The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains: Tour Report

by 14 Comments

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Pinterest

Our guide introduces himself.

On a recent Walt Disney World visit, I was out the door of my resort at 7:00 a.m., not for a meal with Mickey or for an especially ambitious run at rope drop, but rather for the bright-and-early Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour at the Magic Kingdom. I’ve been making admirable progress on my quest to eventually do everything at Walt Disney World, but this particular tour had been repeatedly pushed to the bottom of my to-do list for years. Two factors finally made it rise to the forefront: first, I was traveling solo and thus had no cranky kids or hubby to complain about the potentially “boring” topic, and second, I was staying at the Bay Lake Tower, which made getting to the tour itself particularly convenient.

First some housekeeping basics and then I’ll give my impressions of the tour.

    • What the tour all about? The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains Tour gives in depth information exclusively about the steam trains at Walt Disney World, their history, operations, and maintenance, as well as Walt Disney’s personal experiences with and interest in train travel.
    • Who can take the tour? The tour is open to guests ages ten and up. This makes it one of the few backstage experiences that allow children. The official Disney website mentions that children must show photo ID proof of age. The tour I took included a 12 year old boy. He was not asked to show any proof of age. Nor were my 13 year old twins asked to show proof of age when we took the Dolphins in Depth tour a few months ago. In my experience, cast members are much more stringent about asking for official age identification when the required event age is 16 or older. In other words, don’t worry overly much about not having photo ID for a child who is not yet of driver’s license age.

Telling us stories under the Main Street Station.

    • How much does this cost? The current price is $49.00 per person. I am a Disney Vacation Club member and thus asked for and received a 15% discount. There may also be tour discounts for annual pass holders, Disney Visa card holders, AAA members, etc. It never hurts to ask. Park admission is required, but not included in the price of the tour. To get into the park for the tour, you will need to use a regular park admission ticket.
    • What time is the tour? The tour starts promptly at 7:30 a.m. Guests are asked to arrive 15 minutes early. I mentioned above that I chose to take this tour when I was staying at the Bay Lake Tower (adjacent to the Contemporary resort). Bay Lake is just a 5-10 minute walk away from the Magic Kingdom, thus I would not need to rely on the sometimes sketchy early morning Disney transportation system to get there on time. As a courtesy, Disney allows guests arriving by car to park at the Contemporary rather than at the Transportation and Ticket Center. Have your tour confirmation number in hand if you plan to do this. However, if you’re planning to stay at the Magic Kingdom after the tour, you’re probably better off arriving extra early and just parking at the TTC. It’s considered poor form to leave your car at a resort other than your own for more than the 3-4 hours maximum required for a meal/tour/shopping.

At the roundhouse, Anibal shows us the train.

    • Where do you meet? The meeting point is just outside the gates to the Magic Kingdom. There was no specific signage pointing me to the group. I had to ask a cast member.
    • How do you make reservations? Reservations must be made over the phone. Online booking is not currently available. Call 407-WDW-TOUR (407-939-8687).
    • How many people will be on the tour? The tour limit is 20 guests. The day I experienced it, there were 19 in the group.
    • How long does the tour last? It’s about three hours long. This includes one 15-minute break about 2/3 of the way through the tour.
    • Are there snacks? The mid-tour bathroom break takes place at the Main Street Chamber of Commerce building. Guests are offered complimentary water bottles and coffee. If you’re starving, there’s a popcorn cart about 10 paces away, but you’ll have to pay for it on your own.

The manufacturer's seal.

  • Is photography allowed during the tour? I’ve been on at least half a dozen backstage tours at Walt Disney World. On each of these other tours, cast members and guides were incredibly strict about policing a no-backstage-photos policy. But while both the WDW website and the reservationist on the phone were very clear that no photos could be taken during the behind-the-scenes portion of the tour, I found that this was not the case in practice with the Steam Trains tour. We were asked to put away cameras and phones for about five minutes while we passed a secure backstage cast member park entrance. Otherwise, we were free to take as many pictures as we wanted of the train and associated backstage areas. This was a very pleasant surprise.
  • What happens if it rains? The show must go on. At least an hour of the tour is fully outdoors. Plan to dress appropriately.

Panoramic view of the backstage roundhouse.

 

Now that all the basics are out of the way, here’s what happened on the actual tour.

