If you were to ask me what one thing I like the most about Disneyland, you would be waiting a while. The answer would either take several minutes for me to formulate as I expanded and expounded, or we would both be sitting in silence as I hovered in a state of cogitation. In other words, locate a comfortable chair.
If you were to ask me to catalog the iconography of my childhood, however, one of the first items recalled would surely be the Disneyland Skyway.
The Skyway opened in late June of 1956, just 11 months after the park opened. Walt Disney envisioned it not as a “ride,” but as an example of how mankind would be traveling in the future. He described the Skyway as “a transportation system of the future for use in parking lots in huge shopping areas” before the attraction even opened. It actually predates both the Monorail and the Peoplemover (by 3 and 11 years, respectively) as a showcase of futuristic transport.
Only months after the Skyway opened, Walt was already looking for ways to improve upon it. The attraction was initially supported by four cross-braced towers, and Walt singled out its central suspension tower as a particular eyesore. Sitting atop a pile of dirt (then known as Holiday Hill) stood 85 feet of unattractive steel. It was on that hill one day in late 1956 that Walt turned to Admiral Joe Fowler (head of Disneyland construction) and asked, “Do you suppose we could get some snow and have a toboggan ride here?” Less than three years later, the Matterhorn was built around the ugly center tower. Two large openings were created on the east and west sides of the mountain, allowing Skyway riders to pass right through, and even catch a glimpse of the thrilling E-Ticket attraction.
Sometimes referred to as “buckets,” the cylindrical gondolas ferried up to two visitors at a time between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. Departing their respective station every 12 seconds, they traveled along 1,200 feet of cable (one way) that was held taut by over 17 tons of ballast. The early cylindrical design—which contained two bolted-down fiberglass patio chairs—received an update for Disneyland’s 10th anniversary. Disney wanted to increase the ride capacity, but maintain a similar vehicle weight limit. Disney Legend Bob Gurr came up with a rectangular design that included bench seating for up to four passengers. Gurr also cleverly incorporated a safety cable that weaved throughout the vehicle’s framework, assuring the safety of each rider should the structure be compromised.
The vistas afforded by this attraction were unmatched for park guests. Whether they were looking down on the iconic Sleeping Beauty Castle, or gazing into the crisp blue water of the Submarine Lagoon, people unafraid of heights experienced views previously only available via aerial photographs. Thirty-eight years and 150 million passengers after its debut, the Skyway carried Mickey and Minnie Mouse on its final run over the happiest place on earth.
While my earliest memories of riding the Skyway don’t quite evoke “visions of the future,” I always remember them fondly as I picture them gliding across the skies of Disneyland.
Much thanks to Werner Weiss of Yesterland for photos and inspiration
Do you have treasured memories of the Skyway?