Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The WDW Mass Transit Conundrum

One of the defining characteristics of the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow that Walt Disney hoped to build in Florida was its forward-thinking transportation system. A key part of this system was the idea that cars entering the city would park near a central transportation hub, where visitors could ride the PeopleMover to an in-city destination or jump on the Monorail to travel to the Magic Kingdom, the industrial park, or some other destination outside the city. Pedestrians, automobiles, and the property’s dedicated vehicles would all move in their own dedicated spaces. Therefore, a pedestrian would be in no more danger of being hit by a car than being hit by a Monorail, and since neither pedestrians nor the property’s mass transit systems would utilize the automobile roadways, traffic would flow much more smoothly than was possible in a large city like New York or Chicago.

Although Walt’s EPCOT city was never built, many of its guiding principles could be seen in the design and operation of the Walt Disney World resort, especially with regards to its transportation system. Indeed, transportation between the resorts and the theme park was no mere afterthought; the Magic Kingdom resort area and its Monorail system were actually designed around each other. At one time, up to five resort hotels were planned for the Seven Seas Lagoon/Bay Lake area, each with its own stop on the Monorail line. Only two of those hotels were actually built (if not for the OPEC embargo in the late 1970s there likely would have been more) but the system was clearly designed for expansion. Of course, an EPCOT Center line was added during the construction of that park, and in the mid-to-late 1970s there were plans in the works to extend it all the way out to Lake Buena Vista as part of the residential/recreational community that was supposed to sit where the vastly inferior Downtown Disney is today. And like Walt’s EPCOT city, the Buena Vista community would have had a PeopleMover system for intra-community travel. How cool is that?

Even though the Lake Buena Vista community never materialized, during the first couple years of EPCOT Center’s operation there was reason for optimism that any future expansion of the Walt Disney World resort would include a concurrent expansion to the property’s futuristic transportation system. But then, in 1984 Disney CEO E. Cardon “I Love Golf” Walker was replaced by the guy who thought Star Trek: The Motion Picture would be as exciting as Star Wars.

eisner“Trust me, I know what I’m doing!”

To be fair, Michael Eisner did do a lot of positive things for the Walt Disney Company, especially during his first decade as CEO, and current executives could learn a lot from his early focus on the quality of the theme parks. One reason for his success was that, unlike some of the company’s old guard, he did what he thought best without being paralyzed by worry about what Walt would or would not have done. This approach yielded a mixed bag of results. Yes, it led to the company ballooning into a multimedia behemoth, a run of successful animated films that have become modern classics, and an unprecedented expansion of the theme parks. Unfortunately, it also drove the final nail into the coffin for Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Under Eisner’s regime, the demand for more hotel rooms on the Florida property was met by the construction of several new resorts. Additionally, the property gained two new theme parks: Disney/MGM Studios and Animal Kingdom. However, since Michael Eisner felt no particular allegiance to the tenets of Walt’s Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, there was no concurrent expansion of the Monorail system, and no addition of a PeopleMover system to link those areas that were separated by shorter distances. Thus, the only way to travel to or from many destinations on property was to use the existing roadways. And this called for a fleet of buses to move people between the various resorts and parks. Of course, an increase in roadway traffic around the property led to stoplights and traffic jams and all those problems of big cities that Walt Disney had wanted his Prototype Community to solve or avoid.

Now, probably 99.999% of the vacationers on Walt Disney World property at any given time do not know or care about this, but it drives us hardcore Disney futurist nerds nuts. We’re fond of saying that the transportation system needs to be fixed, and we’re not just talking about giving the Monorail fleet some much-needed maintenance (or maybe a complete replacement, seeing as how the current fleet is entering its third decade of service) We want to get rid of the buses, and replace them with Monorails or PeopleMovers or even a light rail system. Sadly, that ship has long since sailed.

The original Magic Kingdom-area resorts were built around a Monorail-and-boat transportation system. Future expansions on the property were supposed to follow a coherent long-range plan. Since that kind of long-range thinking was largely abandoned during Eisner’s tenure and expansions were done on a case-by-case basis with no overarching long-term plan in place it would be pretty much impossible to just plug an elegantly efficient transportation system into the property as it’s currently configured.

