Monorails and The Powers That Be

A 45 Year Old Gem: The Walt Disney World Monorail

As Walt Disney World celebrates its 45th anniversary this year, so does its legendary monorail system. The thread of the “Vacation Kingdom” was and in many ways still is the monorail system. It was usually the first “wow” guests had when they visited this East coast version of Disneyland. It even had its own attraction poster.

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Monorail attraction poster.

45 years later, the monorail system is just an assumption when one visits the Magic Kingdom. People who visit often, like myself, know that it’s a lot more efficient than taking the ferry boats, which are a lovely way to sit back and enjoy the view, but are sluggish for those who don’t want to waste time. Add to this, management has long learned that this highway in the sky is an expensive way to get people from a parking lot to what is the most popular, most trafficked theme park in the world. So 45 years can put a lot of wear and tear on a monorail system. It’s no surprise that there has been a considerable investment in helping these vehicles stay in the best shape possible.

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Monorail Red entering the express side of the MK station. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Therefore, as an annual pass holder, I have known that the express monorail has been down at certain times in the afternoon to move fleet in and out and to do testing on software systems that will not only allow it to be driverless. I appreciate these efforts, and am even patient, even though it’s gone on for a considerable length of time. (two years plus?)

No Express Way To Return

But there is one thing I haven’t been able to understand. For some time now, the express line from the Magic Kingdom back to TTC has been closed off during the morning hours. The express monorail is working, but they won’t board anyone who wants to head back. That means that exiting the park is now by going through what is the main corridor where everyone is trying to go through bag check and security. Painful is not the word! It’s like salmon swimming upstream. You are walking against the flow of hundreds of guests (which by the way only adds to the confusion of safely overseeing the guest flow into the park).

I looked for a photo of this happening, and found that I had taken one back in February of 2013. This has been going on longer than I thought (I must be more patient than I give myself credit).

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A guest dead ending at the express monorail entrance at 10:34 in the morning. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Then to make matters worse, they have not been operating in the first hours of the morning. In fact, on the very Saturday morning of the 45th anniversary, your option at the start of the day was to take the ferries or a bus. What a terrible statement to be making on your 45th anniversary.

A Benchmark For What is Possible

I contrast this to Tokyo Disneyland, whose monorail system–albeit younger– is heads and shoulders above what you get at Walt Disney World. The cabs are spotless and are very Disney-like in their design.

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Note the Mickey-shaped windows and handles. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Those who work on the monorail are incredibly attentive and take great pride in what they do. And all the while, they work very hard to support the connections between two very popular parks, plus three other stops.

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Notice the Tokyo Disney Cast Member with the cloth. Continually wiping down and cleaning the station and monorail. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

So we have a benchmark that such transportation systems can be outstanding. This can be done. It’s not impossible.

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Displays like this and others in Tokyo’s monorail stations salute the heritage of Disney’s monorails–ironically–even that of Walt Disney World. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Why Is The Express Station Not Open?

Now, this article is not about comparing the quality of two monorail systems. But it does serve to set the context of what is really possible. A couple of weeks ago, I had enough of the monorail system. As had been happening on previous visits, it wasn’t open when I arrived that morning with my son. And the option to return via express monorail was closed down, which has been happening for a very long time. Therefore, to ride a monorail most mornings back to TTC, you must take the resort line, which means going backwards through security. By the time I got to the resort monorail platform, I was ticked and could see that the express monorail altogether was not even running. Operationally it was down.

I asked a front line cast member why the monorails weren’t working? He said they had gone 101. I then asked why there was a policy that the express return was never available in the morning hours from the Magic Kingdom? He then turned to another cast member who then turned to another front line worker. None of them knew. They then called their supervisor. Struggling to connect via radio with that manager, I learned that the individual was at the TTC, and I stated that I would seek out the manager when I got there.

I found the manager at TTC. The individual couldn’t be more professional. But he didn’t have a reason as to why they didn’t open up the express return from the Magic Kingdom in the mornings. He conjectured that it might be a security issue because he had tried to open it on one occasion and security had locked that exit on the far right leading to the monorail platform. I asked if this was about two silos not working together–security and transportation? He said he wasn’t sure, and he called a guest service manager to come.

The guest service manager was also very professional. Both of these gentlemen seemed like two people who were good people to work with and for. I articulated all of my frustrations about the monorail system, but was very clear about my ongoing frustration that the Magic Kingdom entrance was closed most mornings to the express monorail.  After listening to me, his response could best be summed up as follows:

That’s a decision that’s made by “the powers that be”.

He said that they make any number of decisions about testing, about opening and closing and so forth, and that this was one of those decisions. They weren’t included in the decisions, nor did he know specifically why they had decided that. He couldn’t state what the reasoning or rationale was, or how they got to that decision. It was simply a decision made by the powers that be.

The Problem With The Powers That Be

Three levels of the organization, and no one had an official  reason for why. I’m not even sure any of them felt comfortable asking “why?”

The response couldn’t have been more disconcerting. When you say “upper management” made that decision or “it came from the top” or it was decided by the “powers that be” you have made me more frustrated than if you had simply told me that we’re “trying to be cheap and cut the budget.” When an employee makes one of those statements, it usually suggests any and/or all the following:

  • The powers that be may be clueless as to what is really happening on the front line.
  • The powers that be have not involved the front line in the decision making process.
  • The powers that be have not done a good job communicating the “why” in their decision.
  • The powers that be probably do not have a good “why” that they would want to have explained to their guest.
  • The powers that be probably do not see the impact of the decision on the guest experience.
  • The powers that be probably have not made a good decision, and therefore, doesn’t want to have to defend it. “Because we said so” becomes the replacement.

I will also tell you what the end result will be. You will have employees–Cast Members in this case– who do not feel informed and engaged. The trickle down effect is that you will have guests feeling unsatisfied by the experience and not really understood.

Now lest you think I’m just jumping all over Walt Disney World transportation, this same “powers that be” problem exists in organizations from hospitals to banks to government agencies. But when I hear that the policy can’t be explained because of upper management, it’s for all of the reasons I bulleted earlier. So this is about your organization as well as Disney’s. We have to make sure that we don’t just go with the status quo because that was what the “powers that be” decided.

In the aftermath, I came back about two weeks later to find this sign:

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If I had paid to stay at a resort on the monorail line, this would make me fairly upset. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

I guess they did reason that my frustration about opening times being vague warranted signage better communicating to the guest. So now we have this sign–helpful if and only if you happen to notice it–and if you don’t need to use the monorail during those hours. I know I for one would like to use it during those early hours.

I suppose the powers that be approved that one.

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