DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.11 – 1969 Walt Disney World Tram Design

Written by Bob Gurr. Posted in Bob Gurr, Design: Those Were The Times, Disney, Disney History

Tagged: , , , , ,

frontpagepic_bg

Published on June 05, 2013 at 4:01 am with 17 Comments

Disney legend Bob Gurr is famous for making things move. He invented the Autopia, Monorail, Main Street Vehicles, and at least one behemoth . Today, he has spun the Wheel of Years and landed on a topic with a steep grade and an ugly disposition.  Bob, the turn is clear.

Today’s Wheel of Years has stopped at 1969, so here we go!

Ever wondered why the Walt Disney World Tram Tractors look the way they do – sort of ugly, in a way? Also, why do the Disneyland Resort Tram Tractors look a bit like the WDW ones? Well, it’s complicated.

During the advance planning of WDW in 1969, a decision was made that the trams to be used at WDW were to be powered by compressed natural gas (CNG), and a natural gas engineer was assigned to the job. I was also assigned to design the tram tractor in accordance with what system the CNG engineer came up with. Thus began a period of specification writing that would take many twists and turns. A decision had also been made that a two lane road would connect the parking lot with the Magic Kingdom’s main entrance, passing thru a tunnel that had a steep grade, known as the lagoon underpass.

It was soon evident that a fully loaded tram pulling such a steep grade would require way more power than when running on level ground. And that a long 16 hour day’s run would need a lot of CNG fuel aboard, meaning real big fuel tanks. As the CNG engineer developed his system, the size and cost of new tanks required for 23 tractors was prohibitively way over the budget established.

 

The water bridge and underpass during construction.

The accounting department then decided that the company should buy standard, off-the-shelf, gasoline tractors to save on the money it would cost to build custom designed CNG tractors. So, the use of clean CNG was abandoned, and a bid specification was drawn up by the purchasing department. This was followed by a purchase order issued to United Tractor in Chesterton, Indiana. I was then transferred off the tractor job to the 20,000 Leagues Submarine project as a production supervisor working with Morgan Yacht and Tampa Ship, located in Florida.

While working on the Subs, I was sent to visit United Tractor to examine their factory, to see if they were a qualified bidder (the contract had already been placed), and report back to our purchasing department. The bid requirements did not take into account all the reality details of the actual power required; just a basic catalog standard model United was building for the U.S. Navy at the time. No way was this itty bitty little gasoline tractor going to do the job, but it met the Disney purchasing specs exactly, period. Thus, I was doomed to giving a straight report back that, yes, they have a good factory, and yes, they are nice folks. But any criticism on my part would be seen as “sour grapes,” since my custom design had been stopped.

pic1

United began delivery of the 23 tractors two months before the October 1971 WDW opening. On August 13, 1971, I accompanied the delivery of the first Sub from Tampa to WDW, only to find that the United tractors were a disaster! They were overheating, their transmissions were blowing up, and they were having all sorts of electrical and air brake troubles. Each tractor would last only a few days before becoming useless while testing empty trams under the lagoon underpass. None had been tested with passengers. Pardon me for clucking, but I enjoyed the chaos immensely.

WDW Vice President Dick Nunis was in charge of just about everything, same as Walt had him doing during the opening of Disneyland back in 1955. He grabbed me, and told me to fix these tractors NOW! After reviewing everything with the tram maintenance staff, I decided that all the tram car accessories, like electrical generators and air brake compressors, that had been added to the small United tractor engines had hopelessly overloaded them. It was obvious that they would not be able to make the lagoon underpass fully loaded. And, of course, we had to have all 23 trams tested and functional in less than a month for cast member training.

