Walt Disney the Railroader

| January 14, 2013 | Reply

Did you have a fascination with trains as a child? I had a Lionel train set and one of my granddaughter’s favorite new toys at our house is the Walt Disney World Railroad train set. Seeing her playing with it reminded me of a presentation at The Walt Disney Family Museum by Michael Campbell, President of the Carolwood Pacific Historic Society, who spoke about Walt’s passion for trains and how this passion drove him creatively.


Walt riding the Lilly Belle at the Studio. Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Company, ©Disney

Walt’s father, Elias, was a carpenter on the transcontinental railway and Walt’s uncle worked on the Union Pacific Railroad. His uncle’s stories had a profound effect on Walt. At the age of 14, Walt got a job on the Missouri Pacific Railroad as a news butcher selling candy, snacks and soda to passengers. Walt was a total failure at the job. He ate too much of the candy himself, sometimes the fruit he was given to sell was bad, and he lost the soda bottles when the train car he stored them in was detached from the train. Walt would take breaks in the Combine Car, which was after the coal car, and offered the crew fruit from his father’s farm in exchange for learning how to operate the train.

In 1923 Walt came to California and opened the Disney Brother Studio with Roy and filmed the Alice comedies, married Lillian Bounds in 1925 and has a hit with Oswald the Lucky Rabbit which he loses the rights to in 1928. After losing Oswald, Walt had a six day train ride back to California from New York. During the trip he creates Mickey Mouse.  Despite losing Oswald, Walt didn’t get mad, he got creative, which was something he did whenever he faced an obstacle in his life. So, Mickey Mouse was born on a train.

Now it’s World War II.  The studio nurse, Hazel George, sees how stressed Walt is and tells him he needs a hobby. Animators Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball have trains in their backyards, so Walt starts to talk to them about trains.

In 1948, Walt and Ward Kimball go to the Chicago Railroad Fair. Walt also went to the Henry Ford Museum, which is a living history museum with historic districts, including a Main Street, a Railway Station, and working vintage vehicles. This museum makes a big impression on Walt.

After this trip, Walt decides to go into model steam railroading. He begins construction on the Carolwood Pacific Railroad in 1949 in his backyard and commissions the model train, Lilly Belle, named after his wife. Roger Broggie built the train and Walt did much of the woodwork including the locomotive cab. For a workshop, Walt built a new barn, based on the family home in Marceline, Missouri, to look old. Walt went into every detail for his railroad including designing official letterhead, luggage tags and VIP tickets.

Video: Walt riding the Lilly Belle at the Studio. Video courtesy of The Walt Disney Family Museum.

The Lilly Belle ran in Walt’s backyard in Holmby Hills from 1950 to 1953 until a little girl was injured by steam in a minor accident. Walt shut down the railroad and had the Lilly Belle taken to the studio where it served as Imagineer Bob Gurr’s footstool for almost 15 years. The original Lilly Belle and yellow caboose were moved and put on display at the Disneyland Main Street, U.S.A. train station until 2000 when they were returned to The Walt Disney Family Foundtation. A replica of the Lilly Belle, built by Roger Broggie Jr., was placed on display in the Main Street train station.

Walt riding the Lilly Belle at his home. Image courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Foundation.

Walt had an original concept for a park in Burbank with a train. Walt’s idea grew into Disneyland surrounded by a train. When Disneyland opened, the Disneyland & Santa Fe Railroad had two trains, the C.K. Holliday and the E.P. Ripley.  This live steam railway was constructed for $240,000; the two original locomotives cost $40,000 each.  The trains are 5/8 size, but the cabins had to be built 3/4 size to accommodate the crew.

One of Walt’s last projects was the Florida project and the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT).  Roy Disney was 73 when Walt passed away and he put off his retirement to build Walt’s dream. However, he managed to convince Walt to first build a theme park to bring in revenue to help pay for the construction of EPCOT. Walt’s love of trains was remembered at the Magic Kingdom. Roger Broggie was put in charge of the Walt Disney World Railroad and he required five locomotives. Four locomotives were salvaged from Mexico where they had previously hauled sugarcane and were restored. A fifth locomotive was considered to be in too poor of a condition for restoration and was sold.

You can still experience the early history of Walt’s trains:

The original Lilly Belle with its cars are now on display at The Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco.

The original Lilly Belle at The Walt Disney Family Museum. Image courtesy of  The Walt Disney Company, ©Disney.

Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn. In 1999, Walt Disney’s family moved the barn Walt called his “happy place” from his home to the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum in Griffith Park, of which Walt was a founding member. The third Sunday in each month, Walt Disney’s Barn Museum, the original Santa Fe & Disneyland Combine Coach, Ollie Johnston’s Victorian Train Depot, are open for public visiting from 11 am to 3 pm. This may be the only free Disney attraction in the world.

Walt’s “Happy Place”. Image courtesy of The Carolwood Pacific Historic Society.

Ollie Johnston’s train, the Marie E., is now owned by John Lasseter, who shares Walt’s passion for trains. The Marie E. can be seen during special events at the Lasseter Family Winery in Glen Ellen in the Napa Valley, California. It is also on the label of one of the wines.

Chemin De Fer wine label. Chemin De Fer is French for Railway. Image courtesy of The Lasseter Family Winery.

Video: John Lasseter brings Ollie Johnston and the Marie E. to Disneyland.

Can you name the five railroads in Disneyland during Walt’s lifetime? For the answer and more stories about Walt’s love of trains, listen to my segment about Walt Disney the Railroader on The DISUnplugged: Disneyland Edition.

Walt’s boyhood passion for trains became a creative force in his adult life. What were you passionate for as a child that you can express in a meaningful, creative way today?

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Category: Disney World, Disneyland

About the Author ()