Disneyland's Alweg Monorail: Walt Disney's Highway In The Sky
by, 06-01-2011 at 07:11 PM
One of the earliest sketches for Disneyland was Herb Ryman’s entrance to Tomorrowland that is framed by the organic shaped buildings on the left and right and the monorail hanging from a track. From the beginning, Walt was very interested in building a “highway in the sky” for his park.
In June 1958, Walt was on vacation with his wife Lillian. They visited the small mountain town of Wuppertal in Germany and, much to Walt’s delight, found a monorail train that had been operating for more than fifty years. The track rested on pylons built along the banks of a river. The train was suspended from the track and hung freely. It was similar to the one in the Tomorrowland drawing. As a rail fan with “high iron” in his blood, Walt had to go for a ride. Although Walt liked the ride, Lillian did not care for the way it swayed back and forth during the curves. She became ill.
Later in the trip, Walt and Lillian were driving north along a major roadway near Cologne, Germany when a monorail train suddenly crossed over their heads. This monorail was very different from the one in Wuppertal. This train rode on top of steel-reinforced concrete beam. Walt was stunned. He wanted to learn more so he drove right to the administrative building to see what he could find out. He learned that the Alweg Corporation was testing the monorail. Alweg was owned and named after the wealthy Dr. Axel Wenner Gren. The company has been working on monorails since 1949. Walt was very excited to have found the idea behind his monorail for Disneyland. The success of this transportation system is a principle reason why Walt thought that EPCOT could work as a city.
Walt sent Joe Fowler and Roger Broggie to inspect the train and to report back. Both were impressed and felt it would fit right in at Disneyland. Joseph Corn said, “Being smaller than normal railroads, monorails would also lend a more human scale to the future.”
Roger Broggie and Bob Gurr modified the suspension technology so that the trains could climb the maximum grades and make it through tight turning radii. Not only did they want to showcase the technology but they also wanted to provide an interesting ride.
At first, the monorail trains where going to be built in Manheim, Germany. However, due to the time it would take to ship the trains to Disneyland and other issues, it was decided to have Standard Carriage Works in Los Angeles build the Mark I version. In order to speed up the manufacture of the Two Monorails, construction was soon moved toStage 3 of the Disney Studios. Gurr described the utilitarian German trains as a “loaf of bread,” and would significantly transform the ugly box into a streamline bullet-shaped rocket – not unlike the ones he remembered from Buck Rogers films as a child. As most things within Disneyland, the trains are 5/8th scale.
From Walt’s first sighting of the German monorail flying overhead while on vacation to the televised grand opening of the attraction with the Vice President of the United States (Richard Nixon) took less than one year. In that short time span the Imagineers engineered a functional suspension system, designed a beautiful train, installed the track, and tested the system so that it would be safe for the millions of passengers who would soon be riding. Imagine Disney trying to work on that timeline in this day and age.
Interestingly, it really was Walt’s personal monorail. Like the steam locomotives that circled the park, Walt personally owned these vehicles through his company, Retlaw. Perhaps you noticed that ‘Retlaw’ is ‘Walter’ spelled backwards. According to Michael Broggie, this arrangement allowed Walt to “put on his bib overalls and kerchief, and go wait for the next train. When the train arrived, [Walt] would climb into the cab and tell the engineer that he was on break.” Since everybody at Retlaw was on Walt’s own payroll they did as the boss told them.
The attraction opened on June 14, 1959 and was originally called the Disneyland Alweg Monorail System. The initial track was a winding .8-mile loop and became the first daily operating monorail in the western hemisphere. The Monorail also became the first to cross a public street in 1961 when the beamway was extended to a total length of 2.5 miles and a station was built at the Disneyland Hotel. With a second stop, the Monorail had transformed from ride to a full fledged transportation system.
Disney would continually upgrade the technology and soon the Mark II and Mark III versions of the monorail would come online. A major styling change would come in 1987 with the introduction of the Mark V model. Instead of looking like Buck Rodgers, the trains would resemble Gulfstream executive jets. In 2008, Disney introduced the retro-looking Mark VII model. The Disneyland system was granted a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in December 1986.
Art for the Mark IV Monorails
When Walt Disney World opened, they got their own exclusive trains called the Mark IV. These trains featured air conditioning, are wider and longer than the Disneyland trains. The Orlando trains would be upgraded to the Mark VI model in 1989.
Although Walt was always interested in a monorail for Tomorrowland, he may have also been motivated to one up a major competitor. In 1956, CBS and the Los Angeles Turf Club joined together on a $10 million project to redevelop Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica. They were inspired by the success of Disneyland. So the two companies hired set designers and ride system companies to develop a theme park over the ocean. The project was an immediate hit and more people visited Pacific Ocean Park in 1958 then went to Disneyland. Walt was never satisfied and knew his team could do something that would top the competition. “I can never stand still,” stated Walt. “I must explore and experiment.”
The Los Angeles region always had a thing for monorails. In 1953, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority’s (LAMTA) showed the alignment for a 45.7-mile route for a monorail from Long Beach to Panorama City along the Los Angeles River. The trains would have been suspended below the tracks like the ones in Germany.
An alternate plan was proposed in 1960, just one year after Walt’s demonstration model at Disneyland. This system would have covered 74.9 miles with 51 miles of beam overhead, 21.6 miles at grade, and 2.3 miles in tunnels. This system would have cost $529 million. This project was too ambitious and was scaled back to 22.7 miles with 12 miles in a subway under Wilshire Boulevard. The cost of the revised project would be $192 million. Monorail advocates argued that a side benefit to the project was the construction of a multi mile bomb shelter. Officials were so positive this would happen they held a public groundbreaking in Downtown Los Angeles and Beverly Hills in 1962. However, with no funding, the project went nowhere.
