The WEDway PeopleMover Story
by, 03-23-2011 at 08:36 PM
A few weeks ago, we wandered around the all-plastic Monsanto House of the Future. That demonstration home lasted until 1967 when a whole new Tomorrowland based on the “World on the Move” theme was unleashed. One of the breakthrough attractions in the new Tomorrowland was the WEDway PeopleMover. Although it is now gone, it certainly is not forgotten. Where did this marvel of technology come from?
The PeopleMover is a by-product of Walt’s involvement with the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair. WED Enterprises was hired to design the Ford Motor Company Pavilion in the summer of 1961 by Henry Ford II. The show would be called Magic Skyway and it would feature Ford convertibles as the ride vehicles. The Ford Pavilion had a $30 million budget and the building was nearly 275,000 square feet and the largest structure at the Fair. Welton Becket was the architect. The Magic Skyway became one of the most popular attractions with nearly 15 million visitors taking a spin behind the wheel of a Ford.
The purpose for using Ford products was to give guests a chance to experience the new vehicles first hand. The Ford Mustang was introduced at this Fair and this was the first chance that many people had to ride in one. This interaction is similar to what Ford did at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. During that Fair, drivers took guests on a ride along a short test track within the pavilion. This meant long hours in line for guests. A goal for the 1964 Fair was to increase guest capacity. Therefore, a new type of propulsion system was required to move the convertibles through the Magic Skyway.
“We discovered the idea for the New York World’s Fair WEDway PeopleMover system while on a business trip to the Ford Motor Company in Detroit,” John Hench said. “Walt and I were invited to visit the mill where Ford made steel for car bodies. We saw a device for handling steel ingots, masses of glowing red-hot metal. The ingots were moved around on tracks powered by rollers from one area to another while being transformed into sheet steel for making cars.” Walt asked, “Do you think we could put some kind of seat on that type of conveyor, or some kind of arrangement for people to ride on…do you think this thing would handle it?” Hench replied, “I said, “Sure, look at the weight carried here. I bet that Roger Broggie would know how to do it.”
The challenge was to find a way to push the Ford cars around a winding track with elevation changes. The solution was a technology called a booster brake drive system. This system was first used on the Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland. Broggie said, “Walt remembered the booster brakes on the Matterhorn, which were at the top of each hill. They were rolling tires that helped slow down the cars and get them going at the right speed.”
The solution for both the Ford cars at the Fair and ultimately the WEDway PeopleMover was to embed electric motors powering urethane wheels along a track every few feet with masonite on the bottom of the vehicles (silent with a great grip). Although the vehicles themselves do not have motors, the urethane wheels spinning below make contact with the masonite mounted on the bottom and push them along.The speed of the vehicles could vary determined by how fast the rubber wheels were spinning. The EPCOT film claims one of the benefits of this technology is, “No single car can ever break down and cause a rush hour traffic jam.” Even if one of the motors breaks, it would not stop the system, as the other motors would pick up the slack.
To test the technology, a three hundred foot oval track and loading ramp was built in the Burbank studio backlot. Ford sent over a white 1961 Lincoln Continental and a Thunderbird. The engines, transmissions, and much of the power train were then removed to make them lighter. Bob Gurr set up his conveyor system and it worked. Further refinements were made and the system was installed in New York.
In 1964, Walt was the one who first realized that he could adapt the World’s Fair propulsion technology and create the WEDway PeopleMover system. PeopleMover name was Walt’s working title for the project but it stuck. In 1966, Walt had a chance to ride in a prototype system of the attraction that was built on the back lot. He passed away before the system could be installed in Disneyland.
For Walt, the primary function for the Disneyland PeopleMover was to give guests an overview of Tomorrowland. After this “bird’s eye-view” introduction, guests would know exactly where they wanted to go next and what to expect.
The WEDway PeopleMover made its public debut as a signature part of the new Tomorrowland that opened in 1967. The Disneyland system was designed by Bob Gurr and Bill Watkins. What was not known to the general public was the attraction was specifically designed as a prototype for the system that Walt wanted to install in his futuristic city of EPCOT. Just like the monorail, Walt was going to use Disneyland as a way of testing the durability of the technology. For me, it was one of the breakthrough technologies that helped define my memories of Tomorrowland. The attraction has constantly polled at the top of the list as one of the most missed attractions at Disneyland.
