One of the bigger bummers of this stay-at-home summer has been that the Disney Parks have been shuttered for almost the entire season (Walt Disney World recently reopened amidst heightened safety measures to ensure the health of the guests but Disneyland remains closed for the foreseeable future). That means no attractions, no live shows, no fireworks and no monorail. But if you need to get your fix of the highway in the sky, Disney has just released the incredibly informative and gorgeously designed The Disney Monorail (out September 15). Overseen by Disney Editions Senior Editor Jennifer Eastwood and compiled by Jeff Kurtti, Vanessa Hunt and Paul Wolski, The Disney Monorail is the perfect fix for those who haven’t been able to visit the parks this year and for anybody who has ever been captivated by the glittery, futuristic “highway in the sky.”
For Kurtti, who at this point should be deemed a Disney Legend thanks to his essential making-of books and behind-the-scenes documentaries, the allure of a monorail book wasn’t immediately apparent, since he grew up in Seattle, which had a monorail. “I rode the monorail from 1962 to forever. So a monorail in and of itself wasn’t a sexy, fabulist thing for me. I was spoiled. It was like, Do you want to do a book about buses?” Kurtti remembered. “Then I started to look at it and thought monorails were cool. I still ride the monorails for no reason at all when I’m in Walt Disney World.”
What Kurtti, Hunt and Wolski discovered while putting the book together was that The Disney Monorail was as much about Walt Disney as it was about riding a single-beamed train that gets you from Downtown Disney to Disneyland. (They also knew that they didn’t want to do a technical book with specifics about the monorails like beam circumference. Although now I’m kind of interested.) “Going through the WDI art collection we realized there were very few renderings of Tomorrowland that didn’t have a monorail, back to the earliest drawings,” Kurtti explained. Even the famous Herb Ryman illustration, the one he supposedly cooked up with Walt over a weekend, has a monorail. “It was always a part of the thinking of Disneyland. So it became a part of the larger story of Walt Disney and progress, which we really don’t have anymore. To Walt progress was optimistic. Technology would set us free to be better people and do better things. That idea of progress was a very Walt thing. And his boyhood fascination with trains and interest in making things move,” Kurtti said. When the first Disney monorail was opened in Disneyland in 1959, it was a part of an initiative to add kinetic appeal to Tomorrowland, which also included the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea-themed Submarine Voyage and the Matterhorn Bobsleds (later annexed by Fantasyland). In 1959 everything was alive and bristling with possibility.
The monorail was also an integral part of Walt’s vision for what was known as “The Florida Project,” the keystone of which was his vision for EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. “It’s in the DNA of that Florida project because that was Walt’s vision – that everything would be highly efficient. I think that’s the ongoing appeal of monorails in general – they’re a fun and sexy way of doing things that are innately practical,” Kurtti told me. Look no further, he suggested, to the monorails that run alongside the Tokyo Disneyland resort, which are even more kitschy and fun. “The Tokyo Disneyland line is all dressed out with Mickey color palettes because they’re very used to public transit. To elevate it into something of an attraction is the Disney way,” Kurtti said. This is the way, indeed.
But the monorail wasn’t merely something that Walt was interested in for the parks – he also had larger, civic goals in mind. Kurtti said that one of the biggest surprises, while researching the book, was just how close the monorail came to being implemented in Los Angeles and how hard Walt took that rejection. He said he had heard this story but never gotten the details before – until he worked on the book. “He had this big confab in 1959 where he invited all of these LA city luminaries and planners to come to Disneyland and go to the monorail roundhouse and get a view of how it all worked,” Kurtti said. “He was pitching a monorail as a highly usable and suitable idea of mass transit for Los Angeles. There were many reasons for it. I never realized the depth that he had gone to, in terms of fronting the idea and pitching it. There was nothing for him to gain financially. There was no financial stake in monorail systems but the idea that he thought he was being a really good citizen putting this forward. I get a sense that the rejection was extraordinarily disrespectful, and it sadly shut off an avenue for Walt.” Kurtti guesses that at that point, Walt thought, Okay I did my good citizen bit. “It had a lot of impact on his late life interest in urban planning. That’s why the monorail is so embedded in the Florida project,” Kurtti said. EPCOT was, of course, originally going to be a self-contained city with next-generation technology and clean, effortless transportation like the monorail and Peoplemover.
And while he never got an answer to why the Disneyland Monorail doesn’t stop at the Grand Californian Hotel (especially because there’s a little area that looks like it was carved out specifically for that), he does confirm that, when Disney was in talks to buy Knotts Berry Farm in nearby Buena Park (and turn it into Disney’s America – you can read that whole story here), they were going to have a monorail link the two resorts.
The Monorail Book also, it turns out, made waves of its own with a little bit of news tucked into the final pages – that there will be a Monorail X component (attraction? Show? Demonstration?) at the recently announced Play Pavilion in EPCOT. Kurtti explains how that happened: “I met the show producer Jay Grant in Florida and he just wanted to talk to me about elements for what he wanted to do with the Play Pavilion. I brought a copy of the book, so he could look at artwork, to see if that would inspire anything to put in the Play Pavilion.” Kurtti continued: “I said, ‘You know what would be fun? If we did a poster for the monorail at the end of the book?’ We knew we would be instigators. We wanted to get a little excitement for something fun and new coming with the history, mythology and culture of the Disney monorail being applied in a very different form and format.” What that new attraction (or whatever it is) Kurtti wouldn’t say, but it anything monorail-related promises to inspire a response from passionate Disney fans.
When I asked Kurtti what his favorite monorail was, he pointed to the Walt Disney World monorail, still (silently) chugging along after nearly 50 years in operation. “I’m a Disney nerd through-and-through and there’s nothing like the monorail going through the grand concourse of the Contemporary Resort. How great to walk down from your hotel room and get on a monorail?” Kurtti said. And it’s hard to argue – it’s a striking image, as powerful now as it was when the resort opened in 1971. That elemental power is something Kurtti and his contributors were keenly aware of. “It’s interesting too so long afterwards, it still says progress to people. It still says the future. It’s embedded in this visual symbolism with Disney. It’s become as much a Disney thing as one of the characters or the castle or Spaceship Earth. It holds a similar place as a symbol,” Kurtti said. And what a symbol it is.
The deeply amazing The Disney Monorail: Imagineering a Highway in the Sky is out on September 15.