Of the multitude of young train buffs in the last century, one managed to grow up to build railroads of his own.
Walt Disney's passion for trains and his narrow-gauge railroads in Disneyland, Walt Disney World and elsewhere are highlighted in “All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt’s Trains,” an exhibition at The Walt Disney Family Museum featuring around 200 artifacts, archival videos, models and firsthand accounts of the mogul’s longtime interest in the subject.
A spectacular train engine and descriptions of a special railroad car – both named for Disney's wife – are prominent at the museum. Lilly Belle, the engine, was used to pull a miniature train around Disney’s home in Holmby Hills.
Lilly Belle, the presidential car, is the last surviving unit of the Disneyland Railroad from the opening day of the park in 1955. A 1/8 scale model of steam engine No. 173 – fabricated in the Walt Disney Studios machine shop with Disney's hands-on participation– is part of the museum's permanent exhibit.
The full-sized train car, decorated with mahogany, select hardwoods and stained glass panels, is described and illustrated both in the permanent collection and in the special exhibit, which is in the adjacent Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall.
The car has been seen and ridden by millions of people in Disneyland. Its first VIP guests were Emperor Hirohito and Empress Nagako. Earlier this year, the car was taken out of general use, restricted to special occasions in order to assure its preservation.
To this day, Disneyland offers a three-hour tour for railroad enthusiasts, with backstage access to the roundhouse, where the steam engines are stored and serviced. Trains were in Disney's blood; his father Elias and his uncle Mike worked on the railroad, which in the early 1900s was the lifeline of the country. Disney himself had his first job on the Missouri Pacific, selling magazines and snacks.
“All Aboard” is curated by Michael Campbell, president of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society, whose members, dressed in authentic railroad garb (twirling distinctive antique railway timekeeper pocket watchs) are present at the show. Campbell's love of steam railroading was sparked by a childhood trip to Disneyland, and he been a leader in preserving and publicizing Disney's devotion to trains.
IF YOU GO
All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt’s Trains
Where: Walt Disney Family Museum, 104 Montgomery St., Presidio of S.F.
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily (except closed Tuesdays, Dec. 25 and Jan. 1); show runs through Feb. 9
Tickets: $15 to $25
Contact: (415) 345-6800, www.waltdisney.org