The first thing that every visitor to Walt Disney's original Disneyland in Anaheim, California, sees when they enter the main gates and hear the pixie dust chime of the ticket readers is the Disneyland Railroad's Main Street station. Excitement builds as the famous prerecorded "voice of Disneyland", Jack Wagner, echos over the loudspeakers "Your attention please. The Disneyland Limited now leaving for a grand circle tour of the Magic Kingdom, with stops at New Orleans Square, Mickey's Toontown, and Tomorrowland. All passengers 'Booooard!" On the tracks above the floral arrangement mirroring Mickey's distinctive mug shot, visitors depart on any one of the five authentic steam engines for one of the most imaginative train ride anywhere in the world... Through steaming jungles, the wild western frontier, a magical land of fantasy, the world of tomorrow, the Grand Canyon and the prehistoric life of primeval times.
Walt Disney's boyhood fascination with steam trains led to living steam being an essential part of his theme park visions from the very beginning. When "Disneyland" was originally being planned as a quaint historical village across the street from Disney's Burbank studio, the train was everpresent. Eventually, Disney's ambitions outgrew the modest plot, and an orange grove in Anaheim was purchased for the new plans being drafted up. When Disney approached concept artist Herbert Ryman to bring colour to these designs, he told him that "I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train."
The original two trains rolled out on Disneyland's opening day, July 17th, 1955, and did indeed follow a track that completed enclosed the park. The #1 C.K. Holliday and #2 E.P. Ripley were built by the Disney Studio specifically for the park and named for the founder and an early president of the Santa Fe Railroad, respectively. Until 1974, Santa Fe served as the sponsor for the railroad, which was named the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad and had the added bonus of guests being able to use their Santa Fe pass to ride the train rather than the standard D-ticket sold at the park.
It was in building these two trains that the park hit unintentionally upon the standard narrow-gauge. Prepared to make a train custom built to Disneyland's needs, the men who would become Imagineers settled on a passenger door height of six feet. From that measurement, the rest of the train was scaled down, resulting in a 5/8th scale that was only a few inches off the regular three foot gauge used in narrow-gauge railroads. Because of this happy accident, Disneyland was then able to purchase pre-built narrow-gauge engines to expand their fleet. In 1958, the #3 Fred Gurley engine was added, which was originally built in 1894 and is the oldest engine in the group. In 1959, the 1925 #4 Ernest S. Marsh was also added, and both engines were named for then-present executives of the Santa Fe Railroad. The most recent addition was the #5 Ward Kimball, originally built in 1902 and added to the park in 2005 as part of Disneyland's 50th anniversary. Breaking from tradition, the #5 engine is not named after a Santa Fe official, but after Disney animator and director Ward Kimball, who shared Walt Disney's deep love of steam trains.
Kimball's first recognizable drawing as a child was of a steam train, and upon becoming a fairly accomplished illustrator, he was hired on by the Disney company in 1934. His screen accomplishments included creating Jiminy Cricket for Pinocchio, animating the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum for Alice in Wonderland and directing the Man in Space trilogy. Off-screen his love of trains reached epic proportions. Kimball owned and opperated his own narrow-gauge railway, the Grizzly Flats RR, on his three acre property and helped Disney set up his own backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific.
Before the Carolwood, Disney had a large lionel model railway set-up adjacent to his offices in the Burbank studio. In his formative years, Walt's uncle Michael Martin had been an engineer and young Disney himself got a job with the Missouri Pacific RR selling newspapers, drinks and confections to passengers. As the official legend goes, it was on a train trip back home after losing the rights to the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit character that Disney invented Mickey Mouse. It was only natural, then, that he should want a backyard railway of his own. The Carolwood opened in 1950, and would serve as direct inspiration for the Disneyland Railroad.
Echos of these early backyard railroads can be found throughout the park. The station of Kimball's Grizzly Flats RR served as the model for the original Frontierland station. This structure still remains as the stationmaster's office across the tracks from the New Orleans Square station, as the Frontierland station was redubbed. The morse code tapping out from the stationsmaster's office is reciting Walt's dedication speech for Disneyland. A replica of the Carolwood Pacific's Lilly Belle engine, named for Mrs. Disney, can also be found encased in glass in the Main Street station, where it is flanked by displays of Disney railroading ephemera.
