Editor's Note: Story updated 7/6, 2pm PST.
Here's a direct link to the added section.
One Cast Member was killed late Saturday night (technically early Sunday
morning) when two monorails collided at the Ticket and Transportation Center
(TTC). 21-year old Austin Wuennenberg, a computer science student at the
nearby Stetson University and multi-year Walt Disney World Cast Member (CM),
was piloting Monorail Purple. He was pronounced dead on the scene.
This is a horrifying event, and my thoughts are with Mr. Wuennenberg’s
family and friends for their loss.
What happened will doubtless take many months of official investigations
by multiple law enforcement and regulatory agencies to fully unravel. This
being the age of Twitter, Facebook, and ubiquitous video cameras, however,
word has spread even quicker than usual from eyewitnesses, and some parts of
the story are beginning to coalesce.
Several photographs surfaced immediately by news agencies. Some showed
Monorail Purple smashed up against Monorail Pink while in the TTC station
(at the loading platform), while one showed the two monorails just south of
the station. This led to much early confusion in the blogosphere. Did the
accident take place outside the station, or at the station? Did the impact
maybe knock the trains out of the station? Ensuing reports clarified that
the impact did occur at the station itself, and the photo taken outside the
station was snapped during a brief move of the monorails post-accident, to
get another driver out.
A video popped up early on www.clickorlando.com, clearly taken mere
moments after the impact. A family of several people and a stroller are seen
exiting Monorail Purple from the first "normal" cabin door (meaning they
were right behind the pilot’s cabin), and several CMs and bystanders try to
see if the pilot of Monorail Purple was all right.
Many posts in the MiceChat discussion forum speculated about possible
causes, but several voices of experience--former Monorail pilots--spoke up
and provided details. Some of them had heard through their informal networks
(in other words, from current Monorail CMs) what had happened, and it
appears that they have pieced together the story pretty well.
It may be best to simply relay the events as they explain it via a series
of chronological snapshots, rather attempt a cohesive narrative. I must
stress that the following account has not been vetted by Disney or law
enforcement, and must be considered speculation (though speculation backed
by years of their experience, at least). Any errors that creep into this
account are probably my fault, since I was myself never a Monorail CM, and
some of the terminology is new to me.
Monorail Pink is running on the EPCOT Line. It is near 2 a.m. on
Sunday morning, meaning it’s the very end of a long, long Fourth of July
holiday. This is typically the busiest day of the year for the Magic
Kingdom, and thus for the monorails, too.
Monorail Purple is also running on the EPCOT Line. While Epcot itself
closed several hours ago at 10pm, the monorails are still running
because the Magic Kingdom was open until 1 a.m., and it takes more than
an hour to clear. Since some visitors park at Epcot and venture over the
Magic Kingdom, the monorails have to keep running until the latter of
the two parks is finally closed and cleared. So it’s the Magic Kingdom’s
operating schedule which dictates how long the EPCOT line has to be
A typical view of the Concourse as a train
pulls into the TTC, returning from Epcot.
Monorail Pink is scheduled to come off the line after this final stop
at the Ticket and Transportation Center (TTC). To come off the line and
retire for the night, Monorail Pink will have to depart the TTC on the
same EPCOT Line for a few hundred yards, long enough to navigate a
semi-circle "U-turn" in the track and point in the direction of Epcot.
Then, it will stop while a Y-intersection switch that it just passed by
will be moved to the alternate position. Once moved, that switch will
enable Monorail Pink to go backwards onto a different track, a spur
line, which will then deposit Monorail Pink onto the Magic Kingdom
Express Line (still going backwards, at first). Then, Monorail Pink can
head toward the Magic Kingdom, put in a quick stop at the MK Station to
switch piloting duties to the "other" end of the monorail (they have
dual and identical pilot cabins on both ends, to enable this kind of
forward and backward flexibility), and then take one last spur line
around Space Mountain and home to the Monorail Shop deep backstage, a
kind of roundhouse used to store and maintain the monorails.
The view from Operating Cab 1 on the Magic
Kingdom Express Line. Up ahead you can see the
last part of the spur line. Monorail Pink was supposed to come down that
spur line and end
up where this photo is being taken.
The spur line just before the Magic
Kingdom, which curves around Space Mountain
off to the right side of the image.
Monorail Pink leaves the TTC Station (this side of the station is
called the "Concourse") without mishap, and makes it to the stopping
point to await the switch.
