A Walt Disney World Transportation Fairytale

Written by Sam Gennawey. Posted in Features, Samland

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Published on August 15, 2013 at 3:00 am with 18 Comments

Once upon a time the planners at Walt Disney World really did want to follow Walt’s vision and create a place that would show off on how proper urban design can create places that are greater than the sum of its parts. Disney was in a unique position to make this dream a reality due to the way the property is governed.

In June 1976, the planning department for the City of Lake Buena Vista prepared a report that looked at the addition of a mixed use development to compliment the Magic Kingdom and the resort hotels. Lake Buena Vista is one of two cities that make up the Reedy Creek Improvement District. The Reedy Creek Improvement District was chartered by the Florida Legislature on May 12, 1967. The land use powers given to Disney were unprecedented. In the charter, Lake Buena Vista was planned to be a “new town.”

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At the time, it was estimated that the population in the Orlando region would jump from 344,000 people in 1970 to 541,000 people in 1980 and 750,000 in 1990. In reality, the estimates were off considerably. By 1980, the region was home to 804,925 people and and exploded to 1,224,852 by 1990. This growth was due to the shift in Florida tourism from Miami to Central Florida. Walt Disney World was the must-do destination but it was supported by the Kennedy Space Center, Cypress Gardens, Circus World, Sea World, and other attractions. In total, more than 18 million visitors were coming to Central Florida by 1975.

They saw opportunity in this growth and wanted to shift the center of Central Florida from Orlando to Walt Disney World, namely Lake Buena Vista. In a sense, they were not competing with other theme parks. They were competing with the City of Orlando. They had 4,000 acres to play with and the goal was to serve not only the tourists but the local population.

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Location is everything and the new district would be right at the heart of the region’s transportation network. The development was at the crossroads of Interstate 4 and the Florida Turnpike.  The only way east-west and the primary way north-south. Not bad.  Working through the Orlando Urban Area Transportation Study Technical and Policy Committees in May 1976, Disney made sure they were able to place Lake Buena Vista right at the center of long term transportation planning. Lake Buena Vista would become a major hub in a regional network unlike Downtown Disney’s relatively isolated posture.

The project called for a variety of land uses including “an activity-oriented transient home community,” a unifying transportation system, and distinctive architecture that could be repurposed as needs change. The project would place the most intensive uses at Lake Buena Vista’s borders, adjacent to the surrounding community.

The most innovative part of the plan was the transportation network. At the center of the development would have been a demonstration multi-modal terminal (monorail, taxis, buses, automobiles, electric cars, and pedestrians) that would be connected to the Peoplemover network. This development would represent the “urban” district and consist of parking structures, large scale shopping, and high density hotels and offices.

Along Interstate 4 would be a office park with shopping and dining built around plazas, fountains, and lakes. This would be the “suburban” district. This part of the project would be highly visible and would be designed as a statement for the “environmental” community. This new development was expected to create as many as 9,000 permanent jobs.

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Shops with one of a kind items, craftspeople at work, and outdoor cafes would combine to create the “Village” environment that would dominate another part of Lake Buena Vista. The 32 shops built in 1972 along Village Lake, along with the four existing hotels (Travelodge, the Royal Plaza, the Dutch Inn, and Howard Johnson’s) would be enhanced, expanded, and connected to the office park and multi-modal terminal by new pathways and the Peoplemover.

According to the plan, the long term vision for the project would “perpetuate an image of vitality and excitement and expand upon it to yield a progressive city with coordinated growth.”  Instead of relying on a fleet of diesel buses, WDW planners wanted to create a compact, sustainable city that put public transportation as the preferred method of travel. As stated, “The goal being the elimination of the car for internal city travel.” Visitors could still get around by automobile but in Lake Buena Vista they would also have the option to walk, bicycle, take a horse or drive an electric vehicle. The pathways for those modes would be separated from auto traffic. Guests could also travel on a network of canals and lakes.

