It’s interesting what fond memories the Fort Wilderness Railroad conjures up in so many of us considering its short life. It only ran between 1973 and 1977. Still, this little train made a big impact and continues to cause us to wax nostalgic when we think of it.
Originally built at a cost of $1M, these trains were used to transport guests around Ft. Wilderness in the same manner the buses do today. They ran from 7am to 11pm and guests could ride all day for $1. The scenery was magnificent as you traveled beneath a pine and cypress forest, over canals, and through meadows. You didn’t need a destination. Riding was sufficient.
If this train was so great, then why did the Fort Wilderness Railroad have such a short life? Well, there are several reasons and they all combined to create a headache for Disney – a headache that aspirin alone couldn’t cure.
The design for the Fort Wilderness Railroad was based on narrow-gauge plantation locomotives that were used in Hawaii to haul sugarcane and pineapples from the fields to the docks. They were reliable and considered steadfast workhorses.
The four Fort Wilderness engines and rolling stock (five cars per train) were built in California by Mapo, Disney’s engineering and development department. Built at 4/5 scale, these engines had a 2-4-2T wheel design and used diesel fuel to heat the water for steam. Fully loaded, each train could accommodate 90 passengers.
The total length of the Fort Wilderness track was twice as long as the track that circles the Magic Kingdom. Yet, the Fort Wilderness engines only held 225 gallons of water and 175 gallons of fuel compared to the Magic Kingdom’s engines which carry 1,837 gallons of water and 664 gallons of fuel. This decreased capacity required the trains to make frequent stops to replenish their supplies – an often overlooked detail. It wasn’t uncommon for a train to run out of “gas” and be stranded on the tracks.
Much of this inattention could be attributed to Disney’s desire to save money. Rather than hire a professional railroad crew, inexperienced workers were employed off the street. These cast members were given the “basics” of steam train operations, but in essence, they were simply ride operators with no experience in running a railroad. A steam engine is a complicated piece of machinery with temperaments that require constant attention, something these undertrained cast members simply weren’t equipped to provide.
Another problem had to do with the roadbed. Corners were cut while laying the rails, installing the spikes, and placing the ballast. Because of this, the tracks often shifted and derailments were common. Repairs and maintenance were an ongoing nightmare.
There were also complaints from guests that the trains were too noisy and disturbed the tranquility of the campground. Since they started operation at 7am, campers did not appreciate being jolted out of their sleeping bags to the sound of the engines’ whistle. In addition, there were no barriers between the track and the campsites. There was nothing to prevent a child from wandering onto the rails as you can see in this next picture.
Eventually it was decided that the Fort Wilderness Railroad was more trouble that it was worth and Disney did not want to invest any more capital to fix the problems. The trains were retired and eventually found themselves in a field exposed to the elements. After years of neglect, several members of the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society purchased the decaying trains and have restored them to their original beauty.
Two of the coaches were briefly used as ticket booths at Pleasure Island, but they too were eventually replaced by permanent structures.
All of the track has been removed from Fort Wilderness, but you can still see some of the trestles that once spanned the canals.
It’s a shame this endeavor wasn’t undertaken properly in the beginning. If it had been, maybe we’d still be riding this lovely train today rather than buses on our way to the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Review.
47 Replies to “Fort Wilderness Railroad”
I remember staying at Fort Wilderness and even riding the train. What was very cool about the train was the layout of the track. It actually passed directly in front of The Meadows Trading Post. I mean the walkway you see coming down the grassy part was actually the railroad. I had made a vow I would get some of the spikes but never could as they were well driven into the timbers.
This past January, I went on a jaunt through the woods following the tracks but couldn’t find anything. I crossed to the other side of the campground and after trekking through some serious bush and overgrowth, I found a mound where the track still lay. I managed to pull out 6 spikes and even a couple of cleats. I now have my history of the Fort Wilderness Railroad. I would love to get one of the actual rails but that may have to wait.
One thing I don’t get with Disney is why just let this stuff rot away? Why not at least remove it or clean it up? Look at River Country. Rotting away and letting nature take it back but what a mess.
Anyways, that’s my story.
