Driving Walt Disney's Steam Trains at Disneyland Paris
There are a couple of generations of English boys who grew up wanting to be Engine drivers. I think it had a lot to do with Dr Beaching's decimation of British Rail in the 1960's. My father for one remembers the last days of main line steam engines, and always had a hankering to drive one. I on the other hand never saw a live steam train on the rails until I went to work for Disney.
As almost everyone knows Walt Disney had a real passion for steam, a love that he later built into his theme parks. If you want to know more on Walt and his fascination with steam trains there are a multitude of websites out there on the web who will cover this obsession in far greater detail than i ever can so I'll leave it to them. Steve Burns' post on Started by a Mouse.com is as good a place as any to start.
When I went to Paris in 1992 I worked in my 'real' job as a pastry chef in the Explorers club restaurant for a few months then the chance came up to move to the Attractions team and I jumped at the chance and plumped for the trains.
To be a Steam Train engineer was a special treat for me, as I said I think i inherited the yearning from my dad. Getting to drive the trains is not easy though, it is not a push button attraction, the trains run on 'Live Steam' so the training to drive the loco's was, and I think still is the longest and most challenging of all the attractions. But first you'd had to serve your time as a station master and conductor then if you were deemed fit then you could embark on the month long training program. The Station master roll is as fun as you make it. There is a lot of Guest interaction and if that's what you're good at then spending a little time on Fantasyland Station can be an enjoyable way to spend a day.
After a few months interacting with Guests around the various stations I got my chance to wear the Osh-Kosh (B-Gosh). My trainer was a fellow Brit who really loved his all aspects of the job. Lee had been driving the trains since opening day and insisted that on my first day I was in the Roundhouse learning to fire up steam trains at 3.30 in the morning. To get the trains up to pressure is a four hour process. Starting by lighting the fires in each of the locos, slowly mounting a head of steam in each loco, nursing them from the compressed air used to atomize diesel when you first light them up in a morning to using steam to do the same job is a challenge to master. Lots of practice needed and the only way to get that practice was to be in the Roundhouse before the maintenance guys.
As I mentioned Disney uses live steam locomotives, that means you light the fire, you boil the water, you make the steam, you run the train by extracting the power from the steam. But 'live' can also mean dangerous as a few of us found out over the years. Minor burns, scalds and injuries were not uncommon; I myself went to the medical centre more than once.
I think its time to get a little nerdy here for a moment.
There is a lot of debate in the parts of the outside world that is into steam about weather Disney's trains are 'real'. Because they don't burn wood or coal in the firebox some see them as 'fake'. So the locos run on diesel but they burn it in the firebox not in an internal combustion engine. Getting diesel to burn as a liquid is a lot harder than you'd think, in fact you can pour it on a fire and it'll put the fire out rather than make it burn (though please do not try this at home) hence the whole compressed air / steam atomizer thing. The atomizer dribbles liquid diesel into a stream of compressed air or steam. The two streams mix and make a highly flammable gas - I did mention not to try this at home didn't I?
Then there is just the problem of lighting this explosively flammable gas. And this is where the photo here comes in; yes that is a sanitary towel - a Tampax - in the hand. The cotton wool, when dipped in the fuel and wrung out atomizes the liquid just enough to burn and when it is alight it is hot enough to get the atomized fuel to burn... viola how to run a steam train on liquid fuel.
Nerd out over!
Learning to drive and fire the trains is then a month long task. Lots of practice, lots of adjusting, tweaking, balancing and looking at the colour of the flame in the firebox to see if you have the steam / fuel mix just right. When after four weeks of climbing a steep learning curve, firing, driving, safety drill, reversing a seventy five meter long train in the dark... there is just the simple matter of a four hour written check out. Even then, if you'd passed that and were deemed fit to be on the main line you were always being watched. If you have the fuel level balanced with the steam/fuel mix just right the whole lot burns relatively cleanly, no smoke, no smells just steam coming out of the chimney. If you got the steam/fuel mix wrong choking black smoke would come billowing out of the chimney, as soon as it did every other engineer was on the radio. Only one word was uttered, a word that was so shameful you never wanted to hear it - 'Stack'. Black smoke was coming out of your chimney stack and you were not doing it right! You leaned pretty quickly to watch the fire and get it right.
Starting from Main St USA the trains roll through the famous Grand Canyon Diorama, then the slow downhill decent to the first stop. This leg is one of the most fun. Swapping blasts of the steam whistle with the Riverboats on the Rivers of the Far West. Then lots of bell ringing and whistle blowing as you traverse the backstage crossing that leads to the dry dock and into Frontierland Depot - where the work began.
Frontierland Depot is where the trains are fueled and serviced during the day. This is the stop where the driver would fill the tender with water every other trip and fuel oil once a day. Also at this stop as the fireman you'd have to clear all the sediment and lime scale from the boiler. Every other tour or so you'd have a good look around, make sure nobody was in the area and open the main valve at the bottom of the boiler. This Blow Down valve let rip a high pressure blast of steam, water and calcium build up into a purpose built 'cave' by the side of the station. Lots of steam, noise and great photo opportunities. Now as fireman your work started in earnest, as well as clearing the boiler you had to build up the maximum head of steam, 9 barr or as I remember 130 pounds per square inch of pressure to get you and the train up the steep hill to the next station.
