All Aboard The Fort Wilderness Railroad!by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
The first week of November, I got to spend a pleasant early morning with MousePlanet writer Rod Wheaton who is also a podcaster for WDW Mousenger and writer for Celebrations magazine. We met at the Meadow Trading Post at Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground to reminisce about the Fort Wilderness Railroad.
I never got an opportunity to ride that fabled railroad although Rod did as a kid, and I envy him. I have only been able to experience what it was like through photos, documents and memories of cast members and visitors.
Anyway, that conversation inspired me to write this column for MousePlanet readers who may have some sentimental memories about the “Wilderness Line” that once looped through the campground.
The Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground was a unique Disney experience from the very beginning when it first opened on November 19, 1971, with campsites for guests to stay during their visit to the Walt Disney World Resort (WDW).
Fort Wilderness (named after the fort on Tom Sawyer Island at Disneyland Park at the time) was larger than most campgrounds, so trams, bicycles and busses provided guests with transportation options to get where they needed to go.
Guests were forbidden from driving their own cars to locations inside the campground itself because of lack of parking, even if they just needed to go to the Meadow Trading Post to quickly pick up something.
With Disney rushing to open WDW on time and with fast approaching deadlines and budget overruns causing the elimination of many proposed things, it turned out that Fort Wilderness was just another victim of debuting without everything being completely in place.
From the very beginning, there were plans for a “campground railroad” to provide transportation and add to the rustic “theming” of the area, but it was not considered a priority, so it did not debut with the opening of the resort.
A clever example of re-using existing assets to save money for the resort was demonstrated by installing trash cans designed to look like tree stumps that had previously been used at the Indian Village area at Disneyland before being shipped to Fort Wilderness.
The railroad was not solely for transportation because free trams and buses continued to operate even after it was in operation. The railroad was considered a Disney attraction, and was promoted accordingly on marketing material, even charging guests a minimal fee to use it.
This was the only Disney resort, so far, that had an attraction. It lasted roughly six years and one month, and images of it in operation appeared on magazines, guides and posters.
The railroad consisted of four steam trains, each pulling five cars, around a circular route through the campground at a maximum speed of 10 miles an hour. Each engine ran on steam and used diesel fuel to stoke the fire. The track was approximately twice the length of the track at the Magic Kingdom Park.
This strikingly beautiful train was decorated in a strong color palette of forest green, red and gold. Imagineer Bob McDonnell created that color scheme along with the distinctive logo, detailing and attraction poster.
A single train was roughly about 150 feet long and could seat up to 90 guests.
The trains were smaller than the ones at the Magic Kingdom and were based on the traditional Baldwin “plantation locomotives” popular in the Hawaiian islands, where they were used to haul material like sugar cane and pineapples through the jungles to market.
The railroad used a smaller gauge track (30 inches between the rails on the track) than at the Magic Kingdom (36 inches) which may have influenced people into thinking that the train itself was scaled smaller. The engine was full sized, not the 4/5th scale usually cited, but it was smaller than the engines operating at the Magic Kingdom.
Smaller gauge was common for railroads used in logging because it helped negotiate tighter curves easier just like the narrow turns at Fort Wilderness. So, the smaller gauge and smaller size of the engines gave the illusion of the railroad being smaller than a “real” railroad when, in fact, it was indeed full size for the type of railroad it was.
Unlike every other Disney train (even the ones operating on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad), none of the engines were ever named. They were only numbered, and each of the four engines had a distinctive icon on the headlamps: elk, bison, deer and ram.
During 1972, the locomotives were built in Glendale, California, by WED (Imaginering) and its manufacturing arm, MAPO, at a reported cost of more than $1 million.
Simultaneously, Buena Vista Construction was installing the track at the campground.
While at the time it was assumed that this was done to save time (like the building of hotel rooms being done separately from the construction of the framework for the Contemporary Resort), later research has confirmed that this was merely a cost-saving effort.
Buena Vista Construction had no experience in laying track, which caused major problems that eventually led to the death of the railroad.
