Theme Park History: Discover the origins of Disneyland through a visit to Walt Disney's barn

August 24, 2013, 12:27 PM · In popular legend, Walt Disney came up with the idea for Disneyland on a Sunday afternoon while sitting on a park bench while his two daughters rode a merry-go-round and imagining an amusement park appropriate for the whole family. While that merry-go-round in Griffith Park, near the Disney Studios, still exists and can be ridden by the public, more of the inspiration for the Disney theme parks can be traced to the Disney's love for trains.

Walt's Barn

About three miles' drive from the merry-go-round, Walt Disney's barn housing his model trains and railroad equipment was transplanted from the backyard of his former home to the Griffith Park grounds of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, and is open to the public one Sunday each month, staffed by volunteers knowledgeable about trains, model railroads, and the history of the Disney parks. I visited the barn on a recent Sunday after picking up a brochure about the attraction earlier in the summer.

According to Randy Bright's book Disneyland: Inside Story, Disney's wife Lillian believed that it was her husband's longtime fascination with trains that provided the focus for the creation of Disneyland. In 1950, the Disney family moved to a new home in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles, where employees from his studio machine shop, particularly Roger Broggie, helped him build a one-eighth scale working live steam railroad. Disney named his model train the Lilly Belle after his wife.

In addition to the 2,600 feet of track running around the property, Disney built a barn for his train models and equipment which was a replica of the barn from his boyhood Missouri home. After moving to the new house located on Carolwood Drive in Los Angeles, Disney spent much of his free time tinkering with the trains, and often entertained guests and party-goers with rides on the Lilly Belle. It was during this period that he became involved with his plans for building a family-oriented amusement park in the greater Los Angeles area. Throughout the various incarnations during the planning process, Disney's new park always had a steam-powered train for guests to ride.

Photo of Walt's trains

In 1999, with the death of Lillian Disney and the sale of the Holmby Hills property, the barn was moved to Griffith Park by a nonprofit Carolwood Foundation, along with many of Disney's model trains and equipment. Since the 1950s, Disney had been an active member of the Los Angeles Live Steamers, which was founded by train enthusiasts and operated model trains for the public in a section of Griffith Park The barn is currently open the third Sunday of each month to the public, weather permitting. It is located in a corner of the area used by the Los Angeles Live Steamers, which operates a separate model train every Sunday for visitors to ride.

Railroad museum entrance

The Los Angeles Live Steamers site is in the northern part of Griffith Park, between the Travel Town rail museum to the west and the Los Angeles Zoo and Autry Western museum to the east. Entering from the east gate, which is only open when the Walt Disney Barn is open to the public, one crosses the model railroad track operated by the Live Steamers and enters a grassy park-like area containing the barn, a covered maintenance area containing railroad equipment, and a temporary structure covering a railcar from the first passenger train at Disneyland.

Close-up of Walt's barn

The barn is the heart of the exhibit area. Stepping inside the barn, one sees various model trains in the center of the barn, along with numerous displays along the walls.

Disneyland memorabilia

Artifacts from Disney's backyard model railroad, which he called the Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Carolwood RR route
The control panel for Disney's Carolwood Pacific Railroad

Walt's hat
One of Disney's porkpie hats

Disneyland railroad model
A model of the C.K. Holliday, the first railroad engine used for the Disneyland Railroad.

More railroad memorabilia
Other artifacts from the Disneyland Railroad

Monorail model
The exhibits include not only traditional trains, but the Disneyland Monorail system.

To the back of the barn, the Carolwood Foundation has acquired a coach car from the first train in operation at Disneyland.

Original Disneyland coach car

The rail cars were taken out of commission from Disneyland, except for the Lilly Belle coach which still can be ridden at the park. (Ask at the Main Street Disneyland Railroad station early in the day to get a ticket for an assigned ride time.)

Photo of Disneyland railroad

The Foundation is working on creating a permanent structure for the combine coach, as well as restoring a French village which was part of the original Storybook Land in Fantasyland before the 1983 reimagineering of that land.

Restoration plans

On the days the barn is open to the public, there are multiple volunteers working at the entrances and inside the barn, answering questions, and showing off the various exhibits. The barn also hosts events and book signings by former Imagineers and others connected to the design of the Disney theme parks.

Replies (2)

August 24, 2013 at 12:49 PM · Thank you so much for this article. My husband and I are very interested in visiting those Disney attractions that are not at the parks. We have been to the Family Museum in San Francisco and also attended the D23 exhibit at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in 2011 (?). How about a listing of those other attractions such as the Griffith Park Museum? We would love to check them off of our list! Maybe there aren't that many but us Disney addicts will take what there is. Any possibility?
August 24, 2013 at 2:12 PM · I'm not sure how long this page will be up, but I came across this list of sites around Los Angeles with connections to Walt Disney, including his former homes, studio locations, the merry-go-round, etc.

I would also add to this list the "Snow White cottages" located about two blocks from the old Hyperion studios in the Los Feliz/Silverlake districts of Los Angeles.

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