The late 1990s were a dark time at Disneyland.
It was not unusual to see signs of aging and decay throughout the park: Peeling paint, cracks in the pavement, crumbling woodwork, rusted iron railings. Marty Sklar, the head of Walt Disney Imagineering at the time, noticed … and so, too, he correctly surmised, did park guests.
“Wherever you looked,” the late Disney Legend said a few years ago, “the park set a new low in Disney quality.”
After Jack Lindquist, Disneyland’s first president, retired in 1994, his successor, Paul Pressler, seemed to take more of a bottom-line approach and didn’t appear to be much of an attention-to-detail kind of guy.
So when it was decided to re-imagine the outdated Tomorrowland section of the park, the idea was to come up with some new attractions … but to do it as cost-effectively as possible [In other words: Cheaply]. To be fair, the company was pouring buckets of money into a number of major projects at the time, most notably the construction of new parks at Disneyland [California Adventure], Disneyland Paris [The Walt Disney Studios] and the Disney Cruise Line’s first two ocean liners.
Still, Disney decided to remake Tomorrowland. From 1967 through 1995, the WEDway PeopleMover was an integral part of the Tomorrowland landscape, as recognizable as the TWA Rocket, which was there on opening day in 1955, and Space Mountain.
“Walt had long wanted some kind of overhead slow transportation system [at Disneyland] which could be built for use in cities as sort of a fast-walking overview” of what was below, said Bob Gurr, the Imagineer who was tasked with designing the PeopleMover as part of the first Tomorrowland redesign in the mid-1960s.
Once completed and fully operational, Walt hoped the PeopleMover technology at Disneyland would serve as a working model and would subsequently find a place in cities, airports and shopping malls as an efficient way to get people from Point A to Point B. Also in the back of Walt’s mind was a prototype city of the future, where he envisioned clean-running PeopleMovers and monorails to be the main modes of transportation for inhabitants, not noisy, exhaust-spewing cars, trucks or buses.
The flat PeopleMover track bed was elevated about 12 feet above the ground, held up by sturdy columns, with covered ride vehicles that looked like ski gondolas traversing slowly, but steadily during a tranquil journey through Tomorrowland.
“The WEDway performed wonderfully for more than 30 years, giving guests the slow and peaceful overhead view of Tomorrowland,” Gurr added, “sort of a moving park bench for lazy people-watching.”
Then came the second Tomorrowland redesign in the 1990s, the demise of the PeopleMover and the introduction of an attraction called Rocket Rods.
If there was any doubt the Disneyland that traditionalists knew and loved was changing – and not for the better – you needn’t have looked any further than the submarine attraction, which was closed in 1998 … despite the protestations of two of its biggest proponents.
According to former Disney Imagineering Legend Tony Baxter: “Over Marty Sklar’s objection and mine, they decided to close it rather than really doing something fresh and bring it up to date because it had gotten passe. But it was a different time at the Disney Company.”
That “different time” meant removing the PeopleMover gondolas, laying down a new track and putting in futuristic, if odd-looking five-passenger vehicles into service. The Rocket Rods were intended to be the rapid transit system of the future.
The Rocket Rods were supposed to be the cornerstone of the Tomorrowland expansion. Although lines were extremely long after the attraction opened in May of 1998, the Rocket Rods never lived up to the hype.
For one thing, there was the disjointed queue, which started outside of the old CircleVision 360 attraction and then took guests inside a series of rooms, where a variety of displays showed the history of Disney transportation. Then guests had to climb some stairs to reach the Rocket Rods boarding area.
The open-air ride vehicles were decidedly low-capacity. They seated five guests, with two riders in the back row, then three single-rider seats. Throughout the entire ride, you could hear an annoying, whirring sound that gave you the impression that the vehicle was straining to pick up speed.
The problem was, it never really went very fast. There were occasional short bursts of speed, like at the straightaway during the start, but for the most part, the Rocket Rods never went much faster than the Tomorrowland Transit Authority vehicles in Walt Disney World. The new Rocket Rods track was placed over the flat PeopleMover track bed and no banked curves were incorporated in the design, which meant that every time your Rocket Rod would approach a curve, it needed to decelerate. The constant acceleration/deceleration of the vehicle proved to be problematic and ultimately contributed to the ride’s demise.
In addition, although the track took guests inside several buildings in Tomorrowland [Star Tours, Star Traders, Starcade and Space Mountain], for the most part, the Rocket Rods riders were exposed to the elements. Like the original PeopleMover, the Rocket Rods’ track weaved under monorail beams and over the now submarine-less Submarine Voyage lagoon.
A few weeks after Rocket Rods opened, they were shut down for maintenance. When they reopened an astonishing three months later, little had changed in terms of the ride’s reliability. There were countless system failures and even more frustrated guests waiting in queues that went nowhere.
The Rocket Rods closed in 2000, again presumably for maintenance, but they never reopened. Without much fanfare, the ride vehicles were removed from the track and dismantled. Curiously, the track remained in place.
To this day, that track and its many obtrusive support columns are still there. Regular Disneyland guests have become oblivious to them, but their presence remains one of those park conundrums that Disneyland purists can only shake their heads at.
Bob Gurr, the former Disney Imagineer who designed so many attractions within Disneyland’s berm, is just as puzzled as the rest of us.
“I get the same questions at every personal appearance. Why was the PeopleMover removed, we loved it. Why didn’t Rocket Rods work? When will the PeopleMover return … on and on.
“Asking Disneyland or Walt Disney Imagineering only gets ‘we know nothing.’ So year after year, neither organization can suggest any replacement. When asked when the track system will be removed … you get the same answer.
“Some folks conclude that the Imagineers working prior to around 1980 created intelligent attractions every time, but the later and current team misses the mark from time to time, it must be a different bunch.
“The earlier folks tended to be fearless but thoughtful, even though many had no design or engineering credentials, while the newer folks are very trained and credentialed, and led by professional project managers. I suppose it’s harder these days to come up with ever grander stuff compared to us older pioneers. But stuff should work!”
The dismantling of shuttered attractions does seem to be a problem at Disneyland. Take, for example, the Fantasyland Skyway station. The Skyway was a fixture in Disneyland from 1956 until it closed in 1994. Most of the attraction’s structure was removed, save for the gondola station in Fantasyland, which sat roped off and dormant for 22 years.
It wasn’t until 2016, when construction began on the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, that the powers that be got around to tearing down the Fantasyland Skyway station.
One interesting note: The Rocket Rods attraction had its own theme song, “World of Creativity (Magic Highways of Tomorrow)”, which was composed by none other than Richard and Robert Sherman.
VIDEO: Take a Journey on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover circa 2014
VIDEO: The Peoplemover circa 2009
VIDEO: Rocket Rods circa July 2000!