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"Walt's Trains - I Have Always Loved Railroading" exhibit opens at the Walt Disney Family Museum

"Walt's Trains - I Have Always Loved Railroading" exhibit opens at the Walt Disney Family Museum

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When one thinks of Walt Disney, naturally you often think of the many great projects that were produced by the company that bears his name. Movies or theme parks, for example. But there is another side of the man that often tends to be overlooked. That of what he did to relax. The things he enjoyed to divert his focus away from the pressures of managing those many projects.

The Walt Disney Family Museum has opened a wonderful new exhibition  that takes guests for a look at some of those diversions - All Aboard! A Celebration of Walt's Trains.

The Kalamazoo handcar upon which Walt is standing, shown above is on
display in the Museum Lobby, thanks to the generosity of the folks at
Disneyland. Image Courtesy of the Walt Disney Family Museum

Being a product of his times and the communities in which he lived his early life, that he found an interest in railroading should not come as much as a surprise. Consider that at the end of the 19th century and the years before the first World War in the 20th century, most people living outside of big cities probably never traveled more than 10 miles from their homes. But if they did travel, it was by train. Railroads crossed the country, bringing people and goods to communities of all sizes.

So, it was with Walt Disney. His uncle Mike Martin was a locomotive engineer for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. Not only could he share plenty of exciting tales of the life of a railroader with a young boy, he surely played a hand in getting him aboard a locomotive for a short ride or two.

Hooked Walt was. To the point that he took up an early career on the railroad as a news butcher (Selling newspapers or cheap pulp magazines, along with fruit and bottled soft drinks) on the Missouri Pacific. For once he was exposed to travel on the train, it was the siren call he had to answer. From what we know of Walt's experiences and his less than successful summer, life away from the small town had a powerful attraction for him. The railroads had shown him (and many others) the way ahead.

In later years, after success on projects such as "Snow White," when the pressures of studio business mounted, he took up the sport of polo. With great intensity, Walt rode at matches. So much so, that an injury forced him to retire to something a bit less intense. That's where railroading came in. Walt was already bitten by the miniatures bug and miniature railroading fit fine.

He constructed a Lionel model railroad right outside his office at the studio. Where it attracted the attention of other railroad enthusiasts. People who shared his interest working at the Studio went on to influence Walt further. Take Ollie Johnston for example. He got Walt interested in the live steam railroading hobby with trains that you could ride around the railroad. Ollie was one of a number of folks who had such railroads around their homes. But leave it to Ward Kimball to really get Walt back into trains.

Ward and his wife Betty had acquired a full-size steam locomotive from a railroad in central Nevada that was being scrapped. Not only did they purchase it, they moved it to their home in San Gabriel and restored it to operation. They were among the first people in this country to do something along those lines. And Ward made sure that Walt was among those present when he had his first steaming of the new train. From pictures of the event, both Ward and Walt are seen as all smiles.

Walt Disney as a guest engineer on the Santa Maria Valley
Railroad. Image collection of Roger Colton

Walt returned the favor by inviting Ward to join him in 1949 to travel to the Chicago Railroad Fair. The two were like a pair of young boys, living out their dreams. Running vintage trains and even participating in the Fair's pageant. The exhibition at the WDFM offer guests some very rare images from that trip. Including a view of Walt on stage during the pageant, it is a great look inside this experience.

Now if you visit the Museum, it is hard to miss the Lilly Belle and the rest of the train from the Carolwood Pacific on display in Gallery 9. And just outside Gallery 7 is only a brief glimpse at some miniatures from Walt's collection. He certainly had a passion for not only collecting miniature items, but building them as well. Contrary to popular belief, Walt did not build every part of the locomotive by himself. Walt and Roger Broggie visited a company in Lomita, California called Little Engines. The company offered plans and a series of kits that allowed anyone to learn and build as they went. No doubt, Walt and Roger used this as a starting point with the Lilly Belle.

Walt learned a great deal during those years. He found relaxation using the Studio machine shop to work on the locomotive and train for the Carolwood Pacific. His daughter Diane loved to share his work by showing off all of the detail Walt built into his models. Take for example the Caboose for the railroad. Walt made the molds for casting the stove. Or as Diane reminded us, he even borrowed his daughters doll beds for use aboard the caboose too!

Diane Disney Miller shares the interior of the Caboose, including those doll beds.
Image collection of Roger Colton

The exhibition features some of the miniatures Walt built for the railroad including a miniature pick and shovel used to keep the Lilly Belle in coal while running about the railroad. Another fascinating item on display with those miniatures is the vintage railroad lock and key that Walt used to lock his barn with all of the railroad items inside.

The vintage railroad lock and key to Walt
's Barn. Image by Roger Colton

The idea of a backyard railroad even found its way into one of the studio's short films. A classic Donald Duck cartoon, with Chip and Dale - titled "Out of Scale" , takes place on a miniature railroad in Donald's back yard. Clips from that short subject are also part of the exhibition.

When Disneyland opened, of course it had trains. And of course, Walt would occasionally take a spin at the throttle of one of the trains. In the apartment above the firehouse on Main Street, Walt kept a full set of pin-striped overalls and a jacket to match. After a quick change, he was off to take over as the regular engineer "took a break". Who knows how many Disneyland guests went for a ride on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad with Walt as the engineer of their train?

's overalls on display in the exhibition.
Image by Roger Colton

It's not hard to imagine that Walt and his railroads had an effect in the hobby of railroading. Be it collecting railroad memorabilia, building and operating a scale model railroad or just enjoying watching trains go by, the man did his part to share his love of trains with many people. The storyline of this exhibition even follows Walt's own words, as they appeared in the October 1965 issue of Railroading magazine with a story entitled, "I Have Always Loved Trains."

The exhibit at the Museum offers a good look at this story. And it shows how Walt's passion for railroading inspired and has been shared by others since. With plenty of concept art, images and artifacts from many of the railroad projects that the Disney company has completed. Including a look at some of the new and upcoming films that feature railroads! And don't forget model railroads. The exhibit features three great model train layouts well worth seeing, too.

Michael Campbell, special guest curator for the exhibition, (right) with the Carolwood
Pacific in Yosemite Valley as it comes to life with an O Scale operating
model railroad. Image by Roger Colton

Walt's Trains - I Have Always Loved Railroading will be on exhibit until February 9th, 2015 in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall at the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco. A special admission package is available including the regular Museum admission as well as the Walt's Trains exhibition. Prices are $25 for Adults, $20 for Seniors and Students, $17 for Youth (ages 6 to 17), and Children under age 6, admitted free with a paid Adult admission. Separate admission to the Walt's Trains exhibition is also available at $10 per person.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located in a historic brick building. The 40,000 square foot Museum was imaginatively re-conceived to house ten interactive galleries, featuring a glass-walled back exterior that frames a spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. The Museum tells the story of the man behind the myth in Disney's own voice and in contemporary exhibits that feature state-of-the-art technologies, listening stations, more than 200 video screens and a 14 foot model of Disneyland. Visitors can also enjoy the Museum store, and the 114 seat, Fantasia-themed theater, which shows Disney classics daily.

The museum is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Wednesdays through Mondays. Closed on Tuesdays, and January 1, Thanksgiving Day, and December 25.

Admission for both the Museum and the Walt's Trains exhibition can be purchased at the door, or online.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery Street on the Main Post of the historic Presidio in San Francisco. For more information, visit www.waltdisney.org.

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