Transportation has always been a cornerstone of the Disney experience, and I’m not just talking about theme parks. Walt and his team looked to the future for family transportation and space travel, while also reintroducing a generation to steamboats and keelboats through various productions. Inside Disneyland, and later Walt Disney World, cutting edge transportation models were utilized alongside paddlewheels. For Walt Disney, who always wanted to keep sight of our collective pasts, presents, and futures, there was one mode of transportation that stood tall above all the rest in his eyes, the steam locomotive. Not only did he have his own scale model train, there would also be a train in the Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom. This love of steam trains stretched beyond Walt himself and even beyond the boundaries of the park, showing up, in of all place, the campground of Fort Wilderness.
Most of us have, at one time or another, heard about the Fort Wilderness Railroad, the plantation locomotives that ran regularly from 1973-1977, before going to a seasonal rotation and closing permanently in the early 1980s. We’ve seen the posters for Fort Wilderness that put the train front and center and we’ve ogled the vintage maps that have it running around the periphery of the campground. In fact, the loop that the steam train ran on was 3.5 miles, double the length of the Magic Kingdom’s track. The four trains could each hold 90 passengers, but often ran out of steam due to their smaller water reservoirs and fuel tanks, causing delays and back-ups along the route. The train’s whistle could be heard as early as 7:00am, which I’m sure riled up some campers who would rather have slept in.
Aside from the water and fueling problem, and the waking up guests problem, the track itself was an issue. The clay and soft dirt allowed the rails to move more than they should, not to mention the fact that the rails themselves had not been placed and curved through best practices at the time. This meant that trains could not only be relied upon to breakdown, but they could also become derailed very easily. At least they were consistent. All of these maintenance and customer service issues eventually led to the trains being abandoned. That said, if you look at the photo above, it looks as if the characters loved the locomotives at some point in time.
Nowadays it is almost impossible to find remnants of the Fort Wilderness Railroad throughout the campground. The rails and spikes have vanished, but sometimes you can see the raised beds that the train used to run on. Thinking back on my earliest years at Fort Wilderness I can still remember seeing the railroad crossings just beyond the outpost gates. I can remember crossing over them and straining to see if I could spot a train that was never coming. I’m almost certain I asked my parents about it and they didn’t know what the tracks were for by that point, and it was never important enough to inquire to Cast Members about it. But it was those small moments of wonder that almost certainly led me to my fascination with the Fort Wilderness Railroad, and steam trains as a whole. I’m not foolish enough to believe that they trains could be utilized in the campground again today, but what I wouldn’t give to have been able to ride the rails aboard that train just once.