Walt Disney World Railroad: Steam trains off-track for 50th anniversary

‘I suppose I’ve always been in love with trains’ -Walt Disney, 1965

A steam train from The Walt Disney World Railroad pulls into the station at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom and Main Street, USA (Disney)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – It’s an iconic image: the sound of a steam whistle, the chug chug chug, the steam rising as the Lilly Belle or the Roger Broggie pull into Main Street Station, with tourists posing for selfies in front of the floral Mickey. The Walt Disney World Railroad makes an impression, and traditionally, it is a first impression for Magic Kingdom newcomers.

The train station on Main Street is the first “weenie” they see. That’s the term Walt and his original Imagineers used to describe often iconic places designed to draw guests in and keep them moving forward: Cinderella Castle, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, to name a few. The train station keeps guests moving from the ferry boats and monorails, through the turnstiles and then into the illusion. Its height also blocks out the real world once guests are inside.

The engine "Roy O. Disney" (No.4) pulls into the station in the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

The Station is still doing its job, but Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom will mark 50 years without the attraction most linked to the Old Maestro himself. The Walt Disney World Railroad is off track, and has been for several years now.

It’s hard to overstate just how closely trains are intertwined with Walt Disney’s life. Entire books have tried to explore his love affair with locomotives, but a few anecdotes stand out. At age 15, Walt Disney worked as a “news butcher” for the summer of 1916, hawking newspapers, snacks, cigars and sodas to passengers for hours-long and even overnight trips aboard the Missouri Pacific, the Kansas City Southern and the Missouri, Kansas and Texas Railroads. He lost money on the job but gained a new perspective on the nation’s rapidly growing towns and cities.

Walt posing next to the E.P. Ripley steam train at the Disneyland Railroad (Disney)

Years later, in 1928, Walt was traveling by train back to Los Angeles from a devastating meeting in New York when he came up with the idea for Mickey Mouse, ultimately turning the tragedy of losing his first cartoon star into a career-making triumph.

When overstressed with work, a doctor told him to focus on some hobbies. Walt picked trains and was invited to the Chicago Railroad Fair in 1948, That trip -- including a side visit to the Henry Ford Museum -- helped spark his thinking about a Disneyland.

From his first drawings of a small “Mickey Mouse Park” adjacent to the studio, a railroad station was front and center in the plans.

Walt Disney's early sketch for a "Mickey Mouse Park" to be built next to the Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. ca. 1948 (Disney)

Fellow train buffs and legendary Disney animators Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnson inspired Walt’s next steps. Kimball owned a full-size steam train. Johnson built a small but detailed train to ride around his backyard, before later purchasing his own full-sized engine.

In no time, to manage his stress. Walt started building his own one-eighth-scale model train with the help of the Disney Studio’s mechanical wizard, Roger Broggie. He named the train the Lilly Belle to honor his wife, Lillian, and to help sell her on building his own rideable backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific, right through her rose bushes.

Plans for Walt's hand-built steam train model "The Lilly Belle" (Disney)
Walt Disney testing his hand-built steam train model "The Lilly Belle" at the Walt Disney Studios, ca. 1950 (Disney)

When plans percolated into Disneyland, the studio took Walt’s blueprints for his tiny train and blew them up to almost full-size for the 1955 opening day engines: the C.K. Holliday and E.P. Ripley.

For Walt Disney World’s larger-scale railroad, Imagineers scouted out old trains they could Disneyfy. They found what they were after in the United Railway of Yucatan in Mexico. The four run-down narrow-gauge steam trains had hauled produce and freight from plantations for up to five decades.

Originally built between 1916 and 1928 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia, they were reborn with a ground-up refurbishment at the Tampa Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company and given the now-familiar turn-of-the-last century touches for their 1971 debut.

A newly-rebuilt engine for the Walt Disney World railroad being trucked from Tampa to the Magic Kingdom in 1971 (Disney)

Those four engines: The Walter E. Disney (No.1), The Lilly Belle (No. 2), The Roger Broggie (No. 3), and The Roy O. Disney (No. 4) are still pulling guests today. Or, they usually do. Despite some pretty meticulous maintenance, each engine has traveled, one at a time, to the Strasburg Railroad workshop in recent years for complete repairs and rebuilds, so they can keep gleaming for another 50 years. At last report, The Roger Broggie was still being worked on there.

The New Fantasyland railroad station in Carolwood Park inside the Magic Kingdom's Storybook Circus (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

Being genuine steam trains, each engine needs to take on a large amount of water, usually midway through each journey around the Magic Kingdom. That happens courtesy of a small water tower across the tracks from the New Fantasyland Station located in Storybook Circus, also known as Carolwood Park.

Tracks missing, and water tower seen in distance at The New Fantasyland railroad station inside the Magic Kingdom's Storybook Circus (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

That station is also where it is easiest to see why the railroad has been off track. The path for the trains has to be rerouted and rebuilt due to construction for a different kind of train: the “Tron Lightcycle Power Run,” coming soon to Tomorrowland, and imported from Shanghai Disneyland.

A coaster train dives through the illuminated canopy of the "Tron Lightcycle Power Run" attraction at Shanghai Disneyland (Disney)
Construction underway for the illuminated canopy of the "Tron Lightcycle Power Run" attraction at the Magic Kingdom (Copyright 2021 by WKMG ClickOrlando - All rights reserved.)

While the pandemic has presumably stretched out the work much longer than anticipated, Disney maintenance and Imagineering teams have taken the opportunity to rebuild or replace nearly all of the 1.5 mile-long track encircling The Magic Kingdom. I can only hope the work wraps up sooner than later. The railroad has been unavailable since December 3rd, 2018 -- and I miss the 20-minute long grand circle tour through Adventureland, Frontierland, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

Big Thunder Mountain Railway in Frontierland, as seen from the Walt Disney World Railroad, the Magic Kingdom (Disney)

There are other trains throughout Walt Disney World, of course, from Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, to Expedition Everest and The Wildlife Express Train at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, not to mention futuristic trains like the Walt Disney World Monorail and the Peoplemover, but the Walt Disney World Railroad transports guests in more than one way.

Poster for The Walt Disney World Railroad (Disney)
Disney 50

To all who come to this happy corner of ClickOrlando.com, welcome! Walt Disney World is counting down to its 50th Anniversary, and so are we. With 50 days until 50 years, we are taking a daily look back at the past, how Disney’s opening shaped Central Florida’s present and a peek at what’s in store for the future.

We’re also looking to hear your memories of Walt Disney World: What do you love? What do you miss? What are some of your magical moments? You can share them with us by sending us an email and we’ll post them all for everyone to enjoy. Some might even be featured during our News 6 TV coverage of Walt Disney World’s 50th.

Here’s to dreaming, and here’s to another half-century of The Most Magical Place on Earth!

About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.