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 Ranchlast 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 veryspecial event was Disneyland Transportation guru BobGurr. 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 ofthe 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.
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?!