Fort Wilderness Campground has always offered its guests unique Disney experiences, including camping out in their own tent or camper, canoeing or bicycling through the natural wooded areas, or attending a campfire and sing-along. But from 1973 to 1977, Fort Wilderness also offered its guests a unique mode of transportation - the Fort Wilderness Railroad.
Guests staying at the campground could use the Railroad to get from place to place, which was necessary because this campground was much larger than most other campgrounds across the country. Guests rode in passenger coaches pulled by authentic steam engines. The sight of these trains puffing through the campground and the chance to ride them no doubt added to the sense of being far from the civilized, modern-day world, providing guests with an escape from their everyday lives. Just imagine how relaxing a steam train ride through the Florida wilderness would be, away from the problems of the civilized world, even away from all the activity of the nearby theme park.
Walt Disney knew that most everyone has at least some fascination of trains, and that is one of the reasons he prominently featured a railroad in his design of Disneyland. The Imagineers also realized this fact, and thought that a railroad would be a unique feature of the new campground. The railroad was featured prominently on Fort Wilderness advertising materials, further increasing guests' interest while giving them the idea that it was not your typical campground.
The steam engines used to pull the trains were somewhat different from their distant cousins on the Walt Disney World Railroad. The first obvious difference was their size. These 2-4-2T engines were built to 4/5th scale, making them quite a bit smaller than the full size engines at the Magic Kingdom. The gauge, or distance between the rails on the track, was 30", compared with 36" in the Magic Kingdom. These engines also had a different design. Known as "saddle tankers," the water for the engine was stored in a tank that wrapped around the boiler. The Magic Kingdom trains carried water and fuel in the tender pulled behind the engine. Fuel for the Fort Wilderness engines was carried in a small tank behind the cab. Because of their scaled-down size and the lack of a full tender, these engines did not have the same capacity for fuel and water as the Walt Disney World Railroad engines.
The engines had green water tanks and red cabs and wheels. The words Fort Wilderness Railroad appeared on each side of the water tank, along with decorative scrollwork. The four engines were not given individual names, so instead only a number appeared on each side of the cab. The engines also featured brightly polished brass which gleamed in the Florida sun. These engines of the Fort Wilderness Railroad were fashioned with the same care and attention to detail as the engines of the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Railroads.
The coaches pulled by the engines were also different from those in the Magic Kingdom. Each car was green in color and was entered from the front or the back. Seats on each side of the car were separated by a center aisle. The coaches all had large windows so that guests could see the different areas of the campground as they rode past.
Much like the C.K. Holliday and E.P. Ripley, the first two engines of the Disneyland Railroad, the Fort Wilderness Railroad trains were created by Walt Disney Productions. The engines and coaches were designed by WED Enterprises, and construction was by Mapo; these were the two divisions of Disney that designed and built all of the theme park attractions. Also like the two Disneyland Railroad engines, the desgins were based on existing locomotives, and these engines looked almost exactly like those on which they were modeled.
But the Fort Wilderness Railroad did not have a very long life. In Michael Broggie's book Walt Disney's Railroad Story, several reasons are given for the Railroad's demise. Among those reasons are frequent derailments caused by poor track conditions, stranded engines caused by low water and fuel capacity, and poor training of the cast members who served as engineers. Following the closure of the Railroad, the trains were put in storage for many years.
A few of the passenger cars have turned up over the years around Walt Disney World. Some were used as the original ticket booths at Pleasure Island, before new, larger booths were built to resemble passenger cars. Another can be seen in the Typhoon Lagoon parking lot strapped to pontoons, supposedly used by the inhabitants of the area when the typhoon struck, creating the lagoon.
For transportation around the campground, the trains were replaced by buses and trams; the trams were later eliminated, leaving only buses to help guests get from place to place. These days back at Fort Wilderness, the lingering reminders of the Fort Wilderness Railroad are some tracks and trestle bridges which have not been removed. Guests often inquire about those tracks and trestles, and some guests can remember when the trains were there, chugging through the campground.
Please see the excellent book Walt Disney's Railroad Story for more information on the Fort Wilderness Railroad. Thanks to Michael Campbell for his help. All pictures from the collection of Michael Campbell.
- Story by Steve Burns
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