Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Disney's Love of Trains

Walt Museum

On Saturday, October 15th, I attended a presentation at the Walt Disney Family Museum called “Disney's Love of Trains,” hosted by Michael Campbell. Michael is the President of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, and a huge train enthusiast himself. The Carolwood-Pacific Railroad was the name Walt gave his home’s own personal railroad which ran from 1950-1954 (his home was on Carolwood drive in the Holmby Hills area of Los Angeles). But, I’m skipping ahead.

Conductor Walt

Walt’s love of trains started at a very young age. He used to wave to his engineer uncle back in his Marceline days. When he was 15 he took his brother Roy’s advice and applied to work as a news butcher, selling newspapers and snacks to train passengers. The venture wasn’t a success. Walt lost money, but he gained a love for the railroad. In fact, in a small way, we owe Disneyland to that failed job.

Trains also played a role in another pretty important moment in Walt’s life. In 1928 Walt took a trip to New York to meet with his distributor, Charles Mintz. Walt’s cartoon series starring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was a success, and Walt and Roy felt that it was time to ask for a modest raise. Mintz disagreed. He wanted to pay Walt less, and advised Walt that he, not Walt, owned the rights to Oswald. In addition, Mintz signed away almost all of Walt’s artists (but not Ub Iwerks, who refused). Walt tried a few different avenues, but to no avail. He would not accept Mintz’s unfair terms, and conceded to Mintz that Oswald was his. Before heading home, Walt sent Roy one last telegram: LEAVING TONIGHT STOPPING OVER KC ARRIVE HOME SUNDAY MORNING SEVEN THIRTY DON’T WORRY EVERYTHING OK WILL GIVE DETAILS WHEN ARRIVE—WALT.

On that long train ride back to Hollywood, Walt didn’t pout. He didn’t sulk. And he didn’t plot revenge against Mintz. What did he do? He created Mickey Mouse.

Below are several tidbits from Michael’s terrific presentation:

-During his breaks as a news butcher, Walt would offer the conductors sodas and fruit in exchange for lessons on how to operate the trains. Walt was able to operate a full-sized steam locomotive at the age of 15.

-Walt attended the 1948 Railroad Fair in Chicago with animator and fellow train nut Ward Kimball (Ward himself had a full-size railroad on his property).

-For help building the live steam railroad Walt wanted for his home, he approached Disney precision machinist Roger Broggie Sr. and asked him if he could build it. Roger replied with, “Can do!” (Roger was known for his "can do" attitude and his window on Main Street at Disneyland pays homage to this) -- After Walt walked away, Roger turned to his co-workers and asked, “Does anybody know how to build a live steam railroad?”

-Walt had a railroad “right of way” agreement with his wife Lilly in order to operate his train. It was a signed contract, and the witnesses were their two daughters, Sharon and Diane. (editor’s note: In order to coax his wife into signing the document, he offered that she could keep a large section of her flower garden by building a tunnel beneath a specific section. In addition to keeping some of her flowers intact, the tunnel would provide much needed peace while Mrs. Disney entertained guests. It was Jack Rorex, the man who oversaw construction of the backlot at Walt’s studio, who made the suggestion. He also suggested making the 90-foot tunnel an “S” curve instead of a straight line, so passengers wouldn’t see the light from the other end upon entering the tunnel. Walt loved it—sort of his first “dark ride”—and to show his appreciation he named it “Rorex Tunnel.”)

-After the Carolwood-Pacific ended its “run,” Walt, as always, thought bigger. He decided that he would like to have a little park that would hold a much larger-scale train. And maybe a Frontier-type village. And a carousel. And, a boat ride. Walt went to the Burbank City Council to get clearance to build it (he wanted it right across the street from his studio), and they declined. “We don’t want any squawking carousels in our city,” they told him. Walt’s idea got even bigger, and a small town called Anaheim didn’t seem to have any issues with “squawking carousels.”

-One of the first quotes Walt ever said about Disneyland: “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world, and it should be surrounded by a train.”

-Originally Walt approached long-time railroader Billy Jones in hopes of acquiring steam trains for Disneyland instead of building them. The ones Billy had were too small, unfortunately.

-When the trains were being built for Disneyland, Walt told them to make one of the cars resemble an actual cattle car, so riders could experience what pigs and cows experienced riding the train. When a worker asked Ward Kimball a follow-up question about that car, Ward said not to do it, and to lower the slats so people could see out the windows. Walt caught wind of that and said he wanted the slats added back. He wanted his guests to have an authentic experience. It proved a little too authentic, however. Just weeks after Disneyland’s opening, many guests filed complaints in City Hall about the train. “We felt like cattle!” Walt fixed it.

-After Walt’s passing, Roger Broggie Sr. was able to find four trains in Mexico that would work for Walt Disney World. Two of them were “twins,” which was rare. They named one the Walter E. Disney, and wanted to name the other Roy O. Disney. Roy absolutely refused. “I don’t want anyone ever thinking that I believe I am my brother’s equal.”

Michael also showed us some wonderful video of Walt enjoying the Carolwood-Pacific, narrated by Walt himself. A few of the memorable quotes I picked up were:

Walt’s attention to detail: “I might point out again how important it is to the railroad enthusiast that everything be built to scale.”

Walt’s sense of humor: “The hardest part of building the railroad at my house was convincing my wife that the flower beds had to go.”

Michael’s presentation was not only informative, but fun as well. He was very funny and displayed great comedic timing with his words and slides. Lowell Smith, expert designer of miniature trains, was also on hand to show us the prototype miniature of the Lilly Belle, which will be out first quarter 2012. This is a great item for train fans and Disney fans alike!

A little hard to read, click for larger image

Want to buy this awesome piece when it comes out? Here is Lowell’s official site.

Afterwards, Michael graciously agreed to pose for a photo with me.

He even brought his hat!

The day after the presentation, while I was fact-checking and cross-referencing everything, I stumbled upon a Donald Duck short called “Out of Scale.” It’s a cute little short, one of the many that pitted the mischievous duck against the more mischievous chipmunks Chip ‘n’ Dale. The cartoon premiered soon after Walt installed his Carolwood-Pacific, and in it Donald was the conductor of, wait for it... a miniature railroad! It’s been said that the short was made to poke fun at all the trouble Walt put his engineers and technicians through during the construction of his railroad. It’s also one of the very few shorts in which there was an “amicable” ending between the characters.

Hmmm. This looks awfully familiar.

If you have seven minutes to spare, check out the full cartoon here.

One last thing: If you’re in the Los Angeles area, or will be at some point, be sure to check out Walt’s Barn from the Carolwood house. It was saved by Walt's daughter Diane before the house sold, and currently resides in L.A.’s Griffith Park. And as Michael said, it’s the only free Disney attraction! It’s open on the third Sunday of every month from 11am-3pm. I have actually never been there, but you better believe I will make a trip down there soon! And of course I’ll write a report for The Disney Project.

Special thanks to Lowell Smith for giving us a sneak peek at his miniature Lilly Belle, and to Michael Campbell for the wonderful presentation.

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