Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Disney World Railway (Part I)

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get a behind-the-scenes look at the Walt Disney World Railway in March while on vacation. And even though I am not a huge fan of Disney, I found the tour to be a fascinating inside glimpse of a tourist railway.

So, here are a few random facts that I learned about the railway.

1. Walter Disney was a huge railfan. It all started in his childhood in Marceline, Missouri. Walt was intrigued by the AT&SF Railway that made its way through town. Today, BNSF still makes its way through that town. Walt never really forgot his hometown. Inspired by his love of trains, he built a giant outdoor railway on his property in California. He had to make one giant concession in order to convince his wife to allow him to build the railway. He had to agree to dig a fairly lengthy tunnel beneath her rose garden, so his railway wouldn't destroy her prized sanctuary. The creation grew to be a local attraction, as he often invited a number of people over to his house to ride on his railway, including Salvador Dali. There's a picture of a dour looking Dali riding one of Walt's trains. It's a surreal image.

2. It all started with a visit to the Henry Ford Museum. The Disney company doesn't shy away from mythology when it comes to its founder. The company often reminds visitors to the park of Walt's musing that the entire company began with his drawing of a mouse. In some ways, though, the beginnings of the Disney empire began with Mr. Disney's visit to Greenfield Village in the Detroit area. The attraction is part of the Ford family's empire (the car company family, not the Canadian political, uhh... family). Greenfield Village is first and foremost a collection of historic buildings that is meant to show visitors a piece of America's past. Walt was so impressed by the idealized village he saw that he used it as inspiration to create the original Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. That park, in turn, formed the basis of the Magic Kingdom, which is one of four theme parks that make up Disney World in Florida. Walt's idea was to recreate an idealized Main Street, much of it based on his hometown of Marceline. He then aimed to build a theme park around that small slice of America. One thing he always knew he would do was surround the park with a railway. The original theme park is bounded by a railway, as is much of the Magic Kingdom in Florida.

3. The Walt Disney World Main Street train station is based on a real station. The railway surrounding the Magic Kingdom has stations at Main Street, USA, Frontierland and Fantasyland. The focal point of the entire park is the railway station at Main Street, USA. When you enter this park, this station is the first thing you see. Even inside, it has the look and feel of a railway station of the early 20th century, with benches, ticket booths, railway signs and route maps of various real railways, including the Santa Fe and Union Pacific.

The main station, surprisingly, is not based on the station in Mr. Disney's hometown; rather it's based on the old Grand Trunk railway station in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Even the Frontierland station is based on an actual trackside freight structure in Marceline.

4. The railway is the real deal. The railway has reporting marks (WDWRR), operates on a 1.5-mile (2.4 kilometre) loop of three-foot-gauge track and is fed by a spur from the roundhouse. The railway has four Baldwin-built steam locomotives that date from 1916 to 1929. The train crews operate on a block signaling system, given that two to three trains can be operating on the loop at any given day. All crews have to follow normal protocol when crossing the railway's one level crossing. In order to gain access to the 1.5-mile loop that serves the park, trains have to cross one fairly busy access road that park employees use throughout the day. The steam engines approach the crossing with the customary two long, one short, one long whistle pattern to signal their approach. The railway even has a fairly challenging two-per-cent grade leading up to the Main Street Station. You can hear the old steam engines working hard as they climb this grade, chuffing all the way. If you've never heard a steam engine make this noise, it's a real novelty.

5. As you might imagine, this railway is busy. The railway is essentially a hop-on, hop-off operation that any park visitor can ride at any time as part of their admission price. The railway sees an average of about 3.7 million riders each year. I dare say there are few if any tourist lines boasting such ridership.

There are some really interesting facts about the actual locomotives they use on the railway, but I wanted to keep these for another post. Stay tuned.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating report, and thank you for sharing. Have you ever been to Greenfield Village? If not, you should plan to make a day or weekend trip next time you're in Sarnia for an extended visit. There is a photo of Walt Disney in the village's tintype studio, taken during one of his 2 visits to the village. The locomotives used on the village's railroad are authentic steam locomotives that were retired from Ford's Rouge manufacturing complex. The village also features a historical railroad backshop and an authentic Grand Truck depot. It's a wood framed building, but the design is identical to many of the stone Grand Trunk depots in eastern and western Ontario. Port Hope and St. Mary's Junction come to mind. The Henry Ford Museum also features a display of static locomotives and rolling stock. Overall, it's a great place for railfans. The village is adjacent to the former Michigan Central rail line between Detroit and Chicago that hosts 3 daily Amtrak round trips. Dearborn's new Amtrak station has a gate with direct access to Greenfield Village that's intended for tour groups arriving by train, but it has yet to be utilized. The station bridge over the tracks provides a bird's eye view of the railway section of Greenfield Village. And while the village and museum were indeed founded by Henry Ford, they are no longer part of the "Ford empire". It's a private museum supported by admissions, members and charitable donations, although a handful of extended Ford family members sit on the Board of Directors to lend their name to the cause.

Michael said...

No, haven't been there yet, although my brother and sister have been there several times. Since I don't live in Southern Ontario anymore, it might be a while before I go but everyone I know who has been there highly recommends it. My brother has blogged about Greenfield Village in this blog recently. You can read his post by cutting and pasting this link.

Thanks for stopping by!