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Stranded wire rope and aluminum buckets

Not long after Disneyland opened, a European firm erected a series of industrial towers in a line across the park and strung a loop of stranded steel cable from tower to tower. Some of the towers came to rest in pedestrian areas of Tomorrowland and Fantasyland. A huge electric motor at one end kept the cable moving, and an enormous weight attached to the pulley at the other end kept the cable taut. It was an industrial-scale version of the clothesline found in most American's backyards, erected high above the Magic Kingdom. Walt Disney must have been horrified.

The Skyway glides above Holiday Hill (current site of the Matterhorn). (Photo: Gorillas Don't Blog.)
Instead, it was Walt Disney's staff who were shocked. The man who fumed about Southern California Edison power lines at the far side of his parking lot and who constantly reminded them to hide the outside world and backstage from his guests had ordered an industrial-scaled clothesline. Walt Disney is still quoted today: "I don't want them to see the real world when they're in Disneyland; I want them to feel that they're in another world." Well, so much for that.

Like clothespins on a line, Walt proposed little bubble cars hanging on the cable, giving riders an overview as they shuttled between remote corners of Disneyland. From the ground, movement in the sky. But there was no disguising the pylons holding the thing up. The biggest one, in the approximate center of the loop, looked like a tower carrying electricity away from a hydroelectric dam. One pylon photo-bombed the view of the Chicken of the Sea pirate ship from the castle courtyard.

The Tension Station in Tomorrowland. Note the power poles and wires on Harbor Blvd. in the background. (Photo: Dave DeCaro's Daveland.)
From the bubble, you'd see Autopia cars, Phantom Boats on Tomorrowland Lake, and the brand new Astro-Jet. But you would also see the real freeway and, beyond that, the city of Anaheim. The Real World, 1956. You'd see the trash yards behind the Yacht Club and the unnamed burger stand by Mr. Toad. You'd see ventilators and other equipment on the plain flat roofs of the "castle."
The tower built for the Space Bar re-purposed for Skyway signage. Note the temporary shade structure over the queue--this ride was popular! (Photo: Restored from 1961 35mm slide by Bill Cotter.)

The story was: the "Chair Lift" ride--imported from Switzerland, where a similar ride has operated for some time--is designed to provide pedestrians a mode of travel for such places as parking lots in the huge shopping centers. (The first fully-enclosed mall was then under construction in Minnesota.)
Bucket storage behind the Tomorrowland station. The system can operate with between 12 and 42 buckets, the essence of "elastic capacity." (Photo: Dave DeCaro's Daveland.)
Von Roll Iron Works of Berne, Switzerland saw to the cable, motor, and tension pulley. Some of the components for Disneyland were used, others new. The Von Roll VR 101 system was operating at the 1955 Rotterdam Fair and the German Federal Garden Show at Karsel, West Germany as the Skyway was built. The system's design had been proven by skiers since 1945--the layout of the Ausstellungsbahn at the KABA 1949 in Thun, Switzerland was a triangle with three stations.

The design of the "bubbles" proved problematic. Would anyone ride in a rainstorm? On sunny days, it would be hot if the cars were enclosed. So imagineer Dick Stine sketched a "giant spun aluminum basket" with a cage and a roof that could be enclosed with plastic if necessary. A pole in the middle connected the floor to the cable grip above the roof. Disney ordered forty-two buckets in shades of copper, gold, green, orange, and blue--the buckets sported brighter colors in later years (and were redone in fiberglass in 1965), but the originals were muted metallic shades.

Towers and strung cables for Fantasyland, offering guests a view of the roofs and backstage areas.
Sun Valley, Idaho, in Mrs. Disney's family's home state, was the first snow-sports resort in the west when it was created by the Union Pacific railroad in 1937. Sportsman/businessman William Janss (of the family that sold Walt Disney the land for his Holmby Hills home) bought Sun Valley in 1964. The traditional July "Billionaires Summer Camp" at the resort began in 1983, but one suspects that the resort was a gathering spot for movers and shakers in Walt's time, as well. Walt's crazy, maxim-defying idea began at Sun Valley.

Once upon a time, there was a ski-enthusiast and entrepreneur named Fred A. Picard. A technical adviser to the 1952 U.S. Olympic women's skiing team, he operated a sportswear shop at the resort and designed ski fashions himself: "Color has taken over, and the brighter, the better is the rule," Picard was quoted in 1957. When Walt asked about chair-lifts, he found that Picard was the U.S. representative for Von Roll. The 1,200-foot installation at Disneyland, including the buckets and two stations, cost a quarter of a million dollars. 

r-to-l: Walt and Von Roll Chief Designer Paul Zuberb├╝hler (not future Secretary of State Henry Kissinger). They seem to have VIP seats with armrests.
On opening day, Saturday, June 23, 1956, Walt rode with Dr. Walter Schmid, the Swiss Consul-General in Los Angeles. Standing in the buckets was uncomfortable, so at the last minute, simple fiberglass chairs with metal legs were taken from the Space Bar patio and bolted to the floor of the aluminum buckets. The cable turned clockwise, and the chairs faced "out," putting the pylons--and buckets moving in the opposite direction--behind you. Could a child stand on the chair and tumble out? You bet--but they didn't. It was a simpler time.

Shopping malls never installed transit systems for their parking lots. Disney continues to use trackless trams. From day one, the Disneyland Skyway has been beloved--although many chose not to dangle thirty or forty feet in the air, no one complained about the view or the visual intrusion. Many still mourn the ride's closure on November 9, 1994 after thirty-eight years of service. Today, cable gondolas are popular around the world, from the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway (1963- ) to the Skyliner system opening in Walt Disney World this month. The oldest still operating is at Cedar Point, in Sandusky, Ohio, which dates to 1962, when Disneyland manager "Doc" Lemmon became Cedar Point's General Manager.

Many thanks to gondola system expert Robbie Von Roll for corrections and additional information. He points out that the Palm Springs gondola is a Von Roll, but not a Von Roll VR 101 like Disneyland, the San Diego Zoo, Sea World San Diego, and Great America in Santa Clara, California. Von Roll VR 101s first saw service in 1945 at Flims, Switzerland. Known as Flims/Foppa, this was the first detachable monocable lift in the world.

Both new in June 1956: The Skyway and a glimpse of Storybook Land beyond.
Some were frightened by the idea of dangling. Actually, dangling is okay; it's plummeting that scares folks, but that never happened.
By the way, Robbie Von Roll is selling model Skyway buckets for just $35 at the moment (the price is usually higher). He can be reached through Facebook Messenger.

Postscript: I find the design of the two stations to be delightful architecture, and they will be the subject of a future post.


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