The Monorails Must Roll

The monorail station could be looking like this a lot more when Disney institutes its new reduced hours for the trains.
The monorail station could be looking like this a lot more when Disney institutes its new reduced hours for the trains.

One of my favorite Robert Heinlein short stories is “The Roads Must Roll.” Written in 1940, it speculates about a rapid transit system that would move people across the country in speed and comfort. The high speed nature of the rolling roads meant that maintenance was a huge deal. When the employees decided to organize for better working conditions, well, the shit hits the fan. In some ways it foretold the air controller strike of the Reagan era. These days there is an odd tie-in to the Walt Disney World monorails system too.

Walt Disney World just announced they would be reducing the operating hours of their monorail fleet. They used to run 1.5 hours after the parks closed or after the last scheduled event (extra magic hours, christmas party, etc). Sometimes these hours were stretched even further on the EPCOT line. Now they will all shut down 1 hour after the posted closing time for the park with no allowance for extra magic hours or other events. Guests will be placed on buses or water craft to be returned to their hotels or the TTC and EPCOT parking lots.

Initially, there was a lot of outcry directed at Disney for reducing benefits to resort and park guests at the same time they are raising prices, but soon word leaked out that there was an important reason behind the shift. The reason? The monorail fleet is just breaking down under the strain.

Reports of frequent breakdowns, certain monorails that pilots hesitate to stop of a slope for fear they won’t be able to make it up the hill after starting again, doors that don’t open or close, and electrical and brake fires have been cropping up with increased regularity over the last few years.

There are a lot of factors contributing to the increased strain on the monorail fleet. The include, but are not limited to:

  • They’ve increased the capacity of each car by removing the leaning posts. This adds weight to the cars during peak periods.
  • After the tragic accident of July 5th two years ago, the fleet had to operate down three monorails for a while (the two in the accident and one in the shop). They’re still awaiting the return of a replacement for Monorail purple.
  • With DVC Resorts opening up all the time, there are many more guests staying on property these days. This leads to an increased volume on the monorail fleet.
  • The current trains are all between 22 and 20 years old. The original fleet only lasted 20 years before it had to be replaced.
  • The recession came at a bad time leading to a tight budget for Walt Disney World transportation over the last few years at the exact moment when some extra money was needed most.

Apparently things got so bad that cast members in the WDW transportation system pleaded via multiple emails and written letters to WDW management that they must do something. Reduced hours is the result. The actually savings are only about 2 hours a night. In theory that time will be applied to increased maintenance. But it doesn’t really address most of the problems listed above.

Disney World was faced with an interesting choice. They could do nothing and frustrate guests with continued issues with the monorail, risking further accidents or fires, or address the issue and frustrate guests with reduced capacity and/or operating hours. Choice two was obviously the safer one.

What we don’t know yet is if the existing fleet be getting an overhaul that will extend its life significantly or will they continue in emergency mode until the point where they can afford to replace the monorail fleet.

If it’s the latter, then Disney has a couple of options. Building a whole new fleet of trains is not cheap. They just did it for the monorail at Disneyland and it’s been one mess after another. Recently Disneyland has been back down to just one train operational. The other option is to build a new transportation system based on one of the futuristic technologies. I look at the PRT system at London’s Heathrow airport or a street car type system as good models. But there is one technology that is really futuristic that would make a great fit for Disney.

If Disney can make this existing fleet last 7 to 10 years longer, they can probably switch over to a system based on the autonomous cars that Google is now developing. Guests will board shuttle vans built to hold one or two families and take them from their current location exactly to their destination with no extra stops. Move most guest parking lots to the periphery of WDW except for guests staying at a Disney resort. This solution has the advantage that Disney would not need to build a lot of new infrastructure as the Google Shuttles can co-exist with cars on existing roads.

Any solution remains a ways off. The current reality suggests that guests paying to stay at a monorail resort to take advantage of the quick travel time to and from the Magic Kingdom might want to rethink that strategy. You’re losing one of your chief perks (a quick ride back to your hotel at the end of the night) on EMH and party nights. Additionally, other guests, who would otherwise rely on the monorails to return to their car after a late dinner reservation, will have to make other plans.

I think there is a short term solution that doesn’t affect that resort monorail guests and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some revision to the announced policy. The MK/Express line can be closed 1 hr after the park and EPCOT can close as soon as it is reasonable, probably 1.5 hours after park to allow for late dinners. But keep the resort line open, even if it’s just a reduced capacity. This lets Disney get maximum monorails back in the shop but only reduces service levels for MK and resort guests a moderate bit. Much more palatable.

