Today I’ll be looking at the Skyway, Star Jets, and the WEDWay PeopleMover.
In case you missed the previous parts:
As I mentioned in Part One of my series about Tomorrowland, this futuristic land was far from complete when the Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971. The Circle-Vision 360 movie America the Beautiful didn’t premier until November 25, 1971 and Flight to the Moon opened a month later on December 24. If You Had Wings was a real latecomer debuting on June 5, 1972. In fact, the only Tomorrowland attractions up and running when the Magic Kingdom initially opened were the Gran Prix Raceway and the Skyway.
The first Disney Skyway opened at Disneyland on June 23, 1956. Walt was so taken by this mode of transportation that he signed an agreement to purchase this attraction from the Von Roll, Ltd. Company without giving any consideration as to where this ride would be located in his park.
Walt thought of the Skyway as more than just a ride. He thought of it as another mode of transportation that could be used to carry people across large parking lots and shopping centers. He wanted to use Disneyland to showcase this idea.
There is a legend that says that part of Walt’s inspiration for Disney World came to him while riding the Disneyland Skyway. From the lofty height of sixty feet, he could see outside the park and onto the rush-hour traffic of the Santa Ana Freeway that skirted his property. He knew then that he needed more land so he could shield any future project from the outside world.
There were three Disney Skyways in total, the second opening at the Magic Kingdom on October 1, 1971 (opening day) and the third at Tokyo Disneyland on April 15, 1983 (also on opening day). All three offered one-way rides between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The Magic Kingdom’s version had the distinction of being the only one that made a turn in the middle of the journey.
It is often reported, incorrectly, that the Magic Kingdom closed the Skyway due to the death of a custodial cast member working on the attraction. Although it is true that Raymond Barlow was accidentally killed while cleaning a narrow Skyway platform, this had nothing to do with the decision to shutter the ride. Disneyland and Tokyo Disneyland had both closed their versions of this attraction before this death occurred. The decision to close all of the Skyways was strictly economical. These attractions were old and expensive to run and maintain. Also, they had low capacities. This made it harder and harder to justify on a “dollar spent per guest ride” basis. Combine this with the constant problem of teenagers spitting and throwing things on the guests below and it’s not hard to understand why Disney said “Enough.” The Magic Kingdom Skyway closed on November 9, 1999.
The Skyway was a perennial favorite of many people. Even though the line was often long, it was worth the wait once we were airborne and looking down on the many sights below. As you passed other gondolas, you would smile and wave to its passengers. And when you could see the terminus station come into view, you grew sad because you knew your flight was almost over.
Although the overall concept for Tomorrowland was pretty much set in concrete from the beginning, it wasn’t until sometime in early 1973 that the plans were finalized and this land began to see real growth. For the next two years, construction was an ongoing presence here.
Walt believed in weenies. A weenie (hotdog) was the “item of interest” that would entice a crowd to move in a certain direction. For example, Cinderella’s Golden Carousel was purposely placed directly behind Cinderella Castle to help draw guests into Fantasyland. And the Liberty Square Riverboat Landing was placed directly in line with this land’s entrance to help lure people in. Interestingly, Adventureland intentionally did not have a weenie. It was omitted to help make this exotic land more mysterious.
Keeping the weenie concept in mind, the Imagineers knew Tomorrowland would also need something interesting to draw guests into this land of the future — and the Star Jets filled this bill perfectly. Between this attraction’s soaring height and spinning movement, it was precisely what was required to draw guests down the Tomorrowland concourse.
But before we discuss the Magic Kingdom’s Star Jets, let’s take a look at this attraction’s predecessors at Disneyland.
The first space-aged aerial carousel-style ride at Disneyland were the Astro Jets. They officially opened on March 24, 1956. These puppies climbed to the staggering height of 36 feet and traveled in a circle with a 50 foot diameter.
