By Courtney Potter
Taking a trip to a Disney Park is a truly memorable experience. There are the mind-blowing attractions, the tune-filled shows, the nighttime fireworks spectaculars, and all that delicious food! But the excitement doesn’t actually start there… sometimes, it starts before you’ve even stepped foot inside a park!
“It’s very exciting, because you see the kids’ eyes light up.”
Have you ever thought about that very “first ride” you take once you’ve arrived at Disneyland or Walt Disney World Resort? We’re talking about the tram, the Monorail, the bus, and even the watercraft that transport you to the front (or sometimes the middle!) of the various parks and resort hotels. Those trips—especially the ones first thing in the morning—can be quite magical, too. D23 wondered what it’s like to facilitate those “first rides of the day,” and reached out to Cast Members for the inside scoop.
Perhaps the most famous mode of “first-ride-of-the-day” transportation, on both coasts, is the Monorail. Disneyland Resort’s version opened on June 14, 1959, and was the first daily operating monorail in the entire country! At first, it only traveled around Tomorrowland—but in 1961, it was extended out to the Disneyland Hotel. Over at Walt Disney World, a Monorail transportation system (larger in scale than its Anaheim counterpart) opened on October 1, 1971, connecting the main Transportation and Ticket Center at the parking lot with several of the hotels and Magic Kingdom Park.
It’s at Walt Disney World that we caught up with Alpha Bellamy, who has worked for Disney for 32 years, and on the Monorails for more than two decades. “The Monorail itself is the most popular ride at Disney,” says Alpha. “When it comes to kids [especially], the first thing they want to see is that Monorail… When we’re transferring our guests first thing in the morning, there’s that element of surprise—where they go right through [the middle of] the Contemporary Resort, leaving the Transportation Center, [and they] get that first look at the Cinderella Castle as we’re leaving the Contemporary… ” The excitement doesn’t end with that first enchanting vision on the horizon—far from it! As Alpha explains, “Once we drop off the guests, then the real magic starts—because if they’re here first thing in the morning, [the characters] have a show right there at the front of the park!”
Speaking of “first thing in the morning,” Alpha and the other members of the Monorails team often help kick off a family’s big day at Walt Disney World with a little something extra. The team will identify a particularly enthusiastic bunch waiting for that very first Monorail, and “we’ll walk them up our ‘unload’ side—so they [don’t] have to wait in line,” he says. “[We’ll] have a few balloons, some monorail stickers for the kids… We [also] have what you call trading cards; these cards have different trivia [facts] about the Monorails. [And] we’ll probably give them a couple FastPasses, for a couple of the popular rides in the Magic Kingdom—so they can feel that ‘magical moment’ before they [even] get on the Monorail… ” It’s no wonder Alpha has stayed with this particular mode of Disney Parks transport for 20 years: “The Monorail is still, to me, the coolest ride at Disney,” he admits.
Water Transportation at Walt Disney World Resort
A truly unique “first ride of the day” happens each morning (and every 15–30 minutes ’til well after sundown) at Walt Disney World Resort (WDW). Thanks to the large network of lakes and lagoons around the property, guests can connect to the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios—as well as many resort hotels, and the Disney Springs entertainment area—via all manner of water transportation. You’ll find ferryboats, launches (otherwise known as “water taxis”), cruisers, and “party boats” (used for special nighttime activities like the Magic Kingdom’s “Pirates & Pals Fireworks Voyage”) offering up a relaxing cruise toward Disney fun.
Rob Tela—a veritable “jack of all trades” who’s worked for The Walt Disney Company since 1987—is currently a trainer and driver with WDW Watercraft Operations, based out of the Transportation and Ticket Center… and seeing guests (especially kids!) take that “first ride of the day” still thrills him. “The enthusiasm of the kids coming around the corner, coming out of the parking lot…” recalls Rob. “If you’re a people watcher and you sit here for any amount of time, trust me, it takes no time to see it: When we open up first thing in the morning, and all of a sudden they come around [and see] the sign that says ‘Ferryboats to Magic Kingdom,’ and then they see Cinderella Castle—and they say, ‘Oh my gosh. We’re finally here!’ I’ve seen adults tear up for that.”
