Did you know that before the Disney parks came to be, Walt had his very own railroad running through the backyard of his home? His passion for trains started as a child and continued into adulthood. When the time came, Walt wanted to share his love for trains with guests in his parks as well. He specified that a train be the first sight at Disney, prominently at the front of the park. Just as the entrance to Disneyland showcased a locomotive and cars when it opened in 1955, Disney World did the same on its opening day in 1971.
Trains and Nostalgia
Riding the train at Magic Kingdom reminds me of my paternal grandfather who was a railroad worker. Sadly, he passed away before I was born, but he lived on through stories my dad told me. My favorite one is that their family home was on a hillside next to the train tracks in a small Kentucky town. His father would wrap dollar bills and small treats inside of a newspaper and toss them off the train and on to the hillside for his children to find. I’m sure my dad and his sister had as much fun chasing trains as Walt and his brother Roy did as kids.
Main Street, U.S.A. wouldn’t be an authentic representation of a true turn of the century classic town without a train. The Walt Disney Road Railroad utilizes four restored steam trains. There are three stations throughout the Magic Kingdom to board and disembark. However, if you stay on for the full trip, it will take 20 minutes and cover 1.5 miles.
Of the four trains in operation, two are named for Walt and his wife, Lillian (the Walter E. Disney and the Lilly Belle). The Roy O. Disney is named for Walt’s brother and business partner. An additional train, the Roger E. Broggie, is to honor the Imagineer that was instrumental in making Walt’s dream for trains at his parks a reality. Tucked underneath the train station stairs, you will find a variety of interesting historical train memorabilia to peruse.
Carolwood Pacific Room at Wilderness Lodge
To best understand Walt’s depth of enthusiasm for trains, a visit to the Carolwood Pacific Room at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is a must. The special room is named after the railroad Walt ran in his own backyard (a nod to his address at 355 Carolwood Drive in Los Angeles, CA). Nestled in a cozy and inviting area inside the Boulder Ridge Villas, you will find a serene space complete with vintage photographs and memorabilia.
The black and white photos that hang on the wall truly tell a story. One picture shows Walt riding a group of children and adults on his half-mile backyard miniature railroad. Another is of Walt and Mickey Mouse atop a five-eights-scale steam engine at Disneyland. Ironically, both photographs were taken by Roger Broggie in the 1950s, the very Imagineer responsible for so many train-related projects at Disney.
Two of the original cars from Walt’s home railroad are here on display. A model of Walt’s own locomotive and cars sits on a nearby table. I have intended to visit the Carolwood room for years and finally did last month with two of my kids. It was well worth blocking out some time during our trip to take this captivating step back in time.
Now let’s take a quick journey around the four Disney World parks to find out where else trains are represented in action.
Big Thunder Mountain at the Magic Kingdom (1980)
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened at Disney World in 1980, nine years after the opening of the Magic Kingdom. Designed by Imagineer and Disney Legend Tony Baxter, the attraction covers 2.5 acres and is patterned after the shapes and colors of Monument Valley in Arizona.
This coaster is popular with a wide range of age groups since there is no one big drop. Instead, guests are treated to an exhilarating series of turns, drops, tunnels, and more. The ride’s top speed is 36 miles per hour and has a run time of about 3-1/2 minutes. Big Thunder Mountain is still considered to be an “E ticket” attraction, a must-do and top tier, even after 43 years in service.
Wildlife Express at Animal Kingdom (1998)
The Wildlife Express was an opening day attraction for Disney’s Animal Kingdom on April 22, 1998. The locomotives were built in 1997, but designed to look weathered as if they had been operating since the 1880s. Guests travel from the Conservation Station in Africa to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, the park’s wildlife conservation center. The locomotive pulls five coach cars that can accommodate up to 200 people per trip. The 1.2-mile railway journey, 7 minutes inbound and 5 minutes outbound, is quite enjoyable for all ages.
Guests ride on wonderfully themed open-air cars to and from the stations. Unique bench seating facing outward provides outstanding views and gentle breezes as the cars move along the tracks. This train, in particular, truly evokes the feeling of travel and adventure, something very near and dear to Walt’s heart.
Model Trains at EPCOT (1995)
The model trains adjacent to the Germany pavilion made their debut during the Flower and Garden Festival in 1995. The display was intended to be temporary, however became a permanent exhibit due to its popularity with guests. My son and husband have been members of a local model railroad club for many years in our home state. Consequently, a stop here is a must for us on every trip we make to EPCOT. An outdoor display is such a treat to see, as many parts of the country cannot have this type of set up due to weather conditions.
Keep a keen eye out the next time you stop by the layout. The attention to detail in this miniature village is nothing short of spectacular. New buildings and people are added to the Bavarian town on a fairly regular basis, especially when a new festival opens at EPCOT.
Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Hollywood Studios (2020)
Runaway Railway, Disney’s first ride featuring Mickey and Minnie Mouse, burst on to the scene in March of 2020 at Hollywood Studios. Guests climb aboard as Goofy serves as the engineer for your ride directly into an animation short. The manner in which guests board the ride is inspired, as Goofy’s train seems to magically appear after the screen in the pre-show area experiences an explosion. Goofy’s aptly named “Runnamuck Railroad” definitely describes this entertaining and frenzied trackless dark ride to a tee.
Let’s hope that trains will always play a major role in the Disney parks for decades to come. There is nothing more synonymous with Walt than trains. May his infectious boyhood wonder with this mode of transportation continue to carry forward for Disney guests to enjoy. If I had just one request for Disney management, I would ask that “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour” return. The opportunity to visit the Magic Kingdom several hours before opening for a behind-the-scenes tour led by a railroad cast member sounds fascinating.
What is your favorite train-related ride at Disney World? Did you ever have the opportunity to take the special backstage Steam Trains Tour?
Finding fun and informative ways to provide Disney goers a unique perspective on the information they seek about the parks, resorts, food, history and so much more. Been bringing kids to Disney from toddlers to teens, so plenty of parent tips will be given.
Happiest with a pineapple Dole Whip float in my hand and an Orange Bird hat on my head.