Walt Disney's PeopleMover
Origins: Ford Magic Skyway
Following the success of his attractions at Disneyland, Walt Disney developed four attractions for the 1964-65 New York World’s Fair: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, Carousel of Progress, “it’s a small world,” and Ford Magic Skyway. The first three listed were so successful that he decided to take them back to Disneyland in California as theme park attractions. Ford Magic Skyway has a more complex story. After the Fair ended, Walt brought the Magic Skyway’s dinosaur sequence to Disneyland as the Primeval World Diorama seen on the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad. Visitors rode in genuine but motorless Ford automobiles, including the new-to the market Ford Mustang. The vehicles that moved through scenes of dinosaurs, cavemen, and a futuristic cityscape, . He had these vehicles propelled by the Disney’s new WEDway system, so-named because it was inspired by Walt and developed by WED (Walter Elias Disney) Enterprises, the precursor of today’s Imagineering.
Walt was interested both in transportation systems (beginning with his love of trains) and innovation. In an interview for The “E” Ticket magazine, Imagineer John Hench recalled Walt’s admiration for American efforts in American industries and research labs. About a year before the World’s Fair, Hench and Walt were visiting a Ford steel plant in Detroit, Michigan. Watching how Ford moved steel around the plant on a track of rollers, as it was turned from an ingot into a roll of sheet metal, Walt wondered aloud about using “that type of conveyor” for people to ride on. Hench noted, “That was the beginning of WEDway…using a wheel in the track itself, instead of a roller against a platen. [Walt] saw flexibility of how that ingot was turned around, carted back and forth, and he could hardly wait to get back and talk to Roger Broggie about it. Roger said: ‘Sure…we’ll just put a platen on the bottom of the vehicle.’”
In this system, Walt helped implement rotating wheels spaced evenly along a track that propelled the vehicles forward and through the various scenes. Roger Broggie, along with and Bob Gurr, two of Walt’s imagineers Imagineers responsible for many of the vehicles used at Disneyland vehicles, were instrumental in bringing this system to life. Since the automobiles were genuine, Walt assured this attraction also served to introduce many people to the new-to-the-market Ford Mustang. He moved the dinosaur sequence in this attraction to Disneyland as part of the railroad, the Primeval World Diorama. The success of this ride system, which featured rotating wheels spaced evenly along a track that propelled the vehicles forward and through the various scenes, excited Walt, who in 1964 was considering an elevated transit system to serve served both EPCOT and the New Tomorrowland makeover that was in development. It would premiere in 1967 as one of New Tomorrowland’s attractions: as inspiration for another of Walt’s attractions not yet developed: the Disneyland WEDway PeopleMover. Bob Gurr recalled that Walt himself nicknamed the elevated transit system “PeopleMover”—and the temporary name stuck!
The design for the PeopleMover was based on the same propulsion system as the Ford Magic Skyway. As the Disneyland version did not feature Ford motor cars, Ford did not sponsor it, considering it a transit-system that could be a replacement for the automobiles they were producing. Instead, the new PeopleMover system was sponsored by Goodyear and used Goodyear tires for the rotating wheels. It featured 62 trains total, colored blue, red, yellow, and green; all had white roofs. Walt had two rows per car, facing each other, with each row accommodating two riders and each train had four cars total. The attraction had a runtime of about 16 minutes with a top speed of seven miles per hour. The vehicles themselves had no moving parts or motors, and did not stop for guests to board or exit. Rather, guests boarded by a moving walkway, entering and exiting the vehicles as they passed through the station. The efficiency of such a system allowed over 4,000 guests to ride this attraction per hour. This approach to boarding an attraction became one of the first of its kind.
Walt Disney’s PeopleMover in Disneyland opened July 2, 1967 as part of the New Tomorrowland of 1967. Although he planned the attraction, Walt didn’t live to see its opening, as he had passed away the previous year. However, his dream of showcasing different public transit systems continued through this attraction. The PeopleMover wound through many of Walt’s creations, including Adventure Thru Inner Space, Carousel of Progress, Circle-Vision, and even a gift shop. In 1977, it was extended to travel through Space Mountain, which was another attraction of which he was aware, but did not live to see. The vehicles ran along the Monorail station, offering a side-by-side view of another of his transit visions, the “highway in the sky.” The track was also laid out for views over other attractions, including Autopia, Submarine Voyage, and the Skyway to Fantasyland. Passengers even got a eye-level view of the Mary Blair murals that lined the corridor between the buildings that housed the Circle-Vision and Adventure Thru Inner Space attractions. In short, Walt’s PeopleMover offered a visual three-quarters of a mile tour of Tomorrowland riding on a “glideway” of 517 tires. The loading station was located on the second level of Tomorrowland’s central structure, underneath the Rocket Jets. In the days of individually-ticket attractions, Walt’s PeopleMover required a “D-ticket” to ride. His innovative attraction became a classic.
Although the PeopleMover was Walt Disney’s response to an outdated Tomorrowland, it too came to be considered too tame over time. As a result, the attraction closed in 1995 and was replaced by the faster-paced yet shorter-lived Rocket Rods in 1998. Along with the Disneyland Monorail, the PeopleMover served as a prototype for Walt’s vision of the transit of tomorrow. In fact, he had planned for PeopleMover and Monorail systems to be installed as part of his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). In this futuristic city, both systems would demonstrate their usefulness in being applied as a method of transportation in various communities. Their appeal lay in being built above the ground and out of the way of traffic, pedestrians, and structures. Unfortunately, Walt Disney passed away before EPCOT was built and his initial plans for the experimental city did not become a reality. However, a flexible linear induction WEDway PeopleMover attraction was installed at Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland at the Walt Disney World Resort in 1975 and is still operating today. In 1981, a similarly updated Disney WEDway Peoplemover was installed at the Houston Intercontinental Airport. In this sense, Walt Disney’s vision for public transportation lives on. Even today, his attraction has a higher capacity for passengers than many other attractions, and affords guests a quiet, comfortable way to see the sights.
Education Associate at The Walt Disney Family Museum