The boarding opportunity has been extended for the Walt Disney Family Museum’s comprehensive exhibition, reflecting Walt Disney’s personal and professional interest in railroading. For those who haven’t seen the show or want another look, it will mercifully be extended until March 15.
American railroading is certainly an allegory for Walt Disney’s personal and public life. He arrived at so many of his triumphs, figuratively and literally, on a train. From his first job as a News Butcher on the Missouri Pacific line, to the “birth” of Mickey Mouse on a train; from his creation of Disneyland, surrounded by a train, to his vision of a City of the Future, bisected by fleets of sleek trains of assorted sizes, quietly serving the public.
Unseen, this exhibition might be judged to be a most casual of glimpse into one of Walt’s interests. But the level of the show’s execution takes it far beyond any backward glance at an elite hobby enjoyed by some of the Studio hands. It quite possibly exposes a type of zeitgeist in evidence there and then. It is a rare group of people who have enough passion for a pastime, especially one with the myriad of intricacies involved, in fabricating and running practically “living and breathing” machines. They were precisely the type of people who could successfully surmount the difficulty of making art and music into something that is perceived as “real.” The challenges involved in creating the illusion of life.
Despite, or maybe because of the intricacies of a seemingly antiquated pursuit, the boss’s interest drew collaborators from the apex of the studio’s shops and animation stable, Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston among them. These two were members of Disney’s group of Animation Directors, dubbed his “Nine Old Men.” They were also among the first American “civilians” to restore and install full sized railroads in their “backyards.” But still other skills were needed to push this pursuit forward.
Roger Broggie came to the Disney Studio in 1939 as a precision machinist, mostly to work with cameras and the tools of movie making. Broggie also worked with Walt Disney to create the model trains for Disney’s 1/2 mile-long, backyard Carolwood Pacific Railroad and its “Lilly Belle” locomotive. He subsequently went on to work on the bigger trains for Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
Seeing Walt ride around the studio lot on his diminutive live steamer must have contributed to a lightened atmosphere on the lot in the late 1940s. A little bit of Post War, Post Strike glee during the Studios’ final period before the landmark diversifications into television and theme parks.
Several elaborate electric train layouts in the exhibit pay tribute to these Disney Rail Pioneers.
And then there is of course Walt’s long time alter-ego – Mickey Mouse who shortly after his debut in Steamboat Willie, would pilot Mickey’s Choo-Choo in a 1929 short of the same name. Trains of all sorts that made appearances in Disney shorts and films, either as plot devices or as characters of their own in animated films also appear here.
Not only are the familiar “American Type” steam trains explored in this wide-ranging and ambitious show, curated by Michael Campbell, president of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society. Other trains that were used to further different stories in the Parks and films are in evidence: The Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, the Casey Jr. Circus Train, the View-Liner and it’s descendant The Disneyland- Alweg Monorail System among them. Iron trains only! There is no evidence of Disneyland’s extinct Pack “Mule Trains.”
To this point in time, railroading has remained a vital component in all of the Disney Theme Parks. Here’s hoping that tradition steams forward, as the trains continue, like Walt Disney, to tell a story that runs right down the middle of The American Century.
The Walt Disney Family Museum is located at 104 Montgomery St. in the Presidio of San Francisco.