Walt Disney World’s Skyliner gondola system debuted over the weekend at Hollywood Studios, Epcot, Caribbean Beach, and Art of Animation/Pop Century, and we took several rides. In this review of the new aerial transportation, we’ll share a couple dozen photos, offer first impressions, and be brutally honest about whether the cataclysmic predictions of failure came to fruition.
I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong–it’s literally a daily occurrence (just ask Sarah!) that I’ve learned to take in stride so as to not shatter my fragile ego. However, when it comes to the Disney Skyliner, I was not wrong. Unfortunately, I also was not totally right. Let’s delve into both the good and the bad about opening day of Walt Disney World’s new aerial transit system…
We’ll start with some quick basics about the Disney Skyliner gondolas in case you’ve glossed over our ~3,402 updates during the construction of the various stations dotted around Walt Disney World.
Dubbed the “Most Magical Flight on Earth” by the in-cabin audio, the Skyliner services two Walt Disney World theme parks (Hollywood Studios and Epcot) plus four resorts (Art of Animation & Pop Century, Caribbean Beach, plus Caribbean Beach (again) & Riviera Resort) via 5 stations.
One of the Caribbean Beach stations is the hub, from which you can reach every destination. It connects directly to Hollywood Studios, Art of Animation/Pop Century, and Epcot via the Riviera Resort/Caribbean Beach second station.
At most, you will have one transfer while riding the Disney Skyliner, as the Riviera station is en route to Epcot and does not require disembarking.
In air travel times on the Skyliner vary. It’s roughly 3-4 minutes from Pop Century/Art of Animation or Hollywood Studios to Caribbean Beach.
At the other end of the spectrum, it’s 10-11 minutes from Caribbean Beach to Epcot (or 4 minutes from Caribbean Beach to Riviera, plus 6 minutes from Riviera to Epcot). Add to that whatever time you wait in line at your original station and the Caribbean Beach Resort hub station.
Riding the Disney Skyliner is “free” in the same sense that all other Walt Disney World transportation is free.
You aren’t paying a fare directly when boarding, but you better believe guests at the resorts serviced by the Skyliner are seeing its infrastructure and operating costs built into their nightly rates. (In fact, this has already happened, as we cover in our 2020 Walt Disney World Vacation Pricing Info & Analysis.)
There were “rumors” (air quotes) that the Skyliner would be for resort guests only and this would be enforced with MagicBands. This is not true. There are no rules on who may ride the Skyliner or get off where.
You could ride the Skyliner around for 16 hours, making one stop per hour to grab the Tie-Dye Cheesecake at Pop Century and nothing is going to stop you. (Well, at some point your stomach would probably revolt–but Disneywon’t stop you.)
That about covers it in terms of basics you need to know for now. We can always expand this if there are frequently asked questions…
Delving into the review itself, let’s touch upon a range of smaller topics before we address the elephant in the room. First, the views. They’re spectacular–better than I expected. My biggest worry here was seeing a lot of unpleasant backstage areas, parking lots, and nothingness.
There’s definitely a lot of the latter two, and it would’ve been nice if better landscaping was done along the evacuation paths. However, there’s no reason to be looking straight down at the ground to scope out parked cars or pathways. Along each leg of the journey, there’s something different and engaging that will instead capture your attention.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Caribbean Beach is boring if you’re looking towards the resort, but cool if you’re facing the park or looking over at Epcot in the distance (view pictured above).
From Pop Century and Art of Animation to Caribbean Beach, you swoop low over Hourglass Lake and have the oversized icons of the resort to each side.
En route to Disney’s Riviera Resort, you have the rooftops and landscaping of Caribbean Beach, and gliding over these is much cooler than expected.
For as much as I’ve groused about the Skyliner causing visual blight at this resort by not being routed through the parking lot, I actually love flying over the buildings. (This leaves me a bit conflicted.)
