May 10, 2016; Disneyland Railroad #1 on static display at the New Orleans Square Station.
While thinking of what I could write about the famous Disneyland Railroad, I have to be honest I kind of struggled thinking of what I could say about the history of the route that hasn't been said. The Disneyland Railroad is one of the most famous steam operations currently running, with some estimates suggesting over 6 million+ people ride the railroad each year. Disney trivia buffs can tell the stories of Walt Disney and his Carolwood Pacific; his friendship with animators & railfans such as Ward Kimball and Ollie Johnston; the stories of how Walt himself would come to the park to run his trains on the line, etc. As interesting as these stories are, I honestly have nothing new to say to those stories than what has already been stated prior by other authors.
However, one thing I feel is worth discussing is how to actually railfan this famous line and its sister rails in the resort, the Red Car trolley and the Disneyland Monorail. Truth be told, my recent experiences on a family vacation have proven to me that this line is one of the most frustrating and difficult railroads to shoot. There is no finding a peaceful lineside spot to watch the rails with few obstructions, as the realities of the theme park crowds make that near impossible. Not to mention that very few of us have the luxury or desire to devote our complete time in a theme park to railfanning (those hard earned Fastpasses for Space Mountain ensure that much). However, some recent reroutes have opened up the line to some new photo opportunities that are worth discussing and I hope my experience can be useful for future railfans who visit the park. By no means, I am not an expert; so don't be surprised if I missed out on some favorite railfan spot some of the frequently visiting Annual Passholders who frequently visit the park may be aware of which I am not.
May 6, 2018; Monorail Orange glides above park guests at the edge of the resort.
In terms of easy railfanning opportunities, the quickest system to access on the resort is the Disneyland Monorail. While the other lines I mentioned are confined inside the theme parks themselves, the monorail system runs outside the parks and through the public resort areas and alongside the right of way of Harbor Boulevard. As such this is the only system that can be photographed well without purchasing a park ticket. Even better, the segments of the monorail that glide outside the parks are relatively obstruction free in comparison to the cramped spaces in the parks themselves.
May 6, 2018 Monorail Blue glides along the edge of Disneyland Park after exiting the esplanade.
The line has three operating Mark VII monorails which are known by the color of their paint scheme, Red, Blue & Orange. The units are powered via a third rail (or is it second rail?) that runs along the monorail track. There is also at least one diesel powered tug on the line which is used in maintenance and to rescue stranded trains in the event of an electric power failure. The line has two train sets at a time running with the third kept in the rail shop backstage. During my most recent trip for example, only Blue and Orange were operating on the line.
May 6, 2018; shots of Monorail Orange traveling through the esplanade.
Those who wish to ride the monorail system should know the line has two stops; one inside Disneyland Park and the other in the Downtown Disney shopping district. The track also passes through Disney's California Adventure and the Grand Californian Hotel & Spa but makes no stops at either location. The gauge and system used at the Disneyland Monorail is unique to the line, based on the ALWEG designs from the 1950's (the sister Walt Disney World Monorail in Florida should be noted as the basis for Bombardier's INNOVIA system, which is in use in Las Vegas, Newark, San Paulo Brazil and Riyadh Saudia Arabia).
May 9, 2018; a Red Car Trolley traveling along the Hollywoodland facades.
The newest rail system in the Disneyland Resort is the Red Car Trolley in Disney's California Adventure park. A historical leaning railfan should be able to recognize this system is inspired by Los Angeles's famous Pacific Electric interurban system; the demise of which inspired the plot for Disney-Amblin's animated-live action hybrid film "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." The Disney version is an electric street running system with four stations.
May 9, 2018; The Red Car about to depart from the station near the park entrance at Disney's California Adventure.
The most onerous aspect of railfanning the Red Car is the fact that theme park streets are very crowded. It takes some patience waiting for crowds to split long enough to get an unobstructed view of the trolley system in action. Fortunately, the entire right of way of the line can be followed via walking along Buena Vista Street and Hollywoodland; except a small portion which is "backstage" on the property. Keep an eye out for regular shows to were singing newsboys will ride along the Red Car from the backstage area to a performance area near the park entrance.
Of course I should mention one of the best part of the Red Car system... the set of Wig Wag crossing signals that follows the line! I have no idea if these are authentic or replica pieces, but it is still pretty fun to watch the Wig Wags in action.