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However, the most popular way to travel would probably be the WEDway Peoplemover. With an elevated beamway and virtually no headways, the Peoplemover would have stations at all of the important destinations within Lake Buena Vista. Disney considered the transportation system as a “horizontal elevator.” Unlike the Peoplemover systems at Disneyland (1967) and Florida (1975), this would be a much more sophisticated transportation system. Visitors would press a button and their fully enclosed, air-conditioned car would arrive. They select their destination, press a button, and the car will speed take them directly there without stopping at intervening stations. A barn with extra cars would be a the ready when demand calls. The system would be able to carry as many as 14,000 passengers a day. One of the greatest benefits of the technology is the ability to increase capacity just by adding more vehicles. No new tracks would have to be built or need to acquire new right-of-way. Demonstrating the viability of the Peoplemover via real world experience  was one of the primary motivations for the entire project. For those who want to visit the Magic Kingdom they would just board the Monorail.
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Although the idea of people living permanently within Walt Disney World had been shelved by this time, the project would still focus on creating neighborhoods. These “communities” would attract visitors who share a particular interest. For example, a neighborhood would be based around golf, equestrian, boating or tennis. Within each neighborhood would be a community center. The golf-oriented Treehouse Villas was the first example of this program. Most of the land dedicated to these neighborhoods remains vacant today. The goal was to build as many as 9,000 living units capable of housing 30,000 people. The design of Lake Buena Vista  was to create a city within a park and to let the natural landscape dominate whenever possible.

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For those interested in tennis, that neighborhood would have tennis courts integrated throughout the village. The rustic Western themed equestrian community would take advantage of the Tri-Circle-D Ranch and feature horse trails and horse carriages as the primary way to get around. The farthest northern neighborhood, sandwiched between South Lake and Lake Mabel, would be the aquatics community. Here, visitors will be able to enjoy lakefront accommodations and plenty of water based recreational opportunities. This land is also currently vacant.

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It was the Disney planners goal to create a city center where people could “live,” work, and play that had the critical mass for success and a place where guests and locals would get a taste of the “Lake Buena Vista experience.”

What do you fine folks think of those early plans for the Walt Disney World Resort? Would it have worked for the long term?

 

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About Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennawey is an urban planner who has collaborated with communities throughout California over the course of more than 100 projects to create a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Sam is a member of the Board of Directors of the Los Angeles Regional Planning History Group, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving municipal, county, and private sector planning documents from throughout Los Angeles County. Sam is the author of Walt and the Promise of Progress City which you can find on Amazon.

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18 Comments

Comments for A Walt Disney World Transportation Fairytale are now closed.

  1. Ah, the PRT. I was recently in Morgantown, WV and thought I’d ride the only functioning PRT in the US. Unfortunately, it was closed for an extra week for the summer term and my dreams were dashed.

    I hear buzzings from many people that Disney is considering reviving the PRT concept to address transportation needs at WDW. Monorails are expensive and buses are ugly. A door-to-door PRT would be pretty slick.

    However, since they have just blown billions on My Magic+, I’m not holding my breath for any real infrastructure investments. Which is sad. Because if Disney were to build a modern PRT system, it’d be the talk of the world and yet another in a long line of innovative achievements to wow the public.

  2. The Lake Buena Vista PRT system got as far as a test track in the WED parking lot. The track was upgraded from the original WDW Peoplemover test track which had been the Disneyland PM test track before that. In addition to updated control electronics, a unique and patented rotating 2-way track switch turntable that used bi-directional linear induction motors was installed. After the LBV project was canceled the test track was then used for testing the Houston Wedway system and UL certification.

  3. Sam I remember in the 70′s, Lake Buena Vista was the place to go to on a weekend if not Church Street Station in Orlando. Captain Jack’s was a good starting point with a date, and loved their stuff clams. The Giraffe was great for dancing with all the WED East meets West staff there. Disney Legend Tony Baxter always talked about his first stay in the Tree Houses you mentioned, but I never did. I would love it if they put in a steam train that would connect you to all the areas in Lake Buena Vista(like River Country and Fort Wilderness had) as “Imagineering and beyond Genius” Bob Snow would have done at Church Street Station and actually tried in Las Vegas. Wish he would have joined the Pleasure Island team which about closed his establishment in Orlando, and added much to Lake Buena Vista. Trains have more of a Walt Romance than a PRT system does for me at least. Good memories in LBV.

