Walt’s Disneyland Railroad

by Jim Denney, author of Walt’s Disneyland

Walt in July 1959

“I just want [Disneyland] to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.”
—Walt Disney

On Sunday, July 18, 1948, Walt Disney and animator Ward Kimball boarded the Super Chief at Pasadena station. Though Kimball had worked for Walt since 1934, he had never known much about Walt’s early years. But during the forty-hour train ride, the two men talked endlessly.

In the past, Walt had rarely opened up about his life to others. But on the long train ride, Walt told Kimball stories from his childhood, his time as an ambulance driver in France, and his early years in animation. Kimball later said, “Much of what he told me, I’d never heard before.”

The Railroad Fair opened on Tuesday, July 20, and the two men stayed for four days. There were hundreds of trains on display, from nineteenth-century steam locomotives to the sleek stainless steel Zephyr. The two men talked to scores of railroad engineers, firemen, and brakemen. They walked through vintage railroad cars and climbed into the cabs of antique steam locomotives. At night, they watched the fireworks reflecting off Lake Michigan.

Steam locomotive and the bullet-like Zephyr at Chicago’s Railroad Fair, 1948 to 1949. These trains and others like them inspired Walt Disney as he was planning to build Disneyland. Photos courtesy of Joe and Jeanette Archie, used under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

A replica of President Lincoln’s funeral train rolled slowly down the tracks while a brass band played “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Walt, who had always felt a spiritual bond with Lincoln, was moved to tears. The experience may have partially inspired Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, which Walt unveiled at the Main Street Opera House, July 18, 1965.

From the Railroad Fair in Chicago, Walt and Ward took the Wabash Railway to Dearborn, Michigan, to visit the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. Ford had purchased entire buildings from across the country to put on display — the Illinois courthouse where Lincoln practiced law; the Wright Brothers’ Dayton, Ohio, bicycle shop; Noah Webster’s Connecticut home; and Henry Ford’s birthplace and the garage where he built his first car.

Greenfield Village also featured a nostalgic transportation system that included a horse-drawn omnibus, working Ford Model T’s, and The Edison, an 1870s-style steam-powered train. A double-decker sternwheeler, the Suwanee, made a circuit around a loop in the Rouge River, just as Walt’s Mark Twain plies the Rivers of America today.

Walt returned to California with pages of hand-written notes about a project he called Mickey Mouse Park. Walt often said of Disneyland, “It all started with a Mouse.” But in a way, Disneyland also started with a train ride.

Main Street Station

Walt built his first railroad in the backyard of his Carolwood Drive home in the Holmby Hills district of Los Angeles. His Carolwood Pacific Railroad was a one-eighth scale steam-powered train, inspired by the full-sized trains his animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston operated on their own properties. The Carolwood Pacific debuted in 1950, running on a half-mile of track and trestle in his backyard. He named the locomotive Lily Belle after his wife Lillian. When Disneyland opened in 1955, Walt’s Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad was a signature attraction.

Main Street Station; photo by the Jim Denney

Walt’s lifelong romance with trains is reflected in the prominent placement of the Railroad Station — a red brick Queen Anne-style structure with mansard roofs, railed roof walks, dormer windows, and a tall clock tower topped by an American flag. It’s the first feature of Disneyland you see, even before you pass through the turnstile.

The Train Station harmonizes architecturally with the rest of Main Street USA. It’s quaint, friendly, and inviting. Climb the stairs and step inside Walt’s train depot and you’ll find photos on the wall, illustrating the history of the Disneyland Railroad, and a replica of Walt’s backyard live steam locomotive Lilly Belle (the original is at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco).

Inside Walt’s Main Street Station; photo by Jim Denney

Step onto the platform, and you might see a yellow Kalamazoo handcar on a siding. The handcar came from Walt’s own collection and was probably a gift to Walt from railroad historian Gerald M. Best.

Walt’s Kalamazoo Handcar; photo by Jim Denney

The first stop after leaving Main Street Station is the New Orleans Square and Frontierland Station. The loading platform and functioning water tower date from Walt’s era. On the opposite side of the tracks from the loading platform is the original Frontierland Station that was in use before New Orleans Square opened in July 1966. The Frontierland Station was based on the turn-of-the-century train depot featured in the 1949 Disney live-action motion picture So Dear To My Heart

Frontierland Station across from New Orleans Square loading platform; photo by Jim Denney

The Disneyland Railroad

The Disneyland Railroad operates five steam locomotives on a three-foot narrow-gauge track. Four locomotives are named after Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad presidents; one is named after Ward Kimball, who accompanied Walt to the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948. The locomotives originally burned wood, coal, or heavy oil, but in 2007, they were converted to cleaner B98 biodiesel fuel (consisting of 2 percent diesel oil and 98 percent vegetable oil), made by recycling and filtering Disneyland’s restaurant frying oils. (Some passengers say they can smell french fries when the train goes through a tunnel.)