Disney may be spending over $1.6 billion on their Next-Generation Theme Park Technology, but it won’t do any good if the monorail system collapses under its own weight and that part of the allure of Walt Disney World disappears. If the move really is just to save money, then Disney management is more out of touch and has more problems than I realized. Therefore, I tend to believe the change in operation is to save some wear and tear on the system. The question is, are they the right ones? If you were Disney what would you do?

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32 Responses to The Monorails Must Roll

  1. Kelly says:

    What I don’t understand is if they need maintenance, why don’t they take a good solid month and shut down just the Epcot line, while keeping the Express & Resort Lines Open? Then shut down the Express line? Then shut down the Resort Line… I would be more accepting of this as a guest, understanding that they need maintenance. Where as shutting down early 2 nights a week? I don’t understand what that accomplishes. Does that really give the engineers enough time to work on the monorail??

  2. Brian says:

    Not sure how the money should be a factor. The money for the Fantasyland expansion could have been used. They could have scaled back the expansion and divert funds to the monorail. They a little later go back and finish the expansion.
    Seems the transportion would be more important. If you can get fewer guests into the parks reasonably, it stands to reason that there will be fewer able to enjoy the new experience they have spent so much money on.

  3. @ReelJustice says:

    I cannot believe people would give up FLE for monorail maintenance. You can have both. Disney has conditioned you to expect less.

    Whenever you start to think Disney is hurting for money or that they dont have money for new monorails, remember the $1.5 billion they are spending on “Next Gen.” That would have covered a new fleet and then some.

    People paying $400+ a night at a monorail resort deserve the service and perk they pay for.

  4. chris says:

    The only thing that I want to see short term is the solution you mentioned, which is to leave the resort line open for guests of those resorts. It’s a shame to sell those resorts as “monorail resorts” and then not have them available in conjunction with one of the perks Disney uses to sell staying on site.

  5. Aaron A. says:

    I think WDW should develop a system of senic bike paths and give on property guests free loaner bikes for their stay.

  6. Tasha says:

    While I understand the monorails need to be replaced why didn’t they do that instead of expanding FantasyLand or building Art of Animation or making the new royal rooms at french quarter?

    I personally will no longer spend the extra money to stay at a MK resort! Its a shame and I’m very dissapointed, I’ve been a huge WDW fan since 1978 but my family may need to find other vacation spots for the amount of money we spend in WDW. Such a dissapointment!

    • John Frost says:

      The decision for how much money goes in which buckets is a 3-year cycle. Disney does not just stop on a dime moving money from one project to another, especially when that cause a whole ‘nother series of dominoes to fall.

    • Kevin says:

      In their defense Art of Animation has been built and completed for a while now, they just lingered in opening it

      • DanB says:

        Actually, Art of Animation is still under active construction. It is replacing what was going to be Pop Century Legendary Years. Construction on that was started a long time ago but didn’t get very far and nothing was ever completed.

  7. CH says:

    This is not about maintenance. Why would you need ALL the monorails to be offline just 2 extra hours early a couple times a week when they don’t even all fit in the maintenance building at once? This is penny-pinching, pure and simple, and it STINKS!

    • RickJM says:

      Are you sure it’s penny pinching? Disney is going to need to increase the number of buses to make up for the lost capacity of the monorail. Do you know for sure it’s cheaper to run the buses than the monorail?

  8. Matt says:

    Sure does sound like penny pinching. But I would have to believe they are aware of the need for additional servicing to the monorails since they are already 20+ years old. Therefore, it saves them money being down a couple hours earlier and saves them the money it would cost to totally replace them, while giving them more time to service the fleet.

    I think John has the best compromised solution for them…close down just the Express lane one hour after MK closes (normal hours) but leave the resort monorail going until 1 hour after the EMH.

    There are multiple trains running at one time on those tracks as well…so they should be able to take one or two off the tracks to do extensive work on them. If people see larger lines for the monorail and want to avoid them, they can always use the boats to get back to the TTC or their resorts.

    It’s the EPCOT line that may be the toughest decision. Taking a train off that line or shutting down that line early forces people to take a lengthy bus trip crammed with others wanting to get back to their Monorail resorts and that can ruin the day for some claustrophobic visitors who just want to get back to their hotel…probably while carrying their sleeping kids in their arms.

    I’d keep the EPCOT line running as much as it can and shut down the Express line more often to make up for the time needed to service those monorails.

