A Steam Blast from the Past
Welcome aboard the original Disneyland Railroad!
written by Todd James
photos by Todd James Pierce
summer, while visiting Disneyland with friends, we discussed which attractions
presently at Disneyland were also at Disneyland when it opened in 1955.
Surprising, our list was short.
Virtually all of Fantasyland was
redone in the early 1980s, leaving only the carousel and the Casey Jr. as
attractions with their original ride systems in place, though the track on the
Casey Jr. was replaced in 1988. In Tomorrowland, Autopia uses part of its
original layout, though the cars and much of the track are new. In
Adventureland, the Jungle Cruise contains a few original figures, though almost
every scene in the current attraction was developed after 1955. In Frontierland,
the Mark Twain still operates its original circuit around the river. On Main
Street, you can still board the Disneyland Railroad, but unless you are lucky
enough to be seated in the cab of one of the two original engines (the E.P.
Ripley or the C.K. Holliday), the refurbished Lillian Belle observation car, or
a greatly remodeled car from the original freight train, you’ll be riding in a
car not present during the park’s initial year.
Though some attractions survive in
name—such as Dumbo the Flying Elephant—their entire ride systems are different
than the ones installed for the park’s opening.
So where can a person experience
those attractions from Disneyland as they existed when the park opened?
Unfortunately, most were destroyed. But four coach cars from the original
Disneyland Railroad are housed at a ranch in central California. Last weekend,
the Santa Margarita Ranch opened its gates to the public.
My wife and I arrived at the ranch
Sunday morning, not quite knowing what to expect. We followed a dirt-and-gravel
road until we finally came to the parking area. Surprisingly, it was filled with
hundreds of cars—far more than would’ve filled the Disneyland parking lot on a
slow autumn morning in 1955. Then we heard it, the double blast of an oil
burning engine as it pulled two creamy Disneyland coaches through a stretch of
oak trees. We sat in our car, still buckled in, and watched the train descend
the grade, through the green weeds, toward a cleared stretch at the base of the
Once outside we joined a stream of people moving
toward the loading area. Without doubt, the 45 minute
line to ride the original Disneyland coaches in Santa Margarita was longer than
the average line to ride the open excursion cars presently in use at Disneyland.
These coaches, originally built from the ground up at
the Walt Disney Studios, were pulled by the E.P. Ripley on opening day as part
of an 1880s style passenger train. Three of the four
coaches retain their original wood floors. Half of the
cars retain their original roof lettering (“Disneyland & Santa Fe R.R.”), though
the Walt Disney Company once insisted (to a previous private owner) that all
references to Disneyland be removed as the coaches were renovated.
They all contain their original school bus style seats and school bus
style windows (presumably purchased from a school bus manufactory, such as
Crown). In fact, the experience of riding in the
coaches is much that of riding in a school bus: the seats are a little small for
two adults while most of the windows open only halfway.
As we rode the circuit, I had the opportunity to talk
to Brad LaRose, President of San Luis Obispo
Railroad Museum, who explained that the four coaches ran at Disneyland from
1955 until the mid-1960s, when they were retired except for peak days. They were replaced with open excursion cars better designed
to view the recently installed Primeval World. The new
cars were also easier to load and unload, as all passengers on the original
coaches passed single file through narrow doors—still their original Chinese
red—located at the front and back of each car.
In the early 1990s a private collector, Bill Norred,
gave the Walt Disney Company a narrow gauge engine in exchange for the four
coach cars and the combine. Eight years later, after
Bill Norred passed away, his family sold the four coach cars to Rob Rossi, who
then brought them to the Santa Margarita Ranch in central California. In 2005, the coaches were re-introduced to the public as
part of a fund-raiser for the local Railroad Museum.
Subsequently, they have been included in fundraising events held at the ranch
for many nonprofits. It is also possible to rent the
ranch and the coaches for a private function, such as a wedding, though no one
could tell me how much such an event would cost.
The four coaches are scheduled to be refurbished to
bring them to their original glory, though the process is slow and difficult. “Some of the Disney stuff is hard to come by for parts now,”
Brad LaRose explained. “Half-size couplers are rare. Wheel sets are also rare.”
As we journeyed around the two mile circuit, an odd
feeling of nostalgia came over me. Nostalgia not for my
own childhood—but for that of my parents’. Though
Disneyland has been “celebrating” its fiftieth anniversary all year, I never
experience a sense of the past while in the park. The
paint is touched up every night, bushes trimmed, light bulbs replaced. Disneyland prides itself on its perpetual newness.
But at the Santa Margarita Ranch, I experienced a
sense of 1955. With their peeling yellow paint and patched canvass roofs, these
coach cars felt old in a way nothing at Disneyland feels old. The springy green
seats (most covered with their original naugahyde) belonged to 1955 in a way
that nothing at Disneyland belongs to 1955 anymore. As the train pulled through
a patch of mustard plants in bloom, I could imagine what it was like to be on
the Disneyland Railroad fifty years ago, moving from the Frontierland Station,
through the weedy, undeveloped land behind the old horse stables.
Around midday, I happened to see Dave Smith, founder
of the Walt Disney Archives, exiting the one of the coaches. He was there as a
casual tourist, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Together we stood at
the end of the parking lot, looking at two of the coaches. “You know,” he said,
“they’re in pretty good shape considering their age.”
“I know,” I said.
Then he continued toward the parking lot, while I
returned to my wife who waited in line for one more trip aboard the original
written by Todd
photos by Todd James Pierce
View a video by Todd Pierce about the Disneyland Railroad visit.
Read the original article from JimHillMedia.com
JimHillMedia.com news, reviews, history and commentary about the entertainment
(But mostly about the Mouse)
Did you enjoy the article?
Do you have a question for Todd Pierce?