A Historical Tour of Walt Disney World’s Trains

by | Oct 2, 2017 | Disney History, Uncategorized

When Walt Disney began planning his magical kingdom in California he knew that trains would play a central role.

“I just want it to look like nothing else in the world.” Disney said, “And it should be surrounded by a train.”

Over six decades have passed since that grand pronouncement, and trains continue to shape the story of the Disney parks. The Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad (now simply the Disneyland Railroad) was one of Disneyland’s opening day attractions and the Walt Disney World Railroad opened with the Magic Kingdom in Orlando. In 1998, the Walt Disney World resort opened Animal Kingdom Park. One of its original attractions, The Wildlife Express, is a rickety train running from the African Village of Harambe to Rafiki’s Planet Watch.

Let’s take a tour through the history of Walt Disney World Trains. We’ll make five stops along the way. All aboard!

1. United Railways of Yucatan

(photo courtesy of Southern Methodist University, Central University Libraries, DeGolyer Library)
The trains running on the Walt Disney World Railroad were manufactured between 1916 and 1928 by Baldwin Locomotive Works. They were used in Mexico by the United Railways of Yucatan and were known as “toros del fuego” or “fire bulls” by the local Mayans. The trains toted items like sugar cane and ran from Merida, Mexico to towns like Progreso, Motul, Temax, Valladolid, and Sotuta.

2. Roger Broggie

Roger Broggie was Walt Disney’s original Imagineer. He joined the company as a machinist. He worked on numerous projects over the years, with a number relating to Disney trains. In the late 40’s, Broggie helped Walt Disney build a group of miniature trains and installed them in Disney’s backyard. In 1969, he worked with Disney scouts to locate and purchase the engines that now comprise the Walt Disney World Railroad. The company purchased five engines and paid $32,750 for them. Only four of the trains entered service, with the fifth too dilapidated for rescue.

3. Bob Harpur

Disney Imagineer Bob Harpur joined the company in 1969 and oversaw the restoration of the Walt Disney World Railroad’s trains. After their rescue from Merida, Mexico, they were sent to a shipyard in Tampa, Florida for repairs.

Prior to his work at Disney, Harpur worked with Little Engines, a supplier for the live steam hobby. Harpur started at the company by working on a lathe. He first met Walt Disney and Roger Broggie during his time with Little Engines. Walt, his daughter Sharon, and Broggie toured the Little Engines facility in 1949 and talked with Harpur about the company’s work.

Today, Harpur’s contributions are honored on the Wildlife Express in Animal Kingdom, where locomotive No. 00174 bears the name “R. Baba Harpoor.”

4. Opening Day

The Walt Disney World Railway was one of the parks opening day attractions. Today, four locomotives run on the line, but only three were in service that first day. The Walter E. Disney (No. 1), the Lilly Belle (No.2), and the Roger E. Broggie (No. 3) carried guests on the “scenic trip around the Magic Kingdom.” The Roy O. Disney (No. 4) entered service a few months later.

5. The Eastern Star Railway

Three trains run on the Eastern Star Railway, the fictional railroad company that operates the Wildlife Express Train in Animal Kingdom. The trains were built in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England by Severn Lamb, a company that specializes in creating transportation systems and equipment. Stylistically, the trains were inspired by the East African Railway System. Bob Harpur was once again involved in the process, overseeing the construction of the trains with fellow Imagineer Joel Fritsche. Unlike the trains of the Walt Disney World Railroad, which are steam engines, the trains of Eastern Star Railway are diesel-hydraulic locomotives designed to resemble genuine steam engines.