I heard that the biggest reason for WD removing the RR was becuase a kid had been hit by the train. Is there any truth to this?
Oh boy do I ever remember! This is my best Disney memory ever! I was five the first time I rode it and have my picture standing in front of Engine #4 at the Pioneer Hall Depot. Like Eric H posted here, every year thereafter I waited anxiously to hear, see, and smell it as we pulled in with our pop up camper. To my disappointment, the Cast could never tell me how, why, or where the train was. Eric, you described my emotions as a little boy to the “t”.
This is for Mac.
You posted a comment in 2009 about a forthcoming book on the Disney Parks Railroads which includes the Monorails as well. When would that book be coming out or is it out already? Where can I find it?
If anyone else knows it would be greatly appreciated. I already have the Walt Disney Railroad Story but I need to learn MORE about this awesome aspect of WDW. Thanks, Steve
Sorry to have never had the chance to ride this great historial railroad when it was running, love the old pictures, which brings it to life.
We are presently working on one of the engine’s restoration to bring it back to it’s original glory. Look for pictures someday soon. Carolwood Pacific historial Society, also has reproduced the #4 and #3 in G scale, I beleive they are already sold out.
My parents took me and my sisters to WDW for the first time in the early 70’s, and we visited every 3-4 years thereafter. We always stayed in our little camper at Fort Wilderness. I remember my first trip. I was surprised and excited to find out there was a railroad in the campgrounds. How cool!
I waited anxiously by the tracks to see the train come by, but it never did. It was down for maintenance, they said. Every time we visited, it was not running. Finally, when we went for our 4th visit, the railroad was gone completely. I never did get the pleasure of riding on the Fort Wildernerr Railroad. Disney rarely disappoints, but that was a big one.
The water tower in River Country was the railroad water tower. I, too, remember the FWRR from a visit in 1974. Our campsite was along the tracks. I even remember the truck selling things. I had forgotten about it. Back then I was only 13. It made a strong impression on me. One of many fond memories of early WDW.
Oh wow, boy do I remember the railroad. It makes me sad to think about it. Along with River Country and Discovery Island. Those were some of Disney’s past elements, that I miss so much. Disney has evolved so much, but would be so nice to bring back “old disney” as I call it. Great memories.
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My wife and I rode the train on our first visit to Fort Wilderness in the fall of 1977. It was one of the campgrounds best features. Does anyone remember the old fashioned pick up truck that used to ride arounf the camping loops in the mornings selling various breakfast sundries? That way if you were missing something for breakfast you didn’t have to make a trip to the two stores. It had a recording that sounded like it was chugging along, and they had one of the old triangle dinner bells they would ring. Also the nightly moonlight war canoe excursions leaving the Meadow trading post then going through the canals leading to Marshmallow Marsh on the edge of the lake. When you got there you had a marshmallow roast and a question and answer session with Disney workers, and then a sing along. Ahh, the good old days.
For Sharon, the water tower at the pool is a refurb of the old River Country water tower. It has nothing to do with the old railroad water tower. The Imagineers chose to make a “railroad” theme out of the tower by adding the logo and lanterns. A piece of trivia: the logo on the pool tower is not the logo of the old railroad. The logo was designed by Michael Campbell for use on models based on the Fort Wilderness Railroad.
I have become obsessed with looking for tracks at FW. We go there every few months and I have found a few remaining tracks. I have a question about the water tower which has just been installed at the main campground pool. It supports the new slide, and pours a stream of water continuously. It has an RR painted on it. Was this an original tower, or is it a copy made just for the pool renovations?
Great Blog!! My family stayed at Fort Wilderness in 1976 when I was a child. One morning I got up before the rest and took the train by myself to the trading post to buy my muskett and Davey Crocket hat still wearing my pj’s. Walking through the meadow, Two deer came right up to me and let me pet them as they walked along with me. What a GREAT memory! Last year staying at the cabins my grandaughter woke me up before everyone else, we hopped a bus in our pj’s and went to the trading post. Not as cool as the train, but still a great time. Memories that last forever! Thanks.
