How the Disneyland Monorail Changed Transportation Forever

You’ve probably seen it gliding over Disneyland and you’ve probably felt the sound of the nearly silent machine as it sped past you at 30 mph. Maybe you turned your back, forgetting there was an elevated railroad track nearby, to jump off to the sound of the monorail horn.

But unless you’re staying at a Disneyland hotel, you probably don’t get many opportunities to ride the monorail.

Today, it is primarily a vehicle for transporting people staying at the Disneyland Hotel, Grand Californian, or Paradise Pier from the Downtown Disney end to Disneyland Park.

But when it opened, the monorail had a totally different purpose. And just like Disneyland, it was the first of its kind in America.

The Disneyland monorail debuted in 1959, four years after the park opened. It was the very first monorail to operate in the country, according to WDW Magazine, and the first in the world to operate daily. At that time, the only other similar train was in Germany, and it was a prototype designed by the company that built the Disneyland version. When it opened, it was so big that then-Vice President Nixon came to its opening and gave a speech.

That Disneyland had the nation’s first monorail system isn’t much of a surprise, given that Walt Disney’s two most fervent interests were trains and dreaming of future technologies. And just as Disney was fascinated by the idea of ​​an electric train running on a single track, he expected his guests to be too.

When it first opened, the Disneyland Monorail was purely an entertainment attraction, and it was noticeably different than it is today.

The monorail circles Disneyland Park on February 25, 2020.

David McNew/Getty Images

This first monorail, called Mark I, opened as an e-ticket advertised as “the highway in the sky”. It ran in a 0.8-mile loop that circled Tomorrowland, giving guests a top-down view of that land’s attractions; many of which, like Rocket to the Moon and Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, are no longer in the park. The wonder of the design, which still uses electric propulsion and rubber wheels, is that the massive train is virtually silent (except, of course, for that bony horn).

The park added a stop at the Disneyland Hotel in 1961 and extended the trail to the 2.5-mile stretch it is today. By then, the bubble at the front of the wagon — the one you might have been lucky enough to ride in before the pandemic — was large enough to accommodate a family. The train in service today, which will soon close for refurbishment, is the Mark VII.

When first implemented, Disneyland’s monorail system was quickly recognized for its efficiency and speed in moving large numbers of people. The Imagineers incorporated the transportation system into their new designs for the “Florida Project” that became Walt Disney World.

When Disney World opened in 1971, its monorail was a day-one feature, though it doesn’t enter any parks. This train looped around the Lagoon of the Seven Seas, traveling at 40 mph and making stops at the gates of Magic Kingdom and its ticket center across the lake, Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Disney’s Contemporary Resort. However, it runs directly through the contemporary, inside the building, so that guests can look out of their room windows into the hotel’s central atrium and see a train passing a few feet away.

The Disney Monorail.

The Disney Monorail.

Disney Parks

A second monorail, connecting Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, opened in 1982 when Disney World’s futuristic second park opened. A third is an express from the Magic Kingdom ticket center to the park. It was so widely recognized – not only as an icon of the park but as an innovation in transportation – that elevated monorail trains began to appear in other locations that needed to move large groups of people quickly over short distances. If you ever needed to take a tram from one airport terminal to another, you probably have Walt Disney to thank. Orlando International Airport, the closest to Disney World, even calls its trams “people movers” like the Tomorrowland ride which is still in Florida but not Disneyland.

In 1986, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the influence of the Disneyland Monorail on future technology, designating the rail system as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, according to Frommer’s. The society called the monorail a “historically significant work” and a reminder of “where we have been, where we are, and where we are going on the divergent paths of discovery.”

Even though I take Anaheim’s side in the Sharks and the Jets-style debate among Disney lovers about whether Walt Disney World or Disneyland is the better resort, I have to be honest: for me, the WDW monorail is the more exciting attraction. But, just as I like Disneyland more because it was my first park (among many other reasons that I’ll happily detail if we meet at Trader Sam’s), I like the Disney World monorail more because it was my first monorail.

The first time I saw it, I was going to dinner at one of the Contemporary’s restaurants, and I looked up at the towering glass pyramid above me, only to see a train pass by. through the building. It was a moment where I felt a version of Walt Disney’s excitement about what the future might be, the one that inspired not just the Carousel of Progress and the rest of Tomorrowland, but the planned experimental community of tomorrow which eventually became EPCOT. The next day I rode this elevated train: I may have made it to the park with the giant dome (the one we were supposed to have at Disneyland soon after), but I felt like I was riding in the future.

EPCOT has its own monorail connecting the park to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom

EPCOT has its own monorail connecting the park to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom

Gilles BASSIGNAC/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

So the first time I did that little ride between Earl of Sandwich and Autopia at Disneyland, when I finally rode it a few years later, it was a little less exciting. Every time I use it to get to Downtown Disney, I remember that experience from the first time I rode the Disney World monorail and through that retro-futuristic hotel.

(An interesting note: Nixon and the Disney Monorail crossed paths at another significant point in history. The then-President involved in the Watergate scandal gave his famous “I’m not a crook” speech. at the Contemporary in 1973.)

The Disneyland monorail is scheduled to close Feb. 14 to March 6 for renovations, as part of Downtown Disney’s renovation that has already closed Earl of Sandwich.

When I ride the monorail after it reopens, as I do every time, I will think of what visitors to the park might have felt in 1955 when riding it: as if they were experiencing a marvel of technology, imagined by a dreamer, heading directly into Disney’s “big big beautiful tomorrow”.

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