Loving the Great Outdoors the Disney Way - The Fort Wilderness Railroadby Rod Wheaton, contributing writer
Walt Disney's love for trains is well-known and documented. Friends of Walt's have even been quoted as saying that the biggest reason Walt put the train in Disneyland was so that he could have a full size train set to play with.
Recently, Disney historian and MousePlanet writer Jim Korkis even discovered that in Disneyland's early days, completely unknown to the guests that were riding, Walt himself would come on Sunday afternoons and operate the Disneyland train that took guests on a scenic tour around the beautiful environs of Disneyland.
Walt wasn't the only one at the studios in those days with a fascination for trains. Disney legend Ward Kimball was also an enthusiast, and would sometimes travel with Walt to events featuring trains and their history of operation. There were others in the company who also enjoyed the slice of Americana that trains brought to life, and so it's no surprise that as plans for Walt Disney World were taking shape, trains would again be a featured attraction for guests to enjoy.
Guests visiting WDW today can enjoy a ride on the Walt Disney World Railroad, daily "departing on a scenic trip around the Magic Kingdom." They can also take a ride on the Eastern Star Railway from Harambe to Conservation Station. What may surprise many guests today though, is that there was once a railroad in WDW they may be completely unaware ever existed.
The Fort Wilderness Railroad operated from 1973 to 1980, and though its existence was short-lived, it remains a sentimental favorite to almost all who remember it. Why? Because for many, it meant far more than simple transportation.
As a boy I remember riding through the mossy green forests of Fort Wilderness, passing over the wooden train trestles, watching the egrets along the shores, and hearing the train's whistle echoing through the trees draped in Spanish moss while passing the Fort's residents as they biked, canoed, relaxed at their camp, or walked along the pathways. In those days, we never stayed at Fort Wilderness as overnight guests; we usually stayed at the Polynesian Village Resort. But there was something so hypnotically tranquil about visiting Fort Wilderness that my family would never miss a chance to visit, and a ride on the railroad was a highlight. In its short life, it saw several incarnations of use in the campground. It served as transportation, as an attraction ride for WDW guests, and later as the main transportation to WDW's first water park, River Country.
The years spanning the spring 1973 to the winter of 1980 saw a very different Fort Wilderness than we have today in a few key ways. For one thing, although there were still some 750 acres set aside for the fort, there were far fewer campsites and less development. This actually added to the feel of the Old West frontier setting that was the hallmark of the campground's theming. An old-fashioned steam train fit right in with this setting, and added an atmosphere that you were camped in the Old West.
During most of those early years, the railroad served as the main transportation in and around the campground, which meant you didn't have the noise and headlights of diesel buses like you do now. Coming back from a long day in the park, (after all, in those years there was only the Magic Kingdom) you would arrive at the depot and catch a relaxing, gently rocking ride through the dark and quiet woods on the way back to your site. As the campground grew and expanded, trams would be added to help carry some of the load, but the train was still a familiar friend to the campers at the Fort.
As the years passed, word began to get out to WDW visitors about the tranquil oasis of Fort Wilderness, and the campground started seeing day visitors from the other resorts (my own family included, back in those early days). The railroad started to see more use than just transportation; it became an attraction in and of itself. WDW guests could buy a ticket for 50 cents and ride the railroad all day. Still later, when River Country opened in 1976, it provided a scenic way for guests arriving at the entrance to the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground to make their way back to the far corner of the Settlement Depot where River Country was located. Trams and buses started appearing at that time as well, but who wouldn't prefer a steam train ride through the green forest? So the question is, since the Fort Wilderness Railroad was a popular attraction and means of transportation, why did it go away?
The Beginning of the End
What eventually doomed the Fort Wilderness Railroad can be summed up in a single word: tracks. It's important to remember that WDW itself was still quite new, and in size and scale it differed tremendously from anything that had ever been attempted in Disneyland. New things were being tried out and developed, often through trial and error. For instance, the sandy Florida soil was a different composite than what the California-based Walt Disney Company was accustomed to.
Over time, sinking and shifting soil underneath the railroad track beds were creating big issues with the smooth running of the trains. To make matters worse, the rails themselves had problems from not having been properly bent in the original construction. These issues were addressed to some degree on at least two occasions, but the sinking and shifting track beds continued to be a problem.
In 1980, Disney management decided to fix the issue correctly once and for all. Management ordered a study to determine the costs of a full replacement and reinstallation of the track lines. In the meantime, they sent the locomotives and rail cars to be refurbished. While the trains were being refurbished, the quotes were coming back on revamping the rails. As the story goes, the price was upwards of $3 million. Disney execs had a business decision to make, and the decision was not to undertake the high costs of replacing the tracks. Refurbishment of the trains was halted, and the Fort Wilderness Railroad died a quiet death.
Over the years, talk kept resurfacing about a possible return of the railroad, but by then the trains themselves (stored outside and exposed to the elements) had fallen into disrepair, and in time the track itself was taken up and removed.
Today, the Fort Wilderness Railroad is just a pleasant memory and has gone the way of so many other extinct WDW attractions. You can still find some ghostly remnants left here and there; alongside and behind the campground's loop 700 area you can still find the half buried railroad ties. If you don't mind the gators and snakes (just remember, you've been warned!), there are still spikes and tie plates deeper in the forest to be found. But for all intents and purposes, the old railroad is just a memory. Still, sometimes when I hear those diesel buses growling their way thru the tranquil campground nights, I close my eyes and remember the sounds of the old Fort Wilderness Railroad clacking along, and hear the lonely, yet happy locomotive whistle calling its way in the distance across the meadow thru the dark pines. And like everyone else who remembers the old Fort Wilderness Railroad, I smile.
[If you'd like to learn more about the old Fort RR, I found an amazing trove of information, pictures, GPS waypoints and personal recollections in David Leaphart's book The Fort Wilderness Railroad volumes I, II, and III.]