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The Walt Disney World Freeway System

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You can say a lot of things about Walt Disney both good and bad, but one thing no one will dispute is that the man had vision.

Now, Roadgap primarily concentrates on California since that's where I live, and I won't tolerate this talk of Disneyland being inferior. It's the original and still best (1955), so there. But despite Disney's best efforts and substantial upgrades over the years it's still surrounded by Anaheim and it's still clearly within the greater Los Angeles area -- a look in the wrong direction and the illusion falls apart.

I won't recapitulate the history of Walt Disney World here, but the idea was to create a larger flagship venue with full control of the visitor experience and new concepts in both entertainment and even community planning such as Walt's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT). This required complex acquisition and administrative plans engineered to prevent people from discovering the company's eventual aims and preserve the complex's unique operations. Disney's death in 1966 dashed his plans to make EPCOT into a planned community and the resort's opening in 1971 was in many ways simply a larger Disneyland with more space and worse weather, but the intricate governmental and land use underpinnings persist to the present day (four theme parks and multiple hotels later).

Under the surface the Walt Disney World Resort is composed of three political entities. The Cities of Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista exist somewhat as historical holdovers, entirely populated by Disney employees and immediate family members with a population of around 60 residents between them. Residence there is considered a privilege because of the proximity to their workplace, and in return for this privilege the residents maintain Disney-controlled councils through their votes that prevent other towns from annexing them. Lake Buena Vista, formerly the City of Reedy Creek, is the mailing address and has an exit from Interstate 4 which we will see, but almost all of the resorts and all of the theme parks are actually in Bay Lake. (The former Celebration, FL was founded by Disney, but divested by the company to become an unincorporated area to avoid political dilution, though Disney-controlled entities still own substantial portions within it.)

The main entity, however, is the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID). RCID, the City of Reedy Creek/Lake Buena Vista and the City of Bay Lake were all incorporated by state law in 1967, with Celebration existing nowadays outside of it. Although notionally part of Orange and Osceola counties, political power is maintained by five five-acre lots owned by Disney executives in the City of Bay Lake that give those executives voting power over the RCID Board of Supervisors. RCID provides most of the services local government would provide to its residents either through contract or directly, such as utilities, code enforcement (primarily in the form of health inspections, building codes and environmental protection), fire and EMS, law enforcement (with Disney personnel and contracts with county sheriffs and the Florida Highway Patrol), and, of primary interest to us here, transportation and roads.

Transport in Walt Disney World has multiple modalities. In addition to the famous monorail system, which I have to admit is much more developed here than in Disneyland where it's really just a demonstration project, there are buses, water taxis and ferries, an STOL-airport until the late 1970s, and then of course the entirely unique Walt Disney World freeway system. Because RCID is a public entity in statute, Disney freeways are public roads and the public may drive on them without admission to the resort, even through traffic, though their primary role is of course to serve the hotels and parks. The Disney freeway system is particularly noteworthy for its non-MUTCD signage. In addition, FL 535, US 192 and Interstate 4 also pass through the district and we will demonstrate those briefly as points of comparison.

Photographed July 2019 (oh my gosh it was hot).


Approaching the resort from the south side on World Dr with this interchange at US 192, unsigned here. RCID actually incorporates the entirety of World Drive down to Interstate 4 and I-4 itself between US 192 and just before OscCo 545, so the use of MUTCD-compliant signage here isn't sufficient to distinguish where RCID ends and begins. It does mean, however, that this interchange is maintained by FDOT (the Florida Department of Transporation) and not by RCID. We will see that again when we leave. For that matter, US 192 is also within the RCID from just before Reedy Creek Blvd to International Drive on the east.

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We're going to Disneyland! A version of this sign is on all the major thoroughfares as they enter the "resort proper."

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NB World Drive at Osceola Pkwy, here unsigned OscCo 522. The Disney freeway signage standard is white lettering on purple for control destinations, with motorist instructions in yellow lettering on red at the bottom. Instead of FHWA shapes or Clearview, the font is Univers Bold. Arrows appear as white on black discs to suggest Mickey ears (we'll look at a better example of this in a moment). Other control signage more or less has the traditional appearance, though lettering is also not standard on those either. The use of "Straight Ahead" is frequent but not ubiquitous or consistent; the use of a down-facing Mickey arrow lane marking on the collector-distributor at right is actually rather unusual.

