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A steam blast from the past: Welcome aboard the original Disneyland Railroad!

A steam blast from the past: Welcome aboard the original Disneyland Railroad!

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Last summer, while visiting Disneyland with friends, we discussed which attractions presently at Disneyland were also at Disneyland when it opened in 1955.  Surprising, our list was short.
Virtually all of Fantasyland was redone in the early 1980s, leaving only the carousel and the Casey Jr. as attractions with their original ride systems in place, though the track on the Casey Jr. was replaced in 1988.  In Tomorrowland, Autopia uses part of its original layout, though the cars and much of the track are new.  In Adventureland, the Jungle Cruise contains a few original figures, though almost every scene in the current attraction was developed after 1955. In Frontierland, the Mark Twain still operates its original circuit around the river.  On Main Street, you can still board the Disneyland Railroad, but unless you are lucky enough to be seated in the cab of one of the two original engines (the E.P. Ripley or the C.K. Holliday), the refurbished Lillian Belle observation car, or a greatly remodeled car from the original freight train, you’ll be riding in a car not present during the park’s initial year.

Photo by Todd Pierce

Though some attractions survive in name—such as Dumbo the Flying Elephant—their entire ride systems are different than the ones installed for the park’s opening.
So where can a person experience those attractions from Disneyland as they existed when the park opened?  Unfortunately, most were destroyed.  But four coach cars from the original Disneyland Railroad are housed at a ranch in central California.  Last weekend, the Santa Margarita Ranch opened its gates to the public.
My wife and I arrived at the ranch Sunday morning, not quite knowing what to expect.  We followed a dirt-and-gravel road until we finally came to the parking area.  Surprisingly, it was filled with hundreds of cars—far more than would’ve filled the Disneyland parking lot on a slow autumn morning in 1955.  Then we heard it, the double blast of an oil burning engine as it pulled two creamy Disneyland coaches through a stretch of oak trees.  We sat in our car, still buckled in, and watched the train descend the grade, through the green weeds, toward a cleared stretch at the base of the hill.


Photo by Todd Pierce

Once outside we joined a stream of people moving toward the loading area.  Without doubt, the 45 minute line to ride the original Disneyland coaches in Santa Margarita was longer than the average line to ride the open excursion cars presently in use at Disneyland. 


These coaches, originally built from the ground up at the Walt Disney Studios, were pulled by the E.P. Ripley on opening day as part of an 1880s style passenger train.  Three of the four coaches retain their original wood floors.  Half of the cars retain their original roof lettering (“Disneyland & Santa Fe R.R.”), though the Walt Disney Company once insisted (to a previous private owner) that all references to Disneyland be removed as the coaches were renovated.  They all contain their original school bus style seats and school bus style windows (presumably purchased from a school bus manufactory, such as Crown).  In fact, the experience of riding in the coaches is much that of riding in a school bus: the seats are a little small for two adults while most of the windows open only halfway.


As we rode the circuit, I had the opportunity to talk to Brad LaRose, President of San Luis Obispo Railroad Museum, who explained that the four coaches ran at Disneyland from 1955 until the mid-1960s, when they were retired except for peak days.  They were replaced with open excursion cars better designed to view the recently installed Primeval World.  The new cars were also easier to load and unload, as all passengers on the original coaches passed single file through narrow doors—still their original Chinese red—located at the front and back of each car.

Photo by Todd Pierce

In the early 1990s a private collector, Bill Norred, gave the Walt Disney Company a narrow gauge engine in exchange for the four coach cars and the combine.  Eight years later, after Bill Norred passed away, his family sold the four coach cars to Rob Rossi, who then brought them to the Santa Margarita Ranch in central California.  In 2005, the coaches were re-introduced to the public as part of a fund-raiser for the local Railroad Museum.  Subsequently, they have been included in fundraising events held at the ranch for many nonprofits.  It is also possible to rent the ranch and the coaches for a private function, such as a wedding, though no one could tell me how much such an event would cost.


The four coaches are scheduled to be refurbished to bring them to their original glory, though the process is slow and difficult.  “Some of the Disney stuff is hard to come by for parts now,” Brad LaRose explained.  “Half-size couplers are rare.  Wheel sets are also rare.”


As we journeyed around the two mile circuit, an odd feeling of nostalgia came over me.  Nostalgia not for my own childhood—but for that of my parents’.  Though Disneyland has been “celebrating” its fiftieth anniversary all year, I never experience a sense of the past while in the park.  The paint is touched up every night, bushes trimmed, light bulbs replaced.  Disneyland prides itself on its perpetual newness. 

Photo by Todd Pierce

But at the Santa Margarita Ranch, I experienced a sense of 1955.  With their peeling yellow paint and patched canvass roofs, these coach cars felt old in a way nothing at Disneyland feels old.  The springy green seats (most covered with their original naugahyde) belonged to 1955 in a way that nothing at Disneyland belongs to 1955 anymore.  As the train pulled through a patch of mustard plants in bloom, I could imagine what it was like to be on the Disneyland Railroad fifty years ago, moving from the Frontierland Station, through the weedy, undeveloped land behind the old horse stables.


Around midday, I happened to see Dave Smith, founder of the Walt Disney Archives, exiting the one of the coaches.  He was there as a casual tourist, not wanting to draw attention to himself.  Together we stood at the end of the parking lot, looking at two of the coaches.  “You know,” he said, “they’re in pretty good shape considering their age.”


 “I know,” I said.


Then he continued toward the parking lot, while I returned to my wife who waited in line for one more trip aboard the original Disneyland Railroad.

Photo by Todd Pierce
Click on this photo to see Todds video

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  • Wonderful article! I love your writing style. You made me feel like I was right there with you in that coach car. Thank you for sharing!
  • Great article! So often I'd love to climb into my time machine and visit 1955. Being that I was born in 1967 and don't have access to a time machine, that would be a little tough! It's fun to know about these beautiful cars and maybe have the chance sometime to ride them and dream away. Thank you for sharing this story with us!
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