Permits have been filed for structures at Walt Disney World that suggest a gondola system could be added to service Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Caribbean Beach Resort, and Art of Animation. This story comes thanks to the sleuths on the WDWMagic forums, particularly @danlb_2000 who uncovered the permits and @P_Radden who put together a map (please go there to see both; they deserve complete credit for this story–I’m just adding some of my own commentary to their work).
While this might sound outlandish, particularly as Disney has never expanded the monorail system due to it being cost-prohibitive, note that this is not some pie-in-the-sky rumor that could simply be blue sky spitballing that actually has zero chance of ever coming to fruition. Disney has filed permits for the construction of these stations, which usually (but not always) is a precursor to actual construction. It still most certainly should be classified as a rumor at this point, but I’ve read and heard enough that I think there’s a sufficient basis for posting about this.
If you’re still laughing at the idea, thinking of gondolas as ski lifts or the antiquated design of Magic Kingdom’s (extinct) Skyway, think again. Gondolas are a hot trend in urban mass transit, with systems being proposed or being built in a number of major metropolitan areas. (Update: someone in the industry suggested to me that Doppelmayr would likely be the manufacturer for this project, and it could have a 4,500 person hourly capacity.)
Beyond skiing, we’ve used gondolas to travel in Hong Kong and the Swiss Alps, and found them to be surprisingly versatile and efficient. In both of those settings, they were used as alternatives for trains/busses in mountainous terrain, and even in those more “intense” scenarios, they performed well. The Swiss gondolas even used KUKA arms to load/unload off-road carts that people rode down the mountains.
It seems unlikely that Disney would do that with strollers, but the possibility is interesting. Gondolas like these are large enough to accommodate strollers and ECVs, and load at a slow-enough speed that they wouldn’t pose a problem–think of them as a really large, elevated Omnimover. The system wouldn’t have that level of efficiency, but part of the appeal is in the ‘ride’ nature of the transit, too.
Still, this all seems a bit too good to be true. After all, what would Walt Disney World’s motivation be for adding a new transportation option after decades of the bus fleet being ‘good enough’? Well, there are a few possibilities. For starters, transportation infrastructure has been stretched to (near) its breaking point.
With never-ending Disney Vacation Club construction and hotel rooms being added around Walt Disney World–and attendance likely to spike at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in a couple of years when Star Wars Land opens–at some point transportation is an issue that needs to be addressed. Gondolas could alleviate some of that stress and allow expansion at resort hotels without reaching the breaking point.
Perhaps most importantly when applied to Walt Disney World transportation, gondola infrastructure is (comparatively) inexpensive. The cost of building a gondola is between $3 million and $12 million per mile, as compared to $400 million per mile for subway systems (not even possible in the swamps of Florida) or $36 million per mile for light rail systems.
The exact cost of monorail expansion in Walt Disney World is unknown. The Las Vegas monorail costing $88 million per mile in 2004 on much ‘easier’ topography, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if monorail expansion at Walt Disney World would exceed $300 million per mile today. That’s never going to happen.
Of course, all of this is more expensive than bus transportation, which utilizes existing infrastructure (roads) and thus has little capital expense beyond replacing the aging fleet. Over time, operating expenses on buses could be higher than the aforementioned mass transit systems, but it’s questionable as to whether that would be enough to offset the up-front capital expense. In any case, Walt Disney World has demonstrated a “commitment” to short term thinking of late. So…what other motivation does Walt Disney World have for building a gondola?
Novelty. As our resort comparison series has shown, Walt Disney World guests strongly favor those resorts that connect to a park through means other than bus transit. Unquestionably the biggest selling point of any Disney resort is being within walking, boat, or monorail distance of a park. Guests love this perk, and it enables Walt Disney World to charge more for resorts that–in the outside world–could not command nearly as high of a price.
Being able to bump up rack rates at 3 resorts–that collectively at present have nearly 6,000 rooms–is exactly what Walt Disney World would need to justify the up-front infrastructure cost of a gondola system.
What lends additional credence to this is that Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort is about to undergo a massive overhaul that will add Disney Vacation Club to the resort, and in the process alter/replace infrastructure and buildings. When this was initially rumored last year, part of that rumor was that boat transportation would be added to connect Caribbean Beach and Epcot. However, this was notably absent from permits filed for Caribbean Beach’s changes.
One thing Disney Vacation Club members have wondered is how Caribbean Beach will slot into the portfolio of resorts and raised issues with the potential for a de facto ‘second tier’ given that it could be the first Moderate DVC. Gondola transportation to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios plus upgraded facilities on the DVC side would effectively anser those concerns: it’s not going to be a “Moderate” DVC.
If the gondola system does come to fruition, it would also make Pop Century a more attractive option to guests, and would enable Walt Disney World to move the resort into a tier, price-wise, between the All Stars and Moderate Resorts. In fact, if the rumored room enhancements at Pop Century occur, that and the gondola could be enough for Pop Century to “become” a Moderate.
That’s what we know so far, and while it might sound preposterous at first blush, it actually makes a good deal of sense once you break down the pros and cons. Despite all of that, we are still skeptical that this will actually come to fruition. Perhaps the decades of a “band-aid approach” have left us as jaded cynics, but this just seems a little too forward-thinking for current Walt Disney World management. On the other hand, Disney has recently approved a number of capital expenditures, and is currently investing more in growth than at any point in the last decade-plus (even adjusted for inflation). It does seem there’s some amount of disconnect between the low-level cost-cutting/upcharge measures and the high-level capital projects–and this gondola system would fit with that. Perhaps we are entering a new ‘golden age’ of Walt Disney World expansion, and this is another sign of that. We will keep you posted.
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What do you think about this gondola system? Is it likely to happen…or another wild rumor? Any sightline or other concerns this project raises? Does it make you more excited for Disney Vacation Club at Caribbean Beach Resort? Share any questions, armchair Imagineering, or additional thoughts you have in the comments!