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Disneyland Article
Monorail The First Of Its Kind Anywhere Changed Transportation Forever
Julie Tremaine
You’ve probably seen it gliding over Disneyland, and likely felt the whoosh of the nearly silent machine as it sped past you at 30 mph. Maybe you turned your back, forgetting there was an elevated train track nearby, only to jump at the blast of the monorail’s horn.

But unless you’re a guest at a Disneyland hotel, you probably don’t have much occasion to ride the monorail.

Today, it’s primarily a vehicle to transport people staying at the Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian or Paradise Pier from the far end of Downtown Disney into Disneyland Park.

But when it opened, the monorail had a totally different purpose. And just like Disneyland, it was the first of its kind in America.

The Disneyland monorail debuted in 1959, four years after the park first opened. It was the first-ever monorail to operate in the country, per WDW Magazine, and the first in the world to operate daily. At that point, the only other similar train was in Germany, and it was a prototype designed by the company that built the Disneyland version. When it opened, it was such a big deal that then-Vice President Nixon came to its opening and gave a speech.

That Disneyland would have the first monorail system in the country isn’t really a surprise, given that Walt Disney’s two most fervent interests were trains and dreaming of the technologies of the future. And just like Disney was fascinated by the idea of an electric train that ran on a single track, he expected his guests would be, too.

When it first opened, the Disneyland monorail was purely an attraction for entertainment, and it was substantially different than it is today.

That first monorail, called the Mark I, opened as an E-ticket ride advertised as the “highway in the sky.” It ran in a 0.8 mile loop that circled Tomorrowland, giving guests a view from above of the attractions in that land; many of which, like Rocket to the Moon and Monsanto’s Hall of Chemistry, are no longer in the park. The marvel of the design, which still uses electric propulsion and rubber wheels, is that the massive train is virtually silent (except, of course, for that bone-rattling horn).

The park added a stop at the Disneyland Hotel in 1961, and extended the track to the 2.5 mile stretch it is today. At that point, the bubble at the front of the train car — the one you might have gotten lucky enough to ride in before the pandemic — was made big enough to hold a family. The train in operation today, which is closing for refurbishment soon, is the Mark VII.

When it was first implemented, Disneyland’s monorail system quickly gained recognition for its efficiency and speed in moving large numbers of people. Imagineers integrated the transportation system into their new designs for the “Florida project” that became Walt Disney World.

When Disney World opened in 1971, its monorail was a day-one feature, though it didn’t enter any park. That train went in a loop around the Seven Seas Lagoon, traveling at 40 mph and making stops at the gates of Magic Kingdom and its ticketing center across the lake, Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Disney’s Contemporary Resort. It does, though, go directly through the Contemporary, inside the building, in such a way that guests can look out their room windows into the central atrium of the hotel and see a train whooshing past just feet away.

A second monorail, connecting Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, opened in 1982 when Disney World’s futuristic second park opened. A third is an express from the Magic Kingdom ticketing center to the park. It was so widely recognized — not just as an icon of the park but as an innovation in transportation — that elevated monorail trains started popping up in other places that needed to move large groups of people quickly across short distances. If you’ve needed to take a tram from one airport terminal to another, you’ve probably got Walt Disney to thank for it. Orlando International Airport, the closest to Disney World, even calls its trams “people movers” like the Tomorrowland ride that’s still in Florida but not Disneyland.

In 1986, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers recognized the Disneyland monorail’s influence on future technology, designating the train system as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, per Frommer's. The society called the monorail “historically important work” and a reminder of “where we have been, where we are, and where we are going along the divergent paths of discovery.”

As much as I take Anaheim’s side in the Sharks-and-the-Jets-style debate among Disney lovers about whether Walt Disney World or Disneyland is the better resort, I have to be honest: To me, the WDW monorail is the more exciting attraction. But, just like I love Disneyland more because it was my first park (among many other reasons I will gladly detail at length if we run into each other at Trader Sam’s), I love the Disney World monorail more because it was my first monorail.

The first time I ever saw it, I was on my way to dinner in one of the restaurants in the Contemporary, and I looked up at the towering glass pyramid above me, only to see a train going through the building. It was a moment that I felt a version of Walt Disney’s excitement of what the future could be, the one that inspired not just the Carousel of Progress and the rest of Tomorrowland, but the Experimental Planned Community of Tomorrow that eventually became EPCOT. The next day, I got on that elevated train: I may have been traveling to the park with the giant dome (the one we were supposed to get at Disneyland not so long after), but it felt like I was riding into the future.

So the first time I took that little jaunt between Earl of Sandwich and Autopia at Disneyland, when I eventually rode it a few years later, it felt a little less exciting. Every time I use it to zip over to Downtown Disney, I remember that experience of when I first rode the Disney World monorail and through that retro-futuristic hotel.

(An interesting side note: Nixon and the Disney monorail intersected at another important moment in history. The then-president, embroiled in the Watergate scandal, gave his famous “I am not a crook” speech at the Contemporary in 1973.)

The Disneyland monorail is set to close from Feb. 14 to Mar. 6 for refurbishment, as part of the Downtown Disney renovation that already closed Earl of Sandwich.

When I ride the monorail after it reopens, just like I do every time, I’ll think about what park guests in 1955 might have felt when they were riding it: like they were experiencing a marvel of technology, envisioned by a dreamer, heading straight into Disney’s “great big beautiful tomorrow.”

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