    • I remember Disney sold off some of their properties along the interstate and International Drive there where they could have developed.

  4. While it’s easy to slip into deep disappointment after reading this excellent and important report, one needs to recall that Celebration was created with highly visionary and ambitious goals that are very close to those for LBV. But what hurts is to focus on the transportation side of things. How doers one connect from Celebration to the resort if not by car? And worse, what about the multitude of nightmare stories shared by WDW tourists who’ve waited and waited to by herded like cattle in and out of an under-scaled bus system. Mr. Disney would be appalled to see what the bean-counters have perpetuated decade after decade upon his hapless guests. What century is this?

  5. The 70′s-90′s, along with being the time that WDW was developed, was also the era that the city where I live boomed from a small town into having a metro population of over a million. Unfortunately for both Lake Buena Vista and my city, that was an absolutely dreadful era for urban design. If you look at almost any area in the US that was developed during that era, you will see the same things – total dependence on cars/buses, no alternate forms of public transit or pedestrian-friendly connections between buildings/neighborhoods, etc. Luckily, my city has a core that was not completely destroyed by the interstate highways coming through that is now being revived as people have discovered that their lifestyle is more pleasant when they don’t spend 2 hours a day in traffic, whether in a car or on a bus. Obviously, Walt Disney World has no such pre-existing urban core, so they are stuck with only the infrastructure they created. As my city is discovering in the areas with Lake Buena Vista-style sprawl, it is VERY expensive to attempt to retrofit those areas to a more pedestrian and transit friendly model. In fact, I think the process of figuring that out is going to be the primary challenge and work of the urban planning community over the next half-century, and I will be interested to see how Disney fits into that.

  6. Oakland California is well along in building it’s people mover. Though it’s area of operation is going to be a bit limited. It’s going to run between the Oakland Coliseum Complex (Or whatever it’s current name may be. I think they currently name it after McAfee Security) and the Oakland Airport. The structure already crosses Hwy 880 and runs along Hegenberger Road.

    • That’s neat! Would love to see photos.

  7. Here in the US we take our gas taxes and spend them on new roads encouraging more cars, in Europe they take the gas taxes(which are higher than ours) and build public transportation. Much more rational in my opinion.

    Things do seem to be changing here, gas prices as well as taxes, insurance and all the other costs involved in owning and naintaining a car continue to climb. This has led to doubling or tripling the riders of our local public transport systems. I also just read an article in the paper, yes I know its hopelessly outdated but I still read it, about suburbs and exurbs being passe among the younger generations. They see the sense of urban living cutting out the need for one or more cars and their expense.

    I have always been fascinated by the EPCOT concept but I don’t think it is feasable today. Multi national corporations operate with utmost secrecy to protect intellectual property I just don’t see them sharing facilities or technologies with each other. Plus the idea that no one owns the property they live in is a non starter for most Americans.

  8. A great (if not depressing) article Sam. I agree with most of the comments/observations above; transportation systems have to be planned as a part of the design to be successful. I think the buses were likely the cheapest band-aid fix for WDW. I also think the bus system is almost universally despised by those who use it. I know our group made decisions about what we would and wouldn’t do in a day based on how long we would be sitting on a bus to get somewhere. I would love to have spent more time at Downtown Disney but it was a career move to get there and back again. I suspect for most that time is of the essence when visiting WDW. People don’t travel to WDW to ride buses I believe.

    I’m a little surprised that Michael Eisner didn’t have a better vision of this within the “Disney Decade” as he was very invested in creating some of the finest architectural designs on the planet. Especially when you consider the financial success of that decade. I wonder if they just couldn’t see the attraction value of a smartly designed transportation network. I suppose it came down to financial priorities as it always seems too.