Because money was short and Imagineers were busy working on other projects, Walt decided to buy an off-the-shelf carnival ride and have his people spruce it up later. This task fell to Imagineer John Hench. Besides giving the attraction its now familiar red and white checkered pattern, he also decided that each rocket be given a name. These were, Altair, Antares, Arcturus, Canopus, Capella, Castor, Pica, Procyon, Regulus, Rigel, Sirius, Spica, and Vega.
If you counted, you found thirteen names. Although no official reason was given as to why there was one more name than needed, Disney historians speculate that the thirteenth name was a “spare” that could be used if one of the rockets needed to be removed and repaired. Those that pay close attention to such things have never found the name “Pica” on an Astro Jet photograph.
When United Airlines began sponsoring The Enchanted Tiki Room, they complained that the name Astro Jets was giving free advertisement to their competitor, American Airlines who offered coast-to-coast Astrojet service to their customers. In order to keep United happy, the attraction’s name was changed to Tomorrowland Jets. This designation lasted until September 1966 when the ride was closed to make room for the new and improved Tomorrowland.
The attraction returned to Disneyland on July 2, 1967 with an all-new look. Now called Rocket Jets, this new design in theme park space flight now sat atop the Goodyear PeopleMover and was serviced by two gantry-style elevators. The center pylon no longer had a carnival look, but was instead a stylized replica of a Saturn V rocket. And the ride vehicles were sleek and modern. Rocket Jets remained open until 1997 when they were removed to make ready for another Tomorrowland makeover.
Original makeover plans called for this attraction to once again sit atop the PeopleMover, now Rocket Rods Station, but the new design proved too heavy for the structure. The new Astro Orbitor would end up sitting at ground level near the entrance to Tomorrowland.
Okay, now let’s get back to the Magic Kingdom of the early 1970’s.
As I mentioned before, the Star Jets would be the weenie that drew people into Tomorrowland. But this attraction was just one part of a “triple whammy.” Copying Disneyland’s successful design, the Imagineers placed a quick-service food stand, the Space Bar, at ground level. The PeopleMover station would sit above the Space Bar. And perched on top of it all would be the Star Jets. This multi-layer designed was created for Disneyland because of space constraints, but it worked so well and fitted the Tomorrowland concept so perfectly, it was repeated in the Magic Kingdom. The Star Jets opened on November 28, 1974.
Like Disneyland, the Star Jets center pylon resembled a Saturn V rocket. However, the ride vehicles had a completely different design. At Disneyland, guests rode in mini-rockets. But at the Magic Kingdom, guests were seated in a vehicle that more resembled a hovercraft which featured a broader and flatter design, not to mention the sporty back fins.
The Star Jets were suspended approximately 80 feet above the ground and were attached to the center pylon by a 20 foot arm. Each of the 12 vehicles held two passengers with up and down flight controlled by a control stick located near the front of the craft. Riders were treated to 11 rotations per minute and the attraction averaged 1.2 million miles a year. Star Jets required a “D” ticket to ride.
Sitting directly below Star Jets was the WEDWay PeopleMover. Just like I did with the Star Jets, I need to go back in history and take a look at Disneyland’s PeopleMover before discussing the Magic Kingdom’s version.
The Disneyland PeopleMover was part of the 1966/67 Tomorrowland makeover. It opened on July 2, 1967. Sponsored by Goodyear, this elevated highway gave guests an overhead preview of all the wonderful adventures that were just waiting to be experienced in the new and old Tomorrowland.
In its day, the PeopleMover was innovative and Walt thought of it as more than just a ride. He felt that the PeopleMover, along with the monorail, could help cities solve problems of congestion and overcrowding. In fact, he was so taken with both of these modes of transportation that they were incorporated into the plans for his future city of EPCOT. In this 1967 concept drawing of EPCOT, you can see both the PeopleMover (left) and the monorail (right).
