Walt Disney… Before it all started with a mouse… it started with a train?
The conductor’s voice notifies all riders that the adventure is about to begin.
A hiss of steam, a chug, and slight jolt propels the steam train forward and once again the Walt Disney World Railroad is making another trip around the Magic Kingdom. As someone who has gotten the chance to ride this attraction many times, I can understand how people miss what a special moment it is. But as I read, the gentle movement of the train transports me not just around the theme park, not just through the lands that Walt created, but it also transports me back in time… and in many ways gives each guest a connection to Walt himself.
A train ride through a Disney theme park is more than just a ride, it is a memory that serves as reminder of why each person can clack their way along the railroad track. During a cross-country rail trip to New York in early 1928, Walt not only lost his cartoon star Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, but also half of his animation staff to his film distributor. Before boarding the return train to California, Walt sent his brother Roy a telegram: “Don’t worry, everything OK.” On the train home, Walt contemplated a new character—a mouse, which he named Mortimer. His wife Lillian had a different idea, and, with their collaboration on a name, Mickey Mouse was born.
Now if you are a Disney fan you have heard that story before, but if Walt hadn’t taken that cross country train ride… his most famous creation and ultimately the entire world that Disney would go on to create, might have never happened.
But what a better place for a new character and creation to be born?
After all, Walt Disney loved trains and he was so comfortable on them, the train was a place where Walt felt right at home. In the early 1900s, trains weren’t just a means of transportation; they were a lifeline and critical to the development of the United States. Walt’s father Elias, along with his Uncle Mike, worked on the railroad. For a young Walt Disney, this ignited his fascination of railroading. One of Walt’s earliest jobs was as a news butcher for a few months in 1916, selling magazines and snacks on the Missouri Pacific, Kansas City Southern, and the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroads. Walt would reflect back on these days: “My railroad career was brief, exciting, and unprofitable.”
But of course that was before the train ride from New York to California where the idea for Mickey Mouse was born. After Mickey’s debut in Steamboat Willie on November 18, 1928, he would star with a train in the 1929 short Mickey’s Choo-Choo. Trains would also make appearances in future Disney shorts and films, either as plot devices or as characters of their own—with The Brave Engineer (1950) and Casey Jr. from the 1941 classic Dumbo. In the move to live-action films, it was inevitable that the Studios began featuring more trains, including the ones seen in So Dear to My Heart and The Great Locomotive Chase.
Around this time, Walt also fulfilled a long-time desire: he bought and built a tabletop model train layout in his office suite, running it whenever he had a spare moment. He enjoyed showing it off to visitors, including some of his own animators who were train buffs themselves.
In July of 1948, Walt boarded a train to attend the Chicago Railroad Fair. In addition to being invited to participate in the “Wheels-a-Rolling” pageant—where classic trains paraded by—Walt was deeply moved by the recreation of the funeral train for the president he most admired: Abraham Lincoln. Also, after visiting the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan on his way back to California, Walt was impressed and inspired by the attractions of this park, which included a 4-4-0 locomotive that pulled guests around the estate.
It was not long until Walt created his famous Carolwood Pacific Railroad. His 1/8 scale train circled a half-mile track, looping around his home in Holmby Hills. History also tells us that about this time in his life, he began documenting ideas for a “Mickey Mouse Park,” a family park he would build that would include a railroad station.
By the time Disneyland was going to be constructed, there was no doubt.. it would feature a train. The trains in the Disney parks are essential to understanding the story… in many ways, trains were a part of who Walt Disney was, they reflect his likes, they were an inspiration to him. So when you ride about the railroads at any Disney theme park, take a moment and remember… before it all started with a mouse it started with a man boarding a train.
Each of us have places that inspire us. They are special places where we relax, think, draw inspiration, or find a way to connect our thoughts and process the world. We all need them, whether it is sitting under a tree, riding on a train, relaxing on a beach, or watching a rainstorm… never forget to grab those moments and embrace them. Of course, you can’t remain their too long… if you do – the moment is wasted. Real life is always waiting. For Walt he had to get off the train and get to work. We have to catch our breath, roll up our sleeves, and re-engage life… it is why we were created.
As you enter Walt Disney World take a moment before you board the train and read the window on the train station. “Keeping Dreams On Track.” While that certainly describes Walt himself, it also is a very accurate description of the role of trains in his life.
Jeff Dixon is the,author of a thrilling series of novels set in and around the Walt Disney World Resort. These action adventure stories are works of “faction”blending fact and fiction together into a story that some have described as the
“perfect vacation for any Disney fan when they can’t visit the theme parks.” Many have read the stories and decided
they needed to get back to the theme parks right away and discover the secrets the books have revealed. You can check out the series on this website and pick up the latest installment “Storming the Kingdom” from booksellers everywhere.
* Background for some of the information in this article was researched on the Walt Disney Family Museum website.