The history of the Walt Disney World Railroad really begins with Walt Disney's love of trains. Even before he built Disneyland, Walt had a miniature train in his backyard called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad . In fact, Walt was so enthralled with trains that anytime he told guests about Disneyland, he would always conclude "and it should be surrounded by a train" . Sure enough, when Disneyland opened in 1955, the park was surrounded by the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Walt Disney himself was in charge of building the railroad, and he even financed the construction himself . The Disneyland Railroad opened with Disneyland in 1955 and has been running ever since .
When Disney began designing Walt Disney World in Florida, they once again wanted to have a train surrounding the park. In 1969, Disney Imagineer scouts Roger Broggie and Earl Vilmer found and purchased five locomotives from the Ferrocarriles Unidos de Yucatan (United Railways of Yucatan) on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula . While one of the five trains was deemed unrepairable, the other four were sent by railway to Tampa Bay. Here, Disney Imagineer and train expert, Bob Harper oversaw their restoration. New boilers were built for the locomotives by the Dixon Boiler Works in Los Angeles, California. In order to make the trains look older, they were fitted with diamond smoke stacks and boiler jackets. The tenders also needed to be completely rebuilt and new fiberglass cabs were manufactured and installed. The trains were then painted with bright colors and brass, before being shipped to Walt Disney World . The Walt Disney World Railroad opened with the rest of the park on October 1, 1971 .
When the Walt Disney World Railroad opened, it originally consisted of three trains. A few months after the opening, a forth train joined the fleet. For all of 1971, the Railroad provided guests with a round-trip tour of the Magic Kingdom. At that time however, only the Main Street USA station was open and it wasn't until 1972 that a second station (in Frontierland) opened . The second station meant that guests could now board the railroad at either end of the park. The Frontierland station remained operational until 1990, when it was closed and demolished in order to make room for Splash Mountain. The station re-opened in a new location in 1991, and the railroad now runs through Splash Mountain (allowing guests to see the "Zip-A-Dee Lady" Scene) . In 1988, another station was built in Mickey's Birthdayland (later Mickey's Starland) . Originally known as the Duckburg Station, the station was renamed the Toontown Fair station in 1996  before closing in 2011 (when Mickey’s Toontown was replaced by the Fantasyland expansion) . While Fantasyland was still under construction, the train still stopped at the location of the station, to top off the tender with water and to keep the railroad's operating schedule. While the train was stopped in Fantasyland, a new narration played, telling guest that they are stopping at a "Watering Outpost" . The narration also gave guests a preview of what was coming to Fantasyland as part of the expansion. On March 12, 2012 the Fantasyland Station (also known as the Carolwood Station) opened to guests .
On December 13, 2018, the Walt Disney World Railroad closed due to the construction of Tomorrowland's upcoming Tron attraction . At this time, the Lilly Belle was stationed at the Main Street USA station, with cast members on hand to answer any guest questions about the locomotive.
The Walt Disney World Railroad begins with guests boarding the train from one of the three railroad stations. If guests board on Main Street, the narrator will welcome them to the Walt Disney World Railroad and tell them that the train will be stopping at Frontierland and Fantasyland. The narrator then gives riders a little history about the railroad saying:
As the train continues towards Adventureland, the narrator tells guests that they are traveling from the charm of Main Street USA to the jungles of Africa, Asia and South America. He then says they are headed into the heart of Adventureland, where things can get pretty wild. He also mentions attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise. As the locomotive moves from Adventureland to Frontierland, the narrator tells guests that they've reached the wild west of the Magic Kingdom, saying:
The narrator also mentions Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain, before the train enters a cave, alongside the former. Here, through a window on their right, guests can look into Splash Mountain and see the “Zip-A-Dee Lady” scene. The train then pulls into the Frontierland station where guests can unload and load. As the train moves out of the station, it passes Big Thunder Mountain, and the boomtown of Tumbleweed. It then travels over a small bridge, where the narrator informs guests that a trip around the park used to take a week! On the left, guests can see a small outpost, as the narrator informs them that Indians were the first people on the land. The train then rolls past an Indian village and some wildlife.
As the train pulls out of Fantasyland and into Tomorrowland, the narrator says that some people think traveling by train is a little too old fashioned. As the train rolls past the Tomorrowland Speedway, he says that any guest can travel the futuristic highway, or choose another mode of transportation such as the PeopleMover, Space Mountain or Astro Orbiter. On their right, guests can see into Tomorrowland. As the train continues forward, the narrator informs riders that Main Street was inspired by the small towns of Walt's childhood. He also says that stepping onto Main Street is like stepping back in time. At this point that train reaches the Main Street Station, and the narration starts all over again.
