Take a Ride on the Red Car Trolley

by Karl Buiter, staff writer

Welcome to 1920s Los Angeles. Flush with water from the Los Angeles Aqueduct and money from bonds, this desert town is on its way to becoming a huge metropolis through the boundless enthusiasm of the time. Within its many annexations is Hollywood, a growing community of young filmmakers that is seeking their fortune in the silent film business.

Red Car #623 rolls under the festively bunted Hyperion Bridge on Buena Vista Street during the Fourth of July Holiday. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Interconnecting Hollywood with all the destinations of Southern California is the Pacific Electric Railway. Formed through several mergers, this interurban railway service boasts 1,000 miles of track and operates the popular "Red Cars." Along with the Los Angeles Railway "Yellow Car" trolleys, this is the freeway system that Walt and his brother Roy saw when they moved their animation studio to Los Angeles in October 1923.

At the other end of the line, Red Car #717 turns the corner at the Hyperion Theatre and begins heading up Hollywood Boulevard. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Buena Vista Street, the redesigned front entrance to Disney California Adventure, is a re-creation of this dynamic can-do time. With the Hyperion Bridge forming the archway into 1920s Southern California, the scene is complete with the famous Red Cars traveling the streets of Los Angeles and Hollywood.

Our Red Car line consists of four stops connecting Buena Vista Street with Hollywood Land:

  • Buena Vista Street – to the right just inside the main entry gate.
  • Carthay Circle – in Carthay Circle between the paths to Condor Flats and Pacific Wharf.
  • Hollywood Blvd (Boulevard) – in front of the Disney Animation Building.
  • Hollywood Tower Hotel – far to the right of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Follow the track up to the backstage gate.

You can find each of the four stops along the route by finding these signs. Photo by Karl Buiter.

A fleet of two Red Cars travel on the trolley line, each carrying a number and distinct paint scheme.

Disney numbers the first trolley as "623," with the "23" a reference to the year Walt moved to Hollywood. Trolley 623 is based on the 600-series of trolleys that were built by the St. Louis Car Company in 1922. The car is painted in the original solid red with gold letters paint scheme. The interior has a cream color.

The second car goes by "717," a strong reference to July 17, the month and day Disneyland opened. Trolley 717 is based on a series of Red Cars built by the J.G. Brill Company in 1925. This trolley carries the 1940's "Butterfly" red and orange paint scheme with a light gray roof. The interior features a mint green accent color.

Collectively, these trolleys belong to a popular class of Pacific Electric Railway equipment known as "Hollywood Cars"—for their frequent use in Hollywood during the time.

A placard on the front of the trolley indicates the stations at which the trolley will stop. The general end destination "Hollywood" or "Buena Vista Street" is on top sign of the trolley. All passengers must exit at the end of the route. Since many passengers will travel the full length of the route, it is best to board at the start of each route. Some room may be available at the Carthay Circle and Hollywood Boulevard stops.

The trolleys run on the second half of each hour during the day. During the evenings after 6:00 pm, the trolleys run a more frequent schedule.

The Red Car Trolley has no rider age restriction. However signage indicates that children under age 7 years must be accompanied by a person age 14 years or older.

There can sometimes be two trolleys on the line. During the day, a second trolley usually carries the cast of the Red Car News Boys show. When used for the show, the trolley does not carry a station placard on the front. The trolleys can pass each other on a short section of track located in front of the Disney Animation building. Typically the first trolley to arrive in the section will wait until the second trolley passes before proceeding. If you are on the passenger trolley, you can expect a short delay until the show trolley passes.

Red Car Trolleys #623 and #717 pass on this short split track section in front of the Disney Animation Building. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Trolley Detail

The Disney Red Cars are not full reproductions of the original 52-foot-long Pacific Electric Red Cars. Measuring 26 feet, they are best described as roughly 1/2- to 5/8-scale representations that embody the spirit of the Red Cars that once travelled through Southern California. Along with the physical size of the trolley, differences include the seating arrangements, door layouts, power systems, and control systems.

A side view of Red Car #623. The trolley is parked at the Hollywood Boulevard stop. Photo by Karl Buiter.

