Sunday, October 23, 2011

Fort Wilderness Railroad, A Book Review

Love vintage Walt Disney World? Want to know everything possible about the Fort Wilderness Railroad? Read on to see if this set of books is for you.

Walt Disney World Railroads, Part 1: Fort Wilderness Railroad by David Leaphart. 2010. 143 pp.
Walt Disney World Railroads, Part 2: Fort Wilderness Railroad Gallery Companion by David Leaphart. 2010. 57 pp.

David Leaphart has created two works detailing the most complete history of the Fort Wilderness Railroad imaginable. If you are a Walt Disney World history enthusiast, then you need to add these two books to your collection. It is obvious that Leaphart is very passionate about trains and the Walt Disney World steel wheels experience. He spent more than two years researching, interviewing and compiling material for the book and it is evident.


As we begin the journey, Leaphart traces the history of Walt's fascination with steam trains. A section is dedicated to looking at all of the steel wheels at Walt Disney World, which previews the future volumes promised by the author. The majority of the photos were provided by former castmembers and guests, which only adds to the historical significance of the title.

The book is presented with four sections: Inspiring Walt Disney; Riding Around the World; Whistling through the Fort; and Discovering the Railroad. Visually, the work is almost overwhelming. Photographs, maps, brochures, mechanical drawings and illustrations are featured on almost every page. You will spend as much time leafing through the pages to view the images as you will enjoying the comprehensive historical detail and anecdotes. If you have any recollections of visiting Fort Wilderness in the 1970s then you will find Leaphart's books invaluable and an amazing tip down memory lane..


The two most important sections of the first volume are: Whistling Through the Fort and Discovering the Railroad. Both sections provide the real steam behind the title. Whistling Through the Fort is a fairly comprehensive history of the railroad. We are there for the inception, development, construction and daily operation of the 1973-1980 railway. Leaphart offers details as to how the track was layed out, including all of the work that was done by Roger Broggie to keep it running. Discovering the Railroad is a theme parkeologist's dream. The author, along with Broggie, MAPO staff and former castmembers, hunts down the remnants of the railroad. Presented with overlays on current satellite images, we can see where the tracks existed and what you can still see. There is plenty of photographic evidence of former buildings and equipment used for the castmembers and engines. Full-color mechanical drawings, layouts and cab diagrams  would lead you to believe you could build the Fort Wilderness Railroad for yourself!


Leaphart spoke to many different castmembers about the difficulties of running the railroad on a daily basis and he was able to dispel several myths about its closing. The author includes many of the interviews. The amount of historical detail is unprecedented—where else are you going to find the complete routes and their changes mapped out as well as the different scripts that were used?

David Carriker, a railroad historian, contributed to the book, including a wonderful essay with the following thought:
We are coming up on the 40th anniversary of Fort Wilderness Resort and much has changed. Many of the old trees are dying or have beetles and are today being cut down. I don't think there are many bobcats loose in the campground; there is no train or locomotive; there are no depots, switch stands, crossing gates and Mickey can't hold a musket any longer. Times have changed but memories of the old days will not be forgotten.
He sums up what draws so many of us to delve into the Walt Disney World that is no longer.

As much as I loved this book, it wasn't without any shortfalls. The layout of the book and the tone reminded me of a majority of the Disney-related blogs—and like most, could use a good editor or proofreader. Leaphart is a competent writer, but there were many grammatical errors and spelling mistakes that take away from the overall tone and authority of the work. Regardless, this is still an amazing Fort Wilderness resource.

The Gallery Companion is 57 pages of photographs recounting the history of the railroad and the archaeological remains of the railway and its environs. By itself, it is a stunning photographic history. There are three sections of the book: the Photo Gallery, the Fort Wilderness Railroad in 3D and Old and New...Then and Now.

This is a book that should have been part of the Fort Wilderness book discussed above. Having to pay an additional $19.99 for it seems like gouging, but the author must have a reason for creating the separate volume.

The Photo Gallery section is comprised of photos from the past 40 years of the Fort Wilderness Railroad. Leaphart was able to compile pictures shared by castmembers and guests; you really gain a sense for what an amazing experience the Fort Wilderness Railroad was. More than just typical vacation pictures, there are many shots provided by former castmembers that offer a more mundane look at the day-to-day operations of the train.


When you glance through the Old and New...Then and Now section, you understand that a majority of the railway and buildings are gone. A lot of the areas no longer resemble their former selves or are being used for another purpose. The author has done his best to locate the position of where a photograph was taken and tried to recreate it today. He marked a focal point on both pictures with a large X to provide a reference point. I can imagine it would be fun to take both volumes to Fort Wilderness and try to do a little parkeology yourself.


Both books will make an excellent addition to the Walt Disney World historian's collection. Especially since it is the most authoritative and complete reference work on the Fort Wilderness area. It is also a sad reminder that the Walt Disney World experience has changed to the point where former attractions are no longer recognizable.

You can purchase copies of the book here.
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