Traveling from Disney’s Riviera Resort to Epcot is my favorite stretch, even though it’s ostensibly the most boring and likely to “ruin the magic.” For most of this journey, you’re traveling over roads and parking.
However, for a large stretch you’re also going directly behind World Showcase, and it’s really cool to see the icons of each nation with Spaceship Earth in the background. Plus, aside from (temporary) construction of the France expansion, you aren’t really seeing much backstage.
As with so many things, a lot of this is a matter of perspective. If you’re looking straight down at parked cars or dirt, it’s not an interesting ride.
However, there is almost always something of visual interest in some direction. Failing that, spotting the other Skyliner cabins with characters on them is an option. (For the vast majority of guests with whom we rode, this is the #1 option–at least based upon their audible reactions.)
The bench seating situation can be a bit awkward. If seated “normally,” your views will either be out a side window or straight forward, looking past other guests. The latter is not ideal, and may make everyone feel like uncomfortable conversation is necessary. (It isn’t.)
We would instead recommend facing the window against which you’re seated. There are a couple of reasons for this. Most importantly, the views are better when you have a direct view unobstructed by others. Moreover, it’s imperative that your lens–phone or camera–is flush against the cabin glass to avoid reflections. For this reason, I like being seated backwards and facing backwards…to have a forward-moving view. (Make sense?)
If you sit that way, no one will try to enlighten you about Disney secretly building a new park in Texas.
I ended up taking several rides by myself, and overheard enough source material for 3 years worth of rumor posts. As an introvert, I dread making small talk with strangers, but all of my rides were enjoyable.
I took several of the 14 rides by myself because after 6 rides, Sarah’s motion sickness was “acting up” (her words). She made a point of saying she didn’t feel sick after riding the Skyliner, but due to the way it swings and makes a fairly abrupt stop when coming into the station, she might’ve felt sick if she kept riding.
So that’s something to keep in mind if you are prone to motion sickness. Another thing to keep in mind is that this was after 6 consecutive rides, which is not a normal “use case” for a transportation system. If you spent all day riding a Walt Disney World bus driven by someone auditioning for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, you might have a similar experience, but that probably wouldn’t be a fair indictment of the bus transportation.
The character wraps are definitely a mixed bag. Seeing your favorite characters pass your cabin is neat, but you absolutely do not want to be inside a gondola with a wrap.
Views are significantly impaired, and you can totally forget about photos. (One slight positive is these cabins felt a tad cooler than unwrapped ones.)
In theory, you can request a cabin without a wrap. We did this a couple of times when, mostly when there was almost no line going from Art of Animation to Caribbean Beach.
Unfortunately, the lines were really long traveling from Caribbean Beach to Epcot, so we didn’t bother there. Cast Members already appeared overwhelmed juggling the chaos of opening day, so we didn’t want to compound their problems. We’d recommend using common sense when it comes to making–or not making–a request.
Speaking of lines, they move fast. The Skyliner is incredibly high capacity, so even in the opening day mania at Caribbean Beach, we never waited in line more than 10 minutes. Right now, it’s tough to say how long lines and waits will actually be–clearly a lot of locals and Annual Passholders were on hand to take a Sunday drive…err, ride.
Leaving Epcot after IllumiNations, there was a long line for the Skyliner, and that’s undoubtedly going to be a common occurrence. Our recommendation there, as always, is to linger in Epcot because evenings in World Showcase after guests have cleared out are sublime.
Unquestionably, the biggest controversy about the Disney Skyliner has been the lack of air-conditioning in the cabins. I’ve continually reiterated that, to my knowledge, of the tens of thousands of Doppelmayr gondola systems installed around the world, only one is air-conditioned. That’s at Wynn Palace Macau, a 5-star luxury resort in the Las Vegas of Asia–if Vegas had seven times the revenue and probably seven times the humidity.
Thankfully, there’s really no longer any need to keep looking at past precedent or spinning our wheels offering predictions. The Skyliner is open and we have our verdict. The exterior glaze sufficiently reflects heat and the passive ventilation system works. It provides a cool and consistent breeze. In other words, the Skyliner is perfectly comfortable.
