduce new things to keep our parks exciting for our new and repeat visitors,” Walt Disney World spokesman Diane Ledder said Tuesday. “It’s just something whose time has come.’”

Nonetheless, our friend Werner Weiss at Yesterland (an invaluable resource for Skyway photos) notes that no “new things” came to Magic Kingdom until May 2001 when The Magic Carpets of Aladdin debuted. A more realistic reason? That – like the Lost Legend: 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea that it sailed over – the Skyway was simply too costly to operate relative to its low hourly capacity and admittedly-aging experience.

At both resorts, Disney was in no rush to demolish the Skyway's stations in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

Image: Theme Park Tourist

At Magic Kingdom, the Fantasyland Skyway station remained for more than a decade after the ride's 1999 closure as a last Swiss sentinal standing just past It's a Small World on the path to Liberty Square. The hilltop chalet was finally taken down in summer 2011, becoming the infamous Tangled restrooms. Rapunzel's tower stands about where the station's prominent clocktower once did. The Tomorrowland station had its second story demolished, but the ground floor structure remains to this day as the restrooms behind the Rockettower Plaza Stage between Space Mountain and the Carousel Theater.

2003. Image: Alan Huffman, Yesterland.com

Though the ride closed even earlier at Disneyland, the last vestiges of the ride lasted longer. Temporarily used as stroller parking, the Swiss chalet on a forested hill eventually became overgrown, visible only to those who knew to look for it. It was demolished in 2016 to make way for Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge construction.

Finally… full-circle!

It’s interesting to consider what became of the three transportation systems Walt Disney pioneered and tested at Disneyland.

The Peoplemover might never have achieved the widespread urban use that Disney had planned, but the transportation system was earmarked to make the jump from “ride” to actual applied infrastructure at EPCOT, Lake Buena Vista Village, and the Disneyland Resort (back in the days of Westcot’s announcement).

Image: Disney

The Monorail – while always inherently tied to Disney – was at least elevated from its mere “attraction in Tomorrowland” role at Disneyland to an authentic transportation system there when it extended to the Disneyland Hotel in 1961. And of course, the Monorail became the iconic backbone of Disney World’s transportation infrastructure, even if the system’s 1989 Mark VI rolling stock are overtaxed and overburdened in a system that’s regrettably underbuilt for the expanding resort, requiring an arsenal of buses to do most of the heavy lifting.

But that third system – the Skyway – just never made the jump to Disney World the way the other two did… Even with the chance to expand and grow to its larger tank in Florida, the Skyway remained a one-way aerial tram ride between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland until the day it closed after 28 years of service. Until….

Disney Skyliner

Image: Disney

Who would’ve ever foreseen that Disney would revive the Skyway?

And yet, that appeared to  have been what was announced on July 15, 2017 when the Disney Parks Blog fessed up with what uncovered construction permits had unbelievably suggested: the Disney Skyliner would soon break ground at Walt Disney World.

Image: Disney

Disney’s new aerial gondola ride will complete the trifecta of Walt’s transportation trio, elevating the Skyway from being merely a ride to being applied for real life use. The enclosed gondolas will be part of an ambitious system connecting three resort hotel stations (Disney's Caribbean Beach, the new DVC Riviera Resort, and a station shared by Disney's Pop Century and Art of Animation Resorts) to both Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's even planned for the gondolas to slow as they pass through the turn-station along Buena Vista Drive en route to and from Epcot, to view the mechanical equipment that powers the system.

Part of that elevation from "nice" to "necessary" will be reflected in the Skyliner's undeniable evolution. Right now, insiders say that this will be a high-capacity, continuously-loading system holding between 8 (seated) and 16 (with standing room) passengers in climate-controlled gondolas, flying at Peoplemover speeds of 16mph (slowing to 1mph for loading and unloading). In fact, the Skyliner is one of Disney's leading projects in its slow but steady realization that it's less a resort than a city, and needs a robust transportation infrastructure that's both resort-wide and attractive.

Image: Disney

While naysayers decry the Skyliner as nothing more than a way for Disney to avoid expanding the Monorail, the Disney Skyliner system is actually quite creative in the way that it connects two deceptively close theme parks that otherwise would require a senseless and time-consuming bus ride, and how it elevates some of Disney’s existing hotels to now read as premium, park-connected offerings.

(Yes, expect prices at hotels connected by the Skyliner to skyrocket, including the Caribbean Beach Resort likely becoming "Deluxe." Insiders say that the Skyliner – especially if its expands – will be all the excuse Disney needs to do away with categorizing its resorts to begin with.)

Wonderfully, Disney is also taking great care to ensure that the stations for this aerial system feel at home in their surroundings... For example, constructing a Pan-Pacific teal art-deco influenced station at Disney's Hollywood Studios...

... A fittingly fancy landing site at Epcot's International Gateway entrance just outside of World Showcase...

... A festive central station at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort...

Image: Disney

... and a sleek, modern, playful station located on the narrow peninsula bridge of Hourglass Lake between Disney's Art of Animation Resort and Disney's Pop Century Resort.

What's more, Disney's decision-makers are allegedly keeping their fingers crossed that the Skyliner works as it's meant to, given that the system is modular and intended to expand west (connecting Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge, Blizzard Beach, Coronado Springs, and Disney's All-Star Resorts) and eventually east (to Disney Springs and nearby resorts) in multi-phase expansions to the system. In other words, the Skyliner may be Disney's long-sought solution for elevating its transportation infrastructure once and for all... 

What’s a little less exciting is the vinyl sticker appliqué of a Disney character that’ll be applied to each gondola’s window. (How much less “timeless” would the Monorail be if its early designers had stuck cartoon character stickers in its windows rather than letting its sleek shape, iconic style, and signature colors and patterns shine? Would it have been as inspirational and iconic if the trains came with Ariel, King Triton, and Ursula stickers pre-applied to the windows, "built into" the system's design?)

Image: Disney

It’s unclear if the Skyliner will become a timeless and “iconic” aspect of Walt Disney World’s transportation system like the Monorails (and, in their own way, buses) have, but the sleek, simple, and convenient routes will no doubt provide stunning new views…

Which is another source of contention, of course, because those “new views” will sometimes be of backstage areas, industrial rooftops, and otherwise off-limits sights, while simultaneously and controversially installing new, metal, industrial support towers visible from inside the theme parks’ fantasy-enveloped realms.

Image: Disney

But then again, that makes the Disney Skyliner a perfect modern incarnation of the old and beloved Skyway that did the same…!

From the sky and back again

The Skyway is perhaps an unusual attraction for our Lost Legends series to highlight.

Image: Disney

After all, one may wonder if a seemingly-simple transportation ride that – admittedly – broke most of the modern rules of what Disney Parks should do really deserves to be immortalized among epic, industry-changing fellow Lost Legends: Universe of Energy, Alien Encounter, Journey into Imagination, STAR TOURS, Back to the Future: The Ride, Maelstrom, Soarin’ Over California, or any of the dozens of other in-depth entries we’ve written on closed classics. And yet, the ride that served as a photographic backdrop for a generation or more of Disney’s guests was a treasure! It was an icon of Disney innovation and style, no less than the Monorail or Peoplemover… and though it took sixty years, it’s finally being elevated to be more than a ride, but a true test of what transportation can be.

Now, we want to hear from you. Did you experience the Skyway at Disneyland or Walt Disney World? Does this “simple” transportation attraction deserve a spot among our Lost Legends entries? And what do you make of Disney’s attempt – 60 years later – to make this slow-moving, sightseeing sky ride a legitimate means of transportation for its Florida resort? We’ll see you in the comments below!

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