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The Best Non-Attraction, Attraction?

Second part in a series of the early beginnings of what is now known as the Most Magical Place on Earth.

If you are following this series of the creative and often bumpy road to what we now all enjoy as Walt Disney World and Disneyland’s all around the globe, you know that Walt Disney was a true visionary. With his impressive and loyal team of Imagineers, they paved the way for technology and innovation that still touches our hearts and imaginations.

When Walt saw the swamp land from the air and could look past the alligators, bugs and raw acreage, even stating that he knew right then where he was going to place Cinderella castle, there were those that looked into his eyes and saw what he saw. Listening, taking in everything that he was describing they could not only “see” his vision but they FELT his passion and enthusiasm. Many of them had worked with him since the State Fair days and then on Disneyland. Not only did they realize that Walt was a man with a mission, but nothing would stop him in achieving that goal. He was direct, driven and yes, a rule breaker. He was also a man that valued friendship and loyalty, shown through the many imagineers that worked with him and stayed working for the Walt Disney Company way passed his death. There were even more naysayers, “haters” as we would call them today in the world of social media, using the printed page and radio in those days to let there opinions be heard, trying to stop him from moving forward and at the least, keep people from believing in what his work and vision was. I for one am so glad that he had the strength, self-confidence and well, guts, to keep moving forward, never stopping, sometimes just getting started.

Ah, yes, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, originally to be named Tempo Bay Hotel and previously the Contemporary Resort Hotel is one of the first hotels built at Walt Disney World. This design was a collaboration by Disney, the United States Steel Corporation (being used for a commercial in one of their ads later on), and Los Angeles architect Welton Becket. To construct the building, steel frames were erected on-site and modular pre-constructed rooms, designed by California architect Donald Wexler, were lifted into place by crane, some of them hanging like vultures around the resort on opening day. Most of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and the Court of Flags Resort (no longer there) were built the same way, except rooms were stacked instead of slid in. Adorning the concourse walls is a multi-story mosaic designed by Mary Blair, a long time imagineer and designer that worked on many projects for Walt Disney from the early days. Then, bringing guest of the hotel and those enjoying the ride into the Magic Kingdom, the monorail comes whizzing through, still a sight to behold no matter how many times you see it! Monorail Shot!!

The ballrooms were what set the resort apart from any others of its day, especially the key ballroom known as the Ballroom of the Americas, where the famous speech by President Richard Nixon took place, stating that “he was not a crook”. The resort has gone through many changes, restructures, additions and refurbs since it opened and many of them during the 1990s. Although nowadays it is a risk to call anything “The Contemporary”, this building lives up to its name. Fifty years on, it still looks like some cavernous space station beaming monorails into its belly.

But amidst all the ‘firsts’ the Contemporary Resort boasted, the most iconic and memorable is THAT MONORAIL.

One of those daunting and marveling projects- amongst many- was the monorail. Not only was this something that was never really seen before, but the fact that it would be running through a resort, made it even more…over the top. The Disneyland Monorail System (originally named the Disneyland ALWEG Monorail System) first made its debut is an attraction and transportation system at the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. It was the first daily operating monorail in the Western Hemisphere. The job of building the monorail was originally assigned to the Standard Carriage Works of East Los Angeles, but in late 1958, Walt Disney, pressured for time, moved it to his Burbank studios. Disney designer Bob Gurr then headed a Disney team that designed and manufactured the cars, chassis, suspension and propulsion systems, thus completing the Red Mk 1 just in time for the re-dedication of Tomorrowland.

