Nothing new under the Sun: The Story Behind the Disney Skyliner
This article appeared in the March 10, 2020 (#1068) edition of ALL EARS®
Editor’s Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.
On September 29, 2019, the Disney Skyliner opened. It has five stations and runs between Epcot and Hollywood Studios as well as four resorts. But did you know it was not the first flying gondola system at a Disney Park? Not by a long shot. To learn the history of the Skyliner, we must travel back in time to the 1950s, just after the opening of Disneyland.
Disneyland Skyway – 1956 to 1994
Disneyland opened in July 1955. Less than a year later, there were plans to expand the park to the tune of $2 million.
Walt Disney purchased the Skyway attraction from a Swiss company in 1955, as part of that expansion. It would be the very first system of its type in the United States. Walt saw this as more than an attraction. He felt it was “a transportation system of the future….” He was so intrigued by the Skyway that he bought it without knowing where he was going to put it! He purchased it for Disneyland at a cost of $300,000.
This first Skyway opened on June 23, 1956. It travelled between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. There were 44 circular buckets. Each held two metal patio chairs that were bolted into the car side by side. They were separated by a pole that ran through the middle of the vehicle. In Tomorrowland, the station was a rather plain, modern building, but in Fantasyland, the terminal looked like a Swiss chalet.
Originally, the attraction was round trip. It was an instant hit. The experience was soon split into two one-way rides instead. Each leg was 3 1/2 minutes long and cost a precious (at the time top tier) D ticket.
The ride itself was thrilling and beautiful. At its highest point the Skyway towered 60 feet off the ground. The gondolas dangled from a seemingly slim cable, and occasionally swayed in the breeze or when passing through a support tower. But the payoff was the scenery. Guests got a bird’s-eye view of the route, spanning from Captain Hook’s pirate ship in Fantasyland to Tomorrowland’s PeopleMover.
In late 1957, the Skyway temporarily closed to make room for the Matterhorn Bobsleds. The Skyway’s tallest support tower was replaced by the mountain. Now guests got to travel through the Matterhorn on their journey. Initially, it was an empty space, but Imagineers fixed that in 1978 when they added glacial caverns and an Abominable Snowman.
The Skyway’s vehicles got a major overhaul in 1965. Ride capacity needed to be increased, but the buckets had to remain light for safety’s sake. For the new gondolas, the center pole was removed, and a lighter frame was used. Each car now had two sets of inward facing seats. Ride capacity was doubled from two to four passengers.
The Disneyland Skyway entertained 150 million guests over 38 years. It
made its final trip on November 9, 1994.
There were many rumors about why Disney closed this ride. Some falsely claimed it was due to safety issues. But the decision was an economic one. Running and maintaining the Skyway was expensive. Many cast members were needed to keep the relatively low capacity ride running smoothly. There were also concerns about metal fatigue in the support towers. Repair would have required that the Matterhorn be dismantled to fix the Skyway. In the end it was decided that the operating expenses for the Skyway would be better used to fund the new (and much higher capacity) Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye attraction.
The Skyway’s cable and supports were dismantled within weeks. Then, the holes in the Matterhorn were closed and the Tomorrowland station was removed. But the Skyway wasn’t gone yet. At least not completely. When the Matterhorn was refurbished in 2015, it included some large Easter Eggs. The Abominable Snowman added a couple of torn up Skyway cars to his cave decor. And the Fantasyland station? It stuck around for a long time. In fact, it remained in place for 22 years! It was finally knocked down on June 14, 2016 to make way for the Star Wars expansion.
Magic Kingdom Skyway – 1971 to 1999
Disney World had its own Skyway when it opened on October 1, 1971. Like the original, it was set up as two one-way rides between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.
The breath-taking journey took 4 minutes. Guests soared over Peter Pan’s Flight, the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea lagoon and the Tomorrowland Speedway.
The Fantasyland station was again themed to look like a chalet. The Tomorrowland station was a bit more elaborate than its California counterpart. The building was two stories tall and had its own giant waterfall.
By the mid-90s, the Magic Kingdom’s Skyway was also deemed too expensive to run and maintain. It was the last Disney Skyway in existence when it closed on November 9, 1999.
This time both stations remained for years after the attraction was gone. The Fantasyland chalet was not taken down until the summer of 2011. The Tangled bathroom now stands in its place. In Tomorrowland, the second floor of the station was removed in 2009. But the first floor is still there; it now houses the bathrooms next to Space Mountain.
Tokyo Disneyland Skyway – 1983 to 1998
This version of the Skyway opened with the park on April 15, 1983. In some ways, it was very similar to its predecessors. It ran between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, and each leg was one-way.
However, the Tokyo Disneyland Skyway had some improvements. The ride system itself had been updated. The gondolas were more modern too. They were glass enclosed with bench seating, much like a mini-version of the current Skyliner cars.
This Skyway closed on November 3, 1998. It had the shortest run, lasting only 15 years. The Tomorrowland Station was remodeled into a sweet shop. The Fantasyland station was demolished and replaced with Winnie the Pooh’s Hunny Hunt.
The plans for this park included something called the Hyperion Skyway. This version would run between Fantasyland and Discoveryland, Paris’ replacement for Tomorrowland.
This attraction would feature more extravagant vehicles, themed as the Hyperion zeppelin. This fictional airship was featured in Disney’s 1974 film The Island at the Top of the World.
Unfortunately, this ride never made it past the planning stage due to budget constraints.
The Disney Skyliner – 2019 to ?
This past fall, the Skyway concept matured into something more than just an attraction. The Disney Skyliner is Walt Disney’s original vision fulfilled. It is a functional mode of transportation.
This “innovative twist on flight” connects Hollywood Studios to Epcot’s International Gateway and the Art of Animation, Caribbean Beach, Pop Century and Riviera Resorts. There are three routes that meet at the Caribbean Beach which serves as the central station.
The Skyliner has 300 enclosed cabins that come in eight colors. Each car is big enough for up to 10 passengers. Seating is two wooden benches that face inward. The Skyliner flies as high as 60 feet above the ground, and travels at speeds of up to 11 miles per hour.
The cable stretches over six miles. The longest leg of the journey is between Epcot and the Caribbean Beach. It is 9 to 11 minutes long with a stop at the Riviera. The route to Hollywood Studios takes about 5 minutes from the Caribbean. The shortest line is 4 minutes and runs between the Caribbean Beach and the Art of Animation/Pop Century station.
The Skyliner features double loading. It is the only system of its kind in North America. Most guests get on and off at the main loading zones. But there is a second area designed for passengers who need more time to board. Here, the cabins come to a complete stop to load and unload riders before getting back on the main line with the rest of the cabins.
The views are spectacular, with panoramas that include the Contemporary Resort, the Tower of Terror and Spaceship Earth.
There have been rumors that the Skyliner will be expanded. To the east, it could connect to Disney Springs and its area resorts. If it heads west, it may connect to Disney’s All-Star Resorts, Coronado Springs, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge and Blizzard Beach.
The Skyliner has not been without controversy. The system itself has had some well publicized problems and delays. Some guests would prefer to stick with the traditional boats and buses. However, these methods are usually much slower than the Skyliner. This is especially true at the Skyliner resorts where bus service has been reduced to one per hour.
When it is running smoothly, the Skyliner is a convenient and quick way to get around Disney World. Due to its continuous loading system, there are usually little to no waits.
Have you had a chance to experience any of Disney’s highways through the skies? Would you if you had the chance?