A new special exhibit is opening on November 13th at the Walt Disney Family Museum called "All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt's Trains." This exhibit is in the Diane Disney Miller Exhibition Hall, a separate building behind the museum. A trail of trains on the ground guide your way there.
At the press event on November 11th, Kristin Komoroske, Executive Director of the museum, introduced guest curator Michael Campbell to talk about the exhibit. Many private collectors and divisions of the Walt Disney Company loaned items to the exhibit. Michael Campbell also had a touching moment while talking about Diane Disney Miller.
In Michael's introduction, he mentioned that the story of this exhibit was already written by Walt in an article from Railroad Magazine called "I Have Always Loved Trains." A copy of this issue from October 1965 is on display at the beginning of the exhibit and a tablet is set up with scans of the article if you would like to read it. Speaking of "Story," this exhibit is interactive with the Story app and Michael Campbell has recorded videos to accompany many of the gallery's displays. QR codes can be found on the wall next to select pieces.
The exhibit naturally starts with Walt's childhood in Marceline, MO, where he was enchanted by the trains that were constantly passing through, and his short time working on trains selling newspapers and candy. A small section is devoted to Walt's train ride as an adult where, upon finding out that Oswald had been stolen by Universal, the idea for Mickey Mouse was famously conceived. As Walt's animation studio became successful, he continually found a way to keep trains in his films. It contains everything from concept art and a maquette of Casey Jr. to Disney saving the Lionel toy company by licensing Disney character train toys during the great depression.
The next room was my favorite, it features Walt discovering that some of his employees were train enthusiasts like him. Both Ollie Johnston and Ward Kimball had backyard trains, which inspired Walt to build his own. Ollie Johnston's backyard train was the Marie E. and his train station was called Flintridge Depot. The original sign and pieces from his train are on display. Ward Kimball's backyard train was called the Grizzly Flats Railroad, which used set pieces from So Dear to My Heart along the tracks of Ward's full-sized backyard train. John Lasseter is the proud owner of some of these pieces and the Grizzly Flats sign is on display. It is hung above a model commissioned for this exhibit by the Vargas Brothers. While speaking to Kristin, she mentioned that they created the model pro-bono, volunteering their time to make it. Michael added that this model is inspired by one that was in Walt's office, but is more of a dream version. It's not an attempt to recreate it, but he believes Walt would have preferred this version. The model is interactive, with buttons and switches that can activate animation and change the time of day. I could have spent an hour examining every detail. (For more information on the Vargas Brothers, you can visit their website)
There was one piece in this room that really surprised me. It's a sign from a locomotive at Walt Disney World named after Ward Kimball. I worked on Main Street, U.S.A. once upon a time and this was not a locomotive in the fleet. I spoke to Michael about it and it's a pretty interesting story. Disneyland bought a 5th train, a Davenport, so they could use an extra train to swap others out for maintenance. It was too heavy for their trestles, so they sent it to Walt Disney World, who didn't really need another train. They dedicated it to Ward Kimball, but didn't use it. It was on display in Epcot at the American Adventure Pavilion for a while before the train was traded to Cedar Point for a smaller locomotive that went to Disneyland and became their Ward Kimball train for the 50th anniversary. Before the trade, the name plates were removed. Michael found them in the office of George Britton in Florida years later and was gifted them to pass on to Ward. Kimball was surprised by the gift and gave Michael one to keep, signing it with a silly inside joke. That signed plate is on display in this exhibit.
The next room is solely devoted to the Carolwood Pacific. It features one of the cars from Walt's train (more of it can be found inside the museum) and has a really cool cross-section of track framed on the wall.
A corridor explains that as Walt was designing a theme park, his first idea was that a train would surround it. Several early concept maps are on display before venturing into some of Disneyland's train history. A train moves along an elevated track and items in this section include Walt's engineer overalls and jacket, a side of the Ernest S. Marsh train, and a door from an original monorail.
Heading upstairs starts your journey through the trains of Walt Disney World. I was surprised to learn that the Magic Kingdom's train station was originally designed for Disneyland. The original model from 1954 is on display in this section, as well as concept art for the WDW trains and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Tokyo Disneyland's railroad and Disneyland Paris are represented here as well. There's also concept art for the Wildlife Express train at Disney's Animal Kingdom. The date on the art is 1993 and I was surprised to see that the park was in development that long before it opened. There is also a corner devoted to the fondly remembered Fort Wilderness Railroad.
There's a section upstairs that will thrill every Disney Imagineering fan. It's devoted to the train ideas that never got off the ground. Included is a PeopleMover train designed for Westcot, a concept for a series of inns on the Eastern seaboard called Hyperion that would have been owned and operated by Disney and connected by train, and a locomotive that would have transported guests around World Showcase called the Highland Flyer.
Just around the corner is another working model railroad, this one inspired by the Carolwood Pacific Historical Society. The train goes around Walt's barn before entering a cave, with a smaller train circling the top. There are some really great details in this animated model, but my favorite part was the mouse ears on all of the lamp posts.
The exhibit ends with a look at how the Walt Disney Company is still using trains in recent films like Bolt and Big Hero 6 and how this tradition continues going forward with concept art from Inside Out. The last thing you see as you exit the exhibit is Walt in his conductor overalls with Lillian at his side.
"All Aboard: A Celebration of Walt's Trains" is a wonderful exhibit that pays tribute to Walt and the friends who shared his passion for trains. It showcases how the company has embraced Walt's hobby and continues to celebrate it to this very day. The exhibit has a little something for everyone. I was surprised at how kid friendly it is, with lots of moving parts and interactive elements. I was concerned that it would focus too much on trains and not enough on the aspects of Disney that excite me, but I was surprised to see enough relevant artwork from animated films and the parks to keep me interested throughout. But the real gems of the exhibit are definitely the unique items from Walt, Ward and Ollie's personal backyard trains and the newly commissioned models on display. This exhibit is scheduled to run through February 9th and I highly recommend adding it on to your next visit to San Francisco (not to be confused with San Fransokyo, which does not have a Walt Disney Family Museum).