With an authorization handed to me for unlimited staff, shop help, and budget, I got to work. I’d remove all the added engine accessories and place them in a piggy back power unit welded to the back of the United tractor. I quickly sourced and ordered an industrial engine, air compressor, big electrical alternator, and assorted mounting hardware. Then I combined all this stuff into a welded steel framework. We got all the parts the next day, the shop built the first framework the following day from my sketches, and the crazy rig was ready to test on day three. I figured the thing was going to work, so I ordered 22 more sets of parts so the shop could set up a fast assembly line.

pic4

Meanwhile, Dick had ordered Mr. Carlson, the president of United Tractor, and his chief engineer, to fly down the previous night to WDW where we all would discuss these fixes. Remember now, Dick Nunis and General George Patton operated in the same manner. Meeting at an off-site motel, Dick was waiting with a handful of his infamous “mafia” to confront the United guys. When Dick asked Mr. Carlton’s engineer what his recovery plan was, the poor guy started shaking and lost his voice in the presence of Dick’s glare. Dick cut him off and said “Gurr has a plan. The WDW shops will build it, and Carlson will pay”. Ouch.

The next day, a loaded tram, filled with the biggest folks that Dick could round up, was headed down to the bottom of the lagoon underpass with the United guys, Dick, and myself seated in the first tram car. If the tractor made the grade, we’d build the other 22 rigs, and Carlson would ready his wallet. Sure enough, my crazy scheme worked, as the little tractor’s speed sunk to 3 mph, but made the grade, just barely. WDW modified all the United tractors in time for WDW to open with all the trams serving our new guests. But not before Disney ordered me back to work on the CNG custom tractor design. We set up a crash program to build 23, all-new custom CNG tractors to have them delivered by summer 1972.

But this time, the company would compromise by buying much cheaper, used CNG tanks. So, a long search was made around the country for used tanks. Finally, a set of 46 tanks were purchased and delivered. When I saw these monsters, I knew that this new tractor design was going to be an animal. So here’s the situation: We had to use two tanks per tram, about 28″ diameter by 7′ long, made of very heavy, thick-walled, high pressure steel. We would need a very big drive axle, and a big gasoline engine modified to run on CNG.

pic2

To arrange all this stuff, with placing this much weight over the drive axle, meant that the length of the tanks and engine would straddle the axle. We’d need a front steering axle, too. Oh, and a place for the driver. Why not just put the driver in the front center where he could enter thru a windshield door? Crazy nuts, but it would solve all the weight distribution and equipment space requirements just fine – except for how ugly this animal was going to be!

The new tractors were placed into service in 1972, but a few years later, the CNG use was so problematic that they were converted to diesel fuel. Even later, there was another change back to CNG. When the Disneyland Resort wanted new tram tractors, Imagineering came up with a beautiful, new styling job of a body to fit a newly re-engineered version of my original, crazy ugly design. Somehow, this original configuration made exclusively to negotiate the WDW lagoon underpass wound up on easy level ground service at the Disneyland Resort.

We ended up paying for a first tractor engineering job, stock United tractors plus modifications, a second tractor engineering job, and finally, 23 custom tractors that have served us well for over 40 years. See, I told you it was complicated.

About Bob Gurr

Bob Gurr is a true Disney legend who was hired on to design the Autopia for Disneyland. Over nearly four decades, Bob would become famous for developing the Monorails, Submarines, Flying Saucers, antique cars and double-decker buses of Main Street, Ford Motor Company's Magic Skyway (at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair), Omnimover ride system, Matterhorn and lots more. It has been said that if it moves, Bob probably played a part. Upon leaving Imagineering in 1981, Bob worked on a number of "leisure-time spectaculars" and "fantastical beasts" for parks and developments all over the world. Most notably, he created King Kong and Conan's Serpent for Universal Studios Hollywood, A UFO for the closing ceremonies of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, and the memorable T-Rex figure featured in Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Jurassic Park." You can find Bob's column, Design: Those Were The Times, right here on MiceChat. Though don't pin Bob down to a schedule, he's busy being "retired."

Browse Archived Articles by

17 Comments

Comments for DESIGN: Those Were The Times No.11 – 1969 Walt Disney World Tram Design are now closed.

  1. Fantastic story Bob. Pulled from a project and then called in again at the last minute to save it. And you’re right, those trams are ugly. But they’ve also become iconic. Amazing how that happens. Thank you for a fun tale Bob. Can’t wait for the next one.

  2. I was reading the story, looking at the pictures, and thinking “They’re using the wrong pictures. Surely, they can’t still be using trams designed by Bob Gurr.” Well, I was wrong. Great job, Gurr!