Lack of gauge rods and tie plates, incorrect placement of ballast, rails not curved with a rail-bender, and the wrong size rail immediately caused operational problems that continued to plague the running of the railroad during all of its existence.
“The money spent putting the track in was minimal,” Imagineer Bob Harpur, who was the railroad technical foreman in Florida, told historian and author Michael Broggie. “The roadbed wasn’t properly prepared. We had trouble maintaining the track. The locomotives were sensitive. Other than that, they ran fine.”
Roundhouse foreman George Britton and his crew tried to fix some of these issues from January 1976 to May 1976 before the opening of River Country, but, despite their efforts, the basic problems still remained, because the money was not available to completely re-do the entire track correctly, just some “quick fixes.”
All that could be accomplished were some adjustments to try to address some of the more obvious issues that continued to reoccur.
The trains were shipped by flatbed trucks to WDW during the spring of 1973 and went through a trial and adjustment period, during which guests were sometimes able to ride the trains. By late November, the trains started running on a fairly regular schedule in what was considered a “soft opening.”
The official opening and dedication ceremony was January 1, 1974. Mickey and Goofy, along with the WDW Ambassador, drove a “golden spike” into the rails to declare the train line operational for all guests.
Originally, the train was free for guests staying at Fort Wilderness with others (including guests staying at other WDW resorts) being charged $0.50 cents per day ($0.02 cents of that was for taxes). That fee increased in later years to a $1.
In the beginning, the train ran from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. everyday causing some complaints from guests who disliked the fact that at all grade crossings the extremely loud whistle would sound. Eventually, the trains would cease operation around 5 p.m. eliminating that problem.
In 1974, Pioneer Hall (with the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue) and Treasure Island (later to become the bird sanctuary Discovery Island) opened, increasing guest traffic at Fort Wilderness.
However, the heyday of the railroad was the opening of River Country in May 1976, where the train became the favored mode of transportation.
The railroad ran three trains at the same time and, during the busy times in the morning and afternoon, added a fourth train. At one point, the Disney Company tried adding an additional sixth car to each train to increase capacity, but with all trains operating that addition was quickly abandoned as unnecessary.
New cast members were added to help operate the four trains. Six full days of training were devoted to each new cast member, often running into the evening hours. Running a railroad was much more complex than operating the typical amusement rides.
While the first female fireman on the Disneyland railroad did not appear until the 1990s, roughly half of the crew members of the Fort Wilderness Railroad were women in the 1970s. They proved themselves to be more reliable and diligent than some of their male counterparts.
With the opening of River Country, a new addition did have to be made to the train cars: rubber floors, because of the dripping wet guests who had enjoyed Disney’s first water park.
Why did the railroad close? Over the years, in lieu of the Disney Company giving an official explanation or even an official closing date (the railroad was just put on “hiatus”), there were many speculations.
Some claimed that safety was an issue and that the nearness of the tracks to the guests made Disney Legal fearful. Some claimed that the train produced too much noise and it disturbed guests. Some claimed that there were challenges with the engines that required constant refilling with water. Some claimed that it was just too expensive to operate and could never recover its costs.
The bottom line is that since the track was not laid correctly in the first place that even with attempts to make adjustments, the basic problem still existed that could not be overcome.
Literally, the entire length of track needed to be re-laid correctly and the estimated price tag was over three million dollars. At one point, the Disney Company looked to General Electric as a possible corporate sponsor to help defray all or most of the estimated cost.
Dick Nunis, who was in charge of WDW, loved the railroad and made every attempt to try to save it by trying to manage costs.
In the early 1980s, he brought out to Florida the Nature’s Wonderland trains from Disneyland Park that were no longer in use because they have been removed to make way for the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. These were battery powered so would save fuel costs and had proven dependability. Unfortunately, the train was much too slow on its trial run around the campground and the plan was abandoned.
The Fort Wilderness Railroad almost came to life again in 1992 with the announcement of the building of Buffalo Junction (sometimes referred to as Wilderness Junction).