My husband and I honeymooned at WDW in January 1978 and stayed in the campgrounds. One of the things we enjoyed while honeymooning was taking walks along the train tracks. I do not remember the train running though. Later when our children were young, we all walked the tracks together while camping. We also totally LOVED River Country with it’s old fashioned ol’ swimmin’ hole theme and freezing cold water! The kids are now 27 and 30 yrs old and have fond memories of the simplier Disney World. Discovery Island was another favorite way for us to spend hours and hours. Does anyone remember the monkey training program on Discovery Island? It was not open to the public but one day while waiting for our launch to pick us up, we saw a cast member carrying something wrapped up in a little blanket. She explained to us that Disney was participating in a program for training monkeys to help handicapped people. She then showed us the cutest baby monkey all wrapped in that blanket.
Yes I remember the train. I rode the train in 1976 with my parents.
Thanks for the memories! As a child back in April, 1976, that train was an important highlight of Fort Wilderness. Back then, there was only the Magic Kingdom, so Fort Wilderness occupied relatively more of one’s attention than it does today. I returned to Fort Wilderness in 1996 with my wife and wondered why the train was gone. You can still notice several berms where the track was previously laid. It was a fine train and, even as an adult, I missed it.
Wow … what a great post 🙂 ! Wish the railroad was still around – it looks so much nicer than the buses (though I’m thankful for those!!)
The last I knew, one of the old Fort Wilderness RR cars was being used as a decoration in the Typhoon Lagoon parking lot. In going along with the typhoon theming, there are two pontoons strapped to the bottom of the train car to create a make-shift boat.
It’s been years since I’ve been to TL, so I don’t know if it’s still there, but I did spot it in some aerial photos online that couldn’t have been more than a year or two old.
Oh, I’m so disappointed that this isn’t still there. My family is staying in a Cabin at the end of August, and it would be magnificent to be taking a train instead of a bus around the Campgrounds. But I see how Disney really didn’t think this one through. Too bad. Then again, I don’t want to see a kid get run over by a train. Or be woken up at night by a loud train whistle.
Hello Jack! Another fascinating blog! Like many other readers, I had no idea Fort Wilderness had a railroad at one time. I would have loved to have ridden on it. I’ve never been to Fort Wilderness but it truly looks like a sanctuary away from the hectic theme parks.
One question. I read the entry and all the comments, and didn’t see this asked. Do you know where the train cars are now? It would seem like a waste to have them restored and not use/disply them somewhere. Thanks!
All I know is that the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society restored some of the engines and cars. As to where they might be displayed, I have no idea. Sorry.
I can also remember going to River Country as a kid (I’m 34 now) and we thought it was the best thing ever! Water parks weren’t as plentiful back then as they are now. There is also a little island on Bay Lake that used to be called Discovery Island (if I’m not mistaken), and it was a bird sanctuary of some sort. We thought that was great too. It’s a shame because nowadays I’m not sure kids would appreciate something like that.
Great blog! I had no idea there was once a train at Ft. Wilderness, and I considered myself pretty knowledgable about that place. Thanks for the info, and the pics. We go to FW a lot, even just to hang out since we live only an hour away. The kids love it there and we relax there a bit before getting the ferry to MK. But a few months back we stayed in the cabins and there were some of the pics you posted framed on the walls.
Just got back from F.W.and noticed the railroad painting in the cabin. I searched on the internet when I got back and here I am. I love ghost train tracks and I wish I would have snooped around while I was there to see where theold tracks were laid. Great blog!
I would have loved to ride this train i think it was stupid for disney to get rid of this. it would have been a great adventure for familys to get to see the landscape of disney. Maybe we should try and see if disney could do something about bringing it back.
