11
Dec

2017

Tower Design Lesson from Disney World Skyway

Post by Steven Dale

Walt Disney World Resort recently released new details about their Skyliner transportation system (here, here and here) — a topic I’ve been researching in hopes of a more fulsome analysis in the near future. During that research, however, I came upon something rather arcane that to a lot of people is probably rather mundane. But, trust me, it isn’t.

During our research about the Skyliner, I came upon this image of Disney World’s gondola, nicknamed the “skyway.”

Image from PlanningforDisney.com

What do you notice in this image?

Here’s what I notice — A series of benches. A flowerbed. A fountain. A clock. And a whole lot of people congregating around the base of the gondola tower.

Simply plunking a gondola tower into the middle of the public realm would be a non-start for a company as meticulous as Disney. Instead of seeing the tower as a liability, the staff who designed this system chose to turn the base of the tower into a focal point within their space.

We oftentimes hear clients complain about the towers. That they are unsightly and ugly. Which is, to some extent, true. But so is a lot of urban infrastructure. What’s interesting here is that system designers paid no attention to the tower itself. The towers pictured are off-the-shelf components of their time and era and it would be hard to imagine any special design or customization being put into their fabrication.

Instead, designers focused on the seam where the tower meets the street. That, after all, is where the majority of people will actually interact with the tower. It’s an elegant solution that costs thousands of dollars rather than the millions of dollars some people spend on customized towers (Portland and London, for example).

From the myriad of images of this system online, it’s clear that not all of the tower bases were given such a treatment with the answer as to why not likely lost to time.

As cable propelled transit systems slowly penetrate into urban realms, there will be increased scrutiny as to their impact on the surrounding public space and urban fabric. That’s why this precedent is so important. The Disney skyway shows in great detail how simply re-imagining this “ugly” piece of infrastructure can turn it into a focal point for public recreation. Urban gondola planners should take note.



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