    I can’t help but think if an innovative transportation system were used at WDW (outside of the parks) that people would come just to marvel at these wonders (like an attraction). When I was a kid, riding on a monorail or the Peoplemover was what excited me the most about visiting Tomorrowland at Disneyland, then later at WDW. As a young adult, one of my strongest memories of WDW is my first monorail ride from the TTC to EPCOT Center in 1986. I love my AA attractions and roller coasters, but this was something I truly COULDN’T experience anywhere else. I was actually using the transportation system of the future to get somewhere and it was inspiring. I still feel that motivation today.

    Sam, do you know if they had ever considered installing a Peoplemover loop in Epcot around the World Showcase? It seems like a no-brainer to me as the distance is huge to cover for many people. Talk about a perfect solution that would be in the perfect location. Epcot gets a much needed futuristic ride/system that fits in beautifully with the parks theme! The kinetic energy alone would be motivating.

    Thanks Sam.

    • Yes, the Communicore building was designed to accomodate a PeopleMover as a way of previewing what was available.

      Sam

  9. How would the system have dealt with the single rider issue? Seems awfully wasteful and inefficient to use a car with a capacity of 6 for a single, with no one else going to that destination. Maybe that’s why the subway stops at every station on its route, except for local versus express, obviously.

    Maybe they would have to do that. Dedicate a certain percentage of cars for the most popular stations, and combine stations for the other stops.

    Fascinating subject.

    • PRTs operate in a whole different way. Subways are great for the masses, but that’s also why they stop at every stop, which wastes time (in theory).

      A PRT system is designed so that an individual can input a destination on the route, and the little car will go straight there, bypassing other stations. It seems less efficient with fewer people, but given the benefits of bypassing unnecessary stations, I think the pros outweigh the cons.

      Whether this would be realistic for the throngs of people who descend upon Disney World is certainly debatable, but it’d be darn cool to see. What’s that? You’re staying at the Wilderness Lodge and you want to go to Animal Kingdom? Great. Plug and play.

      • If your at the Wilderness Lodge and want to go to Animal Kingdom, like in “Out Of Africa”, take the steam train so as to not spoil the themeing.

  10. Great article Sam. As a Transport Planner I always love reading your stuff.

    I’d love to see a PRT or other updated version of the wedway as a modern solution to WDW’s traffic issues.

    If anyone wants an idea of what could be done google ultra Heathrow. The new Terminal at London airport has a PRT system which could be applied to Disney or elsewhere and while we’re at it lets have some new monorails to provide a real hub and spoke service

  11. Great article on what might have been at Walt Disney World. I would have been very happy to be in a home in the equestrian community.

  12. Too bad WDW never fully acted on this. Transportation at WDW could use a serious boost to relieve some of the congestion and travel times.

    BTW: If anybody’s interested, the Peoplemover built at Houston’s Bush Intercontinental is still in operation, and can be seen in this video: http://youtu.be/RKXyP7552dw

  13. While I totally agree that people movers would help with crowds and etc, am I the only one concerned with the increasingly alarming problem of lazy and obese people who frequent parks? I understand they fall under the category of disabled, but one of my best friends has cerebral palsy and she pushes herself in a normal wheelchair to stay fit and minimize her space on paths/roads. I am not trying to mean or -ist of any sort, but having grown up down the street from Disneyland and therfore always having a good number of my peers from high school working there, I know that we are headed toward the state of mankind similar to the movie Wall-E. (i.e. It’s a small world getting redone because the average weight of vistors went up causing the boats to be too heavy and dragging on the track/floor = damages.) SADLY, I am concerned for the health of ALL park visitors. And we don’t need any more attractions to break down potentially harming people. I think rather than pods or subways or etc, we need more hamster-ball/bike type of transportation vehicles, where you have to physcially exert energy/burn calories to get somewhere. I’m all for efficiency and comfortability, but the crowds at parks wouldn’t be AS bad if they weren’t so clogged up with the motorized scooters. Lately, my friends and I have started to try mapping out the best routes that avoids paths that get so clogged as result of the motorized scooters that take up so much space! (Especially since they are holding every bag imaginable sticking out like balloons.)