Great article Jack. Had the occasion a couple of times to stay at the campground during the years of the train. A few interesting things that you may not have known, in October 2007, there was a meeting of the Carolwood Historical Society, at which the Gold Spike Room at the Wilderness Lodge was dedicated to Roger Broggie. On that weekend, there was a walking tour of the old railroad track. As you mentioned, of course, the track is long gone, and many of the interesting facts that you stated, was talked about on the tour. We had the advantage of two former “cast members” who were engineers for the train and they related many interesting and unexpected experiences. It’s a miracle that all problems were minor. However, the one engineer related how they would need to stop at the water tower near the Meadows Trading Post for water almost every trip. The train coming down the hill crossing the bridge, and then crossing the road near the water tower was very difficult to stop acurately. It of course, was critical to stop the train so the hatch in the tender was directly below the water spout. The engineer related that for all of the “cast members” this was nearly an impossible feat, to stop directly under the spout. There was one engineer who was able to stop the train almost every time directly under the spout, by using only the Johnson Bar (throttle). Thus stopping the train without using the brake, and the thing that makes this so unique, is the engineer was a female and none of the male engineers could duplicate her feat. Also, I might mention there is a book being written about the Walt Disney Theme Park Railroads that will be published in the future. This will also include extensive histories of the monorails, etc. Mac
Our first visit to Walt Disney World was in the 80s so we missed the train at the Campground. “The Only Campground Located Inside Walt Disney World”.
I wished they would have figured out a way to keep it because that would be pretty cool.
Hi, Jack. Enjoyed this blog as our family loves Ft. Wilderness and has stayed here many times. While we are reminiscing about by-gone days at Ft. Wilderness, didn’t they also have trams that drove guests to locations at the resort? I seem to remember them from back in the mid-80s when I stayed with a friend at the campground.
Thanks — and looking forward to your answer!
I never personally saw the trams, but they did indeed transport people around the campground for several years. I suspect in the end, they weren’t as efficient as the buses and that lead to their demise.
Awesome Blog!! I’m a huge train buff too and feel the retirement of the train at Fort Wilderness is a great loss to the history of WDW and to Fort Wilderness in general. I have never stayed at Fort Wilderness myself but visit frequently to eat and enjoy the nostalgia of the area. I find the golf carts really subtract from the place. I wish they could find another solution. There tends to so many Golf cart at times the place looks like a parking lot or sales lot for them. It really destroys the “western feel”, nostalgia, and general enjoyment of the wilderness and the great outdoors. In addition from what I have heard from my friends that have stayed there transportation (or lack there of) is their biggest complaint.
I for one would love to see a train return to Fort Wilderness Campground! Thanks for the post!!
WOW, what memories this brought back, my first trip to Disney was spent here and we did do River Country and ride the trains…my kids laugh when I tell them River Country’s big attraction was basically a slide that emptied into a “regular” pool and some lazy rivers and tubes, etc. but back in the day-that was some “wild” stuff!
As a current employee of a railroad, I’m intrigued to hear about the operations of WDW’s various rail systems. I would love to hire on with WDW after retirement and work on their railroad!
Which brings up an interesting question:
Are the rail workers at WDW (or any other Disney park) union? If so, which union are they members of?
Disney World has many retired people working in a variety of jobs. This is a great place to work part time. But keep in mind, cast members work while others play. That means you sometimes work nights, weekends, and most certainly holidays. There are many rewards to be had here, but people need to enter this area of employment with their eyes wide open.
Disney World has a number of unions covering everything from bartenders to bus drivers. However, I have no idea what union, if any, covers the train staff.
River Country was not open in 1976. Please keep on giving us the wonderful stories.
Actually, River Country was officially opened in June 1976 by Susan Ford, daughter of President Ford.
Thanks for the memories. Our first visit to the Fort was in 1976. To the person who said that it would be upsetting to the folks who paid so much for their sites, I remind everyone that a premium site only cost $12 a night then.
Also Jack we had the trams running in the campground and we loved to see them as we sat at the open theater at twilight. You could see them lit up and not hear them and that was something magical.
We have been going every year to Disney since then and now have a place at an RV park 7 miles from World Drive. Please keep up the good work. By the way we just got off the phone with our son who is a VP for Disney in California.
Jack, To your reader asking about the “Vintage Posters”: Sid Cahuenga’s One-of-a-Kind shop in Hollywood Studios also has them. We got a three on our last trip. They look great framed!
another great article. question do you know where i can see a gallery of those vintage posters or where i can purchase a print?
The Art of Disney at Downtown Disney sells some of the attraction posters, but I don’t know how extensive their collection is. The poster you saw in my blog I found on the internet.