Leaving Frontierland, going over the backstage crossing to the Indiana Jones attraction and up the steep hill to the Pirates Tunnel. the tunnel runs through the upper section of the Pirates of the Caribbean attraction allowing Guests to look down on the ride. The problem was that you couldn't make steam in the tunnel, if you did the whole place would fill with smoke and set the fire alarms off - game over! So a good head of steam before you leave Frontierland is imperative. And to add more fun to the game, hidden in the tunnel is a switch to reset the fire alarm, miss that and set the fire alarms off - game over! Even spending too much time in there looking out for Captain Jack and the Fire Department would come running. Arriving at Fantasyland Station was always a relief.
Fantasyland is a wonderful stop for the Engineers. No real need to build steam pressure, no special challenges, just the chance to get the oil can out and go round the loco filling the oilers on all the major moving parts. In the late summer when the lavender plants are in bloom the place smells wonderful. we'd harvest swathes of the pungent flowers and hang them in the cab, the aromas of Lavender cut through the thick viscose reek of steam oil.
From there it is over the bridge past the Old Mill and through the backdrop of It's a Small World and over the Parade Crossing - where funnily enough the parades enter the park. during the parade an Engineer will effectively have control over the parade, starting and stopping the parade to allow the trains through. From there it is up the gentle slope to Discoveryland.
Discoveryland station was a late addition to the park. it was added in 1995 in time to compliment the opening of Space Mountain. The station is built over the queue lines to Star Tours and what was at the time Captain Eo - it is now the home to 'Honey I Shrunk the Audience' - of all the stations Discoveryland is the most basic and minimalist. I hated it. There is little or no atmosphere. All it was to me was a place to build pressure for the uphill run back to Main St.
Main St Station was the home of the Steam Train crews, the lead office is in the centre of the beautiful faux Victorian station, and the queue line snakes around the exterior. The running problem was that Guests assumed that the office was a public washroom. Small children with a pained look and crossed legs were forever being pushed through the doors by soon to be embarrassed parents. It was also the prime viewing gallery for Guests wanting to see the Parades. So twice a day all breaks were canceled and any Cast who were no on the trains has to police the stairs to stop hundreds of people cramming the whole station. We even had people hanging off the front of the railings over a ten foot drop to the pavement - hey it's Disneyland, nothing can go wrong - right?
The three original locomotives - a fourth was added two years after the opening - for the Euro Disneyland Rail Road were built for Disney in Wales by Seven Lamb engineering. The George Washington, the C.K. Holiday and the W.F. Cody. All are seventy five meters long and weigh in at a little over seventy five tones but with the power of steam will move gently forward with a twitch of the accelerator bar. These gentle giants were wonderful engines to drive. As I said the original three locos were augmented in 1995 by another locomotive the Eureka. When she entered service she was an absolute pig to drive. She had come from another builder, she wasn't as smooth to run or drive as the others. Whatever the reason she ran hot, she was stiff and unresponsive, the cab windows wouldn't open and spending any time in the cab was like taking a super heated sauna. All the valves, manifolds and wrapping on the steam pipes stank of something deeply unpleasant, no amount of lavender would have cure that.
The summer of '95 was hot and sticky in France and whilst our fellow Cast Members in the park were sweltering in 25 - 30 degrees centigrade the boys in the Eureka were enduring almost double that. The rest of the team hated her with a passion but she did have one redeeming feature - she'd been built in England and in the end it came down to the English team, Chris, Lee and myself to crew her. After a while she "bedded in" to use an engineering term, and became a pleasure to drive. She was still a pig, but a pretty well behaved pig.
After that was out of the way that job was fun. Working in a hot, smelly, confined space with the same guy over an eight hour shift is a good way to built a team and I still think of et Steam Team being one of the best group of guys I have eve worked with. Lee Wickedness, Fred Chauron, Andre Lukenga, Chris Larter, Jim Devlin, Desmond from Ireland and Justin from Australia, these were some of the best people to be stuck in a steam train cab with.
It was with the antipodean Justin that I spent on of my most memorable days in the cab. For reasons we didn't understand the station master at Frontierland didn't load any Guests at his station, we then were told over the radio to take it slow and easy into Fantasyland as there were VIP's on the platform - VIP's or not that was a no-no! but ours is not to reason why... then things just got weirder still in the Pirates tunnel. As we rolled through the scenes at five miles an hour we saw to our horror two guys jumping on the footplate of the loco. I freaked, thinking they were stray Guests i turned in my seat looking for trouble only to find one very senior manager and a very serious guy in Ray-Bans. "Drive and smile guys" was the only explanation we got. Seconds later we pulled out into the sunlight to find the platform full of people - "keep going, its ok they're good". Mr serious added something like "Please continue as normal Sir" and it was just then I got the hint. Barbara and (ex)President George Bush Sr, plus a few dozen of Mr Serious' US Secret Service friends were about to get on our train. Possibly the most carefully driven tour of the Euro Disneyland Rail Road that I ever worked.
When people ask would I go back to working for Disney the first job that springs to mind is driving steam trains, and if i could have gone back to that team at that period in time then the answer is an undoubted yes. I know the skippers who worked the Jungle Cruise may disagree but I honestly think that Steam Train Engineer is one of the finest jobs in Disney. There is no spiel, little show but lots of challenges, a great costume - who doesn't love Osh-Kosh? - and it is one of the few jobs onstage where you really have to think. You have to be good at your job, no ride control computers here. I loved that job.
YouTube Has some further viewing on the subject.