When you enter the Magic Kingdom in any of the hallowed Walt Disney parks worldwide, the very first thing you will see is the “Main St. Station”, which is the starting off point for the Walt Disney World Railroad. This beautiful and detailed train is strictly Americana and is the anchor for Main St. USA. Nothing quite says “Small town America” than a huffing, puffing, whistle blowing steam train pulling into the station! Here, you can get on and travel back to a time when train travel was more romantic and soul soothing, and yes, more civilized than any high-speed metro liner of today. There is something about the chuffing and clanging of that engine and the whistling blowing its mournful cry that cannot be duplicated today in any form of modern travel. But how did Walt Disney decide to use this treasure of transportation nostalgia in his theme parks? For the answer, we must travel back to Walt’s childhood, in Marceline Missouri, circa 1906.
It was in that year that Walt’s father Elias and Mother Flora decided that the violent and crime ridden streets of Chicago were no place to raise a family, so they purchased a farm in Marceline Missouri, a town of about 3,000 people. It’s ironic that the town owed its existence to the railroad, for without the rail head, it would be just another small Midwestern village. It was here that young Walt began his love affair with trains. He would put his ear to the tracks and listen for the train as it neared the station, for his uncle, Michael Disney was a train engineer. Later, as a teenager he obtained a job on the Pacific Railroad as a news butcher, selling candy, cigars, soda pop and newspapers to passengers. He loved this job, the uniform and the travel. However, it would not be until Walt became prosperous with the Birth of Mickey Mouse which elevated the Disney Bros. animation studio into the limelight, that he could pursue his “Hobby”!
The three men credited with encouraging Walt’s hobby were animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston; both train enthusiasts who had working steam railroads on their properties and Roger Broggie, a brilliant mechanical engineer who worked with Walt his whole career, helping him create the Disney Empire. In 1949, Rodger helped design the 1/8 scale model steam engine named “Lilly Belle” in honor of Walt’s wife Lillian. This was Walt’s “Carolwood Pacific Railroad” he built in his backyard, named after the street he lived on, Carolwood Drive in Los Angeles. When Walt was designing Disneyland in Anaheim, he knew he had to have a train encircling it.
The Disneyland railroad was inaugurated on opening day, July 17th, 1955. It is a narrow-gauge railway with the engines at 5/8 scale. Two of the engines were built in Disney’s own workshops under the direction of Roger Broggie; the other three were purchased from the outside, since it was much cheaper to do so than build them from scratch. All of the steam engines burn diesel fuel instead of coal or wood. The course is 1.5 mile around Disneyland and makes stops at Main Street USA, Frontier land, Mickey’s Toontown and Tomorrowland. The four original Locomotives named after Santa Fe railroad CEO’s are: C.K. Holiday, E.P. Ripley, Fred Gurley, and Ernest S. Marsh. In 1999, the Disney Co. purchased a 1902 Baldwin Locomotive and had it restored and transformed into a Disneyland railroad locomotive. This is now the fifth engine Disneyland has and the first since 1959. And in true Disney Magic, it is named the “Ward Kimball” after the famous animator and Walt’s good friend.
The Walt Disney Railroad in Florida opened in 1971 and is also a 1.5 mile circuit around the Magic Kingdom. It makes stops at Main St. Station, Frontierland and Mickey’s Toontown Fair. This railroad has 4 locomotives which were built by the Baldwin Locomotive works of Philadelphia more than 70 years ago. In1968 Disney scouts with the help of Roger Broggie found the five locomotives in Mexico on the Yucatan peninsula where they were used on the United Railways of Yucatan hauling goods, people and rope. The engines were brought back to America and the total restoration began. The fifth engine however, was in such bad shape that it made restoration impractical, so it was sold. The four were totally restored with new parts, paint, brass and were named as follows: No 1-“Walter E. Disney, No 2-“Lilly Belle” No 3-“Rodger E. Broggie and No 4-“Roy O. Disney. There are four complete train sets; each set consists of a Locomotive, tender and five passenger cars. The tender holds approximately 1,837 gallons of water and 664 gallons of fuel oil. The water tower is at Mickey’s Toontown fair and when the train is at the station, you can sometimes see the fireman filling up the tender. The water is good for two or three trips around the park. Each train set carries about 360 passengers.
Many people think that the engineer is in charge of train operations, but in reality the conductor is the boss. While the engineer and fireman keep things running smoothly in the locomotive, the conductor is the one who has the say when the train departs, stops, makes sure passengers are clear of the cars and keeps the train on schedule. There are usually two trains running daily, making the trip around the Magic Kingdom in about 20mins and this is strictly adhered to. This timing is established by the first train and the following train must maintain pace. The goal is to have the trains arrive at Main St. station on the hour at: 20min and: 40min past. A train crew consists of three men: The engineer in charge of operating the locomotive, a fireman in charge of the boiler, keeping fuel and water in good supply, and the conductor who is in charge of management and safe operation of the train.
Every morning before the trains are taken out of the roundhouse, they are thoroughly checked and prepped by the maintenance crew and safety and readiness checks are performed by the conductor. This is known as “hostling” In addition; several times during the trip to the park the engineer will test the safety systems on the train. All in all, the maintenance and safely checks Disney gives its trains are second to none. The signals, or blocks are checked constantly, as the pressure in the boiler and brakes.
There is no sound quite like the sound of a steam Locomotive whistle, wailing in the distance or on approach to the station. The sound conjures up romantic images of the Old Wild West and of a simpler time, a more innocent time when a man had time to live life full measure. But few of realize that those lonesome whistle blasts are actually a form of communication! They are not just to warn of an approaching train at a crossing or station. The engineers us a pattern of blasts to communicate with the conductor different conditions on the rails and the conductor will respond with a button connected to a buzzer in the cab of the locomotive, using the same pattern. Remember, the conductor has the final say in the operation of the train. Here is a quick look at some of the codes used. One short blast=”Attention Two short= “Forward motion” Three short=”Reverse” One long, One short=”Approaching station” Two long, one short, one long=”RR crossing ahead” One long=”Emergency Stop” So you see there is a lot more to running a train safely than meets the eye. All this is done for you, the WDW guest!
So, the next time you board the Walt Disney World Railroad, just sit back and relax. Close your eyes as the train chug chugs away from the station. Feel the swaying of the cars and hear that lonesome whistle blowing, and if you listen real hard, you might just hear a young man’s voice yelling: “Cigars, newspapers, soda pop candy”. If you do, that’s just Walt Disney still seeing to the comfort and enjoyment of his passengers on this, the Walt Disney Railroad!