Image of Fort Wilderness Train on bridge

Located in Orlando Florida, Fort Wilderness Campground was among the first 3 resorts Disney World offered in 1971. Although the Fort Wilderness Railroad was in the original plans for the campground, Disney decided not to install the railroad for it's opening, allowing Disney to limit some of the massive costs of building the Walt Disney World resort.

The Fort Wilderness locomotives were to modeled after the Forney 0-4-2T built by Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. Baldwin introduced these locomotives in 1882 to transport sugar cane from the fields of Hawaii to the refineries. These small steam engines would navigate the campground route well due to their compact design. Disney had Robert McDonnell design the overall look and graphics for the cars and engines. Disney decided to build 4/5 scale engines and coaches from the ground up.

In 1972 construction started on the four steam engines and twenty passenger cars by MAPO (MAPO & WED were later combined in to Walt Disney Imagineering), located in Glendale California. In parallel Buena Vista construction started laying the 3 1/2 miles of 30" gauge track through Fort Wilderness Campground in Florida.

In 1973 the completed trains were transported on flat bed trucks from Glendale California to Orlando Florida. The trains operation was tested and details refined before opening day in 1974.

For the next five years guests of Fort Wilderness Campground were treated to live steam train transportation like no other. The train route was by far the longest train route at any Disney park, more than double the 1 1/2 mile route around the Magic Kingdom. The Wilderness Line transported guests through woods, fields, and over trestles. People realized this was no ordinary campground. You could take a steam train to a old swimmin' hole called River Country, or just ride and enjoy the scenery. A $1.00 ticket was good for an adult to ride all day. Imagine that! The train ran every day from 7:00 am to 11:00 pm. The fact that the train started running at 7:00 am brought up a 'over design' issue. The engines were fitted with whistles designed to be heard up to a county away under rural conditions. Guest, often camping in tents, were treated to a startling morning wake-up.

The Wilderness Line started to have some operational problems in that time. A major problem was the way in which the track was laid, 'on the fly', without using rail bending machine, essentially spiking the rail down around curves, so the track was constantly trying to straighten out. The result was kinks forming, especially where the rail sections met on a curve. Making track matters worse, tie plates were not used in most locations, and the rock bed was basically poured right over the tracks without tamping it down. The track conditions resulted derailments. Being that Fort Wilderness was built over very soft swampy land meant that the track had to be in top condition. Serious attention was needed for the track. Gauge rods, rail anchors, and tie plates were added in problem locations to aid in maintaining the 30" distance between rails.

Another problem as the small amount of water the saddle tanks could hold, only 225 gallons, which is not much considering the 3 1/2 mile trip the engine had to make. There was only one water tower at the Gateway depot. The employees running the train had to be very diligent about filling the saddle tanks with water every trip or else the train would run out of water mid trip. This was forgotten at times, and resulted in stranded trains. The trains were fitted with a auto-shutdown device, so when the boiler level dropped to a certain point, the train automatically stopped to prevent a dangerous situation. The Wilderness Line had designed a Tow Motor car to tow the stranded train back to the depot to refuel with water.

Disney was rewarded for it's fantastic Fort Wilderness Campground, booking campsites to capacity. Disney expanded the campground several times to accommodate more visitors. This introduced the next serious problem for the Wilderness Line - people on the tracks. The route chosen for the railroad often brought it within feet of campsites, with no barrier of any kind. The train route crossed the street 8 times. Kids often walked on the tracks or placed pennies down for the train to run over. The Wilderness trains, like most trains, could not stop quickly. Things came to a head in 1979 when a train struck a girl on a bike. She was injured, but not seriously. Within two weeks of this accident, the Wilderness Line ceased operation for good. Disney management ordered the Transportation department to shut down the line and remove the trains. Trams, like the ones used in the them parks to transport visitors from the parking lot to the park entrance, were put into action. The trains were stored in a warehouse and the tracks remained at Fort Wilderness until sometime around the mid 1980s. At this point the trains were moved to outside storage and covered with tarps. Not long after, the tarps ripped, and the trains spent many years exposed to the elements, rusting and rotting.

In the early 1990s there was a plan to put the Wilderness Line back into service. This time the track would run between Fort Wilderness Lodge and and the Campground, featuring a Buffalo Bill Wild West show (which did open in Paris) and a frontier like shopping area. This was perfect as the land between the Lodge and Campground was not populated. But, consistent with the trains history, the idea was shelved because it would "cost too much." There was also consideration given to use them for Animal Kingdom, but it was determined the engines could not pull the required weight. The condition of the engines did help either.

Two of the passenger cars eventually were used for ticket booths at Pleasure Island. Initially they were painted dark green similar to the original, but later changed to a wild purple color. Eventually they were replaced with permanent ticket booths. It's reported the two cars were auctioned off, but on a recent trip I found a passenger car in the Typhoon Lagoon parking lot that appears to be one of the ticket booths. The Forman at the yard where the Fort Wilderness trains were stored, had the authority to sell equipment he considered scrap. In that time 6 cars were sold, 2 to a playground, and 4 to a Zoo.

In the late 1990s there was little or no future for the four rusting Wilderness engines and remaining passenger cars. It had no chance of returning to it's home. To add insult to injury, Disney decided to close River Country soon. Most, but not all of the track was removed. In many locations, sidewalks or bike paths were added. Both trestles were removed. See the abandoned railroad page for Pictures. To many Fort Wilderness would never be the same.

The trains were gone but not forgotten. After 20 years of neglect, the trains were about to be given a new life .