Unfortunately for we futurists, the buses are here to stay. But who knows? Maybe one day the property will get a fleet of those elevated superbuses the Chinese are working on:

superbusImagine this thing covered with DVC advertisements and Princess-themed festoonery

Wishful thinking? Probably. But who knows?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Magnificent Desolation of World Drive

Not too long ago I was browsing through the Pictures library on my computer and I came across this:


I don’t remember where I found this photo, who took it, or when it was taken. However, it reminded me of an often-overlooked aspect of my early trips to Walt Disney World in the prehistoric mists of the early 1980s: the transition from the humdrum real world to the fantastical world of the Magic Kingdom.

Back then my family lived in St. Augustine, and once a year we’d drive down to Disney World for the day. Today, I know that we took US-1 to I-95 South, then turned west on I-4 and took that to the US-192 exit where we’d merge onto World Drive. As a kid, though, I was completely ignorant of all this. We might as well have been traveling the Trans-Siberian Expressway. All I knew is that I had to coexist with my sister in the back seat for three whole hours (which is an eternity to anyone under age 10) as we drove down a succession of identical-looking four-lane highways that somehow dead-ended into the Magic Kingdom parking lot. In those days, of course, Disney’s Florida property was probably 90% vacant. Most of the Vacation Kingdom was concentrated at the property’s northern end, near the Magic Kingdom. There was an oasis of civilization at the center of the property (EPCOT Center) and the unassuming Walt Disney World Village was clustered around Lake Buena Vista, but absolutely none of these things were visible from World Drive. In fact, to kids like me World Drive was indistinguishable any of the other four-lane highways that crisscross the Florida peninsula. For three hours, I’d stare out the window and see nothing but palmettos and pine trees and pavement. And then, after an interminable wait, my mom or dad would remark “We’re getting close!”

Excited, I would look out the window and see: palmettos and palm trees and pavement. But as I kept looking, something unusual would materialize out of the Florida foliage:


The Monorail track! Tangible proof that Disney World wasn’t far away!

Within minutes we’d be pulling into a parking space, and not long after that we’d be on the Monorail heading toward the Magic Kingdom while the classic Jack Wagner spiel warbled through the overhead speakers, and the boredom of the long trip from St. Augustine was a rapidly receding memory.

Of course, it wasn’t reasonable to expect Disney never to build anything on all those unused acres of land. As soon as you turn on to World Drive these days, you see Disney-fied road signs directing you to the various parks and resorts. And even though a kid might not notice those, there’s no way to miss The Arch:


Far from the low-key brown road sign of my childhood, now we have a large, road spanning arch telling you that you are now in Walt Disney World Where Dreams Come True Whether You Like It Or Not. Of course, other structures like the Earful Tower and the Swan and Dolphin resorts are also visible from the road, so the transition from the Real World to Disney World starts a little sooner than it used to.

Is that a good thing? A bad thing? I don’t know. I’m sure today’s kids will look back fondly on the times when, after hours of driving down identical-looking highways they looked up to see the Mickey-and-Minnie-flanked archway rising up in the distance, and knew that they were almost to Disney World.

For me, though, I’ll look back fondly on the times when a simple elevated concrete railway alongside the magnificent desolation of World Drive was your only indication that your were about to be plunged headfirst into a world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Just a Spoonful of Truthiness

Over the past week two pillars of the Disney blogging community, Michael Crawford of Progress City USA and FoxxFur of Passport to Dreams Old and New, have posted their year-in-review articles in which they make the shocking suggestion that there's something wrong with the way Walt Disney World is managed.

As expected, the Blame-Disney-First crowd on the Twitters has jumped on the bandwagon. They’ve been especially critical of Magic Kingdom VP Phil Holmes, and not just because he looks like an evil robot sent from the future to destroy us all.