Before the building of Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney had plans to build an upscale 600-room resort between Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and the Disney's Wilderness Lodge. It would have been themed to the Old West of Dodge City. One of the main attractions would have been a duplicate of Disneyland Paris’ Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show
The bottom level of the buildings would have shops and restaurants, while the upper levels would have rooms for guests.
All three resorts would have been connected with a new version of the Fort Wilderness Railroad.
The story would begin at Fort Wilderness, representing the original frontier period of the United States. Wilderness Junction would showcase the expansion out to the Wild West, and, finally, the story would end at Wilderness Lodge, where Americans now live in harmony with their environment. Even the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge were supposed to represent the housing for the workers who built the Lodge and the railroad.
In the September 2010 issue of The Orlando Business Journal, it was reported that the same area might be developed into a Disney Vacation Club resort with the possibility that the Fort Wilderness Railroad might be revived in some form. There has been no further news since that speculation.
After years of being outside and subjected to Florida heat and humidity, the engines and the coach cars were sold off to private collectors who restored them. All of the engines are now in California. Disney Executive John Lasseter has an engine and a couple of coach cars in his backyard railroad in Northern California.
Two of the coach cars were modified and placed temporarily at the entrance of Pleasure Island as ticket booths, one of those coaches is now at the front of Typhoon Lagoon, and the other was auctioned off. Four of the cars and 3,000 feet of track were donated to the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida, but over the years those coaches found other homes.
The look of the Fort Wilderness Railroad coach cars inspired the street cars for Disneyland Paris designed by Imagineer Bob Harpur.
How do I know all this information about an attraction I never rode? I am indebted to the work of some outstanding Disney historians who specialize in Disney railroads, as well as cast members who worked on the attraction and shared their stories.
Unfortunately, the Disney Company is notorious for not keeping documentation on some of its many activities and projects. Disney is in constant movement and so time can not always be allocated to documenting something, especially something that will no longer be in operation.
In addition, costs for cataloging, storage and security have increased over the years for this material. Sometimes, even if Disney has documentation, it is difficult for them to locate it. Again, it takes time, money and labor to find things.
However, thanks to dedicated independent researchers much of that information has been able to be verified and recorded for Disney fans like myself to better understand and appreciate things.
David Leaphart is amazing. He authored an entire book about the Fort Wilderness Railroad (actually three volumes, but start with this one) that I am ecstatic to have in my Disney library and recommend you think of including in yours if this is a topic that interests you.
Leaphart doesn’t just have a great affection for the railroad that is clearly evident in his books but he has done a tremendous amount of original research. I am very impressed at the first-hand work he has done to find out the facts and not just regurgitate the familiar stories that have been “cut and pasted” at so many Internet sites and accepted for decades as true when they aren’t.
Thanks to his hard work, which he only began in 2007, we now know that the railroad was full-sized for its type, not 4/5 scale, as is so often stated. Leaphart even learned that the source for that misinformation probably came from the 1977 Disney maintenance manual where the writer just repeated the falsehood he had heard earlier without doing further checking.
Thanks to Leaphart, we know that the railroad definitely stopped operation in February 1980 and that the cast members were told that it was just a temporary hiatus for about six weeks. It wasn’t, even though Central Shops started work rehabbing one of the engines.
Many of the photos in his book are by non-professionals from their personal collections so there is occasional blurring, color challenges and poor composition but, for me, that adds to the intimacy of the images. It is like looking through someone’s vintage family scrapbook. I especially enjoyed the “then and now” photo comparisons.
Leaphart also includes detailed technical drawings and information, as well as the spiel given by the crew to the guests. This book is truly an outstanding example of great Disney research and has always been my primary source when I need information about the “Wilderness Line.”
If you are interested in more information about the Fort Wilderness Railroad or Disney railroads in general, I highly recommend these other gentlemen as well whose research, passion and writing over the years have enriched Disney history for all of us: Steve Burns, David Rose and Michael Broggie