The Monorail Myth: The Rest of the Story

by Wade Sampson, staff writer

Looking at the early concept sketches for Disneyland's Tomorrowland, Imagineer Herb Ryman drew a suspended electric monorail zooming over the entrance to this world of tomorrow. While we think of such a vehicle as "futuristic," the truth of the matter is that the principle of mass transportation by elevated vehicles suspended from or carried on a single beam goes back to 1878.

In that year, a steam-powered monorail system operated between Bradford and Gilmore. In 1892, an electric car running along a single rail operated on Long Island. What made the Disneyland-Alweg system unique was that instead of being suspended by an overhead rail, the monorails straddle a beam and are supported and stabilized by vertical and horizontal wheels.

As a child, I loved riding on the monorail at Disneyland because I felt as if I were zooming in a spaceship train into the future that was just around the corner. I had always thought the story behind the birth of the monorail was fairly standard but about 20 years ago popping up in print was a new mythology about how Walt Disney discovered a monorail that would become one of the first "E Ticket" attractions in Disneyland.

This new story about the discovery of the monorail is that after leaving the set of Third Man on the Mountain (and that movie inspired Walt Disney to create the Matterhorn at Disneyland) in June 1958, Walt and Lillian ventured into Germany where, while driving along a country road, saw the test track and test train for the Alweg monorail.

According to the story, Walt and Lillian had visited Germany years earlier and ridden a suspended monorail, and Lillian felt queasy at the swaying motion. As they were driving along this road, Walt rounded the bend into a clearing just as the monorail train passed above the road right in front of him. He followed the train and found the offices of the small research group called “Alweg” based on the initials of its founder, Axel L. Wenner-Gren, who was a Swedish scientist who had his money “frozen” in Germany after the war and so used it to experiment with a prototype for future transportation. Walt then gave the information to Imagineers Roger Broggie and Bob Gurr and they were then sent to make the arrangements to bring the monorail to Disneyland.

The Alweg Company had been operating their test monorail since 1952. Its beamway was on a long curve approximately one mile in length, without grades. The German engineers referred to the track as the "alwegbhan." However, if you map out the test site and the road for that year, it is clear that the test track never went over any road and the only road nearby was a small old country road so Walt would have had to have been very lost to be on it … or knew exactly where he was going and why.

In October 1958, Bob Gurr's first drawing of the design for the Disneyland Monorail, then tentatively called "Monorail Viewliner," was submitted. The "Viewliner" was a futuristic looking train that ran from a Tomorrowland station to a Fantasyland station from June 1957 to September 1958 and its design helped inspire the "look" of the Disney monorail, since the original Alweg design was more of a rectangular box with a slit underneath.

On June 14, 1959, Monorail Mark I, featuring both a red and blue train, debuted at Disneyland. The Monorail was also known as the Disneyland-ALWEG Monorail System and traveled around Tomorrowland only. The original Monorail was owned by Retlaw, a company funded by Walt Disney personally that also owned the Disneyland steam trains, and was not owned by Walt Disney Productions.

The length of the track was 0.8 miles and then Vice President Richard Nixon and his family were on hand to inaugurate the first Monorail with Bob Gurr at the controls since the train had never successfully operated around the track earlier.

On June 1961, the beam was expanded so the Monorail could leave Disneyland Park and stop at the Disneyland Hotel. The beam was extended to the 2.5 mile "highway in the sky" the Disneyland uses today. The Disneyland Monorail Mark II, featuring a new yellow train, (112 feet long) debuted and featured four cars.

Todd James Pierce is almost finished with writing his book that covers all of the early theme parks from mid-1952 up through June 15, 1959. (That is, the day Kodak Presents Disneyland '59 was broadcast on ABC.) Right now, the book filled with original research runs well over five hundred pages and Pierce still needs to finish up a 30-page epilogue and some editing but we are all anticipating publication soon. I’ve already reserved my copy and knowing the work hehas put into the research would highly recommend you put it on your “want” list as well (check out his Web site).

Pierce and I have had several e-mail exchanges about the story of Walt accidentally discovering the Alweg monorail.

He got me to thinking that Walt may have known about the Alweg monorail long before he took that fateful vacation drive in June. There had been two articles in the Los Angeles Times the previous year that extensively talked about the Alweg monorail.

On January 3, 1957, the headline in the L.A. Times was "Monorail Will Serve Brazil Commuters" with the news coming from Cologne, Germany. According to the article: "The Alweg Corp. which for years has been demonstrating scale models of its futuristic monorail transit system has announced that the Brazilian city of Sao Paulo is going to try it... the Alweg Stadtbahn system's passenger cars look like something from Mars and have a cut-out wedge in its lower carriage which fits on a beam. Electrical impulses keep the cars going at speeds up to 180 mph. The cars carry 120 to 150 persons. The system was perfected by the Swedish multimillionare, Axel Wenner-Gren, who closed the deal with Vladimir de Toledo Piza, Sao Paulo Transit Commissioner. The city paid $1,500,000 for the system."

However, an article on March 3, 1957 in the L.A. Times has the headline "São Paulo Rows Over Rapid Transit System". Apparently, construction had not started on the monorail for several reasons including the fact that the Municipal Transport Co. of São Paulo had been bankrupt for some years and would have difficulty raising the funds for the multimillion dollar transit system. So, they were exploring other options including a subway or more buses.

According to the Reuters press release: "The Alweg one-track railway on stilts is the brainchild of Swedish financier Alex Wenner-Gren. The proposed São Paulo system would be 60 miles long. About eight miles would be underground and the remainder would run on a concrete track supported on legs or stilts. These stilts would keep the track high over the street level so that the railway would not interfere with road traffic. Most of its 124 stations would also be above street level. The track for this railway is a large rectangular concrete beam which is supported by the stilts in the same way as the cross bar of a trestle is supported by the legs. The coaches of the Alweg railway straddle this beam. The coaches run on two sets of wheels. The first set run on top of the concrete beam and carry the weight of the coach. The second set are placed each side of the beam and steady the coach... .Propulsion is electric, by the first and last units in each train. Electric propulsion gives the railway the rapid acceleration needed when the average distance between stations is just over a half a mile."

