When you first approach the magical gates to the Walt Disney World Resort, you immediately notice that you aren't really in Florida anymore. Sure, the landscape is pretty much the same, with many areas harkening back to the pre-development era. However, not many areas of the state, save downtown Miami, are filled with a giant overhead monorail that parallels the roadway.
In 1959, when the Disneyland monorail system premiered at the theme park, it became the first new-style monorail to operate daily in the United States. Today, the Mark VI Monorail Trains at Walt Disney World Resort in Florida incorporate nearly 40 years of research and development in monorail technology. The system, in operation since 1971, was expanded in 1982 with a four-mile extension to Epcot and updated in the early 90s with new trains to complete the 11-train fleet.
Walt Disney was always fascinated by the railroad. His uncle Mike was a train engineer, and as a teen, Walt sold gum, cigars and soda pop to passengers as the train made its daily stops at the railroad depot in Walt’s boyhood home, Marceline, Mo.
In this way, Walt Disney and your favorite Local Getaways Examiner are quite similar. I too have relatives who worked for the train companies, including one who worked on Pullman cars. As a young child, this examiner was exposed to the amazing world of locomotives on an almost daily basis. You see, South Florida was originally developed by Henry Flagler and the Florida East Coast Railroad. Train tracks are within five miles of virtually every home in the state, and the majesty of the rails is deeply ingrained in almost every Floridian. Waving at the engineer was always a huge thrill, and the fifth grade trip to Washington, DC by train was an amazing introduction to railway travel. Later, in college, trips from Palm Beach County to Miami by rail were an almost weekly occurrence, and the aforementioned monorail in Dade County became a valuable method of getting from place to place.
As Walt Disney grew older and moved to California, he built a half-mile scale model railway in his backyard. Guests young and old were invited aboard his Carolwood Pacific Railroad. In fact, Walt could often be seen straddling one of the one-eighth scale cars as it chugged along the sprawling track layout.
“Walt built his larger model train at home, and it turned out to be one of the catalysts that got him thinking about Disneyland,” says Dave Smith, director of Archives for The Walt Disney Co. “He had wanted a place where parents and children could have fun together, and this was happening in his backyard as he gave rides to his daughters and their friends.”
When Walt began the design for what he called the “Florida Project” — now known as Walt Disney World Resort — he once again wanted the train station placed near the entrance to the park.
More than 30 years later, Walt’s fascination with trains and the railroad is still reflected throughout Walt Disney World Resort.
Vintage steam-powered trains have transported guests around Magic Kingdom since the theme park’s opening day in 1971. Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia originally built the brightly painted locomotives in the 1910s and 1920s. They were purchased from United Railways of Yucatan, disassembled and shipped to a Tampa, Fla., ship repair dock where they were renovated, bolt by bolt. The passenger cars were fabricated from scratch in the same warehouse where the locomotives were renovated. Originally wood burners, the locomotives were converted and currently are oil burners.
The shiny steam engines take guests on a leisurely, 1.5-mile grand-circle tour around Magic Kingdom with stops at three stations — Main Street, U.S.A., Frontierland and Fantasyland. The Fantasyland Train Station design harkens to the elegant train travel of America’s past and to Disney history, complete with a Casey Junior-inspired weather vane and Carolwood Park sign, with “Fair Weather Place,” a nod to “Fair Weather Route,” Walt Disney’s tag line for the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, the steam engine Walt had running through his backyard.
The newest train adventure at Walt Disney World Resort, Expedition Everest features a runaway train that combines coaster thrills with an encounter with the enormous creature that fiercely guards the route to Mount Everest. The fun involves out-of-control railcars that race forward and backward, sending guests swooping into the unknown to brave twists, turns and drops inside and outside a mighty mountain. It all leads to an unforgettable encounter with the yeti. Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is one of the attractions featuring Disney’s FASTPASS.
Walt’s passion for steam trains comes alive during “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour,” a behind-the-scenes peek at the Walt Disney World Railroad. The three-hour tour takes place at Magic Kingdom where guests observe cast members preparing for the daily operation of the Walt Disney World Railroad. Cost of the tour is $40 per person, and theme park admission is required. For schedules and more information, guests may call 407/WDW-TOUR (939-8687).
For most of Disney’s Animal Kingdom guests, Wildlife Express is a novel way to travel by train in the newest Walt Disney World theme park. The train runs from the African village of Harambe to Rafiki’s Planet Watch, an interactive center focusing on animals worldwide. But for railroad buffs, the puffing steam engines and their open-air carriages provide a nostalgic adventure extending the legends of British railroading in the mountains and jungles of far-off colonies.
One of Magic Kingdom’s most popular attractions, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a mine train adventure with plenty of twists and turns. This E-Ticket favorite in Frontierland has been thrilling guests since 1980 and is one of the attractions that offers Disney’s FASTPASS service. Led by a runaway mine train engine, guests ride in converted ore cars around Big Thunder Mountain — through gorges, redstone slopes, dry river beds and mysterious caverns.
One of the newest luxury guest suites at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is devoted to the life and times of Walt Disney. The suite, which features two bedrooms, two and one-half bathrooms, a living room and an entry hall, is adorned with vintage photographs of Walt Disney and his wife Lillian enjoying many of their favorite pastimes. Walt’s passion for trains is represented in the suite’s entry hall by a replica of his Carolwood Pacific Railway locomotive in an enclosed presentation case. The centerpiece of the living room is a large painting featuring the trains at Disneyland.
Disney Vacation Club, Disney’s vacation ownership program, arranged with the Disney family for the loan of two of Walt’s original backyard railway cars and a piece of the actual track, for display in The Carolwood Pacific Room, a living room-style area in The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Surrounding the display are vintage photographs of Walt with his prized train. In addition to The Carolwood Pacific Room, each of the resort’s Deluxe Villas tells the tales of the people who built and stayed in turn-of-the-20th-century railroad hotels in the national parks region of the Old West.
What is your favorite railroad themed ride at Walt Disney World? Is it the WDW Railroad itself? Could it be the space age monorail? Perhaps it is Big Thunder Mountain, or Expedition Everest? Maybe even the much maligned Wildlife Express at the Animal Kingdom? Whatever one it is, you should delight in the fact that the park keeps these amazing methods of transportation in working order, and allows theme park guests the chance to get at least a small taste of a bygone era.
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