Maybe you saw the photo over at MousePlanet last week. You know? The one that showed a train being trucked into Disneyland after hours?
"Yeah, what's the deal with that train, Jim?," you query. Well, as it turns out, the engine on the back of that flatbed was the "Marie E." Which used to belong to Disney Legend Ollie Johnston. Who used to run this vintage 1901 Porter steam locomotive around his backyard as part of Ollie's "Deer Lake Park and Julian Railroad" set-up.
A few years back, Johnston decided to sell off the "Marie E." (Which was named for Ollie's wife, Marie. Who -- FYI -- used to work in Disney's Ink & Paint Department) to John Lasseter, Pixar Animation Studios' creative VP. And -- because (at this point in its life) the "Marie E." was in need of a little TLC -- Lasseter had the locomotive and accompanying train shipped off to Hillcrest Shops of Reedley, CA. Where it was then lovingly restored.
But now the question was -- given that the "Marie E." was ready to be put back into service -- where should this engine go? What should it do?
Well, while John does eventually plan to put this beautiful steam locomotive back into service at a vineyard that he & his wife recently bought up in Northern California ... It's still going to be a number of years before that actually happens.
Meanwhile, Lasseter had reportedly been hearing stories about how Johnston has been in a bit of a funk lately. How Ollie still hasn't recovered from the September 2004 loss of his longtime friend, co-worker & writing partner, Frank Thomas. Which was why his family had been desperately looking around for a way to cheer this Disney Legend up.
I'm told that it was John himself (Who's a bigtime Disneyland fan) who actually came up with the idea. To surprise Ollie by re-uniting him with his newly restored train, then give the elderly animator the chance to run the steam locomotive around the Anaheim theme park a few times.
So Lasseter supposedly made a few calls to senior members of Disney Company management, asking them if they might allow him to bring the "Marie E." down to Disneyland. And then -- as a special treat for Ollie Johnston -- put that steam locomotive back up on the rails and roll it around the park for a while.
Now, based on what I've been hearing coming out of the Team Disney Burbank building this week, the suits there weren't really all that eager to do anything to cheer up an elderly Disney Legend ... But the very idea that they could somehow do a special favor for John Lasseter. Who then might feel like he owed them a special favor. Which might then be a great marker for Disney management to hold when they begin their next round of negotiations with Pixar.
This was why Walt Disney Company management allegedly agreed to allow Lasseter to bring the "Marie E." out to Disneyland. Which -- FYI -- is the very first time that outside equipment from another railroad has ever been allowed to roll around on the Anaheim track.
So -- on Friday, May 6th -- the steam engine and caboose were trucked on down to Orange County. Where this mysterious locomotive was the cause of much conversation among cast members. Who spotted the "Marie E." as it sat outside the Disneyland roundhouse for the next few days, then wondered what it was doing backstage.
Happily, none of those Disneyland employees seemed to recognize the significance of the "Marie E." and/or got word back to Ollie. For -- when the elderly animator arrived in Anaheim on Tuesday, May 10th -- Johnston had absolutely no idea about the surprise that his family & John Lasseter has arranged for him.
You see, Ollie had been lured to the Anaheim theme park under false pretenses. Johnston had supposedly been told that he was making a special early-morning trip to Disneyland to get a sneek peek at that theme park's newest steam engine, the "Ward Kimball."
Ollie reportedly didn't realize what was up until just before the "Marie E." rolled into Frontierland Station. That was when the crew from Hillcrest Shops (Who had come down to Anaheim to make sure that everything went alright with the train during its Disneyland debut) blew the steam engine's distinctive whistle ... And Johnston was suddenly re-united with his old train.
To say that Ollie was taken aback by this pre-opening surprise is an understatement. To see the "Marie E." back in pristine condition, all steamed up and ready to go again, reportedly touched Johnston in a huge way. As did a brief speech that Michael Broggie (I.E. The author of "Walt Disney's Railroad Story" and son of another Disney Legend, Roger Broggie) gave, which honored the elderly animator and his many accomplishments for the company.
With that, Ollie was wheeled up to the loading platform while the "Marie E." was backed into position. Johnston's son, Richard, then helped his dad out of his wheelchair. Then the two of them stepped into the cab of the steam engine. Then -- just like old times -- Ollie took his place at the engineer's position and placed his hand on the throttle. Once all the guests & dignitaries were on board, Johnston properly "whistled off" ... And away the train went!
I'm told that Ollie was great on the throttle. That -- during his two trips around the theme park -- the elderly animator knew exactly what he was doing & didn't need any additional assistance from Richard.
As Johnston rolled back into Frontierland Station, I hear that he had tears in his eyes. More to the point, Ollie was still raring to go. That he would have been happy to run the "Marie E." around the perimeter of the theme park all day. Unfortunately, by then, it was now time to open Disneyland for the day. So the ceremony had to conclude.
So the elderly animator & his son stepped down from the cab. Then John Lasseter climbed aboard the steam engine. And then the new owner of the "Marie E." rolled the train back to Disneyland's roundhouse. Where the steam engine & the caboose were promptly loaded on a truck for their return trip back to Napa Valley.
Speaking of Lasseter ... It's worth noting here that several senior members of the Walt Disney Company -- among them soon-to-be-ex-Big-Cheese Michael Eisner, CEO-to-be Bob Iger and Disneyland President Matt Ouimet -- were on hand for this early morning ceremony. Again not so much because these three were all that eager to honor Ollie Johnston. But -- rather -- because they wanted to make sure that Lasseter was happy. And -- as a result -- John might then put in a good word with Steve Jobs. Which might then make Pixar's CEO more inclined to look favorably upon the Mouse. As the two entertainment giants officially re-opened negotiations to extend their co-production & distribution deal later this fall.
So it wasn't their love of trains that brought Eisner & Iger out to Disneyland last week. But -- rather -- their desperate need to make sure that the Pixar negotiations got back on track.
But -- as for Ouimet ... Well, maybe Disneyland's president really is a bit of a train buff. For -- after the "Marie E." event was over -- Matt made his way back to the Disneyland roundhouse. Where he asked to see the Lilly Belle.
For those of you who don't know: The Lilly Belle is that private parlour car that was once used to take VIPs and special guests on trips around the theme park. Loaded with beautiful antiques and elegant decor, it was once thought to be the crown jewel of Disneyland's rolling stock.
Unfortunately, several years ago, the Lilly Belle was found to be riddled with dry rot. Which was why it was eventually pulled out of service and placed toward the back of the roadhouse. Where this much beloved private car has been patiently waiting for a much needed rehab. Which -- thanks to repeated maintenance cut-backs & budgetary shortfalls -- has been repeatedly postponed for the past few years.
Anyway, Ouimet was given a private tour of the Lilly Belle last Tuesday morning. During which Disneyland's president was clearly shown where repairs must be made on the parlour car before it can finally be put back into service.
So does this mean that the Lilly Belle -- just like the "Marie E." -- will soon be receiving some deperately needed TLC? Which would then restore this 50-year-old wooden railroad car to pristine condition?
Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves, folks. For now, it's just enough to know that Ouimet has actually seen the Lilly Belle. More importantly, that Disneyland's president is now aware of the sad condition of this once-beautiful car.
"So what does the future hold? Both for the Pixar negotiations as well as for the Lilly Belle?," you ask. Well ... Let's see what Matt has to say at the official "Ward Kimball" dedication ceremony come July ... More importantly, let's see what happens between Disney & Pixar once Michael Eisner officially exits the company on September 30th.