We were greeted right on time, checked off the reservation list, and provided with a special Magic Behind Our Steam Trains name tag. After being given a rest room opportunity and cautioned that the next bathroom stop would be two hours away, we entered the Magic Kingdom using our park passes.

Up close and personal with the train mechanics.

I should say at this point that I am not a train person. I’m happy to ride trains to get from point A to point B, but I’m not particularly into trains as a hobby or form of study. I am, however, a Disney person – a very well informed Disney geek.

Our guide, Anibal, introduced himself and gave a bit of personal history. He is a Walt Disney World VIP tour guide and Adventures by Disney guide in training. He was extremely animated and personable, and well taught in train basics (at least he gave that impression), but he is not a born and bred train aficionado. My impression was that if you had a deep mechanical background and asked a very specific operational question about the trains, he would not have been able to answer it.

This was the only WDW tour I’ve been on where the guests were not asked at the beginning to introduce themselves and give a basic bio. However, in chatting a bit with my tour mates, my guess is that one third were Disney geeks like me, one third were train geeks, and one third were just along for the ride to keep someone else company.

Inside the engine cab.

Our first stop on the tour was the covered area under the Main Street train station. The guide gave us a brief description of the four trains servicing Walt Disney World, their unique characteristics, and how they were acquired. Anibal had great energy, but nearly everything he was saying could also be learned by simply reading the signage posted there. In fact, I took photos of the signs and read them at home to refresh my memory about what was said on the tour.

We then walked upstairs and boarded one of the trains, on our case it was the Roy O. Disney. We learned some basic protocol about steam whistles and about the jobs of the various train workers such as the conductor and the engineer. Here, and throughout the entire tour, every piece of information was recounted by Anibal, not by any cast member that actually works on or with the train on a daily basis. I’m sure this is because Anibal is trained to interact with guests and the train engineers are trained to, well, do trains. But I have to say that I found this frustrating. Again, I’m not a train person, but I do like to see/hear local flavor. Anibal’s smooth patter was fine, but I think I may have gotten a better sense of what drives someone to train work, or what powers their train passion, if I had actually heard a train worker speak.

We could pose for photos with the train workers, but they did not speak to us as part of the tour.

After a half lap around the park, we got to a rail line spur which allowed us to be backed into the roundhouse. The roundhouse is a large building, just off stage, where the trains are maintained, repaired, and stored during the night. One of the most interesting visual parts for me was seeing that the monorail roundhouse is simply the second floor of the steam train roundhouse. The trains of the past and the trains of the future sleep together. It almost seemed like it could inspire a portion of a Cars film.

At the roundhouse, Anibal took nearly an hour describing parts of the train. I enjoyed seeing the hulking size of the vehicles, smelling the acrid steam, and feeling the heat radiating off the engine, but the actual lesson about which parts of the train do what was sort of lost on me. I took notes that say things like “train swirls fuel,” “inject fuel into firebox,” “little wheels are the pilot wheels,” and “10/6.” I have no idea what those things mean. And even I was taking the notes, I found myself wondering whether the train enthusiasts on the tour either already knew everything or thought the entire experience was too “dumbed down” for their level of knowledge.

The tour's refreshment stop.

Toward the end of the roundhouse portion of the tour, we were allowed to briefly sit inside the train cab and see the various gauges and dials. It was here that I found myself yearning to actually DO something. I wanted to move a lever or blow the whistle. But nope, nothing. Not here, nor anywhere else on the tour were guests able to interact with anyone or anything. It was like a lecture hall on giant, steam-powered wheels.

After the train exploration, we hopped back on board and again went into the onstage area of the park. We disembarked at the Main Street Station and walked over to the Chamber of Commerce for a bathroom and beverage break. We then walked back to the second floor of the station where Anibal used a retro PowerPoint-esque flip chart to describe Walt Disney’s affinity for trains. This focused primarily on his relationship with Roger Broggie and other early Imagineers, as well as the installation of a scale railroad at Walt’s California home. Again in Disney geek mode, I did enjoy these stories, but I had already encounter versions of them earlier both in my general Disney reading and at the Walt Disney Family museum in San Francisco.

The last section of the tour was a flip chart talk about Walt Disney's relationship with trains.

When the tour was over, we were all given Disney trading pins themed to the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour.