The Monorail Pink pilot radios in the need for the switch. Monorail
Shop is the place that controls the track switches. Shop allegedly tells
Monorail Central Command (the person "in charge" out on the platform)
that the switch is done and now in place. It turns out later that this
is incorrect; they switch did not get moved. But Monorail Central
Command apparently thinks it is, and so authorizes Monorail Pink to head
in reverse. (It is not clear to me if the details in this bullet point
constitute "inside information" or merely a surmise by the monorail
pilots who pieced together this narrative, so we must employ the usual
grain of salt. But clearly this is one of the possible critical errors
in the entire series of events, if not the fulcrum itself on which
everything else turns, and the official investigation is sure to focus
on it particularly.)
Monorail Purple approaches the Concourse, pulling in a few minutes
behind Monorail Pink. Because the switch is about to occur, Monorail
Purple cannot simply operate with the usual electronic safety equipment
turned on. The MAPO system (so named for the manufacturing arm of Walt
Disney Imagineering that also built the monorails, and hardcore fans
will remember that MAPO was named after the movie MAry POppins) will
normally cause the trains to automatically brake and disallow them to
come too close to each other.
I’ve personally been in the pilot’s cabin (Operating Cabin 1) when
they brought a new monorail online on the Express Line and had to go
through the MAPO tests, and I watched the pilot try to accelerate until
the system didn’t let him. But MAPO’s effectiveness works against it in
this case. Because the MAPO sensors would disallow trains to get close,
the only way to perform a track switch, like Monorail Pink is attempting
to do, is for both Monorail Pink and Monorail Purple to
operate in "MAPO Override" mode. Normally, this is quite safe. The folks
in Monorail Shop act like air traffic controllers and know where each
car is. The individual pilots can see each other, and just have to watch
the track. It’s been done many times each and every day for 38 years
with exceedingly few fender benders as a result.
Monorail Purple may either be arriving, or be parked and taking on a single party of several adults
and children, and a stroller.
Piloting Monorail Purple is Austin Wuennenberg. Mr. Wuennenber’s
Facebook page indicates he has worked long hours lately: a 12-hour shift
on May 30 and a 14-hour shift on June 9 are cited as examples, but the
implication is that he worked many others. It’s never good to assume
anything, but it’s not an unreasonable guess that the busiest day of the
year might also have yielded a long shift, especially since other recent
days did so without the same crush of crowds.
Wuennenber’s Facebook picture
Monorail Pink heads in reverse in MAPO Override, which is capped at
15 miles per hour. The pilot must think he or she is on the spur line.
One assumes his or her cell phone and text message logs will be looked
at by authorities. Or perhaps the pilot is simply distracted/detached.
Maybe the lateness of the hour contributed to fatigue, and maybe this
pilot worked a very long shift. At any rate, he or she did continue on
the track, and with enough speed that Monorail Purple will soon be
The pilot of Monorail Pink is normally supposed to look behind him or
her as the vehicle moves in reverse by using the rear-view mirrors. The
lateness of the hour and the darkness of the region may explain why the
rear-view mirrors wouldn’t be especially helpful at first, since it
would probably be quite dark. But those mirrors should definitely show a
looming Monorail Purple.
The rear-view mirrors look a bit like tiny
ears on the Monorail.
A view from Operating Cab 1 in 2004 at
nighttime; even with the headlight,
you don’t see much. And this is facing forwards!
We have no eyewitness accounts regarding the speed at which Monorail
Pink hit Monorail Purple. It is unknown at present if the pilot of
Monorail Pink realized the mistake and attempted to slow down, though
online chatter by other pilots indicates that the brakes are quite
responsive, especially if the emergency brake is engaged as well.
We have no indications whether the Cast Members on the platforms used
their remote control "clickers" to kill-switch the monorails in the
area. Did they not see the coming vehicle? Or did they not realize the
import? Or did they simply freeze? The answers to these kinds of
questions will have to wait until the investigations are complete.
We do not know where Monorail Central Command was located physically.
There is a command post on the Concourse platform, a somewhat imposing
structure near one end and facing away from the Magic Kingdom (meaning
that the brick wall at the back of the post would obscure the view of a
backing-in Monorail Pink, anyway). It is apparently common that the
Monorail Central Command person would roam, and control the movement of
vehicles by mobile radio.
The Concourse platform. Photo taken in
The biggest unanswered question is probably why Austin Wuennenberg
took no "evasive" action in Monorail Purple. Did he not see the approach
of Monorail Pink? Was he otherwise occupied? (One assumes his cell phone
and text message logs will also be examined.) Or, was he simply not
experienced enough to slam Purple into reverse and accelerate away? He
was a seasoned ride operator, though, having worked on Rock ‘n Roller
coaster before the monorails, and he has been working the monorails as a
Full Time employee since October 2008.