The five Disneyland Railroad locomotives are:

No. 1, C. K. Holliday, named for Santa Fe Railroad founder Cyrus Kurtz Holliday. Built in the Disney Studio machine shop in 1954. The Holliday began service at Disneyland on opening day, July 17, 1955. It’s based on Walt’s backyard locomotive, the Lilly Belle, patterned after the Central Pacific No. 173 of the late 1800s.

Locomotive No. 2, E.P. Ripley at New Orleans Square Station; photo by Jim Denney

No. 2, E. P. Ripley, named for Edward Payson Ripley, an early president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Built in the studio machine shop in 1954, the Ripley also began service on opening day. It was patterned after the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad’s No. 774 locomotive.

No. 3, Fred Gurley, named for Fred G. Gurley, president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe from 1944 to 1957. Built in 1894 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Eddystone, Pennsylvania, the Gurley entered service at Disneyland on March 28, 1958. It’s the oldest locomotive at any Disney theme park, and once hauled sugarcane in Louisiana.

A young railroad enthusiast clanging the bell of Locomotive No. 4, Ernest S. Marsh; photo by Jim Denney

No. 4, Ernest S. Marsh, named for Fred Gurley’s successor, Ernest S. Marsh, a close friend of Walt’s. Built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1925, the locomotive once hauled sand and passengers in New Jersey. Patterned after the Denver & Rio Grande’s Montezuma locomotive, it began service at Disneyland on July 25, 1959.

No. 5, Ward Kimball, named for the Disney animator, was built by Baldwin Locomotive Works in 1902. It originally hauled sugarcane in Louisiana. Restored and refurbished, the Kimball began service at Disneyland on June 25, 2005, in time for the Park’s fiftieth anniversary celebration. The locomotive’s headlamp features a gold leaf silhouette of Jiminy Cricket, a character Ward Kimball created for Pinocchio.

The first four locomotives are genuine artifacts of the Walt Disney era. Walt himself worked the throttle and blew the steam whistle of each of them. And he would certainly approve of naming the fifth after his friend and fellow railroad enthusiast, Ward Kimball.

Locomotive No. 5, Ward Kimball, at Main Street Station; photo by Jim Denney

Michael Broggie, son of Walt’s railroad builder Roger Broggie, observed in Walt Disney’s Railroad Story, “Walt Disney accumulated enough success and recognition for a dozen lifetimes. . . . His personal sense of pride and accomplishment was most evident when he climbed into the cab of a Disneyland locomotive. On board the C. K. Holliday, E. P. Ripley, Fred Gurley, or Ernest S. Marsh, he was the ‘Chief Engineer’ and sole owner of the Santa Fe and Disneyland Railroad, appropriately outfitted in Hercules bib overalls and jacket; a red bandanna; and — of course — an engineer’s cap with its jauntily upturned bill.” [Michael Broggie, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story: The Small-Scale Fascination That Led to a Full-Scale Kingdom (Virginia Beach, VA: Donning, 2006), 28]

Oh, and here’s a secret: If you arrive at Disneyland early enough, and go straight to the Train Station, and if Engine No. 1, the C. K. Holliday, or Engine No. 2, the E. P. Ripley is running that day, you and another guest may get to ride on the tender car, behind the locomotive. The tender seats put you right behind the cab with the engineer and fireman. Ask the Train Station cast member or train conductor. Remember, there may be a wait and tender seats aren’t always available.

The Lilly Belle Parlour Car

Another unique Disneyland Railroad coach is the Lilly Belle presidential parlour car. The Lilly Belle was originally Grand Canyon Observation Coach No. 106 when Disneyland opened in 1955. The original Disneyland train cars were fully enclosed, and the small windows made it difficult for Walt’s guests to view the Grand Canyon diorama. So Walt replaced them with open cars that afforded a better view.

The Lilly Belle in front of Main Street Station in 2015; photo by Jim Denney
The plush Victorian interior of the Lilly Belle (photo courtesy HarshLight; image licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Walt ordered No. 106 be refitted as a parlour car and renamed the Lilly Belle in honor of his wife Lillian. The interior is decorated in an elegant Victorian style: red velvet upholstery, mahogany paneling, beveled glass mirrors, stained glass, gold-fringed red-velvet drapes, gleaming brass accents, and marble tabletops.