It is worth mentioning that Disney also some a 'fallen flag' railroads! The "Jolly Trolley" was another streetcar system that looped around the Toontown area of Disneyland. The tracks remain and one of the trolleys is kept on static display in the land, but the system has not been used since 2003. The other is the mine train ride system that is best known as "Mine Train through Nature's Wonderland." This small system traveled through the western themed Fronteirland as part of a scenic attraction. It was eventually replaced with the highspeed rollercoaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (again a rollercoaster and not quite a proper railroad despite the fun train theme!) One of these old mine trains used to be on display in the park; weathered to look like an abandoned locomotive, however it has since been removed. Perhaps the most famous shortlived Disney railroad was the Viewliner, which was based on GE's revolutionary Aerotrain (Union Pacific would use an actual Aerotrain set between Los Angeles and Las Vegas as part of its "City of Las Vegas" train, and ATSF would use one between Los Angeles and San Diego) The Viewliner was retired when it was replaced with the early Monorail system.
May 7, 2018; Ernest S. Marsh former Raritan River Sand Co. #10; a rebuilt Baldwin which is now a 2-4-0 pulls an excursion train along the newly laid reroute alongside the Rivers of America
Now lets discuss the main attraction itself... The Disneyland Railroad and its five 3' gauge steam engines. Each engine has a unique name, the first four named after historic presidents of the ATSF and the :
- #1 C.K. Holliday; RETLAW, 1955
- #2 E.P. Ripley; RETLAW, 1955
- #3 Fred Gurley; Baldwin, 1894
- #4 Ernest S. Marsh; Baldwin, 1925
- #5 Ward Kimball; Baldwin 1902
#1 & #2 were built by Disney under the name of his private company "RETLAW" (Walter spelled backwards). RETLAW managed the Disneyland Railroad, the short-lived Viewliner, and the Monorail, in their early years separately from the main Disney company to ensure Walt could easily access his trains and retained ownership over them. #3 and #5 are both Baldwin built Forney locomotives which have been heavily modified with pilot wheels. #4 was also heavily modified, with the addition of pilot wheels. The line has also been visited by two other locomotives; the operational "Marie E." a 0-4-0T and the inoperative "Chloe" a 0-4-2T owned by the Orange Empire Railway Museum.
May 7, 2018; two Disneyland Railroad employees at the station at Main Street.
As I was saying earlier... this line is frustrating to railfan due to the amount of trackside obstructions and the weird angles on the circular route that make it tricky to find good lighting (in addition to the fact that chances are any trip to Disneyland is going to not be 100% about trains and instead focused on the countless other attractions to see and do in the park!) Not to mention nearly a quarter of the line is inaccessible for a trackside view since the train is passing the Grand Canyon and Primeval World displays. Oftentimes the best view of the train is as it is approaching one of the line's four stations.
Disneyland Railroad #5 the Ward Kimball approaches the New Orleans Square Station on May 7, 2018. As far as stack talk goes, this old Forney based Baldwin was one of my favorite sounding engines on the trip as it had to turn its little wheels at a quick pace to keep up speed on the reltively slow but busy line.
My personal pick for the best station to watch the trains is the New Orleans Square station. Operationally, this is where the realities of working steam engines can be best viewed by a casual onlooker. A water tower is here, were the trains regularly stop to take on fresh water to re-fill the tender. A trackside vent is placed at the end of the station platform, so a blowdown can be performed at the station while taking on water. The vent moves the hot steam to an outlet behind the station building, safely away from the throngs of packed park guests.
May 10, 2016; the New Orleans Square Station is backdropped via this beautiful wood station which served as the park's original Fronteirland Station. It is based on a station set built for a Disney film and recycled on Ward Kimball's Grizzly Flat Railroad. The station structure is normally off limits to guests, however the platform was accessible during a special display through-out 2016 while the line was temporarily out of operation.
Also New Orleans Square has a great environment to keep one busy between train watching in the area. Live jazz music can usually be heard from street performers; and several eateries nearby sell the park's Mint Julep (a non-alcoholic lemonade-mint concoction named after the bourbon cocktail from the Deep South) and the famed Monte Cristo sandwich. The classic wood style depot is a great backdrop, and the exit platforms of the station are a good place to wait for the trains.
I know this is not train related, but can I just talk about how amazing the Monte Cristo sandwiches are? Meat & cheese in a sweet doughy bread; deep fried and covered in powdered sugar? Its like a scone with a panini buried inside. Its a rich meal, so I recommend ordering one set of sandwiches and splitting it with someone else; since half the plate is enough to fill up one adult. Then take the short walk from the restaurant to get back to train watching at the nearby station!