Even more convenient was the tram that used to run before the current bus system. The trams were similar to the trams used at the theme parks to transport gusts to the parking lots. It made traveling through Fort Wilderness a lot more fun!
I’m too young to have ever experienced this, but i’ve read about it and it sounds awesome!! I even found one of those RR spikes in a pile of pine needles. Sometimes i wish i had picked it up and took home a lil slice of Disney history, but then again…what would i do w/ the spike?
Was the bridget to the meadow ever part of the tracks?
Wow! Too bad you didn’t keep the spike. I would love to have it. Besides loving Disney, I’m a train buff.
As to your question about the bridge to the Meadows, I really don’t know. I suspect it wasn’t, but I can’t say for sure.
On my first visit to WDW in 1976, I recall having to ride a train to get to what was, at the time, the only water park (can’t even remember the name of it). Is this the same train? And whatever became of that water park? I DO remember that the pools were heated, but the slides emptied into the lake and that water was COLD!
The water park was called River Country — and yes, the train I wrote about took you there.
After Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon opened, there just wasn’t a need for this lesser water park. Also, River Country was connected to Bay Lake, which sometimes has dangerous bacteria in the water.
Great blog! I can only imagine what a beautiful addition to the resort the trains could have been, had the idea been implemented properly. Just goes to show that doing it right the first time costs less than cleaning up the mess of a job poorly done.
Wow thanks for that little piece of history. That is a neat story. Wish I could’ve seen it in action.
Great article Jack! As an engineer for the Norfolk Southern Railroad, I can explain the licensing aspect for steam ops. Years ago, there was no requirement for a license to operate; it was left in the hands of the owner/operator to train. After a few incidents on tourist haulers (steam engines tend to explode with low boiler water) the fed stepped in. Now all engineers are certified by the Federal Rail Administration with steam operation being a special designation above and beyond diesel ops. Looking forward to your next blog.
It’s not really that much of a shame if it would involve disturbing campers at 7 am who paid a lot for that camp site.
Also, I just don’t see how you would combine enough safety to keep a wandering child off the tracks yet still have pleasing aesthetics of the look of the whole thing.
At least a bus can pretty much stop.
Overall, though, I think that a more interesting system than a typical city bus should be employed to do the basic job of shuttling people around the campground.
A horse drawn trolley or large wagon would be good (and somewhat quiet). Maybe tractor driven instead of horse drawn. The tractor could be propane powered with good mufflers.
Electric open air vehicles?
I never heard of this before, either. Its too bad they didn’t do it right the first time. They could have restricted the hours of operation so the early morning whistle wouldn’t have disturbed the campers.
It sounds like a fun way to get around the campsite, and the pictures make it look more like Frontierland than Frontierland does!
Keep up the GREAT work, Jack.
Wow, very interesting read. I had never heard of this attraction before. I wish they had put forth the money to fix it instead of just taking it out, or had the foresight not to cut corners to begin with.
Hi Jack! I can’t say enough about your blog…it is simply the BEST! I have a question related to your blog on the Fort Wildness Railroad. In it, you mentioned that the crew of the Fort Wilderness Railroad weren’t railroad professionals. That made me wonder…what are the requirments to be an engineer on the Magic Kingdom railroad?
Thanks for all of the terrific information that you share. Looking forward to your next post….js
I took the Magic Kingdom Steam Train tour a number of years ago. It was very interesting and I would recommend it to others. I don’t remember the details, but we were told that all of the engineers at the Magic Kingdom are licensed to operate a steam locomotive. This required special training and some sort of verification process. A cast member could never operate one of these locomotives without first completing the necessary state licensing requirements.
Very interesting! I had never actually heard of this.
Thanks alot Jack,
Another GREAT blog about my Favorite Resort.
I actually did not know there was an old Railroad that ran through Fort Wilderness. I agree it would be rather nice if it was still in operation today. Especially with children!!!!!
Another great Blog Jack! Mapo…the company named after Mary Poppins right? Perhaps you could blog about how that came about!
MAPO is short for Mary Poppins. This branch of the company was created with the profits generated from the movie.