Maybe the gates (and monorail
doors) were still open, and he was worried about moving away at high
speed lest a Guest be thrown free? But the video taken right after the
accident shows the doors and gates closed, with the one cabin door pried
open to let out the shaken visitors. Maybe Mr. Wuennenberg tried to
escape but only got so far as to close the doors in preparation for
It could also be that the MAPO brakes *did* prevent his train from
moving, and he saw the incoming train and tried to escape. For this to
be true, he would not have been entering the station in MAPO override
mode to begin with, just regular mode, and then MAPO clamped down on him
as pink came closer. Had he thought of it, going into MAPO override mode
on his own recognizance could have let him go backwards and keep pace
"ahead" of pink.
Or maybe a completely different set of circumstances was in place
here: did Monorail Purple suffer a power outage that required a restart?
Not only can that sort of thing happen, it happened to me two times
within the past sixty days… both times on Monorail Purple. I recognize
that’s a shaky correlation at best, and one shouldn’t draw too many
conclusions from that. Bottom line: this, too, will have to wait for the
official investigation to bear some answers.
Immediately after the crash, the video was taken until monorail CMs
forbade any further videotaping. First-responders were on site in 10-15
minutes, and several minutes were needed to pry out Mr. Wuennenberg, who
was pronounced dead.
Monorail Pink then backed further into the station, so that the pilot
of Monorail Pink could reach the platform and disembark (some reports
indicate this pilot was taken to the hospital). While the pilot gets
out, the now-joined monorails jut out behind the station, and it is at
this moment that the other photograph is taken. Later, Monorail Pink
again tows the attached Monorail Purple, this time back to the station,
and there they remained, while investigations are ongoing.
Again, it is important to note that there may be errors in the account
listed above. We will certainly know more as the official investigation
Update 7/6, 2pm
PST: The 911 tapes seem to imply a collision behind the
station, out in the parking lot. Here's the apparent sequence of events:
1. Monorail Pink leaves the TTC station on the EPCOT line. It intends
to go a little distance on the line, then back up onto a spur line and
reconnect to the Express Line.
2. Monorail Purple, also on the EPCOT Line, is told to hold just outside
(south) of the TTC.
3. Monorail Pink radios that it is ready for the switch.
4. Monorail Shop (the backstage facility that controls the switches)
allegedly tells Monorail Central (the guy in charge out on the TTC
platform) that the switch has been made. This turns out to not be
5. Monorail Pink allegedly gets the all-clear from Central, and starts
to back up, thinking it's on the spur line. In reality, it's on the same
line as before, and now heading toward Monorail Purple.
6. The anti-collision devices are turned off (both Pink and Purple are
in MAPO-Override mode, which is required for the switch to occur), so
Pink hits Purple just outside the station. It's unclear why Purple does
not slam his monorail into reverse gear and keep ahead of Pink - maybe
he doesn't see it coming.
7. Monorail Pink realizes there was a problem after the crash, and pulls
forward again into the station, suddenly towing Purple. At this point,
the clickorlando.com video was taken, and the guests from Purple were
We'll continue to update this page today as information warrants it.
Mr. Wuennenberg’s family issued the following statement:
Austin Wuennenberg was a senior at Stetson University, studying
computer science. He always enjoyed his work at Disney, and especially
enjoyed his work as a monorail pilot. He has many great friends whom he
has positively influenced; everyone will truly miss this dynamic young
man. Austin's family would like to thank friends and well-wishers for
their kind thoughts and prayers. We appreciate sensitivity and respect
from the media during this difficult time.
Our thoughts are with Mr. Wuennenberg’s family and friends. I can only
imagine what they are going through.
TTC: Ticket and
Transportation Center. This is the monorail "hub" at the ostensible
parking lot for the Magic Kingdom.
Concourse: the EPCOT
Shop: short for Monorail
Shop, this is the storage bay and maintenance facility for the
monorails, located deep backstage.
Monorail Central Command:
the person "in charge" of the monorails at any given moment, often (but
not always) found in the booth at one end of the Concourse.
Spur: a section of the
monorail track used to connect the EPCOT Line to the Magic Kingdom
MAPO: the automated
anti-collision system that normally disallows trains from approaching
each other too closely, even despite pilot inattention.
MAPO Override: the mode
of traveling needed to allow monorails to switch from one track system
to the other; capped at 15 MPH.