Now the Star Wars Galaxy's Edge expansion and the rerouted train route have opened up a few new opportunities to see the train, which while not perfect; are some of the funner places to watch the trains roll by. The back patio of the Hungry Bear Restaurant and the trail leading to the future Star Wars expansion have a good view of the tracks as they snake above the rivers. Its here where I like to think of Disneyland as a "large scale" model railroad layout, as the small artificial hills with their forced perspective tricks are not to dissimilar to many a setup I have seen in 1:87 scale. It kind of reminds me of the Durango & Silverton's crawl above the Animas River... just a lot smaller and with a lot more handrails surrounding the train tracks; and music and narration blasting out of every speaker on the train into my ear! A well timed trip on the Mark Twain paddleboat might offer a chance to see the trains up close on the new river front area.
Some of the views of and from the new train route through the Rivers of America. The Star Wars Galaxy's Edge expansion in the distance will be partially obscured once the new trees grow in.
A few of the other opportunities to train watch in the park that I have found interesting include the new red rock section alongside the back end of the Big Thunder Trail (new additions from the Star Wars expansion. Keep an eye out for a Union Pacific marked barrel and a small RPO stand replica while riding the train through here). Another spot is near "it's a small world" which is near the engine house for the train and includes the line's only grade crossing. While its can't be reached to photograph (unless on the train itself), listen closely for the train to give a the distinct long-long-short-long signal on its whistle while its crossing the road.
It should be worth noting that all the viewing areas on paths near the Star Wars expansion are currently pretty peaceful and calm. However I doubt this will last after 2019 when the new expansion opens and crowds will be rushing into the Star Wars areas.
Of course, those who want a closer experience to the Disneyland Railroad than just riding the regular excursion cars and or watching it from the trackside have a few options at hand. One is trying to get a tender ride on one of the steam engines (#1, #2 and I think #4 all have seats for tender rides, while the two Forney based engines do not). I had the fortune to have the opportunity to ride in the tender of the C.K. Holliday in 2005. My Disney trip this year though I tried twice to get a seat on the tender, but I was out of luck in both my attempts and couldn't get that coveted riding position. Seats are also available in caboose's when they are running. The line runs a parlor car, the Lilly Belle; a refurbished RETLAW coach from the original days of the railroad which is also a coveted riding opportunity not normally available to park guests. The best bet to get onto any of the special seats on the railroad is via asking at the Main Street Station at the front of the park, however as I previously said guests should be aware its sometimes tricky to have the timing work out right to get on-board the special seats. Despite the 'Mickey Mouse' nature of the whole operation, the Disneyland Railroad is indeed a real working steam railroad and the nature of such makes it tricky to arrange opportunities for tender rides or other special seating on every trip in the park.
Disneyland Railroad #3 Fred Gurley and the Lilly Belle bask in the morning sun while on static display during May 2016 at Main Street while the railroad was closed for construction.
A famous and more regular way though to get to see the Disneyland locomotives up close though is at the annual Fullerton Railroad Days. Over the last few years Disney has been sending one engine to display at the depot during the special event, giving railfans the chance to get up close to the engines outside of their park habitat. Another opportunity to experience the railroad in unique ways includes The Grand Circle Tour a reserved train with rides in the Lilly Belle parlor car. I know of some people who have been able to get in and tour the enginehouse itself, however if that was via a tour event or just special connections I have not been able to verify how they did it. The enginhouse is interesting, since its a two story building with the steam trains on the bottom floor and the aforementioned monorail on top! A brief glimpse of the enginehouse can be seen after departing Toontown and looking to the left of the tracks while on the train ride itself. A far easier to see look at the trains is currently in the Main Street Opera House, with a Disney train dedicated pre-show prior to the Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln attraction.
I hope my little guide and thoughts on railfanning the rails through the Disneyland Resort are useful. I am not some sort of local railfan with an Annual Pass who can drop by Disney regularly to scout for the best photo spots, but instead an out of state guy who gets the chance to drop by every two years or so; in case anybody else has some better insights on how to railfan the route please let me know in the comments. Until then, I hope future railfans on vacation get a chance to have a "Zip-a-dee-doo-dah" of a time while railfanning this uniquely American narrow gauge line!
*Note: While the Disneyland Railroad does not have an easily accessible behind the scenes tour currently, the sister operation the Walt Disney World Railroad at the Magic Kingdom in Florida has a lengthy "Behind the Steam" tour which I have heard great things about.
*Note two: I have excluded both Casey Jr. Circus (which is actually a proto-rollercoaster flat ride thing); and the horse-drawn trolley cars that run up Main Street from this list. I figure both could have qualified for this article, but I figured they were not going to draw as much attention from railfans as the other lines and photographing them is rather self explanatory while in the park. I also guess every roller coaster in the park could qualify as a "train" but no, I am not going to go there today!