Ford’s Magic Skyway: The Origin of the PeopleMover
Of all the extinct Disney attractions, nothing truly compares to Ford’s Magic Skyway. On paper, the attraction closed with the World’s Fair in 1965; however, it has a legacy that extends well beyond Flushing Meadows.
The Skyway was the first attraction that WED Enterprises (WED) developed for the 1964 World’s Fair. After approaching several other corporations about developing pavilions, WED was hired by the Ford Motor Company to develop an attraction. The result of this collaboration would not only be a wonder unto itself, but would serve as a springboard for future projects.
The Ford Pavilion was located in the transportation area of the fair, across the bridge from the United States and other country pavilions. Guests entered the pavilion via the Ford Rotunda. The rotunda was a two-story structure that served as the facade for the pavilion. The first floor served as a queue for the pavilion and displayed a variety of historic Ford Motor Company vehicles. Of more interest to Disney fans was the series of miniature displays known as the International Gardens. WED created eleven miniature scenes, including colonial America, Aztec Mexico, and Medieval Europe. The models were elaborately detailed and included water features, moving parts, and sound effects. Guests wound around these exhibits before boarding a motorized ramp that took them to the second floor. The second floor contained the loading area where guests boarded their ride vehicle: a late model Ford convertible.
The ride began by making a loop around the outside of the rotunda through a clear plastic tube that gave guests a birds-eye view of the fairgrounds. Guests were welcomed to the pavilion by Henry Ford II. As the vehicle finished the loop and entered the show building, the familiar voice of Uncle Walt took over and narrated the journey. The narration captured the epic tone of this trip through time and space while sprinkling in humor and factoids along the way.
The ride began with an elaborate display of dinosaurs. These were massive audio-animatronic figures, which had required WED to construct a temporary building for their fabrication. Next, the dawn of mankind was shown, detailing the trials and tribulations of the cave men culminating with the invention of the wheel. From here, riders jumped thousands of years into the future where the sum of mankind’s achievements could be seen in a city of the future. The post-show area was called “Fields of Science” where guests viewed prototype cars and were shown the many advancements being made by Ford scientists and engineers.
Unlike the other Disney-built exhibits, the Skyway was not transferred in its totality to Disneyland. Instead, much of the ride was torn down. However, two features from the ride survived. The dinosaurs were saved and eventually made their way to Disneyland where they found permanent residence in the Primeval World diorama on the Disneyland Railroad. The Ford Motor Company salvaged the stripped-down convertibles, re-engineered them and sold them to the public.
The concepts seen in the Skyway also had a long shelf life, and were the inspiration for many of EPCOT’s pavilions. The Universe of Energy’s dinosaur sequence was reminiscent of a similar scene from the Skyway, and the cavemen scene appears to have inspired some similar figures in Spaceship Earth and the World of Motion.
Perhaps the most significant inspiration that the Skyway provided was that of the WEDway PeopleMover ride-system. The idea was born out of discussions with Ford executives concerning how guests could experience the Skyway from the comfort of a Ford vehicle, without the need to place a driver in each automobile. According to former Imagineer Bob Gurr, when Henry Ford II asked Walt Disney how this could be accomplished, he suggested they use the “booster-brake” system utilized by the Matterhorn. This system used strategically-placed tires imbedded in the track that either sped up or slowed down the bobsled. The Skyway took this technology in a different direction: the tires imbedded in the track were the sole means of propulsion, while a single pylon held the car on the track. This system had the advantage of allowing the vehicle to travel at varying speeds over the course of the attraction.
WED would again turn to this technology when developing the new Tomorrowland of 1967. The PeopleMover offered guests a grand tour of the re-imagined land. Guests boarded specially-designed cars that moved along the tire-powered track. (Because of the prominence of tires in the attraction, Goodyear signed to be the attraction’s sponsor.) The PeopleMover featured one major new innovation: a circular “turntable” loading area. This proved to be highly efficient, providing the attraction with a capacity of over 4,000 people per hour. Disney saw the potential of this futuristic means of transportation, going so far as to start a company to market the technologies to venues and communities (Community Transportation Services Division of Walt Disney Productions). Disney would again build a PeopleMover in Florida; however, this system would eliminate tires in favor of linear induction motors. While the PeopleMover never took hold as a means of rapid transit, it remains a fascinating remnant of a future that never was.