No, these Internet crybabies are upset because Phil put the kibosh on some unnecessary expenditures, things like a thorough Space Mountain upgrade and a new parade and fireworks show. Well, I’m here to say that these complainers just don’t get it. And they come from a long line of non-it-getters. But not Phil. No, Phil understands a very important fact: the Magic Kingdom is the number one most-visited theme park in the world.

Actually, I should rephrase that: Magic Kingdom Park at the Walt Disney World Resort is the number one most-visited theme park in the world. It’s important to phrase things properly, otherwise people might think that Walt Disney World is another planet, not a resort, and that the Magic Kingdom is an actual kingdom instead of a park. You’ve got to keep the public informed.

But I digress. My point is that its status as the world’s number-one theme park means that Magic Kingdom Park is perfect. And you can’t improve on perfection. Phil Holmes knows this, which is why he’s vetoed all these misguided efforts to “improve” the park. Also, he’s a Vice-President, a title that’s also been held by prominent statesmen like Dan Quayle. Who are we to question his decisions? But let me take things a little further. Since Magic Kingdom Park is a part of the larger Walt Disney World Resort, I believe that its perfection rubs off on the entire property. Really, all of Walt Disney World is perfect, and therefore has no need of improvement. Excepting, of course, those empty parcels of land that are ripe for having DVC resorts built on them.

Still, it galls me that there are those Debbie Downers and Negative Norms who refuse to yield to this flawless logic. One of them, Michael Crawford, goes so far as to compare Walt Disney World’s organizational structure to a gaggle of feuding fiefdoms, and even equates it to Europe during the Middle Ages. And he says that like it’s a bad thing! Doesn’t he know that many of Disney’s most beloved stories like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are set in the Middle Ages? It was a time of fantasy and magic! Therefore, what the Internet naysayers see as organizational paralysis is just Disney’s way of making the magic come to life! Just like Walt would have wanted!

Speaking of Walt, I’m tired of hearing people complain that Walt never would have approved of whatever it is that’s burning their britches. The fact is that Walt approves of everything the Walt Disney Company does. For all you naysayers who think that’s impossible because of the tiny reason that Walt died in 1966, consider this: according to U.S. law, corporations are people. Therefore, in legal terms the Walt Disney Corporation is Walt Disney, and any discussion of what Walt would or wouldn’t do is moot. Of course, since corporations are genderless, it’s really not appropriate to refer to Walt with the pronoun “he.” He’s more of an “it” now. Also, his/her name has changed from “Walter Elias Disney” to “Walt Disney Corporation”. But other than that he’s still the same guy gal genderless entity.

Finally, I want to talk about the one thing that Walt Disney World has that no other collection of theme parks, including Universal’s, can match: magic. Walt Disney World is a magical place where dreams come true. I know this because their advertising tells me so. Part of the magic that Disney offers at its parks is a return to the innocence of childhood, when anything seemed possible. For example, most kids believe in Santa Claus. Why? Because parental authority figures like their parents or grandparents told them he’s real, and part of the innocence of childhood is believing whatever parental authority figures tell you, no matter now illogical or ridiculous it is. And outside our families, what parental authority figure is more beloved than our kindly old uncle/aunt, Walt Disney Corporation?

So, if Disney tells us that their parks are magical places where dreams come true, we must accept it without question. If we don’t we’re ruining the magic. Is that what you want to be, a magic-ruiner who makes little kids cry? I didn’t think so.

So, to recap: since it contains the most-visited theme park in the world, the Walt Disney World Resort is a perfect place with no need of improvement and everything that happens there is a magical dream come true. So if a rough ride on Space Mountain turns your internal organs to jelly thanks to a track that hasn’t been replaced since the Nixon Administration, it’s a magical dream come true. Vomiting into a trash can after a ride on Mission:Space? Also a magical dream come true. If you believe otherwise, you’re a cynical, un-magical hater of childlike innocence.

And that’s a spoonful of truthiness.

NOTE FOR PEOPLE WHO HAVE READ THIS FAR: The preceding was obviously a work of satire. If you post angry comments to “refute” the clearly satirical and ridiculous claims made above, I will mock you viciously here and on Twitter. You’ve been warned.