How the Disneyland Railroad Is Responsible for…Star Wars Land?!?
Let’s be honest: a ride on the Disneyland (or Walt Disney World) Railroad doesn’t top too many people’s must-do attraction lists. In fact, some would say the decision to include it at all during a trip to the Magic Kingdom depends on the level of urgency at which they require either a decent breeze or an extended sit to allow their soles/souls to recover from the theme-park fray.
Reading this now, you’re probably neither overheated nor exhausted, so what do you say we take the opportunity to experience this oft-overlooked attraction while able to better appreciate all it has to offer. And, I’m not talking about a few good photo ops and a family of fake moose. If we know where to look, we may just find a Disney history lesson in grand-circle-tour form around these old rails. It’s not the “Wildest Ride in the Wilderness,” but it’s got a lot of Walt left in it. And, he’s getting harder and harder to find around the parks as they continue to grow and evolve. So, kick back, put up your feet, and…all aboard!
The notion to build a railroad attraction predates Disneyland itself, as Walt had been fascinated by trains from a very young age. His uncle was a train engineer, and he himself worked as a news butcher on the Missouri Pacific Railway as a teenager. After becoming interested in model trains in the late-40s, he took the hobby a step further.
Shortly after moving to 355 N. Carolwood Drive, in the Holmby Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles, Disney began construction on a backyard railroad. Having been encouraged in his model-train hobby by studio animators Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball, who boasted backyard railroads of their own, Walt received permission from wife Lillian to lay over 2,600 feet of track — complete with turns, crossings, overpasses, bridge, trestle, slopes and berm, as well as a 90-foot tunnel to leave Lillian’s flower beds undisturbed.
The 1:8-scale steam locomotive which ran the tracks, dubbed Lilly Belle in honor of his wife, was built primarily by studio employee Roger Broggie (with Disney assisting on some of the cosmetic features) and modeled after an historic locomotive from the early days of the transcontinental railroad. Both the original initials and numbering of the engine — CPRR, №173 — remained intact on Disney’s version, since his chosen Carolwood moniker also fit the acronym.
Walt had a barn constructed to house the railroad’s controls. The structure, along with various pieces of the railroad, would later be relocated as a stand-alone exhibit to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum in nearby Griffith Park.
While in use, the railroad became something of an attraction for family members, friends, and other visitors eager to take a ride on — and even guest-engineer — the miniature train. Walt even had souvenir railroad passes created to serve as invitations and mementos for visitors. The Lilly Belle ran the “Fair Weather Route” from 1950–1953, until a minor incident in which a driver accidentally derailed the train, causing a young girl to receive light burns from the steam, prompted Walt to shut down the operation indefinitely.
Walt had initially contemplated expanding his railway into a backlot-tour attraction on his Burbank studios property. The idea grew, however, and he soon began entertaining the notion of buying up land across the street from the studio and creating a full-blown amusement park to house a larger-scale railroad. The dream continued to evolve, of course, eventually manifesting in the world’s most famous theme park and the millions upon millions of visitors that tour its magical offerings each and every day from the seat of an old-fashioned steam train.
The morning of Disneyland’s grand opening, July 17, 1955, Walt Disney kicked off the celebration by driving the park’s №2 locomotive into Main Street Station, where he disembarked and walked into Town Square to deliver his now-iconic dedication speech. Over the next few years, two additional locomotives would be added, and the route which ran through all six lands (yes, even the now-defunct Holidayland) would receive new stations in both Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. A more memorable update would be installed in the spring of 1958: the Claude-Coats-designed Grand Canyon Diorama, which took guests through an elaborate natural scene set in the canyon’s south rim, complete with native flora and fauna.
Following Disney’s successful run at the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair, remnants of the Magic Skyway attraction, which had been housed in the Ford Motor Company’s “Wonder Rotunda” pavilion, set up camp in the new Primeval World segment of the railroad. The addition was one of the last changes made to Disneyland before Walt’s passing on December 15, 1966.
In the mid-1970s, one of the original passenger cars was converted to a parlor car and named the Lilly Belle, in honor of not only wife Lillian, but also the original backyard steam engine of the early 50s. Many of the aging engines and cars of Walt’s era, however, have since been replaced out of necessity, due to the wear from decades’ worth of circles around the Magic Kingdom.
In January of 2016, the attraction closed for its longest refurbishment yet, brought on by the highly-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge expansion, which infringes upon former railway real estate. A new route had to be carved out for the comparatively outdated steam train, including the addition of the railroad’s first left turn. Just last week, the attraction re-opened to the public, after more than a year-and-a-half absence.
On hand to help dedicate was John Lasseter, chief creative office of Walt Disney Animation and Pixar, and like Walt before him…a railroad buff. Lasseter, who has kept alive the tradition of backyard railways, brought with him his own engine, the Marie E, formerly owned by Ollie Johnston. He also arranged for Ward Kimball’s Chloe engine, now displayed at the Orange Empire Railway Museum, to be brought in for the occasion, and the two made their way around the park in a fitting scene that I’m sure Walt would have loved to see.
If Johnston and Ollie’s names sound familiar it’s because they’re two of the most renowned animators in the business, both members of Walt’s famed Nine Old Men group that helped define and revolutionize the art form, and Disney Legends that will forever be remembered for their contribution to the company’s legacy.
They may also sound familiar for the fact that I mentioned them a few short paragraphs ago, as the inspiration behind Walt’s original backyard railroad. You remember the one: the hobby-gone-overboard that got him to thinking about a railroad attraction in the studio backlot…which prompted him to seek out land to purchase for a tiny amusement park…and then led to the grand idea of Disneyland…and eventually millions of trips around the park where guests could see what Walt saw before anyone else did.
Talk about things coming full-circle. Kind of fitting, don’t you think?
Nicklaus Hopkins is a Columnist for the Boardwalk Times.
Check out Nicklaus Hopkins’ new book, Of Mouse and Men (Theme Park Press). In addition to The Boardwalk Times, read more about his love of Disney history at The Mouse Museum: Home of the Disney Collector Archives.