There are four trains in operation on the Walt Disney World Railroad. The four locomotives for the trains were built between 1916 and 1928 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. The trains consist of a steam locomotive, tender, and five passenger cars. Each train has a capacity of approximately 365 passengers and 2 wheelchairs. The tender has a capacity for 1,837 gallons of water and 664 gallons of fuel oil. The tender needs to be topped off with water every three or four trips around the park. The water tower used to top of the tenders is located at the Carolwood Station in Fantasyland.
Each train has a three man crew who are in charge of their daily operation. The crew consists of an engineer, a fireman, and a conductor. The engineer is in charge of the operation of the train. The fireman is in charge of the operation of the boiler, and the conductor is in charge of the management of the train and its passengers .
Early in the morning before park opening, the first train crew arrives at the roadhouse and preps the locomotive for the day. First, safety and readiness checks are performed by the engineer and conductor. Since the train needs steam pressure to operate, a compressed air line must be tapped into the atomizer line when the fire is first lit. It must stay in the atomizer until enough steam has been raised to re-light the atomizer's fire. After this is done, the conductor will inspect that track and the arrangement of the switches outside the roadhouse, to make sure it is safe to leave. After the boiler is ready, the engineer will give two short whistles to signal they are ready to go. After the conductor responds with two short buzzes, the train is put into motion. As each individual car leaves the roadhouse, the maintenance crew inspects the running gear located beneath the train.
As the train heads out of the roadhouse and towards the main track, the engineers test the safety features on the train. This consists of two tests, intentionally popping the safety valves and purposely running the train past a red block light. If the features are working properly, the safety valves will release excess steam, and the train brakes will automatically turn on after running through the red block. These tests are performed daily, to meet safety standards.
The Walt Disney World Railroad operates daily, beginning at 9 am. It takes approximately 20 minutes for the train to make a round trip, meaning that guests can expect a train to arrive at each individual station every 7 minutes. There are usually two trains in operation on any given day, although sometimes three are in operation if the park is busy. Disney's goal is to have the first train arrive at the Main Street Station on the hour, and at every subsequent 20 minute interval (:20 and :40). The second and third trains then try to keep up with the first train, as much as possible. If one of the trains falls behind, they must either try to catch up or drop behind a lap, in order to stay on schedule. It is important for the trains to be on schedule in order for the park closing to run smoothly.
Along the Walt Disney World Railroad, there are six block signals which let the train conductors know where the other trains are. The block signals on the railroad resemble a traffic light, in that they have three lights (red, yellow, and green). Three of the block signals are located near the stations, while the other three are spread around the track. The lights typically change from Green to Yellow/Green to Red to Yellow/Red. After the lights have followed this pattern, they reverse in the opposite direction, Yellow/Red to Red to Yellow/Green to Green. Each of the lights have their own specific meaning:
Green: The next 2 blocks are completely clear. It is safe to proceed.
Yellow and Green: The next block is clear, however, the block beyond is occupied. It is safe to proceed, but be prepared to stop at the next block.
Red: The next block is occupied and it is not safe to proceed past this point.
Yellow and Red: The next 2 blocks are both occupied; it is not safe to proceed past this point.
On the Walt Disney World Railroad, the engineers use distinct whistle patterns to communicate while the conductor. The conductor then responds with a buzzer using the same pattern. The buzzer goes off inside the cab of the locomotive. At the stations, the engineers will ask to depart by giving two short whistles. The conductor must respond and give the ok, because they have the final say as to whether or not the train moves. The whistle pattern used on the Walt Disney Railroad is typically:
One Short – Attention
Two Short – Forward Movement
Three Short – Reverse Movement
One Long, One Short – Approaching a Station
One Long, Two Short – Crew spotted along track (also used as a general greeting)
Two Long, One Short, One Long – Public Crossing ahead
Two Long, One Short – Meeting Point (junction)
One Long – Stop Immediately / Emergency stop.
Four Long – Train in distress.
Two Short, One Long, One Short – Engineer is acknowledging the maintenance crew
On the train’s last trip around the park, the conductor announces at each station that the final train is departing. All guests can ride the train until it reaches the Main Street station for the final time. After guests have unloaded, the conductor walks the length of the train to make sure that all guests are off, and that any lost items are brought to the lost and found. The train then goes to the Fantasyland Station where the conductor steps off and throws the switch to allow the train back into the roadhouse. The engineer relies on the conductor to back the train into the roadhouse, from the rear platform of the last coach. The fireman then throws the Fantasyland switch back to the main line, so that trains in operation can continue running. When the final train has been returned to the roadhouse, the switch is left where it is. When the train reaches the switch, and the track crossing, the conductor will signal the engineer, letting him know the train has successfully cleared. This continues until all the trains are parked completely in the roadhouse.