Sunday, January 25, 2015

Walt Disney's Trains

Exhibit poster

Many people believe Disneyland would not exist if not for Walt Disney’s passion for trains. Some cite the influence of animator Ward Kimball, who owned and ran a full-sized locomotive in his backyard, and Ollie Johnston, one of Disney’s “nine old men,” who introduced Walt to narrow gauge model trains. Walt himself said he always loved trains and insisted, from its earliest conception, that whatever shape Disneyland ultimately took, it had to have a train running around its perimeter.

The Walt Disney FamilyMuseum is currently featuring a temporary exhibit--“All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt’s Trains”--that chronicles Disney’s lifelong interest in all things locomotive. Special programs are also occasionally presented at the museum in conjunction with the exhibit. Yesterday, for instance, was “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad:Building and Running Walt’s Trains,” a highly anticipated program about the trains at Disneyland. This was such a big deal that the Carolwood Foundation, the organization dedicated to preserving Walt’s railroad legacy, offered members the opportunity to take a 12-hour vintage railcar ride, Friday, from L.A. to the Bay, to see the exhibit and attend the presentation. We joined 20 other people, including folks from St. Louis and Orlando, on the trip.


Our train car, the Silver Splendor

Tim and I boarded the train at Union Station well before departure. Our car, the Silver Splendor, was built in 1956 and has a lounge, dining area, and galley downstairs. Upstairs is the glass-enclosed Vista Dome and table seating for about 24 people. We were early enough to claim one of the prime tables at the front of the dome, where, except for meals, we rode the entire trip. Fellow passengers cycled in and out of the dome area, depending on the view. As one member of the group pointed out, everyone was either a Disney employee, a former Disney employee, and/or a Disney fan, so our ears were constantly perked for insider Disney stories being shared around the tables.


Luggage and dining area downstairs

Downstairs hallway

Looking up the stairs to the Vista Dome

Looking down the stairs. Silent auction on the left.
I won a cup full of brass Disneyland conductor buttons!

View north of Santa Barbara. Note the Channel Islands
in the background.

Our car was attached to Amtrak’s Coast Starlight, the rail that apparently travels the longest stretch of coastline in the U.S. The weather was absolutely perfect: I don’t remember the last time the Channel Islands were so clear off the Santa Barbara coast. But for me, the best part was getting a rare glimpse of the Vandenberg airbase, the site of countless westcoast rocket launches. Tim and I still remember seeing mysterious contrails streaking across the skies when we were kids. “They must be launching rockets again out of Vandenberg,” my dad would always say, as if this was the most natural thing on earth. What a thrill to actually see one of the base’s still-in-use launch pads.


Launch pad, Vanderberg airbase

California coast

Rounding a bend: looking toward the front of the train

video
Standing on the back "porch," watching the world
speed by. Yee haw!

We spent the night in Oakland’s Jack London Square and so took BART the next morning to get to San Francisco and the museum. En route, we stopped at the old Ferry Building, which was renovated into a public marketplace over 10 years ago. Lots of tasty temptations—a real destination spot the next time we’re in town. 


Looking up at the Ferry Building roof

At the museum, we went through the special train exhibit, which was wonderful, then waited on line for the program. I kept looking for Disney “legends," who might also be there for the event, but didn’t see anyone other than Carolwood and D23 members. We then entered the theater.


Walt and his narrow-gauge train

Walt's actual train

Three speakers were introduced: Bill Colley and Craig Ludwick, both of whom worked on the Disneyland railroad, and Sean Bautista, president of Hillcrest Shops that rebuild and maintain many Disney-related trains. I, of course, know nothing about the mechanical workings of locomotives, but even I was fascinated by all the talk of preserving steam engines and stripping cars down to the frames. Ludwick’s story about saving the Lilly Belle, the presidential train car Walt named after his wife Lillian, was an especially heart-tugging high point of the program. That is, until a surprise speaker was announced: none other than John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and huge train buff! He told a moving story about buying and refurbishing his mentor Ollie Johnston’s former Porter steam locomotive, the Marie E., as a way to help celebrate Disneyland’s 50th anniversary in 2005. He then showed a short, but highly emotional film of 92-year-old Ollie driving the train around Disneyland—to this day, the only privately-owned train to ever ride around the park. (You can see the film at http://frankanollie.com/Movies/MarieE.mov.) By the time Lasseter finished, there wasn’t a dry eye in the place. What a wonderful day for Disney and railroad fans alike.

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P.S. It’s now Sunday and Tim is aboard the Silver Splendor, heading back to L.A., while I spend the night in Sacramento. I have an early meeting here tomorrow morning, so took Amtrak’s Capitol Corridor line directly to Sac, instead of going home. The ride was scenic enough, but Amtrak is certainly nothing like traveling in a restored 1956 domed Pullman. I miss the Silver Splendor. . .


Silver Splendor, heading home

Tim, bidding me adieu

Sun setting over the California coast


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