The Disneyland WEDway PeopleMover system consisted of 62 continuously moving, fully automated four-car trains. The attraction could host up to 4,885 guests per hour. The performance claim was “on peak days, it carries nearly 40,000 passengers.” Guests would take a 16-minute journey through Tomorrowland. Goodyear Tire Company was the sponsor. The attraction opened in 1967 and closed in 1995.
The loading platform is similar to a system that Walt spotted in Lausanne, Switzerland. Bob Gurr had already designed such a system and Walt sent him out to Lausanne to check theirs out. Turns out that the Lausanne version had a number of safety concerns and could not be used. Guests would step onto a Speedramp, an escalator belt without steps, that lead up to the loading platform. The Speedramp had as much great carrying capacity as a traditional moving stairway. At the top of the ramp was a circular walkway that was moving at the same speed as the vehicles and will “continue to move even while passengers are disembarking or stepping aboard.” The vehicles run continuously and “the next car is always ready.” The doors open and close automatically and it does not take many attendants to manage very large crowds.
When the attraction opened at the Magic Kingdom, Disney used a different propulsion system that in many ways was an improvement over the previous technology. Instead of using rubber tires to push the trains along, which were subject to wear and tear, linear induction motors were installed. All of the moving parts were eliminated. Embedded in the track are powerful electro-magnets that are switched on and off in sequence. As the vehicle approaches, the magnet pulses on and the opposing magnetic field pushes the vehicle forward. Each motor is made up of a proximity sensor, speed sensor, and a motor unit. One design constraint for systems powered by linear induction motors was the track had to be level. The older World’s Fair and Disneyland technology allowed for elevation changes.
For Walt’s vision for EPCOT, the WEDway PeopleMover was a “key system in [a] coordinated network” of transportation technologies and a critical piece of the puzzle. The EPCOT film touted the WEDway PeopleMover as “a silent, all-electric system that never stops running.” Walt needed a reliable intermediate transportation system to ferry guests from the Transportation Lobby out to the retail districts, the high-density apartments, the greenbelt with its recreational facilities and out to the ring of low-density single-family homes. He would also use the technology to connect the monorail to the industrial parks. As well as functioning as a transportation device, the proposal was for the WEDway PeopleMover to give guests a preview of what was going on inside the industrial facilities.
For EPCOT, initial plans showed a system of twenty WEDway PeopleMover lines “that radiate to and from the Transportation Lobby.” This system would become the string that ties the various land use pearls together. “From all over the community residents going to their jobs converge by WEDway on the Center City. Many work downtown in offices, stores, and shops, but most employees go beyond the city core to their jobs.” From the Transportation Lobby to the low-density residential zones at the far edge, the WEDway PeopleMover would be the transportation system of choice for residents and visitors in EPCOT.
The EPCOT system would feature trains consisting of four attached cars with each car seating up to four guests. Of course, the trains would be full size, therefore much larger then either the Disneyland or Magic Kingdom versions. The proposed headway time, the time it takes to wait for the next vehicle to arrive, was a mere three minutes. If a train was not already at the station, a rider would press a button and it would signal one to come. If the demand were to decrease, surplus trains would move back into the roundhouse.
The WEDway PeopleMover was the forerunner of another type of transportation technology called Personal Rapid Transit (PRT). At the theme parks, the custom has become one party riding in one vehicle. This type of behavior is consistent with the PRT concept, whereby the guests are assigned to private vehicles, not shared with strangers, to take them on a nonstop no-transfer trip from their origin stations to their destination station. The WEDway PeopleMover provides an unprecedented level of privacy and security, which is a pleasant change from other forms of public transportation. It would be possible to provide users with key cards that limited access to certain stations.
Disney tried to sell the PeopleMover solution to cities and shopping mall developers. They set up a unit called the Community Transportation Services Division of Walt Disney Productions. The group offered modular systems that could be modified to meet the specific needs of its customers. The Houston Continental Airport installed a third generation WEDway PeopleMover system.
There's a lot of history and countless memories behind the beloved PeopleMover. Does the technology still have legs? Could it, or even should it, return to Disneyland's Tomorrowland?
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. For the past couple of years he has been the publisher of Samland’s Disney Adventure, a blog dedicated to the history and design of the North American Disney theme parks. Sam is also 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 has recently contributed to a book which celebrates the 40th anniversary of Walt Disney World. "Four Decades of Magic" is now available in both hard copy and Kindle version at Amazon.