Anyone whose ever been to Disneyland Park knows that trains are a major part of the Disney experience. Steam engines have circled Disneyland since 1955 and nearly all of Disney’s other so-called “castle parks” around the world. However, the locomotive connection goes back way further than Disneyland’s opening day. In fact, one could argue that Walt Disney’s backyard model train the Lilly Belle played a major role in birthing the whole Disney theme park concept.
To understand the influence of the Lilly Belle, one must first understand the passion Walt Disney had for trains. Said passion was sparked early in Walt’s life, when he idolized his father’s cousin, who drove main-line trains on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. When Walt reached his teenage years, he earned a job as news butcher on the Missouri Pacific Railway selling newspapers, candy, cigars, and other products on trains.
Walt maintained an interest in railways throughout adulthood, and began toying with the idea of building his own model railroad in the late 1940s as a way to replace playing polo, a favorite hobby he’d been forced to give up due to injury. Around this same time, Walt bonded with Disney animator and future Imagineer Ward Kimball, who had built a three foot narrow-gauge railroad of his own known as the Grizzly Flats Railroad.
Inspired by Kimball’s setup, Disney purchased five acres of land in Holmby Hills, California. He had a huge family home constructed on a two acre bluff on the land, while at same time planning a large backyard railroad on a piece of land behind the house, which Disney dubbed Yensid (read it backward) Valley. After making a series of design compromises with his wife Lillian – namely the construction of a tunnel so that Walt’s railroad wouldn’t disturb an area where she planned to plant a flower bed – Walt’s final design of the Carolwood Pacific Railroad (as he’d dubbed it) consisted of 2,615 feet of 7 1/4-inch gauge track with eleven switches, gradients, overpasses, a trestle, and even an elevated dirt berm.
While the elaborate track was being constructed in Disney’s yard, construction of the trains that would run on the track occurred at the machine shop on the Disney Studio Lot. There Walt had a shop team led by Roger Broggie, another future Imagineer, construct the Lilly Belle (named after Lillian) based on blueprints for the Central Pacific No. 173, a 4-4-0 steam locomotive, which had been built by the Central Pacific Railroad in 1872.
The Lilly Belle featured numerous elements personally designed and worked on by Walt including a smokestack, headlamp, and wooden cab. The Lilly Belle was able to pull boxcars, two stock cars, a flatcar, and a caboose made of wood from the studio’s prop shop, all of which allowed the train to carry approximately 12 people.
After some test runs at the studio, the Lilly Belle and its train cars were moved to Disney’s home in early 1950, and ran on the newly constructed Carolwood Pacific Railroad route for the first time on May 7, 1950. Walt’s railroad was featured in several magazine articles, which made it a popular stop for celebrities, neighbors, and studio friends of the Disney family. For three years, the railway was a staple of parties at the Disney homestead. That all changed in 1953.
In early 1953, a near-tragedy led to the end of Walt Disney’s backyard railway. Early that year, a guest of Disney’s whom Walt had allowed to drive the train took a turn too fast and derailed the train, damaging it. The derailed train expelled a jet of hot steam, which burned a five-year-old girl who got caught in its path. The incident led to Walt closing down the railroad for good and putting the Lilly Belle into storage at the studio’s machine shop.
It should be noted that the derailment may have just served as a pretext to shut down the backyard railway, as by this point Walt was heavily involved in the design of Mickey Mouse Park, which would eventually evolve into Disneyland. A steam locomotive circling the park was part of the plans from the very beginning, and it seems likely that getting a full-scale locomotive to “play” with in his own kingdom was more appealing than a backyard model. The Disneyland Railroad, which was heavily influenced by the Carolwood Pacific Railroad and the Lilly Belle, opened along with the park on July 17, 1955.
The Lilly Belle’s legacy currently lives on in two massive ways. Since 2009, the original Lilly Belle and its freight cars have been a centerpiece display at the Walt Disney Family Museum, which is located on the Presidio in San Francisco, California. In addition, the Carolwood Pacific Railroad’s control barn, trestle, and 1,500 feet of track are located at the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum in Griffith Park.
The Lilly Belle’s legacy also lives on in Disneyland proper, appropriately enough, as part of the Disneyland Railroad. In 1974, the American attraction’s Grand Canyon Observation Coach was converted to a traditional ornate Victorian Era parlor car and renamed the Lilly Belle. The revamped car included varnished mahogany paneling, velour curtains and seats, a floral-patterned wool rug, and Disney family pictures, all of which was personally overseen by Lillian Disney herself.
Since its introduction, the Lilly Belle has been said to ferry VIPs – the first of which was Japanese Emperor Hirohito in 1975 –, Club 33 members, and those who take the park’s up-charge Grand Circle Tour. Regular Disneyland guests aren’t completely to of luck, however, as early morning guests can sometimes score a ride on the Lilly Belle… if it’s running that day.
Have you ever ridden the Lilly Belle at Disneyland, or maybe seen the original on Display at the Walt Disney Family Museum? Let us know in the comments below.