The Past, Present, and Uncertain Future of the Walt Disney World Monorail System

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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.

Disneyland-ALWEG Monorail System (Mark I)

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.

Mark II Monorail Red

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.

Mark III Monorail Red

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.

Walt Disney World’s fleet of Mark IV monorails, which debuted in 1971-1972

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.

Disneyland Monorail Mark V

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.

Mark VI Monorail Blue being loaded onto the beamway in 1989
Mark VI Monorail Orange

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.

Tokyo Disney Resort Line

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…

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About the author

Jason Diffendal

Jason has been a lifelong fan of the Disney parks since his first visit at age 2. His biennial pilgrimages during his childhood accelerated into semi-annual visits by the year 2000, when he also Joined the Disney Vacation Club. Luckily, Jason’s bride-to-be was also a Disney fan, which allowed his infatuation with the Disney parks to continue, and ultimately culminated in their wedding at Disney's Wedding Pavilion in September 2003. Early in 2007, Jason began his involvement with the planning for what became Celebration 25, the unofficial fan gathering to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Epcot®. Soon thereafter, Jason met Tom Corless at a pin trading meet in New Jersey, and became part of the WDW News Today podcast starting with Episode 17. Jason has been involved with the WDWNT Network ever since, and can't seem to escape no matter how hard he tries.
Contact Jason at [email protected]

21 Comments

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  • As a further ‘jab’ in the aging monorails side, the ‘do not lean’ signs are already falling off. I just saw a video over the weekend where one of the several foot long signs fell down across the monorail door.

  • Interesting to note that the day after the “event” of a few weeks ago, I heard there were postings for full and part-time monorail attendants.

    >>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.<>nor does Disney own enough buses to move that many people. <<

    But I would think buses are cheaper and way more available than monorails.
    ALso, the trip is walkable from the Contemporary, not sure about the Grand. I'd love to know a distance comparison between Beach Club to the Studios and GF to the MK… Guess there would need to be a completed walkable loop too?? Don't know if that is something readily available. I would think walking from the Poly to The Kingdom would be considered a "day trip!!!"

    >>the monorails are, and have been, working reliably.<<

    ROFL… Don't know which monorail you've been riding, but every time I'm at Disney, it seems there is an issue with the monorail system.

    Those Tokyo Disney monorails are really soooo cool looking.

    Might Iger recant a bit and go back to Siemens… Outsourcing seems to be Disney's thing anymore. Why not the monorail system too???

    • Frank-

      Busses are indeed cheaper, but totally not magical. It can be done, but that is a worst-case scenario. And when the monorails do come back online, they’d have a ton of used busses sitting around.

      GF guests can’t walk. The canal for the Electrical Water Pageant is blocking the way. Poly would be a bit of a hike, but also there aren’t really sidewalks for most of that route.

      GF and Poly have the benefit of taking boats. They certainly could increase the size/number of boats to accomodate higher traffic.

      The monorails themselves are working reliably. It is the control system that is the issue, and has been since they started to implement it in 2009. The mechanics of the trains themselves are fine. It is somewhat rare that one breaks down and has to be towed.

      I think they’d go with Hitachi or someone else, or even Bombardier, before going back to Siemens. That’s a fairly burnt bridge.

  • I wish we could stop lying to each other regarding the one fatal accident which occurred at 2:00 am and had nothing to do with normal ride operations.

    One accident in 50 years is still amazing. Do they think automated monorails will be safer…really?

      • I sort of agree. Disney isn’t great at fixing attractions after they have been built. They start with a building budget but even then, they cut the budget giving a lack luster attraction. When they show us the plans and say this it, it really blows when they cut parts out.
        As for the monorails, I’d be surprised if they replace them. C’mon Disney, SURPRISE ME!
        But the fact is, trains can legally run for 50 years before they are required to be retired. The monorails fit in this discription.
        And if you consider the past practice, Mono V was built with the chassis from MK III and the only new part on the MK VII’s are the nose cones, the cars are from MK V’s with upgrades.
        So I expect to see the MK VI monorails upgraded and restored back to a more healthy existance. It fit in with DISNEY’s past practice and tight wallets.

    • First: I agree with Jeff, this has to be a joke.

      Second: A mini rant: Elon is an interesting individual and has been bold trying out “new” methods, but he’s hardly the most forward looking human on this planet. He turns his back on the real issues of saving the planet and instead works on the popular issues and squanders money on childish fantasies such as populating mars. His programs are hurting the environment faster than he can make up for it with solar farms etc. You don’t cut someone’s skin and toss a band aid at it to make up for it.

  • I can not imagine Disney World would allow the monorail to just “go away”. As mentioned in the article, the parking lot is too far away and it is too iconic. Disney wants its visitors to feel transported away and lets face it, a bus just doesn’t do that. Additionally, the entire Contemporary Hotel was built around the Monorail. The folks at Disney are smart. I believe they realize, that no one would pay triple the price of the 4 Seasons, which is off the main “campus”, to stay at the Grand Floridian, Polynesian or Contemporary without the allure of the monorail. You would basically have 3 outdated hotels charging a premium to have to take alternative transport or *gasp* walk.

  • If I were Disney I’d ask for at least a partial refund from their control system contractor. Nothing more ridiculous than the 20 seconds of herky-jerky stuttering when in a station as it tries to locate the stop point. Oh, actually more ridiculous is the complete lack of sync on the audio now – “stay clear of the doors, they will be closing in a moment” before the monorail has even stopped.

  • Safety costs money. A good guest experience costs money. Disney does NOT spend money. They take it. I’m a fan of the parks, but it’s a sad reality that Disney really hates Walt Disney World Parks. They are a media company now, and see their theme parks as a worthless money grab.

  • I wish they would invent a simple people mover that never breaks down…

    If Universal can install a sky trolly and a Harry Potter train you would hope Disney could at least rip them off since they are too cheap to innovate now

  • You better put your big boy batteries in and fix this Chapek! A day without the monorail is like a day without sunshine

  • Nice to see a select few entitled Disney fans complaining about infrequent minor inconveniences.

    Yes, the monorail is in need of refurbishment and/or replacement, but for the most part continues to function … at least it has for me and my family, and as an APH I visit several times a month, so my personal sample size is as large or larger than most.

    In the end, Disney will do what’s best and makes the most economic sense: keep improving and renovating the park, including the monorail, at a rate that generates bang for the buck while assuring continued heightened interest, attendance, and greater revenue. Everyone wins.

    That’s how capitalism works, kiddies. Works for me.

  • Wow, I hope the monorails are still there when we visit this summer. I would love to ride them one more time.

  • I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the monorail system is removed in favor of replacing them with and adding them to the gondola line. The gondola system being built screams “monorail replacement test” to me.

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