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 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.
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.
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.
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.