If you took a random guest off the street who doesn’t read blogs like this one or rage about Disney via social media and plopped them in a Skyliner cabin, they’d be unlikely to bring up the topic of air-conditioning.
Disney’s Skyliner is more comfortable than sitting at a shaded bus stop and roughly as comfortable as the Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover. It’s less comfortable than the air-conditioned buses, and “it depends” when it comes to comparing it to the monorails.
Recently, we’ve had ones where it feels like the air-conditioning is barely working–that coupled with a crowded cabin has led to some unpleasant journeys on the Highway in the Sky.
All of this assumes that the Skyliner is continually moving, which is where our biggest problem comes in. This is also a big part of why this is a preliminary review offering first impressions. As noted, I ended up taking 14 rides on the Disney Skyliner, and on 5 of those, the line stopped for over 30 seconds.
Since movement is key to passive ventilation, it did become slightly uncomfortable during two of these stops. We were never stopped for more than 3 minutes, but heard of significantly longer stoppages. On longer stops with the sun shining directly into the cabin and no breeze, I could easily envision the Skyliner cabins becoming very uncomfortable. That’s not what we experienced, but it’s easy to see that occurring.
The question thus becomes why the system is stopping and how frequently this will happen once the Skyliner is operating smoothly.
We’ve ridden a lot of cable cars and aerial tramways like the Skyliner, and have literally never experienced another one stopping like this. (Since it’s a detachable gondola, the entire system does not have to stop for wheelchairs, ECVs, or other guests needing special assistance, so that’s not the explanation.)
In talking to Cast Members at the various stations, I’m not sure what is the explanation. Several different answers were given and, reading between the lines, I think the most likely reason is simply opening day hiccups.
Disney’s Skyliner is still new, and this was essentially the very first day of actual operations with real guests. Cast Members are still working on loading guests quickly, without having to stop the entire line.
Other possible explanations are Walt Disney World guests are materially different from those who use gondolas around the world, or that there is a flaw with the system itself. Disney guests do have more strollers, kids, and other reasons to board slower than normal, but I still don’t think that’s the root cause. As for the system itself, Doppelmayr has installed thousands of aerial tramways around the world, so that explanation also seems unlikely.
Nevertheless, we shall see how this plays out. If in the heart of next summer, the Skyliner is still stopping on 25% of its voyages for longer than a few minutes, I’m more than happy to eat all of my words on this topic. I really don’t think that’ll be the case, but as you all know, I’ve been wrong many times before.
There are other pros and cons I’m probably forgetting, but this is already getting long and I’ve already promised a follow-up, so we can touch upon other topics in that.
Some quick hits: we found the audio spiel to be a nice touch–but it could’ve been “catchier.” Stations are nicely designed and befitting of their surroundings. The Caribbean Beach hub feels like a central/union station, which is fun. Walking is still the fastest option between Epcot & DHS.
Overall, even though it’s not perfect (yet?), the “Most Magical Flight on Earth” moniker is entirely apt for the Disney Skyliner. It’s everything we hoped it would be, and I foresee us spending a lot of time riding it in the future (Sarah says she bring ginger drops for our next “Skyliner Crawl”). For us, this is the year’s new addition to Walt Disney World that we will enjoy the most.
I want to be careful to avoid being hyperbolic here, because I don’t think this is objectively “better” than Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or superior to Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run (even though we’ve already ridden it more!). It’s simply more our style. These low-key, atmospheric experiences are our preferred rides at Walt Disney World, and the Skyliner ranks up there with the PeopleMover for us. In case you’re unfamiliar with the blog, that’s about the highest possible praise. We just wish you could loop the Skyliner!
If you have already ridden the Disney Skyliner, how would you review it? For those who have experienced it, do you agree or disagree with our assessment? If you have not yet ridden, are you looking forward to it, or are you still skeptical? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!