Over all, I’m glad went on the tour, but it’s not something that I’d want to do a second time. (Conversely, I’d be happy to take the Backstage Magic tour a second or third time.) And I’m glad that I didn’t take this with my three teenage daughters. They would have been itching to move at a much faster pace.

The Disney history discussed on the tour is available in other places, and the mechanics of the train itself simply wasn’t particularly impactful for me personally. I also found myself wondering whether true train lovers would have been bored because of possible oversimplification of the engine operation or because of too much emphasis on the Disney history.

If you are interested in Disney and trains, but don’t want to take the full tour, you may want to head over to the Iron Spike Room in the lobby of the Wilderness Lodge Villas building. Two of Walt’s home train cars are displayed there, as well as other photos and train memorabilia. And as I mentioned, the signage posted under the Main Street Station gives a wealth of information. Also, you may be able to hunt down a library copy of the excellent book, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story.

So fellow travelers, have you taken the Magic Behind Our Steam Trains tour? How did you feel about it. Is this something that you would consider taking in the future? Are you a train person, or a Disney person, or both? Let us know in the comments below.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google Plus
  • Pinterest
Posted on March 20, 2013

14 Responses to “The Magic Behind Our Steam Trains: Tour Report”

  • Interesting: I took this tour in, I think, 2009, and it was led by one of the steam train engineers, not a Disney tour guide. It appears the tour was the same general outline and probably covered the same material, but I did really enjoy getting my information from someone who got to actually drive the train (not that I’m a train geek either…). The other change I spotted was your mention of flip-charts for the history part–my tour guide just used the displays in the Main Street Station plus an additional mounted picture or two as props for telling stories about the Disney trains.

    I suspect Disney thought the tours needed to be more professional, but I think I’m glad I got the “non-professional” version.

  • My experience is similar to Nancy’s (I think I took the tour at about the same time). My wife made a reservation for me (alone, I think she just wanted to sleep in that day!) for my birthday. The tour was led by an engineer (overalls, hat, the whole deal) who was the coolest guy. The tour itself was nearly identical to what Erin describes, but I think may have had a little more insight, since it was given by a man who actually drove the trains. I loved that we were able to take pictures. In fact, as we were about to reenter the Magic Kingdom from backstage, the train stopped on a bridge to “dump steam” (or something) and our tour guide asked to borrow my camera so that he could get a cool picture for me of the steam billowing out over the water below the bridge. After the tour ended in the train station (as Nancy said – no flip charts, just display boards), and everyone left, the guide continued to talk to me. I honestly tried to NOT be a pest, but he and I sat on a bench in the station for close to an hour after the tour ended, talking about Disney trains (the drawbacks to biofuel, meeting Roy E. Disney, the Fort Wilderness Railroad, etc), he told me all about his family, asked about mine (and gave me an extra pin for my wife, as a thank you for arranging the tour for me). He had a long history with the company and, clearly, knew and loved his trains. I think it is unfortunate if they have officially switched the tour over to the more formal guides, as the jolly nature of an old train guy added a lot to my experience!

  • being a train guy (actually worked live steam before) and a Disney guy I LOVED this tour when I took it in 2007 and have been wanting to take it again but I’m disappointed to hear that it is no longer one of the engineers conducting the tour…engineer Ed was so informative answering every question everyone had no matter how technical and answered a lot of operational questions too…this tour is where I first found out about the Iron Spike Room (Carrollwood Pacific room now)and made a special trip to the WLV just to see it and now it’s one of my favorite spots on property

    • Ed the Engineer was our guide as well in 2009 and he was awesome. We are a family of train buffs and he spent a lot of time talking with us after the tour. We asked about him last year and he’s no longer working on the trains.

      @Erin, I would definitely write in and let Disney know what you thought of your tour guide experience. It should have been much better.

  • As a train guy and Disney fan, I enjoyed it. We had a former train conductor that now trains the conductors. Also, during the tour of the engine, they had the engineer and the fireman there to answer the more technical questions. They also used just two boards for the final display in the train station. I took the tour in 2011.

