THP would like to welcome our friend Anthony from Moved by the Mouse who was kind enough to fill in for this week’s Walt Wednesday!
I have a secret to tell you. I was never really into trains. As a kid, I vaguely remember wearing a conductor’s cap with my name embroidered on it, but I would venture to guess I was drawn to it as an accessory more than as a tribute to the Great American Railway. Like most other gay boys of a certain age (approximately 5-10), I was preoccupied with princesses and glitter and mermaids and unicorns and fairies and anything that didn’t involve getting grease on my overalls.
My generation was a bit early for the Thomas the Tank Engine craze that is still sweeping the pre-school set. In fact, the first time I saw the little animated train was when he was on a show called Shining Time Station and my pre-teen brain was too busy processing that this was Frenchie from Grease to notice anything about a choo choo. However, I must admit that it’s amazing to watch little boys and girls in your local book store sitting rapt in front of a wooden table populated with wooden trains and whatever else their little imaginations can conjure up. (That is if there’s still a bookstore left near where you are. That’s the kind of thing you can’t do on Amazon.)
I have of late, though, been getting into trains just a smidge. Some of it stems from my recently renewed enthusiasm for country and folk music, where the good old-fashioned train song is a staple, but most of it comes from Disney. Trains are a huge part of the fabric of Disney’s mythology. Just think about it. The Walt era films are littered with trains from Casey Junior in Dumbo to Mary Blair’s playful train in The Three Caballeros to The Great Locomotive Chase.
They are an essential part of every Disney Park. In the early stages of Disneyland’s creation, Walt himself said, “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world…and it should be surrounded by a train.” It went from the Disneyland Railroad to the Viewliner (major snaps if you recognize that attraction) to the Monorail to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Expedition Everest and soon there will be a Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs themed mine train ride in the new Fantasyland at Walt Disney World. A trip on the rails is a near-inevitability on any given visit.
Walt had admittedly always loved trains, stemming back from his childhood days in Marceline, Missouri. It was a train that carried him to California in pursuit of his filmmaking dreams and it was while riding a train that he reportedly created Mickey Mouse. Trains were a hobby that he shared with several of the Nine Old Men, most famously with Ward Kimball. And in 1950, he built a 1/8th scale steam railroad in the backyard of his California home. He named it the Carolwood Pacific after the street he lived on, Carolwood Drive. It operated until 1953, when Walt shifted all his attention to what would become Disneyland, which opened two years later.
The Carolwood Pacific is essentially no longer. The pieces were donated to train enthusiast groups who wanted to preserve their history. The track makes up a loop, called the Disney Loop, which was integrated on a larger track; the adjacent barn has been moved to Los Angeles and converted into a museum where you can learn more about Walt and his passion for trains. The barn was where Walt would relax and dream, working on trains and coming up with new ideas. It is often referred to as “the birthplace of Imagineering.” It is pretty exciting that organizations such as The Carolwood Historical Society (www.carolwood.com) and the Carolwood Foundation (www.carolwood.org) are dedicated to preserving this part of Walt’s legacy.
Despite my newfound interest, I doubt I will ever seriously be into trains. I am intrigued by the renaissance of the Western genre I predicted some time back, while watching Davy Crockett and thinking that it’s about time for his resurgence. Deadwood came, went and is still being talked about and a new AMC Western is limping along after The Walking Dead. The Lone Ranger film is back on track with Johnny Depp attached to star.
It’s just a matter of time before Frontierland is less of a curiosity and more a destination. Kids will wear coonskin caps with the same fervor they currently don their pirate caps with beaded dreadlocks sewn in. It’s all cyclical. Until that day, you can bet that I’ll be on the Disneyland Railroad once every trip (at least on the section of track between Tomorrowland and Main Street USA where the dinosaurs from the 1964-1965 New York World’s Fair and the Grand Canyon Diorama are).
After building The Carolwood Pacific, Walt was inspired to share that sense of happiness, wonder and excitement he got from locomotives with others. He saw trains as a way to keep moving forward and stay in touch with the past. (Funny thing about train s– for every one that takes you far away, there’s another there to bring you home.) In a way I never would have expected as a child, I have come to love basking in the simple joys of chugging along in a steam train while at a Disney Park. I hear “all aboard!”, hop on, and say a quick thanks to the man who started it all, taking us to places we’ve never been, immersing us in times we could only imagine, and linking us to our collective history.