The queuing process for Disneyland’s PeopleMover was unique and innovative. First, guests boarded a speed-ramp (an inclined conveyor belt) for transport to a second level boarding area. At the end of the ramp they were deposited onto a stationary platform, surrounded by a large rotating turntable. Since the inside of a disk moves slower than the outside, it allowed guests an easy transition from the stationary platform to the moving turntable. As they walked to the outer edges of the turntable, their speed gradually increased. This arrangement allowed for better guest safety and improved ride capacity since the cars didn’t need to slow down as much in order to be boarded.
The PeopleMover was powered by small rubber tires (made by Goodyear) embedded along the track. Spaced about every nine feet, hundreds of electric motors powered these tiny tires as they pressed against fiberglass epoxy plates positioned on the bottom of the cars. Top speed: six miles per hour. Each train consisted of four cars, holding four passengers each. They were equipped with power doors and an automated roof that tilted out of the way for easier loading and unloading (see above picture). The PeopleMover had an astonishing capacity of 4,600 guests an hour.
Along the nearly one mile route, a cheery narrative was piped into each car, describing the sights along the way while occasionally praising Goodyear. Unlike its future Florida cousin, Disneyland’s PeopleMover changed elevation as it circled Tomorrowland. It traveled over the Autopia, through shops, and above the submarine lagoon. It even paralleled the monorail for a short distance.
Now back to the Magic Kingdom.
The WEDWay PeopleMover did not open in Tomorrowland until July 1, 1975, almost four years after the Magic Kingdom had opened. However, it was always intended to be included in this land as can be seen in the picture below taken in January 1972. Even though Tomorrowland is far from complete, the PeopleMover right-of-way is clearly visible on the left and right sides of the picture.
There were several changes made to the Florida version of this ride from its California counterpart. First, it would not be powered by moving wheels embedded in the track, but rather by linear induction motors. This made for a much smoother ride than at Disneyland. It also allowed for better operation during rainy weather. Second, due to Florida’s weather, it was decided that individual roofs over each car would not be sufficient protection from the elements, so the entire track was covered. Another change would be the addition of a fifth car to each train. And as I mentioned earlier, the Magic Kingdom’s version traveled at the same elevation throughout its entire journey.
Another change would come with the attraction’s name, it would now be called the WEDWay PeopleMover. WED are Walt’s initials (Walter Elias Disney). WED Enterprises, or more commonly called “WED,” was the creative branch of the Disney Company. This was where all of the Imagineers worked (and played). Eventually, WED was renamed Walt Disney Imagineering (also known as WDI or simply Imagineering).
The original sponsor of the WEDWay PeopleMover was the Edison Electric Institute. This association represents all investor-owned electric companies in the United States. Its members provide electricity for 220 million Americans, operates in 49 states and the District of Columbia, and directly employs more than 500,000 workers today.
Back at Disneyland, the Carousel of Progress was being dismantled so it could be shipped to Florida. On the second floor of the COP building was a large model of Progress City – the prototype for the city of EPCOT. The Imagineers didn’t want to destroy this beautiful work of art, yet they had no place to store or display it at Disneyland. It was eventually decided to make it one of the sights seen while riding the new WEDWay PeopleMover in Florida; however, it was much too large in its current state and would need to be cut down dramatically in order to fit into the space available. Believe me, anyone who saw the original model at Disneyland, knows that this resized version pales by comparison.
Like Disneyland, The WEDWay PeopleMover gave guests a preview of many of the shops and attractions found in Tomorrowland. Along the way, Jack Wagner (the “Voice of Disneyland”) provided an ongoing commentary. In June 1985, his narration was replaced by the voice of ORAC One – “The Commuter Computer”.
At Disneyland, the PeopleMover just skirted the inside edge of Space Mountain, offering very little to see due to the dark nature of this ride. At the Magic Kingdom, things would be quite different. The WEDWay PeopleMover traveled through the middle of the attraction, giving passengers a fantastic view of astronauts repairing a giant spacecraft.
The WEDWay PeopleMover traveled just shy of a mile in 10 minutes time at a speed of 6.84 mph. It required a “D” ticket to ride.
That’s it for Part Three. Check back next week when I’ll be discussing the Carousel of Progress.