These articles were well placed in the newspaper, so it is reasonable that someone at WED and perhaps even Walt himself could have seen them. The Brazilian deal was not the only project that Alweg had in the works. There was also a deal with the UK (for a monorail from London out to the airport), with the city of Cologne (for basic mass transit) and with British Columbia (Canada) for a monorail system moving to the northern part of BC.

Neither Pierce nor I could find mention of these other deals in the L.A. Times. However, articles about these projects do show up in the New York Times and many other papers. None of these deals work out, but they were all reported on and it is interesting to contemplate whether the world would have been different if Disneyland was not the first location of an operating Alweg monorail system. So, with these articles appearing in newspapers, the full-size Alweg test monorail train was not exactly a secret waiting to be discovered by serendipity on a lonely German country road.

Author Bob Thomas interviewed Admiral Joe Fowler for his book Walt Disney: An American Original and here is an excerpt:

"When I first came to Disneyland he (Walt Disney) wanted a monorail. He had some plans that had been given him by some of the authorities in Los Angeles. He asked me to look at them. Well, my God, they were just... A high school senior in manual training could have done a better job. There was nothing there to put your teeth into. No evidence of anything that would be at all satisfactory from an engineering point of view. I explained that to Walt and he said, 'All right, but keep on the lookout.'

"Well, in 1957, I went to Europe and met him at the Octoberfest. I had four of the most wonderful days of my life there with Walt and Lilly and my wife and myself. I told him that I had heard of this monorail in Cologne, Germany, which was running on an experimental basis on a mile long track, and I was going to look at it. He said, 'Fine.' I did and I got all the data [I had all the pictures and everything] and I came back to the Studio and I told Dick [Irvine], 'Dick, if we show these to Walt, we're sunk. He's going to build it, I'm sure.' And he did. And that was the beginning of the monorail."

The "on vacation" in Europe falls about the same time that Walt sent Fowler and Roger Broggie to Brussels to set up Expo '58 and to scout for new material for Disneyland. Disney helped with the American Pavilion at this Brussels' World's Fair. That trip would be about April 1958 which sets up Walt's trip to Europe in June of 1958 to see (or accidentally discover) the Alweg test site pretty nicely.

Here is a quote from the book Disneyland: The First Thirty-Five Years published by the Walt Disney Company and sold in the park in 1990. This is from page 57:

"Since the early days of Disneyland, Walt had wanted to include a train of the future. After much research and study, Disney engineers returned from Cologne, Germany, where they had been impressed by an experimental monorail developed by the Alweg Company. After recommending the system to Walt, Disney designers joined with the Alweg staff in 1958 to develop a basic plan that would lead to a working prototype. From there, the trains were designed and built at the Disney Studios in Burbank and the Disneyland Monorail became the first passenger-carrying system of its kind in the Western Hemisphere."

The American Society of Mechanical Engineers in December 1986 designated the Disneyland Monorail System a "National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark." The monorail system was the 84th engineering landmark to be designated since the program began in 1973. Each landmark represented a progressive step in the evolution of mechanical engineering and its influence on society.

According to the document accompanying the dedication ceremony:

"Since the time he first conceived the idea of Disneyland, Walt Disney was interested in the possibility of installing a practical monorail system there. 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, not only for Disneyland but for municipal transportation systems in general. Disneyland and Alweg joined efforts in the summer of 1958 to develop the basic system into a working prototype for use at Disneyland.

"The monorail system at Disneyland has been purposely designed and developed to include curvatures of 120 feet radius, overpasses, and grades of seven percent in order to demonstrate the practicality of this system under different construction and topographic conditions. The beamways and pylons as constructed for the Park, are on substantially the same scale that would be used for any metropolitan single-track system. The design of the cars, including their motive and braking and safety systems, could be utilized by any metropolitan transit system. The original monorail system at Disneyland included two trains, one blue and one red, and eight-tenths mile of track. A gold train and additional cars for the red and blue trains were added in the first few years of operation to expand capacity."

Both Pierce and I agree that the story of Walt discovering the monorail by “accident” probably began with Roger Broggie who was maybe remembering a visit Walt made to the German site to see Fowler’s recommendation and got a little lost trying to find the place. Certainly, Michael Broggie only remembers this version that his father told.

Diane Disney Miller told me it was quite in keeping with her father’s personality to go off on exploring adventures to discover things. Diane wrote to me that “I first heard from Bob Gurr the story of how dad, while driving with mother in Germany, encountered the monorail, and chased it to its home. It really sounds like him. He was given to those sorts of spontaneous adventures. But if maps show that was not possible?” In recent years, Gurr has repeated the Broggie story with perhaps a few embellishments. I have always found Gurr to be a straight-shooter but even he has said that “the old stories get mixed up.”

However, I don’t feel the story of Walt telling Imagineers to find something new for Disneyland and then taking the recommendation of those folks diminishes in the least the fact that Walt was a truly an innovator and risk taker by bringing a monorail to Disneyland. Even then, Walt plussed the experience with a winding track and a vehicle that resembled a Flash Gordon rocket ship.

I think I still have my Junior Monorail Pilot certificate somewhere and I do know I took my young nephew on the monorail many years ago and he got his Junior Monorail Pilot pin which his uncle, without success, tried to get for his own collection. So whatever the true story is about how the monorail came to Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, I am just very grateful it is there and still continues to service and delight guests of all ages.