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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.