The monorail systems at both American Disney theme parks serve as testimony to Walt Disney’s exciting futuristic vision. Monorails played a central role in the urban utopia of Walt’s Florida Project (and later on at Walt Disney World, of course), but many guests may not know that Disneyland has had its own monorail system since 1959.
Walt had wanted a monorail for the opening day of Disneyland, but his team had a difficult time finding a feasible plan for one. It took a trip to Germany for inspiration to strike.
During a visit to Europe in the Summer of 1957, Disney’s engineering group examined the experimental monorail developed by the Alweg Corporation, near Cologne, Germany. After further investigation, the group reported to Disney that this design appeared to offer the best prospects for economy, stability, and all-around practicality…
Walt asked Alweg to build a monorail for Disneyland, and he tapped Bob Gurr, an Imagineer who had worked on nearly all the other vehicles at the park, to work with the German company. Walt was pleased with the result and greenlit the Disneyland Alweg Monorail System, which opened June 14, 1959.
This “Highway in Sky” featured two trains, each with 3 cabins and the now-iconic bubble top in front. Walt Disney’s hope was not only to provide a scenic journey above Disneyland, but to create a solution for mass transportation needs all around the world.
On the opening day of the monorail, Vice President Richard Nixon, a California native, was on hand to dedicate the new system. Nixon’s daughters held in their hands a pair of wooden scissors to cut the ribbon. Of course, the scissors wouldn’t work. so Walt tore the ribbon himself.
It was a hot day, so Walt invited the Nixons into the Monorail’s air conditioned cab. It had to be on for the AC to work, of course, and since the state-of-the-art transportation was all geared up and ready to go, Walt thought it would be an opportune time to show the Vice President what it could do. So they took off. The problem? His entire Secret Service detail stood on the platform outside.
The Monorail successfully made one lap and was approaching the Secret Service agents at the platform. They were running alongside as it slowed, seemingly to stop… until Nixon’s daughters cheered, “Again!” and the Monorail resumed full speed, again abandoning the dismayed Secret Service who still lacked a Vice President to protect.
In 2004, Bob Gurr gave his recollection of the day:
So I drove off without saying anything to anybody, and when we came back over to the platform, Nixon could see that all the Secret Service guys were still on the platform, which meant none of them were on the train, which meant I had just kidnapped the Vice President of the United States!
Nixon took delight in seeing the looks on the faces of his Secret Service detail, telling them, “You should have seen your expressions.” Needless to say, neither Bob Gurr nor Walt Disney faced any charges or even public humiliation. And the Disneyland Alweg Monorail System became a Disney tradition.