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,” the starting point for the Walt Disney World Railroad. This beautiful and detailed train is strictly American and is the anchor of Main Street, USA. Nothing quite says “small town America” like 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. They purchased a farm in Marceline, Missouri, a town of about 3,000 people. Ironically, 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, an act that 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 the 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 and helped him create the Disney empire. In 1949, Roger 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” which he built in his backyard and 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 17, 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 miles around Disneyland and makes stops at Main Street USA, Frontierland, Mickey’s Toontown and Tomorrowland. The four original locomotives are named after Santa Fe railroad CEOs: 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–the first since 1959. In true Disney magic, it is named the “Ward Kimball” after the famous animator and Walt’s good friend.
The Walt Disney World Railroad in Florida opened in 1971 and also runs 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. In 1968 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 to haul 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 other four were totally restored with new parts, paint, and brass and were named 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, a 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 says when the train departs or stops, who makes sure passengers are clear of the cars, and who keeps the train on schedule. There are usually two trains running daily, making the trip around the Magic Kingdom in about 20 minutes, a schedule 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 20 minutes, and at 40 minutes past the hour. 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. Safety and readiness checks are performed by the conductor. This is known as “hostling.” In addition, several times during the trip around 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 is the pressure in the boiler and the brakes.
There is no sound quite like the sound of a steam locomotive whistle, wailing in the distance or upon 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 in full measure. But few of us 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 use a pattern of blasts to communicate different conditions on the rails to the conductor, 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 blasts= “Forward motion”
Three short blasts = “Reverse”
One long blast, One short blast = “Approaching station”
Two long blasts, one short blast, one long blast = “RR crossing ahead”
One long blast = “Emergency Stop”
You see, there is a lot more to running a train safely than meets the eye. All this is done for you, the Disney 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 really 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 World Railroad!
Contributed by: Bill I. (NDH #35). Bill is our resident historian.