America’s Favorite Pastimes: Do Amusement Parks Inspire Transportation Innovation?

Recreation transportation is an entire industry. We seek different and exciting forms of transportation all the time, and often it’s just for fun. Whether it’s ATVs, jet skis, horseback riding, biking, or walking around a new city to see the sights, transportation is part of all of our recreational activities. This blog will explore how amusement parks design transportation systems, how transportation throughout American amusement parks as a microcosm of innovative transportation policy, and if any lessons can be learned by society from amusement park transportation for implementing new transportation technologies. 

Earlier this year, Vox published an article about how the story of amusement parks is the story of America. Many American amusement parks were inspired by the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. For the sake of context, the 1893 World’s Fair was specifically organized to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s voyage and eventual ravaging of North and South America, not the culture of Colombia as the term “World’s Fair” might suggest to many people. The fair was held in Chicago in no small part because Chicago was accessible by railroad. 

The focal point of the Columbian exposition was the White City, which was a huge exhibit of buildings depicting an interesting and (at the time) futuristic community obsessed with transportation, electricity, manufacturing, and living on the go. With all the white and gold structures showcasing technologically advanced processes, “[t]he Columbian Exposition, like the amusement parks and theme parks it inspired, was inspired by the America for which its people longed, not necessarily the America they encountered”.

Amusement parks are a unique recreational experience because they offer an opportunity for people to test their individual limits in a safe, confined, and regulated environment. It’s a form of entertainment that requires participation by those seeking amusement. Margaret King, the director of the Center for Cultural Studies and Analysis, stated, “Theme parks are all about us…. It’s the museum of us, of America. It’s a distillation of the qualities we most value and like about ourselves. [Visiting the Disney Parks] is like going back to your hometown. It’s the hometown that is shared by everyone in the country”. This explanation is eerily similar to how Americans describe driving a car.

This blog has previously considered how to make transportation more equitable, so it is important to briefly note that this feeling of Disney World being the hometown of all Americans is far from reality. Racism, elitism, and exclusion are at the heart of many American pastimes, including visiting amusement parks. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters by Victoria W. Wolcott explores the history of amusement parks prohibiting Black patrons and the subsequent civil rights initiatives. 

Walt Disney has been accused of being a violent antisemite and passionate racist. Although there is no single example of Disney being a bigot and many claim he was a “product of his time”, it is undoubtable that Disney’s legacy has inspired modern conversations about problematic imagery in the parks. (Though specific attractions are outside the scope of this blog, I encourage any readers who are interested to read a few newspaper articles about the Splash Mountain controversy). Likewise, transportation inequality is an undertone of innovation even when the technology’s inspiration is fanciful. 

Circling back to what amusement parks mean for recreation transportation, the most iconic example may be the Disney monorail. Before Walt Disney’s death in 1966, Disney dreamed of building a city of tomorrow full of futuristic transportation called Project X, which eventually became EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). When Disney World was being constructed in central Florida, transportation infrastructure became a bit more complicated than its California predecessor, Disneyland (which was the first ever American monorail), because the parking lot and the Magic Kingdom park were separated by a lake. Though a boat was probably the obvious choice (and a boat exists today), Disney felt the pressure to deliver an exciting, innovative transportation experience on a monorail. 

Before Project X could be actualized, Disney died and “EPCOT Died Ten Minutes After Walt’s Body Cooled” as newspapers headlined.  On his deathbed, Disney cautioned his successors to make use of the lake so the purpose of the monorail could be to make people feel like they were leaving their real life behind as they were transported into the amusement park. 

Believe it or not, the monorail system in Las Vegas is the same as the one in Disney as the city contacted Bombardier Transportation to build an identical system to the one in Orlando. All this to say that the monorail concept is clearly beloved by vacationers and recreation companies.

If everybody loves the monorail because it’s such an efficient, enjoyable way to travel, why do we not have a larger scale version of the monorail to serve communities’ daily needs when they’re not on vacation? Well, first of all, building the monorail was not as simple as it might seem, even though Disney already owned the land. Difficult construction will never be made easier by a densely populated urban center, for example; adding a monorail in the middle of San Francisco would be quite the feat. 

While there are monorails that operate outside the wonderland of recreational settings, most of those monorails are located in urban centers throughout Asia and can only seat a couple dozen people at a time. Additionally, because a monorail is only a single track, it is difficult for users to switch tracks. For short lines, the monorail works but is not ideal for complicated, city-wide commutes. 

Maybe more importantly, transportation agencies do not like systems that are more expensive than they are useful. A monorail, as stated before, is only one track that runs circularly. For large cities, it makes much more sense to invest in a large, multitrack fleet train. (In all fairness, we still don’t see enough trains in the United States, but that is a different blog). It is more efficient and cost effective to maintain traditional buses or multitrack train fleets that have the same maintenance needs, rather than several single track monorails with different nuances. 

The ultimate question is whether the concept of the monorail would serve the general public’s transportation needs, or if the monorail is best suited for recreational services. The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (known as the Infrastructure Bill or IIJA) approportioned $1.2 trillion to repair and reimagine the deteriorating American infrastructure. This includes $39 billion for modernizing public transit and $66 billion for railways. 

The idea of these two earmarks is to modernize infrastructure, improve accessibility, service Amtrak in the Northeast corridor, and bring rail services to the rest of the country. While the Disney monorail has long been a symbol of Tomorrowland, Walt Disney’s original concept of futuristic transportation is ironically outdated. By nature, tomorrow becomes today which becomes yesterday. The monorail that Walt Disney imagined, which became an iconic symbol of leisure and whimsy, is not necessarily the modern transit system the IIJA is meant to inspire.

Because of the aforementioned shortcomings of monorails, maybe a monorail system is not worth trying to force into typical American infrastructure after the hardfought IIJA has brought some hope back to the transportation industry. A monorail may serve its purpose in Las Vegas and Disney World, but perhaps it is not innovative enough for daily life. However, transportation recreation is valuable for the joy it brings vacationers, even if its utility probably ends with the thrill of escaping reality. 

One thing is for certain: transportation innovation and amusement parks clearly have a long, intertwined history beginning with the Columbian Exposition of 1893. Its clean, white city full of futuristic transportation concepts that inspired amusement parks to become a place where we can live in the future and the past at the same time. Recreation transportation is an opportunity to experience the excitement of innovation even when that innovation isn’t practical because it gets us excited about all the potential of transportation.