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Disney World May Reinvent Transportation

By Rick Munarriz - May 3, 2017 at 2:46PM

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Self-driving shuttles and continuously loading gondolas might be the future of getting around in Disney's Florida resort.

Getting around Disney's (DIS -1.38%) massive theme-park resort is a challenge for guests, but Disney World is reportedly shaking up the way that folks will be able to travel within its realm in the future. Disney confirmed to the Orlando Sentinel last month that it's exploring a gondola-based system, verifying the rumors that surfaced earlier this year after permit requests showed the theme-park giant proposing a cable-car system to connect some of its resorts with two of its theme parks.

The gondola system that may connect six points within the resort may seem ambitious, but it's child's play compared to what the Los Angeles Times is now reporting. Sources are telling the paper that Disney is in late-stage negotiations with at least two makers of autonomous shuttles, over a project that could replace its clunky bus and tram resort-transportation options with self-driving vehicles. Los Angels Times is calling it "the highest-profile commercial deployment of driverless passenger vehicles to date."

Disney monorail at EPCOT.

Image source: Disney.

Shuttle run

Disney World spans more than 43 square miles of turf, and while a good chunk of that acreage is protected wetlands, it's no easy feat to get around from most hotels to the attractions. Disney's fleet of monorails, ferryboats, shuttle buses, and parking lot trams may seem efficient, but most guests who spend enough time at the resort will probably argue otherwise. 

Boats can be slow. Buses can take as long as half an hour to arrive, and fill up quickly in peak periods. Resort monorails are limited to the priciest on-site hotels, and even then waits and downtime can take their toll.

Perpetually loading gondolas and self-driving shuttles could be the ticket to getting guests moving with minimal waits. More importantly, Disney would be providing unique experiences that set it apart from both the competition and daily life.

Theme parks are a pretty big deal for Disney, accounting for 31% of the media behemoth's revenue and 21% of its segment operating profit in fiscal 2016. Disney World is its largest resort, by far. Ticket prices inch higher every year without fail, and while that nudges Disney to invest in compelling attractions every year, there's also the mandate to make experiences magical. The ability to step out of a hotel room and into a driverless shuttle that will take resort guests to the front gate of a desired theme park is worthy of a premium over the growing number of lodging options.

We also can't ignore the competition. Disney World's rivals are spending a lot of money on new experiences, and Disney would prefer to keep visitors captive. In an era in which car rentals are cheap and Uber hails even cheaper, Disney needs to do everything that it can to keep its resort guests from straying. Self-driving shuttles and slick gondolas could be the trick to making families spend their entire vacations on Disney property, but the company had better act quick before before the opportunity to be the first mover here is gone.

Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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