If you’ve ever visited the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland in Walt Disney World, chances are you’ve taken a "grand circle tour" on the Peoplemover. But have you ever wondered why you can only enjoy a ride like that at Disney?
The original Peoplemover opened in Disneyland in 1967 along with the refurbished New Tomorrowland, offering guests a leisurely 16-minute aerial tour of the land and its various attractions.
The ride was unique because the vehicles were constantly moving. This allowed it to offer a greater rider capacity than most other Disneyland attractions, carrying an estimated 4,885 passengers in one hour.
The Peoplemover continued to offer guests a “grand circle tour” of Tomorrowland until its closing in 1995. Following yet another refurbishment of the land in 1998, the ride re-opened as a new high speed attraction, Rocket Rods, which closed only two years later due to technical difficulties.
The good news? The Peoplemover continues to live on through its Walt Disney World counterpart, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority, which opened in 1975 and continues to operate to this day.
The bad news? The ride is the only one of its kind, as no other Tomorrowland in any other Disney park has a similar attraction.
Even more disappointing, very few systems like it exist outside of the parks, despite Walt Disney himself having high expectations for the Peoplemover as an overall concept.
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Aside from his love for making movies, Walt Disney was a forward-thinking entrepreneur fascinated by the latest scientific and technological breakthroughs.
Upon opening Disneyland, he created Tomorrowland as a way to showcase these breakthroughs and how they could be best utilized to create a "great big beautiful tomorrow", be it through household innovations (Monsanto's House of the Future and Carousel of Progress), space exploration (Rocket to the Moon and Astro Jets), undersea exploration (Submarine Voyage), and molecular science (Adventures Through Inner Space).
Disney was most fond of new methods of transportation, and used many of his Tomorrowland attractions to envisage how they could be incorporated within the future, be it through the national highway system (Autopia), the Monorail, and especially with the Peoplemover, which he created as a proposed short-distance public transit system to help reduce pedestrian and automobile traffic within cities.
In fact, when Disney was originally planning Walt Disney World in Florida, he initially wanted to create his own "community of tomorrow" through which to further demonstrate new scientific and technological breakthroughs that other cities could potentially utilize to enhance the lives of their own citizens.
His "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow", or EPCOT, would provide transportation through both the Monorail and the Peoplemover. The former would provide long-distance transit in and out of the city, while the latter would provide short-distance transit by connecting the smaller suburban neighborhoods located outside of the city.
Unfortunately, Disney died in 1966, long before his Florida project ever opened. As such, his city of the future was scrapped, later to be revised as a second theme park, EPCOT Center. However, while Disney's city of the future died along with him, his company would try to keep his Peoplemover concept alive, both inside, and even potentially outside, of the Disney Parks.
In 1974, Walt Disney Imagineering Research & Development (WED) Enterprises created its Community Transportation Services Division (CTSD) to build and design the Peoplemover system, with plans to incorporate it within the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland, as well as at other park locations such as EPCOT Center and the Disney Marketplace (later Downtown Disney, and now Disney Springs), and even potentially outside of the Disney parks.
According to Keith Mahne at the Disney Avenue blog, Imagineers were "tasked with applying the technology on a larger scale for 'short-range, intra-city transportation needs of airports, shopping centers, communities and even governmental projects'. These systems were to be licensed and sold by Disney to whatever industry that wished to apply them."
Unfortunately, the only other location to incorporate a Peoplemover-like system was the Houston International Airport in 1981, connecting the airport’s three terminals, hotels, and parking area. Otherwise, there has been no other real world application of the system outside of Disney World.
This isn't to say that the idea for the Peoplemover was unpopular outside of Disney. On the contrary, the federal government actually promoted the idea of incorporating similar transit systems in cities across the country.
Specifically, through the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) encouraged "new systems of urban transportation that will carry people and goods within the metropolitan area speedily, safely, without polluting the air, and in a manner that will contribute to sound city planning."
In his CityLab article, "Whatever Happened to the Downtown People Mover?", Eric Jaffe wrote how such innovative public transit systems were sought after by cities in the 1970s, with 68 cities replying "with interest" to HUD's proposal, and 38 submitting their own "full-blown proposals."
Unfortunately, such systems would only see small-scale applications at places such as airports (AirTrain JFK), hospitals (Indiana University Health People Mover), and universities (Morgantown West Virginia Personal Rapid Transit).
As for cities, while many had expressed interest in these systems, very few would actually build them. Ronald Reagan and his "limited government" administration brought about massive cuts to government spending, including a "reduction in federal support for people movers."
Only three American cities have constructed such transit systems: Detroit's People Mover, Miami's Metromover, and Jacksonville's Skyway. Of these three systems, Miami's has proven to be the most efficient and successful, providing free public transportation to 8.8 million passengers a year along a 4.4-mile track with 21 stations.
The other two systems, while not complete failures, have not been as successful. Detroit's People Mover has experienced hikes in ridership costs that often far exceed that of the city's bus system, while Jacksonville's Skyway, which, according to Wikipedia, "originally anticipated 100,000 riders monthly" upon opening in 1986, has only "averaged less than a third of that by 2009", and has been lampooned by critics as a "ride to nowhere" and "a Jacksonville joke for a generation."
With the increasing costs and declining ridership of the Detroit and Jacksonville systems, even in spite of the success of Miami’s system, it’s then no secret what the biggest obstacle is with other cities building transit systems like the Peoplemover: money.
Most cities do not have the budget to design and build such systems, let alone construct them around existing buildings and infrastructure. Tomorrowland itself had to be entirely re-designed simply to accommodate the original Peoplemover.
So why should an entire city bother constructing an entirely new and costly elevated train system, especially one that would probably not attract enough riders to justify the costs, when it could more easily alleviate its traffic problems with additional buses and roads?
Does this mean that there's no future for the Peoplemover? Perhaps. But perhaps not. While there may be no current interest in the Peoplemover, there could be a renewed interest in such new modes of public transportation growing right alongside our population.
By 2030, approximately 60 percent of the world's population is expected to reside in urban centers. Here in America, cities already generate three-quarters of our economy. As cities and their populations grow, so too will demand for better public transportation in and out of them.
We're already seeing such demand right now, with 74 percent of Americans supporting more mass transit spending. While such investments could mean simple improvements to pre-existing public infrastructure such as roads and trains, it could also mean a peaked interest in new modes of transport.
Also helping to drive such interest will be new technological breakthroughs. For example, one of the big draws with the Peoplemover was its utilization of automated train cars. Similar technology is currently being developed on a larger scale with autonomous trains. Again, while such technology could mean self-driving trains, it could also help lead to smaller systems such as the Peoplemover.
Walt Disney was a dreamer and a doer who believed that people's needs could be met given enough elbow grease and imagination. While his dream of a Peoplemover system to move people in and out of the community of tomorrow became as likely as his own community of tomorrow, a growing interest in new technologies brought about by expanding cities and ever expanding human imaginations could very well one day make his dream a reality.
After all, as the song goes, "It's a great big beautiful tomorrow just a dream away!"