Dearly Departed Disney: The Rise and Fall of the Skyway

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April 3, 2022

Written by: Jim Smith

(A version of this article was published for Pirates & Princesses on April 3, 2022.)

Have you ever wanted to film a drone’s eye view of Disneyland or Magic Kingdom? Don’t even think about it – Disney monitors in-park air space quite thoroughly. But there was once a time when guests could at least get a bird’s eye view of a portion of the park.

Back in the day, Disney’s Skyway gently carried guests on a tour above Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, offering amazing photo opportunities of large sections of the park. What was the Skyway like, and why are they gone? Let’s explore these floating buckets together, as Dearly Departed Disney takes us high in the sky behind two iconic Disney castles.

Skyway Over Disneyland

Like so many stories from Magic Kingdom, the tale often starts long ago and far away – in Anaheim, California. Walt Disney was not only a pioneer in animation, film, and themed entertainment. Walt was also fascinated by the concepts of transportation and urban planning. These interests led Walt to introducing the Skyway, Monorail, and PeopleMover to Disneyland (and eventually to Magic Kingdom) and also led to Walt’s greatest vision – EPCOT. 

The Skyway was not quite an opening day attraction in Disneyland. It opened in June 1956 – almost a year after the rest of the park. The attraction was built by the Von Roll company of Bern, Switzerland. While Von Roll had built dozens of similar attractions for amusement parks and fairs around the world, the Disneyland Skyway was the company’s first installation in the United States.

The gondolas of Disneyland’s Skyway were originally round two-seaters, with center support posts, inspiring guests to lovingly nickname the gondolas “Sky Buckets.” The Skyway transported guests between loading stations in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. The ride was a one-way journey for guests, as Disneyland considered the Skyway to be two separate attractions – Skyway to Fantasyland and Skyway to Tomorrowland. The attraction was immediately popular, earning a D-ticket rating in Disneyland’s new ticket book system.

Walt’s Swiss Mountain

After barely a year of operation, the Skyway underwent an extended shut down – closing in late 1957. During this closure, the Skyway’s tallest tower (60 feet high) was demolished, and Matterhorn Bobsleds was built in its place as part of Disneyland’s 1959 Tomorrowland Expansion. In order to restore Skyway’s operation for guests, the Matterhorn was built with an opening directly through the center of the mountain. The Skyway gondolas passed through the center of the Matterhorn, prompting Walt to jokingly describe the Matterhorn as a “Swiss Mountain.”

In the 1960s, the Skyway was enhanced to provide guests with a better ride experience. Disney Legend Bob Gurr designed new gondolas which doubled the guest capacity from two to four, while also removing the awkward center post. The gondolas no longer looked like buckets, though the “Sky Buckets” moniker still stuck.

Fun Fact – Disneyland’s Skyway was the top layer of Tomorrowland’s “five-layer cake” of the late 1960s. The other four layers included the PeopleMover, Monorail, Autopia, and Submarine Voyage. 

Closure in Disneyland

Disneyland’s Skyway closed in November 1994. At the time, rumors speculated that the closure was due to an incident in April 1994 when a guest had fallen from a gondola. It was later proven that the guest had purposely jumped out of the gondola with the intention to sue Disney. 

Disney’s stated reason for closing the attraction was metal fatigue and stress cracks which had developed on the portion of the attraction that ran through the Matterhorn. The only way to perform maintenance would be to open up the Matterhorn to work on it – way too expensive an undertaking. Waning popularity of the Skyway and budgetary concerns were speculated to also be reasons for the closure. Following Skyway’s permanent closure, the attraction’s operating budget was transferred to the Indiana Jones Adventure attraction, which was in production at the time.

The abandoned Fantasyland station lived on in Disneyland for some 22 years. It was finally demolished in June 2016, nearly 60 years after the attraction’s opening day, to help make way for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Riders Beware

An extensive refurbishment to Matterhorn Bobsleds in 2015 led to a loving tribute to the Skyway. Several wrecked Skyway buckets and bobsled vehicles appear near the beginning of the attraction, just past the top of the lift hill, having been torn apart by the legendary Yeti.

Skyway Over Magic Kingdom

The Skyway over Magic Kingdom was also built by Von Roll, and opened with the park in October 1971. It was similar in appearance to the refurbished version of the Disneyland Skyway, with four-person gondolas.

Image: Yesterland

However, unlike Disneyland’s straight shot from Fantasyland to Tomorrowland, Magic Kingdom’s Skyway banked a dogleg right en route to Tomorrowland. In order to safely facilitate the turn, the gondola descended from its cruising height almost to ground level, turned, then ascended again to finish the journey to Tomorrowland.

Closure in Magic Kingdom

Magic Kingdom’s Skyway operated fairly consistently for 28 years until its closure in 1999. The Skyway rumor mill was stoked again, this time theorizing that a Cast Member death at the attraction in earlier 1999 was a primary reason for the closure. 

Disney’s official reason for closing Magic Kingdom’s Skyway was part of a program to phase out older attractions and introduce newer ones, to keep the park fresh for new and repeat visitors. An additional unofficial reason is likely the expense of running the attraction compared to the relatively low hourly capacity.

Who Needs To Use the Restroom?

The Skyway is long gone from Magic Kingdom, but guests who want to step foot in the former station locations need do nothing more than…use the restroom.

For many years, the Fantasyland station building was used for stroller parking and occasional character meet-and-greets. Following the demolition of the building as part of the New Fantasyland expansion in 2012, the popular Tangled-themed restrooms now sit on the location where the Skyway station once stood.

Image: RetroWDW

In Tomorrowland, the two-story loading station next to Space Mountain was reduced to one floor in 2009. It also serves as a restroom for guests, though it is not nearly as scenic as the Instagrammable Tangled restrooms in Fantasyland.

Look Up!

If you are shopping at Disney Springs and visit the DisneyStyle store, be sure to look up. A blue Skyway gondola – number 51 – hangs from the ceiling just above the Mad Tea Party teacup photo location.

Skyway Over Tokyo Disneyland  – 1983-1998

Outside the United States, Skyway also operated as an opening day attraction in Tokyo Disneyland. The attraction ran for about fifteen years, closing in 1998 to make way for Pooh’s Hunny Hunt in Fantasyland. The Tomorrowland station was replaced with a candy store.

Disney Skyliner

True to form, no good idea ever truly dies at Disney. The Skyway may no longer float guests above Disney castle theme parks, but in September 2019 the Walt Disney World Skyliner began connecting guests to two theme parks and several hotels throughout the resort.

More than a simple attraction, the Skyliner seeks to follow in the footsteps of the Walt Disney World Monorail system, and serve a real guest need for transportation. The larger gondolas can seat up to ten guests. And despite pre-opening concerns, guests do not roast in the Florida heat or sway in the Florida winds. By all accounts, the Skyliner is quite a comfortable way to move about the resort.

Image: Disney

We hope you didn’t drop any of your belongings out of your Sky Bucket. Thanks for riding, and please follow along here for additional articles in this series. We’ll continue to explore many other former attractions and experiences from Walt Disney World, including Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.

Sources referenced in writing this article include:

The Wisdom of Walt – Jeff Barnes

Touring Plans – Attraction Archive


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