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Disney's California Zephyr departs Anaheim, but not for oblivion

Disney's California Zephyr departs Anaheim, but not for oblivion

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Fans of the Disney California Adventure (yes, they do exist) have known for some time that the impending Buena Vista Street project would bring changes to the entrance to the theme park. As the Golden Gate Bridge makeover is well underway, the next phase of this project starts to take shape on Monday, August 1st. The shops of the Sunshine Plaza will emerge as a version of Los Angeles that greeted Walt Disney when he arrived from Kansas City in 1923.

Several of those locations in the Sunshine Plaza were originally opened with a railroad theme. A recreation of the famed California Zephyr greeted guests instead of an ordinary building façade. The Burr-bank Ice Cream, Bakersfield Bakery and Engineers Toys all were entered through the cars of the train. From the locomotive on the front of the train to the dome observation on the rear (with a faithful reproduction of the train's neon tailsign), guests were given the flavor of this 1950s passenger train. A bit of the story of the historic Zephyr was presented through photos and artifacts from the train displayed inside.

Guests to Disney's California Adventure admire the replica California Zephyr.
Photo by Roger Colton

Disney's Imagineers had a good foundation to recreate this train with. The cab of the locomotive actually had been a real locomotive once upon a time. Built by General Motors for the Canadian National, this 1940s design had served faithfully in freight and passenger service before heading off to the scrap yard for recycling. Moved to Anaheim by truck, it emerged as a locomotive from the Western Pacific - one of the three railroads that had operated the Zephyr between Chicago and San Francisco from 1949 to 1970. It was even detailed with a nod to the historic, being numbered the 804-A. That locomotive pulled the last westbound California Zephyr into Oakland on March 20, 1970.

When the planning for Buena Vista Street project was begun, the question arose as to how the train might fit into the new area. Perhaps it could be remodeled into the Santa Fe's famed Super Chief - a train that served Southern California, trading the orange and silver of the WP for the red and silver of the AT&SF Warbonnet? A nice idea, but the streamlined Chief didn't make its appearance until 1938, definitely outside of the 1920s era that the Imagineers intended for the area. In the end, the Zephyr was destined to make one last departure as it made way for retro-progress.

The California Zephyr made its mark with passengers when introduced in 1949. It may not have been the fastest train between Chicago and California, yet it offered the best of western scenery during the daytime hours. To capitalize on this bounty, the CZ was one of the first trains equipped with "Vista-Dome" cars, which featured a glass-enclosed upper floor with seating for 24. With a morning departure from Denver, there was the sunny climb up the Front Range of the Rockies, traveling the canyons of Colorado rivers during daylight hours.  Into California, the train crossed the Sierra Nevada in daylight, traveling along the canyons of the Feather River. A 1950s advertising slogan for the train promised "Beauty by Day, All the Way!"

Today Amtrak operate its own California Zephyr over part of the original route. As one of the most popular long distance trains, it still offers the best scenery in daylight hours. The difference between the current route and the 1949 route is that the train crosses the Sierra Nevada using the Donner Pass (former Southern Pacific line, also now part of the Union Pacific system) along Interstate 80 instead of following the Feather River route.

The Silver Solarium, an original California Zephyr dome
lounge observation car travels behind Amtrak's
California Zephyr on a February 23, 2008.
Photo by Ryan Martin

Many of the passenger cars of the 1949 Zephyr survived the end of the operation of the train. Many were purchased by Amtrak while others went to Mexico and other rail operations. A surprising number still exist today in museums as well as in charter service. Along the Zephyr's original route, one of those museums shares the legacy of the California Zephyr. The Western Pacific Railroad Museum in Portola, California offers guests the chance to learn more about the railroad (now a part of the Union Pacific system) and the famed train. The Museum has among its collection a complete Zephyr locomotive, the 805-A and several Zephyr passenger cars including a dome coach, dome buffet dormitory and a full dining car.

Locomotives from the Museum's collection on display in Sparks, Nevada.
Photo courtesy of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum

Thanks to Disney Imagineering, Disney's California Zephyr will now live on as part of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum's Zephyr collection.  Items previously on display on the walls of the Burr-bank Ice Cream and Bakersfield Bakery will help show museum visitors the vintage years of the trains operation between 1949 and 1970. And the cab of the recreated locomotive will offer museum visitors the chance to experience what it was like for locomotive engineers to travel the Zephyrs route as the train traveled the Feather River canyon.

The cab of the Disney Zephyr loaded aboard the truck for its journey to Portola.
Photo courtesy of the Disneyland Resort

Although other pieces of Disney theme park memorabilia and attraction vehicles have been preserved in various museums across the country, this marks the first such effort for the California Adventure park.

The Western Pacific Railroad Museum in located in Portola, California. A popular feature of the Museum is the Run-A-Locomotive program. It offers guests the opportunity to learn about locomotive operation and then take the throttle to operate the locomotive (under supervision) about the Museums demonstration railway. Several different locomotives are available to choose from. For more information about the Western Pacific Railroad Museum, visit their website. The Museum is open 7 days a week 10am - 5pm, from the first Saturday in May through the first Sunday in October.  Weather permitting, the Museum is open weekends and some days in April and November.

A rare opportunity to travel the original route of the California Zephyr will occur August 19th through 21st as a special 12 car-passenger train heads from Oakland to Portola for the annual Railroad Days festival. If you would be interested in riding this special train, Private Car Service is offering a limited number of spaces aboard the former New York Central lounge-sleeping car, "Two Rivers". For more information, please visit the web site or call (925) 321-0023.

Thanks to Disney Imagineering for preserving both the history of the California Adventure theme park as well as sharing the legacy of the California Zephyr as part of the Western Pacific Railroad Museum.

For more from Roger Colton, be sure to check out his stories here on Jim Hill Media as well as on his own site, The Blue Parrot .

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  • I'm glad to hear the Zephyr engine and the collectibles were saved and are going to find a new home.  Thanks for solving a long-standing mystery for me of where the engine came from, Roger!

  • During the 50's I was able to ride in the California Zephers and remember fondly the "Dome" cars where we would sit and color and draw as kids.  Also taking the Union Pacific from LA's Union Station to New York and back up to Minnesota and back, I experienced 4 days of pure joy riding in its dome cars and compartments one way.   The only down moment was I remember passing through the scrap metal yards back east where all the old retired steam locomotives were being scraped out.  I'm glad Walt saved some for us and the new kids on the block.  Jp

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