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.