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Another example on NB World Dr on a gantry. Notice that the Epcot sign in the middle has no motorist instruction, but the bottom red bar persists. Distantly visible is the resort signage on the side, which uses white on green as the main destination, white on blue for subdestinations, and then another red bar.

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The Magic Kingdom car park. Definitely not a public road.

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Epcot's Spaceship Earth at night, just because I thought this picture was nice. The 1982 landmark is constructed from 11,324 Alucobond facets, 180' tall, 165' in diametre and encompasses a total volume of 2.35 million cubic feet weighing 15.52 million pounds.

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A couple of the other transport modalities. Here is the famous monorail (I'll have more to say momentarily) ...

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... and one of the water taxis, here pulling up to the dock outside the Grand Floridian where we were having dinner. The Disney busses, boats and monorail are all free of charge.

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The monorail system, however, is how you really want to travel. There are three lines (plus two service spurs) and six stations with a daily ridership of over 150,000 passengers, making it the third busiest monorail on the planet. The current rolling stock ("Mark VI" manufactured by Bombardier) entered service in 1989 and can carry 20-40 passengers per car. Typical speed is about 40mph powered by a 600 volt DC bussbar in the concrete-polystrene beams. This is the double-beam main loop servicing the Magic Kingdom and its three hotels with the express on the left beam (in this view) and the hotel line on the right.

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One thing that was notable is that unlike Disneyland, which is very compressed and things are pretty close, WDW is a sprawling park and Epcot is actually rather farther than you'd think from, say, the Magic Kingdom. Epcot is on a separate single beam route accessed from the Transportation and Ticketing Center transfer station; it took close to an hour to get there from our room in the Polynesian Village.

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The single-beam Epcot run.

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Back to signs. Instead of a single Mickey arrow, this sign has the full Mickey ears and an arrow in just one of them. Also notice the small shields, also not in FHWA.

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Indeed, none of the Disney freeways have route numbers of their own. This kind of makes sense, since Disney wants you to navigate by control destination and not by road name or number. The shields are there mostly for people leaving the resort.

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SB World Dr at Buena Vista Dr with TOLL FL 429 signage, also not standard (ditto for the Florida's Turnpike, unsigned FL 91), and not particularly a direct route to it either.

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Another gantry at the same interchange; the right exit is part of a cloverleaf heading east.

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Exit Only signage is rather substandard; there is no specific warning for it and it appears on the same red bar with the same Mickey arrow.

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Collector-distributor road at SB World Dr and (here) WB Osceola Pkwy, using both Mickey arrows and "Straight Ahead."

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EB Osceola Pkwy at World Dr. On this gantry all three pull-throughs have motorist instructions, but the "Next Right" has a Mickey arrow as if it were an exit.

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Speed limit signs are also in Univers, not FHWA.

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Another gantry on our way out.

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The last of our gantries is this one, with Mickey arrow lane markings but "Straight Ahead" in the middle. Presumably this is to make it clear that the Interstate 4 exits are from the side lanes and the junction with TOLL FL 417 is for thru traffic in the middle lanes.

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I feel less magical already. (They're not kidding about the NO STOPPING.)

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Although this segment is part of RCID, the I-4 interchange is maintained by FDOT, as shown by the MUTCD-standard signage and the FHWA fonts. Compare with the gantry two photos back.

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Merging onto EB I-4 at the FL 536 interchange.

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Advance signage for FL 535, which is OrangeCo 535 entering the park and is signed for the City of Lake Buena Vista.

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Passing Disney Central Casting.

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Exit FL 535 as we leave the RCID towards the airport and back to rather less humid Southern California.

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All images, photographs and multimedia, unless otherwise stated, are copyright © 2004-2019 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. All writeups are copyright © 2004-2019 Cameron Kaiser. All rights reserved. Unauthorized copying or duplication without express consent of the copyright holder is strictly prohibited. Please contact the sitemaster to request permission if you wish to use items from this page.

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