For the first two weeks of February 2016, the WDW Radio Blog Team will be reviewing great moments in Disney History. These moments have impacted the history of the company through film, parks, innovation, events and more.
On the morning of June 14, 1959, the sun shone brilliantly in southern California sky, and as it did, it glared intensely off the aerodynamic, two-piece/split windshield of the brand new Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System. That day—a no doubt nervous and proud—Disney Imagineer Bob Gurr sat in the pilot’s chair of the Mark I shiny new, ultramodern, state-of-the-art transport system that he was tasked to design, by Walt Disney, not even one year prior. Today, we can only imagine the thoughts that raced through his mind as he prepared to operate the tubular train positioned on the elevated railway that circled Disneyland Park.
Just months earlier, in October of 1958, Walt and his wife, Lillian, were driving down the road in Cologne, Germany, when they crossed paths with an elevated train running on a single beam. Walt wasted no time in learning that the “monorail” was owned, operated and designed by the Alweg Company. He immediately introduced himself and within two months he had partnered with the company to bring a version of their system to Disneyland.
Stateside, Bob Gurr was given three weeks to come up with a basic design for the new vehicle. The Alweg design was very industrial looking and not in keeping with the whimsy, imagination, and futuristic characteristics of Disneyland’s various themed-lands. So, Bob decided to create something streamlined and instantly remembered the design of the rocket in the 1930s Buck Rogers cartoons. The characteristic fins of that animated rocket inspired the sleek base of the cars giving them a futuristic vibe. The design of the Boeing B47 Bomber also gave rise to the pilot’s bubble on the top of the Disneyland Monorail. In the documentary, “Extinct Attractions: The Monorail Story”, Bob recalls that he came up with the design in 10 minutes at his kitchen table one Saturday morning. After creating a pencil rendering, Bob presented the design to Walt Disney at a very short meeting where Walt simply asked, “Bobby, can you build that?” And, Bobby said, “Yeah.” Without delay, the job was “approved for go-ahead.”
While Walt had partnered with the Alweg Company, it became the job of Bob Gurr and fellow Imagineer, Roger Broggie to break it to the Germans that the Monorail cars would be designed and built in California. Initially, the cars were produced by Standard Carriage Works of East Los Angeles; however, due to the rapidly approaching deadline of opening day, the process was moved to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank. Production continued in the very soundstage where 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was shot.
Just two weeks before the Disneyland-Alweg Monorail System dedication, the cars were delivered to Disneyland and set on the beam. Testing was finally able to begin; problems, tweaks, and part-redesigns abounded. The Monorail did not finish its first successful trip around the loop until the evening of June 13, 1959, the night before the dedication.
Bob Gurr recalls that, on the morning of the dedication, he wanted to park the Monorail at the platform, in advance, as opposed to pulling up to meet the press and TV crew members. He was concerned that the train would fail to reach its destination in front of onlookers, which would result in embarrassment and guaranteed negative media coverage. If the train were stationary immediately prior to and during the ribbon cutting it would ensure an unspoiled, albeit inactive presentation of the futuristic transport. He thought that once the actual dedication ceremony concluded, he could pull away, around the bend and out of sight. That way, if it did break down, perhaps no one would notice.
As it happened, there was a bit of a surprise when Walt made it known that he had invited his friend Vice-President Richard Nixon along with his family to enjoy a ride around Disneyland the morning of the dedication. Thus, the transportation system would be run for outsiders ahead of the big event after all. With the V.I.P. guests inside, the Monorail train took off without a hitch; however, as they pulled away, the Vice-President noticed that his secret service detail was still standing on the platform. Bob had technically kidnapped the Vice-President. As the train returned to the platform, Walt told Bob to go around again. All the while, the frantic agents tried desperately to gain access to the transport and the Vice President. As the second trip ended, the special passengers disembarked and walked down the exit ramp only to see the entire security detail aboard the Monorail.
Later that afternoon, the world looked on as Art Linkletter hosted a televised broadcast special to commemorate the first official ride of the new transportation system. Celebrities including Disney Legend, Fred MacMurray were in attendance. After the first ride, Walt told Bob to give the press members a ride. He estimates there were around 4,000 press individuals waiting to take a loop. Only one other ride-operator had been designated, and he had not yet been trained. It was up to Bob to continue piloting the Monorail until 9:00 p.m. that night! Whether it was due to the brilliance and determination of the Imagineers in the days leading up to the dedication, or it was simply a miracle, the Monorail did not suffer a breakdown until late that night.
It almost goes without saying that with such a high-tech, modern marvel as a monorail transport system there would be additional problems to overcome going forward. Bob Gurr and others diligently worked to improve the Mark I as well as its successors. In 1961, the Mark II brought with it increased ridership capacity as well as an extension of the track that made it the first monorail to cross a public street. The 1969, Mark III corrected issues that had been present since the Monorail‘s inception and added a fifth car to each train, which increased passenger capacity.
The 1971, Mark IV Monorail was introduced with the opening of Walt Disney World. The new Monorail brought about a redesign inspired by the sleek, white, aerodynamic Learjet. Advancements in Plexiglas allowed for a single-piece, wrap-around windshield. In an interview with Inside the Magic, at Disney’s Contemporary Resort‘s Top of the World Lounge, Bob Gurr recalls testing the seismological effects of the Monorail on the structure of the Contemporary Tower before opening. Structural engineers worried that the building would shake as the Monorail passed through and the structural integrity of the building would be negatively impacted. In order to prove that no adverse effects would occur, Bob bolted a seismograph to the beam and proceeded to drive the Monorail through the building, not at the normal 5 mph, but at 43 mph! The seismograph registered no shaking. The engineers told him to do it two more times just to be sure, so Bob recalls being “thrilled to death” at having the chance to go “ripping through the south side” two more times!
The Mark V Monorail, brought the Walt Disney World-styling to the Disneyland Monorail, and portions of the track were re-routed to accommodate new additions to the property. The Mark VI, is the Monorail fleet currently in use at Walt Disney World. This new set of trains brought improved air-conditioning, wider doors, and increased passenger capacity by 30 percent. The 14.7-mile system has seven stations and carries more than 150,000 guests each day. The Mark VII, currently in use at Disneyland, brought a complete redesign to the fleet and returned the body styling to one more similar to the earlier trains.
While the Monorail has seen several changes throughout its 56-year existence, one thing has never changed, guests’ love of the transportation system. For many, it is the first “attraction” they experience on a Disneyland or Walt Disney World vacation. After just a few trips around the kingdom, riders can quote memorable spiel lines such as “Please stand clear of the doors. Por favor mantenganse alejado de las puertas.” and “Welcome aboard the Walt Disney World Monorail System.”
Without the perfectly-timed crossing in a German town in 1958, Walt may never have been inspired to charge Bob Gurr with the task of creating the revolutionary transportation system that both Disneyland and Walt Disney World guests have loved for decades. While the dedication was simply one day in the history of the Monorail, the inaugural public ride of the revolutionary transportation system was truly a great day in Disney History!
(Historical information was gleaned from several online sources. All of which have been linked within this article. All photos are ©Disney.)
Kendall is an editor and contributing writer for WDW Radio. She began visiting Walt Disney World in 1991 with her family and has continued to visit the resort with her husband. Her home-away-from-home is Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and she believes a perfect day at WDW includes a dip in the Lava Pool, a ride on Splash Mountain and a Pineapple Dole Whip. Follow her on Twitter @kl_foreman.