Walt Disney originally envisioned the monorail as a practical form of public transportation in the future. However, the monorail came about during a time when America’s—and particularly Los Angeles’—obsession with the automobile was increasing, and monorails in the United States were mostly only located in Disney’s theme parks, except for the Seattle Center Monorail. The Disneyland ALWEG Monorail opened on June 14, 1959, as a sightseeing attraction in Tomorrowland in Disneyland, along with the Disneyland Expansion with the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Submarine Voyage, the expanded version of Autopia, and the Motor Boat Cruise. The Mark I trains (Red and Blue) consisted of three cars each. In 1961 it became a true transportation system when Tomorrowland station was lengthened to accommodate the debut of the four-car Mark II and the additional new Yellow train; the track was extended 2​12 miles outside the park and a second platform was constructed — the Disneyland Hotel station and expanding even more in 1968. You could even purchase a ticket to just ride the monorail, which many did just to get a glimpse of the park without spending a lot of money.

With the success of the monorail system in Disneyland, Walt Disney and Bob Gurr set their sights on an even larger project, taking the system to Walt Disney World in Florida. The Walt Disney World Monorail spans 14.7 miles (23.7 km), with around 50 million Disney guests traveling on the monorail each year. The system opened with the rest of the Walt Disney World Resort on October 1, 1971. It initially featured four stations: the Transportation and Ticket Center, Disney’s Polynesian Resort, the Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The Epcot line and station were added during that park’s construction, opening on October 1, 1982.

Before July 2009, Disney would allow up to four guests to sit in the front of the monorail with the pilot. This was offered on a first-come, first-served basis, and a pilot gave out “co-pilot licenses” at the end of the journey. After the July 5, 2009, Disney indefinitely suspended the co-pilot program after a crash. Pilots will still allow guests to tour the cab while parked at a station. Since automating all the trains, one of the front passenger seats was removed to add computer housings for the automation system. Despite this incident and some mechanical failures, the almost 50 year track record for the Walt Disney World Monorail is practically impeccable.

Each train is identified by a colored stripe, and given a name according to that color. The complete list of colors used is below. To help visually identify Green from Lime, Pink from Coral and Blue from Teal, the Lime, Teal, and Coral stripes have a white delta painted on each car. Originally, Monorail Lime’s deltas (and those of the older Mark IV Lime) were painted a dark blue in homage to the original Walt Disney World monorail cast’s costume colors (lime and blue), but the colors were changed when the entire monorail fleet was repainted in the early 2000s. In mid December 2018, Monorail Lime’s white delta was repainted to the original dark blue scheme. Later colors pink and purple would be retired with colors teal and and peach being added and color Coral coming onto the scene in 2011 as part of the marketing plant for TRON: Legacy. Previously and since then, Monorail Colors Red, Black and Orange have commemorated The Avengers, Star Wars: Episode VII; The Force Awakens as well as Toy Story and Zootopia.

On of the most talked about aspects of the monorail is the set of pre-recorded announcements to instruct and entertain passengers. Prior to departure when the pilot closes the doors, an announcement asks guests to “Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor manténganse alejado de las puertas.” One of the most well-known phrases within the resort, it was recorded by Jack Wagner, who was known as “the Voice of Disneyland.” In 1988 following the construction of the Grand Floridian Resort stop, Kevin Miles replaced Jack Wagner as the voiceover. Wagner can still be heard today as the “Please stand clear of the doors” phrase remains with his voice, partly because it is installed on a separate system. Miles worked in Epcot as part of the ‘Voices of Liberty’ in the American Adventure pavilion at World Showcase. Sometime before 1998, Disney employee Matt Hanson replaced Kevin Miles, and in 2004 Hanson was replaced by Joe Hursh. Hanson is still with the Walt Disney Company.  During the system’s early years, the trains featured Wagner’s narration of the sights and scenery along the way, as well as information on special events, the resort, and the monorail system itself. On April 13, 2012 at around 5:00 EST, Disney activated a newer version of the spiel on the monorails that features Tom Kane as its new narrator.

But the marvel (get it) of the engineering behind the monorail lay in the hands of our friend Bob Gurr. Bob began his career with Disney designing the Autopia vehicles, and helping to create the Abraham Lincoln audio-animatronic for Disney’s attraction at the 1964 World’s Fair. He later gave himself the title of Director of Special Vehicle Development. I would have loved to be in on that conversation between Bob and Walt. Bob: ‘Hey, Walt, I’m am thinking I need a catchy title. What do you think about Director of Special Vehicle Development’. Walt: ‘Well, Bob, sounds long enough.’

