The Past, Present, and Uncertain Future of the Walt Disney World Monorail System
The Walt Disney World Monorail System has suffered through its share of issues in recent years, but what happened a few weeks ago may have been the most appalling in recent memory. In case you missed it, one of the doors on Monorail Red sprung open on its way to Epcot, giving the passengers in that car quite a scare. Luckily no one was injured, but the incident has reignited the discussion of what should be done about the aging fleet that is already past its design life. Apparently, this prompted Disney to install warning signs above the monorail doors advising guests not to lean against the doors, but clearly slapping some stickers above the doors is not enough to prevent such a malfunction from happening again.
So the question on the mind of many a person is, what are they going to do in the long-term? Well, long-term thinking has never been a hallmark of the Walt Disney Company in the past several decades, and this is exactly why the monorails are in their current sad state. Let’s take a look at the history of the Disney monorails to get an idea of how we got to this point.
The Disneyland-ALWEG Monorail System opened in 1959 with the Bob Gurr-designed Buck Rogers-inspired Mark I three-car trains, Red and Blue. The Mark II four-car train, Gold, came online in 1961, and Red and Blue were lengthened to four cars. These were then called the Mark II trains.
In 1969, the original fleet, just ten years old, was replaced by the Mark III fleet, a set of four brand new five-car trains, manufactured by WED Enterprises at a cost of over $2 million.
Bob Gurr’s new Learjet-inspired design was used for the fleet of ten Mark IV monorails that entered service in 1971-1972 for the opening of the Walt Disney World resort. These trains were built by Martin Marietta at a cost of $6 million. Two additional trains were added in 1977.
Disneyland’s aging Mark III fleet, approaching 18 years old, was replaced in 1986 with the Mark V trains, almost identical in design to the Mark IV trains.
The Mark IV fleet trains logged almost a million miles each during their 18-20 year service life. Beginning in 1989, the Mark IV trains were slowly replaced by a set of new Mark VI trains over about two years. These new Mark VI trains were manufactured by TGI (Transportation Group Inc.), a subsidiary of Montreal-based Bombardier.
The last of the trains came online in 1991, “completing the modernization of the Walt Disney World Monorail System,” as the announcer tells you as you ride from Epcot towards the Transportation and Ticket Center. I think calling the introduction of the Mark VI trains a “modernization” was probably accurate in the 90’s, but at this point these trains are approaching 30 years of service, so I’d hardly call them modern any longer.
So, with the current fleet approaching 30 years old, we seem to be about 10 years past the expected lifetime of our beloved monorails. Over the past several years, Disney has been attempting to upgrade this fleet with a more advanced control system, with several enhancements designed to prevent a fatal accident like the one that happened in 2009. This has resulted in many years of daily or weekly interruptions in monorail operations during the midday hours, and cutbacks in monorail service at the end of the park operating day on many occasions. Despite this effort going on for such a long time, the system is still not fully operational. This seems to be indicative of how difficult it is to update and maintain 30-year-old transportation technology.
It seems rather obvious at this point in time that Disney sorely needs a brand new fleet of monorails. In fact, Siemens, the company that sponsored Spaceship Earth and IllumiNations at Epcot for the past decade, offered to provide Disney, “for free”, a brand-spanking-new set of Siemens monorails as part of their negotiations to renew their sponsorship contract. However, the catch was that the monorails would be sponsored by Siemens and sport the corporate logo. Disney balked at this for several reasons. First, the monorail design that has been featured at Walt Disney World for over 45 years is iconic to many visitors, and has adorned various pieces of Disney merchandise, from pins, to shirts, to socks, to plush, over the years. To suddenly (possibly) lose this merchandising ability and the concomitant cash flow was considered a non-starter. Additionally, guests have always viewed the monorails as futuristic, in part thanks to Bob Gurr’s brilliant design. To bring on a new fleet of monorails with a much more utilitarian design that is not unique to Disney was also going to be an issue.
Siemens felt rather offended that Disney didn’t accept their offer of free monorails, and thus decided to not renew their expiring sponsorship, shutting their corporate VIP lounge in Spaceship Earth in July, ahead of the official contract end date of October 10. While there are a number of monorail manufacturers around the world, a set of 12 monorails is not an in-stock item, and the lead time for assembly ranges from months to years. This is in addition to the custom design that Disney would require. One might speculate that perhaps we’d see a new fleet of monorails in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary in 2021. This would be a great anniversary gift, but the timeline is already pretty tight to accomplish this.
The list of possible manufacturers for the new monorail fleet is short. Bombardier is a contender, but seems unlikely given their recent negative press, ranging from payoffs to sales in Iran. This includes a recent history of late deliveries on some high-profile transportation projects. With Bombardier and Siemens out of the picture, Disney would likely have to look to the East, namely Hitachi, who has most recently produced a fleet in 2009. Hitachi was the manufacturer of the reliable and much-loved Tokyo Disney Resort system in 2001. There may be a few other options, but the choices are limited.
With a new monorail fleet several years away in the best-case scenario, what’s Disney to do? We’ve seen speculation and rumors in recent weeks that Disney may shut down the monorail system altogether. This seems unlikely for many reasons, not the least of which is that the monorails transport thousands of guests each day between the parking lot and the Magic Kingdom, there is simply not enough capacity on the ferries to accommodate a full closure of the monorail system, nor does Disney own enough busses to move that many people. What is more likely is that there may be an upcoming closure of the Epcot monorail line, which is something that would be necessary to accommodate construction of a new hotel. Closing the entire system would be an absolute worst-case scenario for Walt Disney World.
Besides, most of the monorails are, and have been, working reliably. While there are reports of shortages of monorail parts, Disney has plenty of experience building monorails that they could fabricate a few pieces when necessary. Remember, after the 2009 accident, they built Monorail Teal from the undamaged parts of Pink and Purple, but then they built Monorail Peach from scratch in 2011 to get the fleet back to 12. So they are perfectly capable of creating the parts they need. From a maintenance and financial standpoint, however, fabricating replacement parts for a 30-year-old system is going to be costly. While this strategy could extend the life of the monorails, it’s only a stopgap measure. In the end, the old fleet should be heading to that “big highway in the sky” soon…