Are Disney’s Skyliner Gondolas Public Transit?

Post by Gondola Project

Disney Skyliner cabins are starting to arrive at Disney World. Image from WDW News Today.

Construction works for the upcoming Disney Skyliner cable cars has reached an exciting milestone this week as the first wave of cabins were spotted on the back of a truck at the world’s most visited entertainment complex.

For those who have not followed this project, the Skyliners are a network of three gondola lines that were first announced last July. The system is presumed to be built by Doppelmayr given what is clearly an Omega cabin depicted above. The 5km (3mi) of aerial lifts broke ground in June 2017 and are scheduled to open by mid-2019 (i.e. a construction period of approximately two years).

They are designed to improve transport connectivity between two theme parks (i.e. Epcot and Hollywood Studios) and four resorts (i.e. Caribbean Beach, Art of Animation, Pop Century and the upcoming Riviera Resort).

Conceptual drawings of Skyliner released by Disney in July 2017. Image from Disney Tourist Blog.

Aerial image of construction progress (May 2018) of the Caribbean Beach Resort station. This station will be the main hub of the three gondola lines. Image from Ziggy Knows Disney.

As expected, the project has received little attention outside Disney news media and has been basically ignored by the urban planning community. This of course is not surprising since many Disney projects are often brushed off as a perverse form of “real” city planning and is not meant to be taken seriously. It is also not far from the truth to say modern-day urbanists have a strong distaste for the artificiality of “Disney-style planning”.

Whether planners agree with the aesthetics of Disney World, there is a strong possibility for the Skyliners to not only become preeminent case studies of how to integrate ropeways in transit networks but to hold valuable lessons for future ropeway planning.

We know this might sound a little far-fetched but let us explain.

Disney World is a massive and complex administrative region with many characteristics of a fully functioning city. To put it into context, here are some facts.

  • Disney World’s land area is about 100 square km (40 square miles) — roughly equivalent to San Francisco, or about 40% larger than Manhattan.
  • Disney World employs up to 74,000 workers and is apparently the largest single site employer in the United States. The total employees on its payroll is more than double the total number employees working for Canada’s largest city, Toronto (35,000).
  • Disney World has an annual attendance of 52 million visitors. This is seven times the number of people who visit the iconic Eiffel Tower and about 12 million more than Times Square.
  • Disney World has more than 35,000 hotel rooms spread over 30 hotels. That’s about 10,000 more hotel rooms than the City of Toronto.

Administratively, Disney World is built entirely within its own self-governing district known as the Reedy Creek Improvement District — which in turn is the home of two cities (i.e. Reedy Creek/Lake Buena Vista and Bay Lake). The State of Florida in the 1960s basically gave Disney the power to create and govern its own operations related to policing, fire, municipal courts, health care, and alcohol consumption.

Transport-wise, Disney is equally impressive with a huge multi-modal fleet (over 550 vehicles) comprised of 12 monorail trains, 486 buses, 37 boats, and 29 parking lot trams. Incredibly, the entire transport network is complimentary for all visitors. If we were to consider Disney Transport as a “public transit” system, this would make it one of the largest zero-fare public transport networks in the world.

A few more statistics might help provide even more context for analysis and debate.

  • Disney Transport’s vehicle fleet outnumbers Tallinn’s fleet by approximately 70 vehicles. Tallinn is an Estonian city of 413,000 people and the first capital city in the European Union to offer its residents free transit.
  • Disney’s bus fleet is the second or third largest in the state, just trailing Miami’s Metrobus network.
  • Disney’s monorail alone, transports 150,000 daily riders. This means that the monorail carries more passengers per day than 90% of America’s LRT systems. From an efficiency standpoint, it also has a higher passenger boardings per mile (10,200) than every US light rail line.

Similar to what most cities are doing nowadays, Disney tries to encourage visitors to leave their cars at home. Parking at its theme parks and hotels now cost $13-22 per day (note: parking at hotels used to be free before March 2018) while the zero-fare Disney transit vehicles provide respectable service frequencies of ~10-20 minutes. Ridesharing is also available via Uber and Lyft — and most recently, the company introduced a new transport service called “Minnie Vans”.

The “Minnie Van” transport service allows visitors to request a ride from their phones for a flat rate of $25. Image from Disney World.

Having just recently visited and stayed in the entertainment complex for the first time, one incredibly useful transport and guest experience service we encountered was Disney’s Magical Express. Basically, this service provides Disney hotel guests a complimentary bus ride to and from the Orlando International Airport. Guests even have the option of checking in their baggage with special “Disney tags”. This means that the luggage a guest checks in at their airport of departure will be delivered directly to your hotel room.

This service is not so dissimilar to the “in-town check-in” and luggage delivery services offered by some of the world’s elite rapid transit systems (e.g. Hong Kong’s MTR, Taipei’s MRT, and Seoul’s Metropolitan Subway). The attention to detail to a guest’s transport experience from start to finish is simply world-class.

Assuming the Imagineers put in the same level of detail and care to the Disney Skyliners, it is difficult to imagine how this ropeway project could fail. In typical Disney fashion where visitor experience is number one, the company appears to have chosen to construct their gondolas with the most advanced and highest capacity MDG systems available, the D-Line. This means that the ropeway industry will soon have a state-of-the-art showcase system in North America which demonstrates capacities of up to 4,500 pphpd, maximum travel speeds of 7.0m/s and cabin headways as low as 7.5 seconds. To this date, most of the existing urban gondolas have capacities of just 3,000 pphpd. (Note — what the actual offered capacity of the system will be is unknown. 4,500 pphpd is, however, the current maximum capacity of D-Line technology.)

Ridership-wise, there should also be little concern of the gondolas turning into white elephants. Within the immediate catchment area of the cable car stations, the Skyliner will service more than 7,000 hotel rooms and provide transport service to 20+ million annual guests who currently visit Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

While Disney seems to have a creative solution to nearly every problem, it will be interesting to see how the company resolves the issues of comfort as online commentators have expressed concerns over the lack of air conditioning and “small” cabin sizes. Though based upon our current research we have no current insight into whether or not the system will be equipped with A/C.

In a nutshell, the Skyliner gondolas will not only complement a massive multi-modal Disney transit system over a land area 40% larger than Manhattan, but it will do so free of charge to all of the resort’s 52 million annual visitors. If there are compelling reasons why planners shouldn’t take the Skyliner seriously as public transit, we’d love to hear them.




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Want more? Purchase Cable Car Confidential: The Essential Guide to Cable Cars, Urban Gondolas & Cable Propelled Transit and start learning about the world's fastest growing transportation technologies.

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