How Disney’s Futuristic Monorail Became a Relic of the Past

Trust us: Two rails are better than one.

When it comes to Disney, innovation and ingenuity are just as paramount as Mickey-shaped waffles and treacly nostalgia. A far cry from your standard theme park, Disneyland and Walt Disney World have long been at the forefront of creativity, dreaming up new ways to dazzle and delight from every vantage point. Beyond the obvious enchantment of immersive rides and palatial resorts, it’s a meticulous sentiment that touches every square inch of the parks, from the fantastically themed bathrooms and elaborately detailed ride queues to something as simple as a mode of transport.

For Walt Disney, the OG Imagineer with a verve for invention, it was never enough to simply move guests into and around the parks—rather, he wanted to ensure that the way they were transported was just as magical and on-brand as everything else. Enter: the monorail—a sleek Jetsons-esque train, so named for its single line of elevated track—which not only serves the utilitarian purpose of transporting guests to parks and hotels, but has become an attraction all its own and a seminal icon of Disney’s peerless ingenuity.

Disneyland Monorail sign

The emergence of the Disney monorail

Never one to rest on his laurels, Walt was always looking for new ways to innovate. Despite being responsible for the most-visited theme parks on the planet, it was never really about thrill rides and character meet-and-greets for this restless forward-thinker. His key focuses were always the technological advances at both Disneyland and Epcot—the latter of which he initially envisioned as the “experimental prototype community of tomorrow,” a lofty ambition for a Disney-fied town centered on modernization. To Walt, the attractions and hotels were mere stepping stones that paved the way and allowed him to create wholly immersive worlds of twee perfection. Thus began the urge to establish a transportation system that lived up to the majesty of the Happiest Place on Earth.

Walt’s lightbulb monorail moment occurred while he was vacationing in the German countryside in 1958 and happened upon an elevated monorail passing over his scenic drive near Cologne. He was so stirred that he started collaborating with Germany’s Alweg Research Corporation to conceptualize a model he could take back to Disneyland, which had opened a few years prior in 1955. After swift work to replicate the German monorail model, the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System debuted in 1959 and ran until 1969, operating initially as a sightseeing attraction over Tomorrowland. Described as a “highway in the sky,” Disney’s monorail ran 41 feet above ground, gliding along a two-and-a-half-mile track at speeds up to 30 mph. As the first operating monorail system in the United States, its debut was such a splashy sensation that its ribbon-cutting was attended by then-Vice President Richard Nixon.

It wasn’t until 1961, when a second platform was built at the Disneyland Hotel and a new fleet of trains was added, that the monorail evolved into its original intention: a mode of transport. From there, the sky was the limit for this high-flying rail, envisioned as an awe-inspiring train that would keep guests immersed in Disney themes en route to the park. New advancements and developments emerged in subsequent decades, including more streamlined monorail models designed by Walt Disney Imagineering that ran from 1969 to 2008 and a new station at Downtown Disney. The current monorail system, which debuted in 2008 and travels over Fantasyland and Tomorrowland as well as Grizzly Peak and Hollywood Land in Disney’s California Adventure, boasts a sleek sci-fi motif that simultaneously harkens to the vintage early days of Disney invention while offering a transportation experience that feels sophisticated and futuristic. That said, if you’re looking to ride the monorail, you’ll want to act fast; the system is closing for renovations on July 5, and there’s no date for reopening on the calendar just yet.

Epcot Monorail

Making moves in Disney World

Forget Texas; everything is really bigger in Florida. As Walt was initially dreaming up his second theme park near Orlando—a massive tract of land he vaguely referred to as the “Florida Project,” the monorail played a key role not just as a means of getting guests into the park but as the basis for what he envisioned as full-blown mass transit. It was to be a convenient, reliable, and forward-thinking transportation system for his ambitious plans at Epcot, where guests and residents would be able to press buttons at stations to summon sleek trains. For better or worse, we’ll never know what it would have been like to literally live in a world designed by Walt Disney. He died in 1966 before his namesake Walt Disney World opened in 1971 with Magic Kingdom.

Rather than operating as mass transit, the Disney World monorail became an opening-day route that simply whisked visitors from the Transportation and Ticket Station to the front gates of the park—with additional stations at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort and Disney’s Contemporary Resort. Expanded tracks connected Magic Kingdom to Epcot when the park opened in 1982, and another station at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa was added in 1988. Far grander than Disneyland’s monorail, Florida’s version boasts nearly 15 miles of track traversed by 12 colorful trains that can each accommodate 364 riders at a time. On an average day, Disney World’s monorail transports around 150,000 guests, making it one of the most used monorail systems around the globe.

Nowadays, the Disney World monorail is as iconic as the most nostalgic Magic Kingdom attractions. Although people have the option of ferrying to the park across the Seven Seas Lagoon or even walking along a newly added path that starts at the Grand Floridian, the monorail remains a rite of passage for entering “the Most Magical Place on Earth.” It transports passengers along a smooth track that loops around the lagoon and travels directly through the Contemporary, offering glimpses of Mickey and Co. schmoozing with guests at breakfast down below.

Disney World monorail

The mass transit of tomorrow? Not so much

For something as magical, sleek, and innovative as the monorail, you might be wondering why Walt’s grand paradigm-shifting plans for America’s mass transit system didn’t take off beyond Disney property. Even though monorails are a thriving and famed attraction in Disneyland and Disney World, along with Tokyo Disney Resort, their flaws inhibit expansion in pretty much any other setting.

As plenty of Disney-goers can attest, especially those who endure the hordes at Magic Kingdom’s Transportation and Ticket Center, the monorail is far from perfect. Yes, it’s got cool Tomorrowland vibes that speak to a would-be future of shiny perfection, but when things go wrong with monorails, things go wrong. Passengers are sometimes left waiting long stretches for trains to arrive because if one breaks down, it can take a while to reroute cars. Those are the natural limitations of operating on a single track, and there’s no technology that exists to create a higher-speed switch.

In general, it’s a lack of technology and a surplus of expenses that make monorails ill-suited for transit on a beyond-Disney scale. Building elevated tracks is pricier than building ground-level tracks, and when coupled with the headaches that come with single-track operations, they’re simply not a viable or reliable option for cities, many of which already have long-established infrastructure that would be tedious to replace. So the next time you’re stuck on the L in Chicago, just be thankful you’re not mired in a sea of strollers, roasting under the Florida sun.

From Disneyland to Disney World, Walt’s grandiose ambitions to innovate have reshaped how the world sees theme parks. Monorails, despite their lack of real-world practicality, have earned their rightful reign as a symbol of that magical ambition. Just don’t expect them to pop up in cities—even in the future.

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Matt Kirouac is a contributor for Thrillist.