All Disneyland Railroad rolling stock is housed and maintained at the Disneyland Roundhouse — a rectangular (not round) two-story building located in the northeast corner of the Disneyland property. (Traditionally, railroad roundhouses were round or semi-circular, and built around a turntable used to rotate the locomotives from one track to another.) The Disneyland Roundhouse is tucked between the “it’s a small world” show building and the Santa Ana Freeway-Harbor Boulevard off-ramp.

The upper story of the Disneyland Roundhouse is the Monorail Shop, where the four Monorail trains are housed and maintained. The ground floor of the Roundhouse is where the five Disneyland steam locomotives and the fleet of passenger cars receive daily maintenance.

The Grand Canyon and Primeval World

One of the most popular attractions along the Disneyland Railroad is the Grand Canyon and Primeval World diorama, located between the Tomorrowland and Main Street stations. The diorama was created in 1958 by Delmer J. Yoakum, a Hollywood designer and scenery painter who worked on such films as The Shoes of the Fisherman, The King and I, Niagara, and Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (remember the Mount Rushmore scene?). Yoakum also worked on such Disneyland attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, and “it’s a small world.”

Yoakum painted the Grand Canyon and Primeval World diorama on a seamless canvas that is three stories high and longer than a football field. He used 300 gallons of paint in fourteen colors to create the realistic image, which depicts the view from the Grand Canyon’s south rim. The scene is populated with taxidermied deer, bighorn sheep, a mountain lion, a golden eagle, skunk, porcupine, and wild turkeys.

The third movement of Ferde Grofé’s “Grand Canyon Suite” provides the soundtrack for the Grand Canyon section. Chief Nevangnewa, a ninety-six-year-old Hopi Native American, blessed the trains and the diorama on the day the exhibit opened.

The diorama was expanded with the addition of the Primeval World section in 1966, inspired by the “Rite of Spring” segment of the 1940 animated feature Fantasia. The soundtrack of the Primeval World section, however, is not from Fantasia, but is adapted from Bernard Herrmann’s score for the 1961 Charles H. Schneer and Ray Harryhausen motion picture Mysterious Island.

Stegosaurus versus Tyrannosaurus Rex in the Primeval World; photo by Jim Denney

The Primeval World displays a number of Audio-Animatronic dinosaurs, recreations of creatures that existed in different prehistoric eras: a sail-backed Edaphosaurus from the late Carboniferous period (300 million years ago), a Meganeura (giant dragonfly) also from the Carboniferous, a Brontosaurus from the Kimmeridgian age (about 155 million years ago), a cliff-perched Pteranodon from the late Cretaceous period (68 million years ago), a three horned mama Triceratops standing guard over her hatchlings (also from the late Cretaceous), a herd of ostrich-like late Cretaceous Struthiomimus by a watering hole, and near the end of the diorama, battling to the death next to a glowing lava pit, a Tyrannosaurus Rex (late Cretaceous) and a Stegosaurus (late Jurassic).

The Tyrannosaur in the Primeval World (like the one in Fantasia) has three-fingered (or three-clawed) hands. Actual prehistoric Tyrannosaurs only had two claws on each hand. Walt knew that his Tyrannosaurs, in both the film and the Disneyland diorama, were anatomically incorrect, but he had the artists add one claw to each hand because he thought it made the creatures seem fiercer.

The Primeval World dinosaurs were originally part of Walt Disney’s Ford Magic Skyway attraction, one of four attractions Disney built for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. The other World’s Fair attractions — Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, the Carousel of Progress, and “it’s a small world” — also came to Disneyland after the World’s Fair closed in 1965.

Engine No. 4, Ernest S. Marsh; photo by Jim Denney

Learn more about the history of Walt’s original Disneyland attractions in Walt’s Disneyland by Jim Denney. It will expand and enrich your Disneyland experience the next time you visit the park.

Jim Denney has more than 120 books to his credit, and has co-written books with sports stars and Hollywood celebrities. His previous book on Walt Disney, How To Be Like Walt (co-written with Orlando Magic founder Pat Williams) has remained in print for a dozen years, and has garnered 4.8 out of 5 stars in 185 customer reviews on Amazon.com. Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look by Jim Denney (Anaheim, CA: Writing in Overdrive Books, May 2017) is available at Amazon.com; Paperback $15.99; Ebook $5.99.

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Walt’s Disneyland: It’s Still There If You Know Where to Look is NOW AVAILABLE for just:

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After you read it, please do me a favor and write a customer review of the book. And if you have any questions or comments, feel free to write to me. My contact information is in the front of the book.




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