Like Monorails, Rob and the Watercraft Operations team have a special “first family of the day” tradition. “We do something in the morning that we started about—oh, I want to say this was almost 18 years ago now,” he explains. “What we do is, we bring one of our launches over that would normally go to the Grand Floridian or the Polynesian Resort. We’ll pick out a family… [and we] take them across on their own private trip over to the Magic Kingdom. We’ll stop somewhere, usually in front of the [park], and take some extremely great pictures of the family and make that a ‘magical moment’ for them. Of course we have some accoutrements that we bring on, too; we have hats and balloons…” And the reason for all the fuss? “We started this because a lot of our guests don’t get the opportunity to stay on our property,” he says. “It’s kind of a personal bond that you make with the guests… It’s amazing what we can do.”
Another iconic “first ride of the day” is the tram, which features prominently at both resorts. (You can’t think about the tram without hearing that recorded safety announcement, right?) Disneyland Resort’s Glenn Kobelski has been working as a tram driver and trainer, based out of the Mickey and Friends Parking Structure, for 14 years. Here’s a fun tram fact to impress friends with: “If you stand one of the trams straight up and down next to the Matterhorn [inside Disneyland Park], the tram is higher,” explains Glenn. “The Matterhorn’s [147 feet], the tram is 170 feet!” Getting guests to the Resort first thing in the morning is one of his favorite aspects of the job. “It’s very exciting, because you see the kids’ eyes light up,” says Glenn. “It makes my heart warm to just talk with the guests, find out where they’re from. I always try to find a person coming from the farthest away, that day. And the farthest I’ve found so far is Zimbabwe!”
For many guests, Glenn continues, the tram is truly an “attraction” in and of itself—and there’s one “tram fan” that he’ll never forget. “This little boy, Mikey—he was terminally ill,” Glenn recalls. “He used to come in two or three times a week because he loved the trams, and all he did was just ride around on [them]… and then go home. I was talking to his parents one day and they told me all about it. I got special permission to take him out to where we park our trams and sit him in an empty tram in the driver’s seat, [and I] put my hat on him… He had all of his pictures taken, and [soon after] he ended up passing. His parents have those pictures, and they still come back once [a year] at the anniversary and look me up.”
Buses at Walt Disney World Resort
If you’ve ever been to Walt Disney World, you know about the buses; on the hottest of days, they offer some delightfully cool respite, all while transporting you around every corner of the property—from 45 minutes prior to park opening through one hour after closing (or even as late as 2 a.m., for Disney Springs and certain Resort hotels).
John Livengood has driven WDW buses (based out of Epcot) since 2005, and his early-morning routes are—as you might imagine—particularly memorable. “When we see [guests] in the morning, there’s a lot of anticipation, [even] a little bit of confusion,” John explains. “Of course, they’re just waking up and starting their day—[so] when they get on my bus, especially, I try to ease their mind, give them a little bit of a joke or an interesting conversation, just to ease them into the [experience].” In fact, those conversations have morphed into a whole new aspect of John’s job: “My managers have [now] allowed me to step away from the seat, and stand up and talk to the guests while another driver is driving… people are really enjoying it!”
Among John’s many unforgettable “first rides of the day” is a cache of young guests on Christmas Day, 2012. “I had a group of about 18 kids coming from All-Star Music [Resort],” he explains. “I do my normal routine: ‘Good morning; we’re on our way out!’ I give them some trivia… The kids really responded to me, and it was a good ride all the way in. They all enjoyed it… That, in itself, was a good day, [then] I came back from lunch and I was given an Epcot-to-Disney’s Hollywood Studios route. As I pulled in, it was the same 18 kids! [But] there was also a child in a wheelchair; the Make-A-Wish Foundation had a child [at Walt Disney World], and they were taking the child from Epcot over to Hollywood Studios… so I escort the child [on the bus], I talk with her and have a couple of laughs with her. As I’m going to load the 18 kids that I picked up earlier, as soon as they saw me [again], they lit up… Their chaperone walked up to me and told me that they were actually a choir; [she said] they’d had so much fun with me in the morning, that they wanted to repay that back to me… ”
John continues, “So they proceeded to sing Christmas carols from Epcot to Hollywood Studios! The little child that was in the chair—when she got on the bus, you could see that she was in pain. She was just not having the greatest day. [But then] these kids got on my bus and started singing, and you could literally see this girl light up… To me, that was one of the most touching times I’ve ever [had]. To watch it come full circle was amazing.”
The “first ride of the day” at a Disney Park can leave a lasting impression, and it’s something that John—and all the Cast Members D23 spoke with—doesn’t take for granted. “I’m given an opportunity here that I’ve never, ever known in my life and that’s to be myself… Every single person here takes a chance, every day, to express magic—[and] to try to give magic to at least one person a day. If 74,000 of us [employees at Walt Disney World] can reach one person a day, I think that’s a pretty amazing number.”