A side view of Red Car #717. The trolley is parked at the Buena Vista Street stop. Photo by Karl Buiter

Seating is grouped into four long bench seat areas that face toward the center of the vehicle. Each bench can hold four to five people. The reported capacity is 20 passengers plus a space for a wheelchair. All passengers enter and exit through center doors and down foldaway stairs. This arrangement permits fast loading and unloading at each stop. At night, dome and stairway lights turn on during loading and unloading; otherwise the lights are off during travel.

A driver is stationed in the forward position, while a conductor narrates the travel from the rear position.

The cream color interior of Red Car Trolley #623. Red Car Trolley #717 features a mint green color interior. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Colorful advertisements representing shops on Buena Vista Street line the interior of each Red Car Trolley. Photo by Karl Buiter.

The crew can operate the trolley from either end using identical control panels, which provide:

  • A simple throttle
  • Keyed switches to turn on the panel and set maintenance mode
  • Drive Enable, Bypass Enable, and Bell buttons.
  • Door, Interior Lighting and Charge Request switches.
  • Emergency Stop plunger
  • Battery volt meter,
  • An array of red and green status lights.
  • A placard illustrating "All Clear" and "Hold" hand signals.

One of the two end control panels at the ends of Red Car Trolley #623. Photo by Karl Buiter.

The trolleys are battery-powered using a system of 12-volt batteries. Inductive Power Transfer, a form of wireless charging also used by the Finding Nemo submarines, can be performed at one of the stops. The trolleys are fully recharged at night. According to the crew, each trolley can be charged in six minutes. Each charge provides enough energy for two roundtrips on the line.

While the overhead power lines are cosmetic props that do not provide power, the trolley pole that connects to the overhead line must be set into a trailing position before the trolley can be moved. At the end of each route, a crew member uses a rope to draw the trolley pole to the correct position.

The trolley pole must be moved to a trailing position at each end of the Red Car line. The inset photo shows the detail of the trolley pole where it connects to the overhead line. Photo by Karl Buiter.

The Red Car Trolley line uses a sizeable number of park employees to operate. In addition to the trolley driver, in-trolley conductor, and conductors at each stop, two park employees walk ahead of each trolley to prevent park visitors from accidently walking into the path of these vehicles. The trolleys generally move at a gentle walking speed.

Red Car Trolley Merchandise

Shops along Buena Vista Street sell a variety of Red Car Trolley merchandise. Typical items include shirts, hoodies, hats, coffee mugs, collectible plates, collectible posters, and toys. Some things to note:

  • The coffee mug is emblazoned with "All Aboard! Red Car Trolley First Class Travel" featuring Mickey Mouse. The red shirt has the same detail.
  • The collectible plate features the number 717, a side profile of a trolley, and Buena Vista Street.
  • A gray shirt features schematics of the 717 trolley and a detailed description of the line. The black hoodie has the same detail.
  • The hats have a red patch featuring Mickey Mouse with Red Car Trolley, the stops, and the slogan "Safety Comfort Speed". Some additional details is marked on the upper brim.
  • The remote control trolley has 18 feet of track consisting of 12 curved and six straight sections; working destination lights and sounds; a remote controller with forward, stop, and reverse buttons; the trolley; and a set of street lamps.
  • The monorail accessory kit features the Hyperion Bridge as a monorail track section; a scale trolley; the Walt Storytellers Statue; and a set of Disney characters.
  • The small poster features a stylized Red Car Trolley with the Carthay Pacific Theatre in the background. A "grand opening" mark is on the bottom.

Disney provides shirts, hats, model toys, and collectibles for Red Car Trolley fans. Photo by Karl Buiter.

The Remote Control Playset features 18 feet of track. A Monorail Accessory Kit with Hyperion Bridge and Trolley is also available. Photo by Karl Buiter.

The Red Cars News Boys

The Red Car News Boys perform in front of the Carthay Pacific Theatre. Photo by Karl Buiter.

Adding to the Roaring '20s Los Angeles narrative, the Red Car News Boys present a show every hour during the day except hours when the parade is running. On one particular day, the News Boys show times were at 10:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m., noon, 1:00 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m.; the 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. times were covered by the Pixar Play Parade. The News Boys arrive aboard a Red Car Trolley and perform the show in front of the Carthay Pacific Theatre. The show consists of several songs and features Mickey Mouse as a representation of Walt's arrival in California in 1923.

A "discovered" Mickey Mouse waves to the crowd on the rear of a Red Car Trolley. Photo by Karl Buiter.