Disneyland (CA)

Disneyland Railroad Tender Car

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Ever wonder what it would be like to run a live steam locomotive like the ones that power the Disneyland Railroad? A relatively unknown Disney perk (subject to change at anytime) can get you very close to that experience when you see Engine 1 or Engine 2 running. If the conditions are right, you and one guest might be able to score a ride on the tender car. This special seat puts you right there in the cab with the folks running the train.

A confession. I am a train freak. Love ’em. You can say I have “high iron” in my blood. If you don’t own Steve DeGaetano’s Welcome aboard the Disneyland Railroad and Michael Broggie’s Walt Disney’s Railroad Story then what are you waiting for? You said you were a Disney fan.

The C.K. Holliday (Engine 1) and the E.P. Ripley (Engine 2) are the two original steam locomotives built specifically for Disneyland. For many years, Disneyland didn’t even own the trains. Instead, they were owned and operated by a separate company owned by Walt Disney called Reltaw (Retlaw was Walter spelled backwards). One benefit for Walt by this arrangement, according to Michael Broggie, was his ability to “put on his bib overalls and kerchief, and go wait for the next train. When the train arrived, [Walt] would climb into the cab and tell the engineer that he was on break.” Since everybody at Retlaw was on Walt’s own payroll they did as the boss told them.

The steam locomotives are one of the defining features of the Magic Kingdom parks. I would argue that Disneyland wouldn’t exist if it were not for these two trains. Walt owned a 1/8-scale live steam locomotive called the Lilly Belle and ran it in his backyard in Holmby Hills. According to Broggie, Walt learned a couple of lessons with his backyard railroad, the Carolwood Pacific. First, there is just something about steam trains that fascinates children and adults.

Second, Walt learned how an earthen berm around his property could screen visual intrusions. A berm is a narrow ledge or shelf generally made of dirt with the top or bottom of a slope planted with trees and plants to control a view. Along the top edge is a dense layer of plant materials. As Walt told his daughter Diane, “I built that bank up on the canyon so when I was down there playing with my trains, my neighbors wouldn’t be annoyed.” An earthen berm is another defining feature of the Magic Kingdom parks. A berm is what prevents the real world from intruding into Disneyland.

Engine 1, the C.K. Holliday (4-4-0 America – 5/8ths scale) is somewhat based on the Lilly Belle, Walt’s backyard 1/8th scale locomotive. That locomotive is based on a famous Central Pacific Steam Locomotive that you can see in Sacramento, California. Since this would be a rural train, it was fueled by wood. The wide smokestack was able to catch embers. Engine 2, the E.P. Ripley is a replica of a coal-burning 4-4-0 American with its narrow smokestack. Here is some guilt free news. Today all of the Disneyland trains are run on bio-diesel (including French-fry oil).

Both locomotives are named after former Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad presidents. Originally, the C.K. Holliday only stopped at the Frontierland station and the rolling stock was cattle cars. The E.P. Ripley only stopped at the Main Street Station.

For me, my favorite may have to be E.P. Ripley because this was the locomotive that Walt guided into the Main Street station on the opening day broadcast. The expression on his face reveals a man having the time of his life.

The tender car holds the fuel and water for the locomotive and is usually not an attractive place to be. But the C.K. Holliday and the E.P. Ripley were purpose built as pleasure trains and there is a place for guests. The other three Disneyland Baldwin locomotives were built for business and do not have such a perk.

The little bench seat fits two guests. You do not get to hear the spiel, but who cares. Due to the diminutive scale of the locomotives, you feel like you are inside the cab. This is one of my favorite things to do and I save it for very special occasions.

How do you get to ride the tender car? Keep in mind, Disneyland can turn the program on and off and has done so. The best way is to very politely ask the Cast Member working the Main Street station and have a lot of patience. You may have to wait for a long period of time. There are four reasons they will not allow you ride:

  1. They need to refill the water tank to feed the boiler.
  2. They need to blow down the boiler. This is a process whereby they remove the sediments that build up in the boiler. You can watch this process happen frequently at the New Orleans Square station. Sometimes they will do this at the Tomorrowland station as well.
  3. They are changing crews.
  4. The Cast Member just doesn’t want to deal with it at that time.

If you get the green light, it may still take a few passes. This gives you a good chance to soak up the exhibits in the train station. Once your train has arrived, you will bypass the regular line and push pass the little gate leading to the locomotive. Watch your head, as the roof is very low. Step up on the metal plates and take a seat. They have one of those little plastic seatbelts you must wear.

This perk is for a round trip only. You cannot exit early. Soon you will note how cozy the space is and how close you are to the Engineer, Fireman, and the boiler. You are just behind the locomotive and the floor plates of the tender and locomotive move independently beneath your feet. It can get very hot in here. You are right up against the firebox. The fireman can teach you about the water meter and proper water levels. You get a real sense of the power of steam.

It is a very different experience because you are sitting with no cover over your head. The Grand Canyon and Primeval World dioramas take on a whole new meaning as you feel the shed surrounding you.

The Cast Members operating the train are some of the friendliest in the park. They are always glad to answer questions and help you to understand how this machine lives and breathes. The amount of tweaking done by the fireman is always a surprise. You will learn that a steam engine is a very complex machine each position requires a lot of training. I understand a minimum of 200 hours just to be fireman.

The crews have told me that locomotives are very finicky and have personalities. It is fun to hear the debate between crewmembers as to each engines positive and negative traits.

If you get the chance to take a ride on the tender car you will be glad you did. I know what job I want when I retire….

For more from Sam, buy his book Walt and the Promise of Progress City.

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Sam Gennawey

Sam Gennaway is an Urban Planner who runs the fantastic SamLand’s Disney Adventures blog. Sam visits Disneyland on a frequent basis and toured with the Unofficial Guide team on our recent Disneyland Trip.

6 thoughts on “Disneyland Railroad Tender Car

  • Thanks Erin. The trains are much larger at WDW so not tender car rides there. However, I once saw a child appointed “Junior Conductor” and they got to stand on the platform at the rear (I did that…pretty cool) and made some of the announcements like “All aboard!”

    Good luck.

  • My 5yo son is a train fanatic. We are headed to WDW in April of this year. Are there any special seats on the trains at WDW? Loved your article and shared it with my son. Thanks!

    • Erin – when your son turns 10, you can take him on the “Magic Behind the Steam Trains” tour at the Magic Kingdom. It’s a great behind-the-scenes look at the Florida railroad operations. We did it a couple years ago and it was a big hit. I would do it again.

      • Thanks! I didn’t know about this tour. My son would love it. Looks like we’ll have to plan another trip for 2017 when he’s 10 🙂

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