Along with Walt, author Ray Bradbury was also a big fan of the monorail technology. Bradbury tried to encourage the City of Los Angeles to build a system. He formed a citizen’s group called Save Rapid Transit and Improve Metropolitan Environments. He had admired the multi-modal and successful transit system in San Francisco and thought a layered system like that would work in Los Angeles. He said, “Look, the psychology of the monorail is what makes it superior. First of all, it’s not elevated like the old trains in Chicago. It’s up in the air, but it doesn’t make noise…you hardly hear it.” Bradbury added, “The important thing is that it’s above the traffic, and would glide past the traffic.”
The Alweg Monorail Company agreed with Bradbury on the merits of the technology and proposed a demonstration system for the City of Los Angeles. After the success of the system at Disneyland and the experienced gained at the 1962 Seattle Century 21 Exposition, Alweg was looking for a way to expand the business. So, on June 4, 1963, President of the Alweg Rapid Transit Systems, Sixten Holmquist, approached the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) and made them an offer.
The press release said, “We are pleased to submit this day a proposal to finance and construct an Alweg Monorail rapid transit system 43 miles in length, serving the San Fernando Valley, the Wilshire corridor, the San Bernardino corridor and downtown Los Angeles.” The offer was for “a turn-key proposal in which a group will share risk, finance the construction, and turn over to MTA a completed and operating system to be repaid from MTA revenues.” The budget for the initial monorail network, including rolling stock, was estimated to be $187.5 million. Alweg would also conduct feasibility studies for expansion of the system to cover the entire Los Angeles region. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 1965, Walt said, “A monorail would be a natural attraction to thousands of people who would just ride it because it is something new and different. And it is needed. It’s not something that would be scrapped after two years.” Another competitor proposed a 75 mile suspended car system at a cost of $182.3 million.
Both companies promised to build the systems for “free” in exchange for the next 40 years of passenger revenues to bond against. The offer meant that the Los Angeles region would have had the backbone of a revolutionary mass transit system for no cost to the taxpayers. Political pressure from the Standard Oil Company dampened the Board of Supervisors and the LAMTA enthusiasm for the project.
Bradbury said in 2001, “Telephone Alweg to accept their offer, made 30 years ago, to erect 12 crosstown monorails – free, gratis – if we let them run the traffic. I was there the afternoon our supervisors rejected that splendid offer, and I was thrown out of the meeting for making impolite noises. Remember, subways are for cold climes, snow and sleet in dead-winter London, Moscow or Toronto. Monorails are for high, free, open-air spirits, for our always-fair weather. Subways are Forest Lawn extensions. Let’s bury our dead MTA and get on with life.” To date, Los Angeles has spent billions of dollars to build 79 miles of fixed rail.
When Walt decided to build a city, he figured the Monorail would become the transportation backbone for the entire project. At Disneyland, Walt proved it could function reliably; provide a high level of service, and he wanted to integrate the technology into his city.
In Walt’s city of tomorrow, EPCOT, the monorail would connect all of the major destinations. It would start at the airport, then head north toward the Entrance Complex. The trains would pass through the Industrial Parks and enter the Transportation Lobby below the mixed-use Cosmopolitan Hotel. From there it would continue north and drop guests off at the Magic Kingdom. There may have been spur lines leading to the motel clusters or the low-density village projected for a later phase.
Walt’s mobility concept for his city was simple and designed to accommodate the realities of owning a car. He proposed that you allow residents and visitors to park their car once and provide a superior, attractive, efficient form of mass travel as an option. Guests, like water, are always on the search for the easiest path and Walt would have solved the problem of traffic congestion for his city.
We invite you to join Sam and MiceChat at the Huntington Gardens in July
“LOS ANGELES: INVENTED SPACES OR AUTHENTIC PLACES?”
Saturday, July 9, 2011 at the Huntington Library and Gardens
Presented by the Los Angeles Region Planning History Group in cooperation with the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West Huntington Library and Gardens, Friends’ Hall Saturday, July 9, 2011 Coffee & Pastries: 9:30 a.m. Colloquium and Lunch: 10:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m.
The Los Angeles region has evolved as much from out-sized dreams and inventions as from traditional rules for establishing human settlements. Carey McWilliams called Los Angeles an “improbable” place not destined to succeed, but determined to do so. As Southern California developed, the visionaries who built this region knew it was less about location and more about destination. The enormous popularity of “invented” or themed destinations – Venice of America, Olvera Street, Disneyland, Third Street Promenade, CityWalk, The Grove and many others – has provided planners, designers and developers with inspiration and lessons on both success and failure. What is the difference between those places that have a “unifying vision” and those that celebrate a “messy vitality”? Where do “invented” places end and “authentic” places begin? In a land where set designers build houses, architects design movie sets, and many of our most cherished “public” spaces are privately owned and operated, anything is possible. A distinguished panel, moderated by author and planner Sam Gennawey, will address these questions.
- David Sloane, Professor, USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development
- Hassan Haghani, Community Development Director, City of Glendale
- Vaughan Davies, Principal and Director of Urban Design, AECOM
- Tim O’Day, O’Day and Associates
- Neal Payton, Principal, Torti Gallas and Partners
Cost is $40; for students with valid student ID, $20
Fee includes coffee and pastries, lunch, parking, and day pass to the Huntington
Seating is limited; please RSVP to:
Alice Lepis, Secretary
[email protected] (preferred) or at 818.769.4179 no later than
Tuesday, July 5, 2011