  • by Erin Foster on March 21, 2013, at 6:48 am EDT

    These comments are very interesting. I certainly wouldn’t characterize the tour as bad. The guide was charming, and lots of information was conveyed in concise and friendly manner. I simply thought that it could have been improved by having actual train workers give at least a portion of the tour. Obviously it sounds like that used to be the case. I wonder if it is simply a matter of a particularly adept cast member (Ed) retiring, causing some modifications in the program. In any event, I’d love to see them find another passionate engineer to fill that role.

  • by Just some guy on March 21, 2013, at 7:22 am EDT

    Personally, I find it frustrating to garner useful information in reviews where the critic begins with an admission of not really enjoying the subject of the review. Vegetarians reviewing a steakhouse, people who dislike a certain actor or film genre reviewing that kind of movie starring that person, or people who really don’t come to a new experience with a genuine desire to soak it all in. I am not the least bit surprised to discover the reviewer admits not learning very much about a topic with which they have little interest.
    I knew nothing about steam trains before we took the tour; now I can identify each of the four engines at WDW simply by looking at the wheels…thanks to an excellent tour guide and a genuine desire to learn more. We stayed at Pop Century and had no problem arranging for a Special bus to get us from the resort to Magic Kingdom’s main gates in plenty of time. (We worked with front desk staff the night before; we were the only people on the bus.) And once the myriad of knobs, gears, levers and gauges were explained it was obvious why we were not permitted to start playing around–serious consequences would follow.
    I would recommend the tour to anyone with a genuine desire to learn a lot more about this fascinating mode of transportation and its unique place in Disney history.

    • We are staying at POP soon, and taking this tour-I am curious to know about your special bus…what timedid it pick you up? Were they very accommodating, or did you have to really beg for it?

  • I took this tour during October 2012 with my 11-year-old grandson, who loves trains. We were fortunate, like the other reviewers, to have a real train-man give the tour. We loved being in the park before anyone else, especially during the short train red inside the park. The roundhouse portion of the tour was the longest, and my grandson lived sitting in the train cabin with all the dials & indicators. I, myself, was a bit bored with the mechanics of how the trains run, but there were enough trivia items that were thrown in to keep my interest. Ie., where did the phrase, “wrong side of the tracks” come from? (It’s all about typical wind patterns & which direction the steam & cinders fly.) Unlike the reviewer’s experience, I did get to speak with roundhouse workers during the time my grandson remained inside the train cabin & I was left trackside with nothing to do. Also, the tour guide was very patient in giving sufficient time for everyone to ask all the questions that they had, and his answers were thorough & knowledgeable. Now, would I do this tour again? No, once was enough. I much prefer the train talk at the Carollwood Lounge at the Wilderness Lodge Villas, which ate given select mornings….much more comfy, and you get to sit. But I’m glad that I took the tour, especially since my grandson loves trains.

    • Lynn – you don’t mention, but what did your 11-year-old grandson think of the tour? I have a 10-year-old who could be interested in taking it. And Erin: did you get any sense of whether the 12-year-old on your tour liked it, was bored, or what?

      • by Erin Foster on March 22, 2013, at 9:03 am EDT

        I didn’t speak directly with the 12 year old on the tour, so I can’t comment with 100% accuracy, but he and his dad both seemed happy.

  • Hello everyone. ;-) I’m the engineer/tour guide some of you were referring to. I left the company, the tour, and my trains in 2010. I loved my time on the rails at WDW but left to peruse other goals. I’m now a published author and quite thrilled with how things are going.

    Some of the basics of the tour remain. Others have been changed or dropped for a variety of reasons. I does make me sad that the Engineers themselves have been dropped from giving the tour. That responsibility was given to MK Guest Relations. Each tour guide must still complete basic Engineer training. So they have a working knowledge of those magnificent beasts, but they don’t have the day to day experience which gives a storyteller the edge to truly represent the passion and working history of the WDWRR. It also breaks my heart that train crews are not really allowed to interact with guests anymore in the yard.

    Having said that, the tour is still worth taking. There are very few places in the world where you can get that close to a real live antique locomotive and the trains of the WDWRR are some of the rarest around. Besides, they still give you a swell pin that you can’t get anywhere else.

    • Ed, Thank you for responding. It’s clear that you have great pride in and love for the Disney trains, and rightfully so. They are beautiful. Wishing you all the best for the holidays.

Leave a reply, your thoughts are welcome!

Want a cool avatar next to your comments? Add one at Gravatar