Bob Gurr working on Disneyland monorail

Gurr said before Disneyland was built, many skeptics questioned Disney’s motive for creating an amusement park in the middle of Anaheim. Reports at the time called Walt Disney’s $17 million Disneyland gamble as “Walt’s Folly.”  “You also have to bear in mind when we were designing and building Disneyland, none of us recall that this would amount to anything,” Gurr said. “It was a big experiment. There was a lot of naysayers. So we never had in our mind that we were creating something that had an enduring quality to it. It was a fun place. It was a pretty place. It was different and not like a typical carnival.”

Gurr added that it never struck his mind that “we were building a famous monument. We were just building Disneyland.”

Gurr said he feels blessed for having worked personally with Walt Disney. It was Walt who tasked him to design the Autopia cars and Matterhorn bobsleds and to figure out how to place a monorail at Disneyland and, eventually, Walt Disney World.

In Disney and theme park industry circles, Gurr is a living legend and one of the last links to the wizard himself, Walt Disney. Gurr is the only living former Disney Imagineer (the company’s term for engineer), who worked with Walt Disney and helped build some of the original attractions at Disneyland.

In his nearly three-decade career at Disney that began in 1954 when he was 22 years old and more than 40 years in the theme park industry, Gurr has helped develop more than 100 attractions. They include the Matterhorn Bobsleds, the Haunted Mansion, the Abraham Lincoln animatronic, as well as the Monorails that zip across Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Gurr based the design of the Walt Disney World Monorail System on the original monorails at Disneyland Resort while giving it an updated look. The Mark VI trains had wider monorail doors, improved air conditioning (great for that warm, summer Florida weather) and communication systems and increased interior height for standees. The Imagineers wanted to uphold Walt Disney’s vision of an immersive experience when developing the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, ensuring that guests left the real world behind. The Seven Seas Lagoon separated guest parking from the entrance to Magic Kingdom Park, making the monorail an integral part of transporting guests into a truly far-away land. This became known as the Ticket and Transportation Center or TTC. I remember as a kid, that once we got to the ‘monorail station’ our Disney vacation had begun!

The infastructure of the monorail system itself was a monumental task. Not only was their a problem getting a supply of steel for the beams but the only place that could produce enough was in Tacoma, Washington, over 3,000 miles away. The concrete beams had to be designed specifically due to the weight and width of the cars. Three rails cars were needed just to carry one beam!

The journey to get them to Florida was precarious and accidents happened, costing, in today’s standards, nearly $6 million. Then once they did arrive, construction of the beams had to be designed so that they would stay supported on the swamp land that made up over 25,000 acres of what would become Walt Disney World Resort. Finally, after all the hurdles, the first car was placed on the track at Walt Disney World. The first two Mark VI Monorails were operated and tested at night without guests until December 1989 when Monorail Blue started transporting guests. This new fleet of monorail trains, built by Bombardier, increased guest capacity by 30 percent.

Outside of the pandemic, the monorail serves almost 150,000 guests per day, with three lines and six stations. Bob Gurr also helped develop the monorail at Disneyland Hong Kong (shown above).

COUPLE FUN FACTS:

Did you know that you when you’re waiting to board a monorail train, pass the time by asking a pilot or monorail system team member for monorail train collector’s cards. Each card gives the details and specifications of one of the monorail trains. They aren’t always available, but they are fun to collect and make unique (and cost-free) souvenirs. Have you every collected any? I know that I have a few and some day will complete my collection.

The Walt Disney World monorail system is over 15 miles long. That is like taking it in a straight line from the Magic Kingdom to Orlando International Aiport. Now wouldn’t that be cool some day!! Of course, we know that the Mayne Mansion has a monorail that will be able to go to the Magic Kingdom very soon….

Spokesmayne; Disney Parks Blog; D23; Disneyland