  3. You know, I realize the need, both logistically and style-wise, for new trams at Disneyland. But I must admit a certain fondness for the yellow and aqua marine trams they used to have that you could hop on at the main entrance to Disneyland and take over to the hotel. With a stop at the bus stop, of course. Or even taking the tram out to the parking lot at the end of the day.

  4. Bob: Was there any thought at the time on putting the CNG fuel tanks under the floor on all the trailers? One tank per. You have plenty of wasted space down the centerline of each trailer, and one tank in the tractor would be enough for servicing.

    And dish – Which guy(s) at the Studio owned the BMW Isetta or Messerschmitt cycle-car? Any car guy sees the solution for the tractor cab and immediately knows where it came from…

    Now it’s simple to do a CNG engine, you just call Cummins or Caterpillar and they ship you one all ready to go. Back in 1968, I’d expect you to cheat and go with a big-block (400+ CID) and a truck automatic from one of the Big 3 running Propane, it was already a mature technology back then.

    In conclusion, the Tram Tractors are Not ugly. Ugly doesn’t work, designed by a commitee that was unclear on the concept and goals. Homely does what you need, when you need it, and just keeps doing it for years. And these certainly do, so you can excuse a few styling trade-offs in the process of getting it packaged.

    –<>–

  5. I find the bobbing motion the tractors make to be endlessly amusing due to their shifting weight on start and stop. Not too surprising that the same Bob who designed bobbing boats designed a bobbing tractor. ;) Great read Bob. Thanks for the ’69 stop!

  6. Bob – What a great article! Just like Gov. committees, they often end up spending double to save a few bucks up front!

    Question: I work in a adult community in Orange County (Laguna Woods) that operates it’s own bus system. A few years back when they looked into replacing their aging buses they thought of going to CNG but some argued because of the hilly nature of the community, CNG buses would have problems with all the stops. Any thoughts on that?

  7. Bob: I have heard you tell this story before and it does not get old. It is one of my favorites.

    My engineering career, and I am certain many of have similar situations, is made up the crazy situations created by others not in the know. We all use the same phrases over and over–You want what?–How much did you sell it for?–Why would you promise this delivery date?–You have got to be kidding!– with those in purchasing/sales/marketing/management all saying–It seemed like a good idea at the time?! Any way it is said, the engineer gets to fix some interesting problems created for no reason what so ever and then we get to say we get paid for this much fun.

    Now the tram tractors may not be as sleek as a monorail (any MK) or as stylish as an Omnibus, but they are pure Disney and I love them. “Driver we are clear”

    Thank you,
    Justin

  8. It’s always a pleasure to read Bob Gurr’s “Those Were The Times” columns. Nothing beats firsthand stories of why things at Disneyland Park and Magic Kingdom Park are as they are (or as they were in the past). What a great addition to MiceChat!

  9. Wow. It WAS complicated! But you explained it perfectly so this non-engineering blonde could follow along! LOL

    Again, another fascinating look at Disneyland/WDW history through the eyes of Bob Gurr. Again, thank you for sharing your stories and can’t wait until we spin the wheel again!

  10. Nothing beats reading/hearing the history of Disney parks from someone who was part of making them. Great article!

  11. Did the Magic Kingdom parking lot trams ever travel through the lagoon underpass? That underpass isn’t anywhere near the Magic Kingdom parking lot; it’s near the Contemporary on an automobile roadway. The underpass that the trams currently use is underneath the road that cars use to exit the Contemporary area.

    • Yes, they did in the first years. before the current batch of buses and monorails could adequately transport guests to the park from the TTC, the trams occasionally had to carry guests to the Magic Kingdom.

  12. Great article Bob! It’s true that they’re ugly but in a cute sort of way. I, being a Californian, always wondered why I liked the Florida trams look better. Of course it had to be you! I always followed the trams’ design changes year after year from when they had two exhaust pipes, to one, and now to none! Though I always liked our California ones, too. There’s something about that front entry that’s just so cool! I do detest those doors on the cars, though…

  13. Those darn budgets ! Great story Bob. What an exciting career you had indeed.

  14. Nothing better than getting first hand experience from a Legend!
    Great stuff, thank you!

  15. Fantastic story!

    Can’t wait to hear more about the transportation and projects you worked on at WDW.