It’s no great surprise that boys of all ages seem to like trains. So I knew that when my husband and 10-year-old son enrolled in Disney’s “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains” tour, they’d have a good time. I just didn’t realize how much they would enjoy it until afterward, when both shared details of the outing.
My husband was kind of a train nerd when I met him years ago and even played with electric trains as an adult -- though he was quick to explain it was called “model railroading” and not “toy trains.”
Our son also follows in his dad’s footsteps and always has enjoyed the steam locomotives at Magic Kingdom, as well as the train at Animal Kingdom, Epcot’s garden railway display in Germany, and the holiday model-train exhibits at the Disney World resorts.
Clearly, I knew, the Magic Kingdom tour of its rail operations was the kind of educational program that would appeal to the both of them and others like them who appreciate the romance of the rails.
The three-hour tour gives guests 10 and older a chance learn all about the train operations at the Magic Kingdom and get an up-close, hands-on tour of the engine cabs and tenders, and a look inside the roundhouse where the trains are stored and maintained. Tour participants also get to ride some segments of track that are off-limits to regular guests, and they even get to see some spectacular mechanical feats performed as the engine boilers are set alight and steam pressure builds.
Recently, my husband and son parked at the Contemporary Resort visitor’s lot (which is allowed for this tour) and walked over to the entrance of Magic Kingdom before the park opened. Once passing through the baggage-check site, they and others awaiting the tour gathered in the center of the plaza at the Kodak picture spot for the Main Street Station.
Not only is this spot a centralized location for everyone on the tour to meet, but it proved to offer a unique vantage point from which to get a one-of-a-kind photo as the tour’s private train did something it rarely does during the rest of the hours of the day. After the train pulled into the front of the Main Street station, the engine actually stopped in the middle of the track segment in front of the station, giving tour participants a privileged photo opportunity that most park guest will never have.
After the train arrived for that photo op, it then advanced along the track as normal and awaited the tour group. At this point, the tour’s leader guided the group toward the station. On the day my husband and son attended, it was only a group of 6, so everyone had plenty of room to gather around the conductor for the tour, Matt Simsburg of Connecticut, who led them to the station and into the last car of the train.
After a quick “all aboard,” the tour then left for a nonstop ride to the Fantasyland station. There, a railroad worker threw the track switch behind the train, allowing the consist to back up and travel in reverse toward the roundhouse, where all of the Magic Kingdom’s four trains – the No. 1 Walter E. Disney, the No. 2 Lilly Belle, the No. 3 Roger E. Broggie, and the No. 4 Roy E. Disney – are housed and maintained.
It was there where my husband and son got to experience the engines and tenders up close and learn about the intricate mechanical workings of these iron horses. They both got to watch several of the trains as they prepared for their first official passenger runs of the morning, and they were allowed to climb into the cab of one engine and get a detailed rundown on all the various mechanical components used by the engineer and fireman.
One visual highlight, they both said, was when flames were set to the engine’s boilers; another came when the crew of the departing trains built up excess pressure in the boilers to trigger a steam “pop-off” valve test in which a plume of white steam is sent skyward above the monorails overhead and probably is heard over the entire backlot of the park and beyond.
After learning about these procedures and much more, my son and husband boarded another train and got to see how the engineers test track safety systems and perform other mechanical tests required before the trains are put into service at the park for the day.
All along the way, conductor Matt was offering a wealth of insider information and answering the group’s many questions. The participants learned plenty of historical facts about the rail line (Did you know that one of Henry Flagler’s actual Florida East Coast bridges once had to be replaced after a hurricane in the Keys and now spans a waterway in Frontierland?). They heard interesting trivia about the route, too. (Just what is under the tunnel near the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction?) Plus, they learned details about the track’s grade (its slope) at various parts of the route and how it can affect the trains’ speed and braking ability.
They even got a short lesson on train-whistle communication and the importance of the engine’s bell as the train pulls into the station. (It’s not just a sound effect. Rather it is an actual signal to the workers at the station about a specific action about to take place.)
Eventually, the group traveled back to the Main Street station. Arriving soon after the park had opened for the day, they disembarked for a short break. Afterward, the group then assembled inside one end of the station as their tour leader Matt gave them a historical account of Walt Disney’s early love of railroading, a detailed look at how Disney designed and operated his own private and legendary “Carolwood Pacific Railroad” setup at his California home, and a telling of how the Magic Kingdom’s four engines were re-created from the relics of actual, working engines in a time long past.
My husband said he had a lot of familiarity with most of the information presented in this part of the tour. As he told me, most rail fans probably already have a passing knowledge of Walt Disney’s forays into railroading, both the actual trains of his youth and the smaller scales he created later for fun and for his themed attractions.
But he did say that one part of the discussion segment was new to him and, he said, surprisingly revelatory.
Tour leader Matt explained how Disney, in the 1940s, was much impressed with the Henry Ford Museum and its Greenfield Village, and how – on a train ride from the east coast back to California – Walt began sketching the first ideas for what later would become Disneyland. Disney’s world-changing ideas about themed attractions, Matt pointed out, literally were born aboard a train, and those ideas have included some form of railroading at most of Disney’s themed attractions ever since.
My son, at 10, might not have grasped the cultural or societal significance of what he was hearing, but he certainly did love the last thing he would take away from the tour that day. Matt presented him and everyone else in the tour group with a special-edition trading pin available only to tour participants.
If you take the tour, know that it leaves from the front of Magic Kingdom promptly at 7:30 a.m. You must be at least 10 years old to take part, and no camera or video photography is allowed along some backlot areas. (You are free to take pictures and video during the roundhouse tour, though.) The tour costs $49, plus tax, and also requires park admission. Annual passholders, Disney Vacation Club member and Disney Visa cardholders are eligible for discounts. Call 407-WDW-TOUR to book.
The previous post in this blog was Mickey Mouse helps prepare Easter baskets at Disney resorts.