The History and Myths of Disney’s Skyway — and How it Led to the Skyliner

From 1956 through 1994, the Disneyland Skyway provided an unparalleled arial overview of the “Happiest Place on Earth.” Hundreds of thousands of guests took in the magnificent views from the gondola ride vehicles – affectionally known as Skyway Buckets – making the attraction an iconic part of the Disneyland experience. The ride became such a right of passage that it was replicated around the world. However, in mid-90s, everything changed. Under clouds of rumor and innuendo as to why, all the Skyways shut down during the decade.

Disneyland’s Skyway

We’ll separate fact from fiction as to why the Skyways closed and look at the new way the ride system has returned to Disney parks.

The basic technology that made up the Skyway ride system was a gondola cable lift system first developed for European ski resorts. Disneyland’s Skyway, which opened in June of 1956, just under a year after the park opened, was built by the Von Roll company based out of of Bern, Switzerland, as their first in the United States. They would go on to build versions at amusement parks, theme parks, and exposition grounds all over the world.

Disneyland’s Skyway was unique among Disneyland attractions at the time – and even today – in that there were two distinct routes. Guests could board from a fancifully-themed station in Fantasyland and journey over the park to Tomorrowland. They could also take the trip in reverse, boarding at a futuristic station in Tomorrowland and taking a trip to Fantasyland. Both routes operated for the majority of the attraction’s run, except during the Fantasyland renovation in the early 1980s when the Tomorrowland route operated round trip. 

Disneyland’s Skyway

Perhaps the best known portion of the Skyway attraction opened in 1959. Two years earlier, the Skyway had closed as construction began on the three massive E-Ticket attractions – The Matterhorn Bobsleds, The Submarine Voyage, and the Disneyland Monorail – that would herald the park’s famed “second opening day.” When that day came in ’59, the Skyway had been rerouted also that it travelled THROUGH the newly-constructed Matterhorn, providing a stunning visual for guests and a thrill for riders for the remainder of its operating life. 

Tokyo Disneyland’s Skyway – Source: TDRFan.com

The Skyway became such a trademark part of Disneyland, that the experience was replicated as an opening day attraction in Walt Disney Land’s Magic Kingdom  in 1971 and Tokyo Disneyland in 1983. These attractions were essentially clones of the Disneyland original, traveling between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. However, in what in retrospect seems like a portent of things to come, a Skyway variant was not included in the park that was then known as EuroDisneyland when it opened in 1992. 

Disneyland’s Skyway closed with little advance notice in November of 1994. At the time, rumors circulated that this was due to an incident in April of that year when a rider had “fallen” (it was later proven that he had purposely jumped) out of Skyway Bucket and was planning to sue.

However, Disney would claim that the closure had nothing to do with the incident and that a similar incident (that was actually accidental) occurred in 1980 without leading to the ride’s closure. Instead, the end of the Skyway was attributed simply to a case of “rider demand” falling. In addition, stress cracks had developed in the support tower inside the Matterhorn and would have been expensive to fix. Instead, the holes in the mountain were closed off, and the Skyway’s staff and operating budget were transferred to the then-upcoming Indiana Jones Adventure attraction. 

The Skyway operated in the Magic Kingdom from 1971 through 1999. Skyway

Five years after the closure of Disneyland’s Skyway, the Walt Disney World version closed in  1999. Much like its Southern California sibling, the Magic Kingdom’s version also closed under a cloud of controversy. In April of 1999, a custodial Cast Member was tragically killed when he accidentally got caught on the outside of one of the Buckets and wasn’t able to hang on.

Over the years, many sources have attributed the closure of the Magic Kingdom version to this incident. However, the Skyway had already been scheduled to close prior to the tragedy and remained opened for several months before closing for good in November. Instead, the Magic Kingdom version closed for financial reasons just like Anaheim’s (and Tokyo’s in 1998), though eliminating the safety concerns inherent with the ride was likely an added bonus. 

For many years, the only remnants of the Skyways were their stations. However, each has been torn down or repurposed for various development, including Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disneyland and the Rapunzel restrooms in the Magic Kingdom. 

The Return of Gondolas

Skyliner

The closure of the Magic Kingdom’s Skyway seemed to indicate the end of gondola ride-systems at Walt Disney World. However, in the late 2010s construction began on a large new version of the same system. However, instead of being an attraction inside of a theme park, the new Skyliner (as it was called) would be a transportation system that linked several Disney resort hotels as well as the EPCOT and Hollywood Studios theme parks. 

A Disney Skyliner gondola carries guests high above Walt Disney World Resort. (Walt Disney World/David Roark)

The Skyliner had its grand opening in September of 2019, and less than a week later suffered an embarrassing and public malfunction. A collision between gondolas on the EPCOT line led to a shutdown of the system, leaving some riders stranded for hours. While the company faced social media backlash for the incident, the system reopened just about a week later and has worked relatively well since, becoming an integral part of the Walt Disney World transportation infrastructure. 

Disneyland’s Skyway

Do you have good memories of the original Skyways in Anaheim, Orlando, or Tokyo? Do you think the Skyliner is an adequate successor, or do you wish you could still take the journey between Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. Let us know in the comments below. 

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4 Replies to “The History and Myths of Disney’s Skyway — and How it Led to the Skyliner”

  1. I loved the skyway (in Amaheim) so much. While the first time I rode it, I was terrified (i was like 6), I rode it many mamy times, and am still very nostalgic for it, as it shit down when I was 15 yrs old, prime age to ride it many more times.

  2. I have fond memories of riding the Skyway through the Matterhorn, and every time I see those squarish buckets it sparks the memory. But your spectacular photos of the original round buckets really brings me back to the most magical time of going to Disneyland—as a child (when Disneyland was the one and only Happiest Place on Earth).

  3. The destruction of the Skyway ride has forever removed the charm that existed at Disneyland. Walt Disney personally designed Tomorrowland before he passed away in 1966. The “aerial symphony” of the Skyway, the Peoplemover, the Rocket Jets, and the Monorail above, along with the Autopia and Submarine below with the rock and roll beat of Tomorrowland Terrace gave an experience which was the “heartbeat” of Disneyland. Ex Disney President Paul Pressler wrought such destruction in removing the Skyway, Rocket Jets, Mission to Mars, and Peoplemover literally killed Tomorrowland. The beautiful chalet which housed the Fantasyland side of the Skyway, has finally been removed as well. It was one of the few relaxing transportation type rides that brought enjoyment and rest at the end of a long day at the park. What a shame.

  4. Yes, never missed a chance to make a trip back and forth between the two parks at WDW when we were there. It was a welcomed respite from the congestion of walking, plus it was cooler in the hit summer weather especially when you were carrying two toddlers. It gave you a chance to catch your breath plus the ride gave you such a different perspective of the park. Miss it to this day though the new Skyliner is an absolute godsend if traveling from Caribbean Beach Resort. Especially if you have a wheelchair rider.