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Original Disneyland train cars reunite at Carolwood Foundation's Combine event

Original Disneyland train cars reunite at Carolwood Foundation's Combine event

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I am not nearly old enough to have attended Disneyland in the 1950s.  The first time I went to the park, I was five years old.  This was the 1970s.  But I have long been interested in the park as it existed in those early years: how art directors and set designers used their cinematic skills to recreate the environments of movies and TV in a real-world setting, how camera-repair men and auto-body stylists built a narrow gage railroad, a fleet of miniature cars, and even an omnibus.  This is what attracted me to the Carolwood Foundation's Combine Event last month, the opportunity to experience the Disneyland railroad as it existed in 1955.

Five out of the six original Disneyland rail cars made the trip to Santa Margarita Ranch
last month.
Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

As you probably know, Walt Disney had a lifelong fascination with trains.  As a boy he worked as a news butch on the Missouri Pacific.  As an adult - with the help of men in his machine and camera shops - he built an elaborate Lionel model train set, which he situated in a room next to his office on the third floor of the Animation Building, then a couple years later he built a 1/8th scale model railroad in the lower portion of his backyard.  Even the earliest plans for Walt Disney's amusement park included a railroad.  From the plans for a few acre park housed inside the studio gates to the slightly larger park once planned for the lot across the street from the studio to the final plans for the park built in Anaheim, the railroad remained central to Walt's concept of a themed amusement park.

Among the Disney Legend who were on hand for this very
special event was Disneyland Transportation guru Bob
Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

The more famous of the two original trains was the elegant yellow-and-green passenger train: a combine car, four standard coach cars and finally an observation car.  In the early years, this train, led by the E.P. Ripley, regularly circled Disneyland.  The problems began in 1958.  When the park added the Grand Canyon diorama - an exhibit situated only on one side of the train-guests seated on the far side of the front-facing coach cars complained that they had trouble seeing the diorama through the small windows.  The problems worsened in 1966 when the park added Primeval World, an exhibit of full-scale dinosaurs again situated on only one side of the train.  By the early 1970s, the original coach cars were stored at the far end of the Disneyland roundhouse, only used on peak days or when other trains where out for repairs.  In the mid-1990s a private railroad collector named Bill Norred acquired five of the original six passenger cars from Disneyland: he acquired the combine and the four coach cars, leaving behind the observation car.  Four years later, after Norred's death, another private collector, Rob Rossi purchased the four coach cars.  The Carolwood Foundation eventually purchased the Combine car, which they planned to display to preserve the legacy of Walt Disney and his interest in trains.

Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

Last month, for the first time since the early 1970s, the newly restored combine car was joined up with the four coach cars and sent out on a large railroad circuit, a grand oval more or less the size of the steel loop that originally circled Disneyland.

Together again after all these years. Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

On Saturday, May 21st, Carolwood members and guests traveled to San Luis Obispo for the event aboard two 1940's Vista Dome cars. Special guest speakers aboard (Disney Legend Floyd Norman and Pixar story artist / voice talent Jeff Pidgeon from Oakland; and Tony Baxter and Ray Cadd from Imagineering from Los Angeles) shared tales from their own Disney experiences and more during the five-hour plus ride to and from SLO. That evening, everyone was treated to rare films from the Disney vaults as well as the archives of the Walt Disney Family Museum. Highlights included Walt surfing at Waikiki and a rare sound film of Walt playing baseball with animators during the Hyperion days. An auction of rare Disney railroad items concluded the evening.

Veteran Imagineer Tony Baxter shares stories about the development
of Disneyland Paris. Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

Bright and early Sunday, May 22nd, our tour group, collected into two private busses, arrived early at the Santa Margarita Ranch in Central California to witness a lone locomotive, emerging from a cloud of steam, with the newly restored Combine in tow.  The restoration was astounding-the lemony pigment set against the darker green trim.  I'm mainly familiar with Disneyland in the 1950s through old movies and photos, images that have faded over time.  But seeing the combine in person, newly painted and restored, I experienced a sense of wonder that the early park visitors must've felt, a feeling more visceral and immediate than I expected.  The combine, though old, had the appearance of something new, a car that people had labored over for months. 

Carolwood Foundation members line up to get photographs of
the restored combine.
Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

Though about half of the visitors on that day were primarily railroad enthusiasts, more interested in the trains than the overall legacy of Walt Disney, I was clearly among those who were interested primarily in the history of Disneyland.  What interested me in the event was not live steam engines or even the generous trips around the rails; it was that a piece of early Disneyland history was being reassembled, more or less, in the manner it had existed in 56 years ago. 

Ready for her close-up. Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

During the morning, three separate engines pulled around sections of the original Disneyland passenger train: one engine with the combine, two each with a pair of coach cars.  In recent years I've been lucky enough to spend some time with the coach cars: you can see how the cars were constructed with stock bus seats and ratcheted bus windows.  But after lunch the train crew hooked the four coach cars up to the combine.  And with that, the original Disneyland passenger train (minus the observation car) rested once more on the rails.

Getting that 1955 feeling. Image courtesy of Paul Schnebelen

For one final ride, we all piled into the coach cars.  The cars were small, yet solid, and had the feeling of something that was build decades ago, from steel and hard woods.  With a blast of steam and a whistle's cry, the engine pulled away from the loading area, the cars' couplings chattering into place.  And then we were all back in 1955 again.  On the original Disneyland railroad circuit, out past the edge of Frontierland, the track once opened to field grass and weeds, as Walt Disney was initially unable to landscape the entire property.  So as we pulled toward the back part of the ranch-to a similar section of field grass and weeds-I had the sensation that this must have been what it was like to ride the rails on Disneyland's opening day, the gentle chuff of steam, the springy bus seats, a warm breeze curving in through a partially-opened window.

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  • Do you happen to know if Lake Tahoe has a train or tracks near by? My fiance loves trains and my family has a house on the lake. Perfect place for a wedding don't you think?!

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