A long stretch of unattractive backlots between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations necessitated the first major addition to the railway: the Grand Canyon Diorama. The longest diorama in the world, this 1958 addition measured 306' long by 34' high and featured the only real taxadermied animals in the park. As trains pass by the diorama, the familair refrains of Ferde Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite clip-clop their way into guests' memories.
The next addition to this diorama came in 1966 with the addition of Primeval World. Disney Imagineering was conscripted by several exhibitors at the 1964/65 World's Fair to develop pavillions that were uniquely entertaining and educational. For Pepsi-Cola, Disney gave artist Mary Blair free reign to create the "happiest cruise that ever sailed 'round the world", It's A Small World. For the State of Illinois, experimental Audio-Animatronics were given a test run in the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln exhibit. General Electric brought it's message of hope through consumer goods to the world with the Carousel of Progress.
The Ford Motor Company received one of the most elaborate of the exhibits developed by Disney. A special transportation system called the Magic Skyway was developed in which visitors could sit in new-model Ford cars to go on a Sunday drive only dreamed up in Science Fiction. Passing through a time tunnel, riders (who could tune the radio to English, French, German or Spanish narration) emerged into the prehistoric world of Brontosaurus, Pterodactyl, and Triceratops, catching a climactic glimpse of the battle between Stegosaurus and Tyrannosaurus amdist glowing lava fields. A bit further ahead, and they saw the evolution of cave men, the taming of fire, the hunting of Mammoths, and the invention of the wheel. Riders entered the time tunnel again and emerged in the skyways over the world of the future, where human technology and ingenuity have created a utopia in steel, neon and tail fins.
With the end of the World's Fair, Disney's exhibits found a home at Disneyland. The Pepsi-Cola and State of Illinois exhibits were brought over and remain as beloved attractions to this day. The Carousel of Progress enjoyed many revolutions in Tomorrowland until it was replaced by the now-defunct America Sings. The theatre housing it is the current home of Innoventions. The Magic Skyway technology became the basis of the Peoplemover that also occupied Tomorrowland, while the dinosaur animatronics found a place alongside the DLRR as Primeval World.
Speaking from experience, this author can tell you that there is only one thing more engaging for a fan of Scientific Romances than seeing a panorama of moving prehistoric life unfold before you from the majesty of a real steam locomotive... and that is to do so from the lushly-appointed, velvet-draped, wood-panelled VIP slon car, Lilly Belle.
When Disneyland opened, the railway was served by a wide variety of rolling stock. Many of these were passenger-carrying freight cars, but there were also several types of proper passenger cars. Among these were completely enclosed cars that were eventually removed after certain problems became too obvious. A limited number of windows created more competition for seats than the open cars, and the narrow doors limited passenger loading and unloading. Eventually, only the Lilly Belle presidential car remained, and even she was taken off the tracks.
However, when the new management regime of Matt Ouimet took over the Disneyland resort in Anaheim in time for the 50th anniversary, one of the top priorities was restoring the Lilly Belle and putting this piece of Disney history back on the tracks. The expensive work restored and refurbished both the interior and exterior woodwork and steel, reupholstered the furniture in plush velvet, and decorated the car with authentic antiques. Attention to detail was so exquisite that a black velevt smoking jacket hangs in the corner, serving no purpose except to look good. A rare photo of Walt with his wife Lillian, after whom the car and the original Carolwood Pacific engine was named, sits on a corner table. If you'd like to see it for yourself, it never, ever, hurts to politely ask a conductor.
50th anniversary, the #2 E.P. Ripley arriving,
and the Lilly Belle, exterior and interior.
No trip to Disneyland is complete without taking the "grand circle tour", and it is inevitable that trips on the DLRR will become a favorite way to get around the park (especially when parades are clogging up Main Street). For the steam train and Victorian adventure enthusiast, such a voyage through imagination cannot be missed.
Thanks to Steve DeGaetano, authour of "Welcome Aboard the Disneyland Railroad! The Complete Disneyland Railroad Reference Guide", for fact-checking this article!