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  10. B says:

    I’m sure there are things that Disney is not releasing to the public about their decision to cut down on the monorails hours. I agree that this cut down on hours will result in many unhappy guests and possibly transportation issues at the end of the night, but, knowing what kind of company Disney is, I’m sure there is a legitimate reason for doing so. Maybe they are developing new technology for the monorail and just not telling everyone about it yet? I know, that’s kind of far-fetched, but, as some have already said, I’m sure Disney is well aware of all the options and situations they discussed. You can bet they have the best business, financial, and maintenance people working on it (Disney tries to keep things under budget, but at the end of the day, when do they really cheap out on things, especially concerning guest safety?). They will probably come up with a solution that is ten times better than any one we could all think of! :P

    • John Frost says:

      This reminds me of a rumor I heard last month. Apparently suits were on board a monorail taking measurements and talking about installing video screens. This could certainly be related to that. But all the other evidence I see points toward the maintenance issue.

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  12. wayne le brocq says:

    as you have mentioned in your blog, it is upsetting to see this happen with the monorails in WDW, but this deterioration seems to be happening at all Disney parks across the globe. I as everyone else understands that money is tight and we cant always do what we want. But this is Disney. For as long as I can remember I have never seen Disney have so many problems with their attractions or buildings within the parks. Walt built these amusement parks to bring joy to people and escapism from their everyday lives. Lets hope the management of the parks realise what they are doing and can hopefully change things around for the better. It is a shame to see Disney have so many problems occurring in the last few years, especially when you think of how long it has been established.

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  16. Well, I am wondering if the same thing that plagued the boats at Disneyland’s It’s a Small World is also plaguing the WDW Monorail system. That was the increased average weight of the visiting public.

    WIth the previously mentioned fact that the lean bars were removed to allow for guests and the fact that the average height and weight has increased since the monorail infrastructure was put into place, I would guess that could put more wear and tear on the system than was anticipated on inception.

  17. Aaron A. says:

    If WDW guests are that much heavier, that’s all the more reason to install some bike paths.

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  21. Kevin says:

    The kicker is I don’t think the decision would have upset people as much if the cut back didn’t include suspended EMH monorail service

  22. Kevin says:

    It’s amazing how the monorail talk always brings out so many comments! Just goes to show you that people love the monorail. I’m a former monorail CM (circa 2007), and I can tell you that the process of taking trains on and off the beams takes hours. The (very wise) system that you all propose of taking the express trains out of service first is already standard operating procedure. The resort trains are always last, and I’m sure that won’t change. If anything, I can’t see these announced changes having a huge effect on most nights, actually. Think about it: a midnight close for the MK with 3:00 am EMH would still require the express line to run until 1:00 am. By the time you get those trains off, as well as the Epcot trains, it would be nearly 3:00 am anyway…

  23. Amphigorey says:

    Walt Disney World desperately needs mass transit, so replacing the monorail in favor of self-driving automated shuttles is not a good option. That’s not mass transit. A better solution is to do whatever maintenance is necessary to keep the monorail system going – and better yet would be to either expand it or add another type of mass transit, like light rail.

  24. Anonymous says:

    (sigh) As usual, so many people incapable of thinking fail to realize that they can’t always get what they want and that their suggestions/expectations are way too unrealistic, oblivious to the recession and other factors.

  25. chris R says:

    Simply put, Disney see’s no ROI (return on investment) for the monorails. They haven’t had a mind set lately of looking long term at some of the points brought up on this post. They sell the monorail access of the hotel around the main beam and price it up for that access. They also use use it in commercials and to sell the toys. The spending they get by getting people to the parks sooner than busses also adds to the bottom line…. but again it shows now instant ROI like a new Vacation Clud resort or another
    special event night (fee based).

    As for those suggesting th total beam shutdown to do maint. on it….I respectfully disagree. Disney has plenty of time and they have ever dimension, color, electrical component, and design on file for the resort (yes this is true also. I’ve seen the paint one for sure. Regardless if they didn’t, this could be done like they use to fix or rehab rides in the past. Get the items you need built and pre-fab’d then when ready shut down a day or a few extra hours and swap it out. Now days they shut down rides for a year or more to do thinsg they could do at night a few time in a week (i.e. small worlds “rehab” doll dress changes and painting or Space mountain (lights and some little track mods).

    I don’t think the track is the issue though….its the trains that are shot. They had only 10 for awhile and then 11 for a longer time. That strained them till the others came back online. What they need to do is take one at a time offline and strip it down to the frame and rebuild it and upgrade it if they don’t go with the new train idea. I’m talking new interiors, AC, controls, motors, door units, sound system, carriage suspension, nose reinforcement cageed shell(non-visual) and extend the size (the TTC and Poly would need to be slightly bigger platforms as well as the MK…the contemporary would be fine already due to it’s size. They could also build 1 brand new one to start out a swap out program using the added one to hold the fleet at 12 active.

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