From the very outset of the creation of Disneyland, Walt Disney instructed artist Herb Ryman to create a concept of Disneyland to show to the bankers, his instructions were clear: “Herbie,” Walt said, “I just want it to look like nothing else in the world. And it should be surrounded by a train.”
Disney’s love for trains began in Marceline, Missouri as a youngster and stayed with him his entire lifetime. Walt arrived nearly broke in California, stepped off a train and began to make history. The inspiration for Mickey Mouse came on an emotional train ride back from New York when his future hung in the balance.
There were times that Walt’s love for trains strongly influenced what he created for the big screen. The 1929 short, Mickey’s Choo Choo, saw Mickey and Minnie embark on a journey aboard a locomotive. As the cartoon comes to a close, the two find themselves on a runaway boxcar that eventually smashes into a tree, shattering and scattering debris into the air. In the best of Disney magic tradition, the broken pieces land perfectly together and assemble a handcar, upon which Mickey and Minnie also land.
Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse riding on that handcar became the inspiration for one of the most sought after collectibles for any Disney fan. This collectible was not only fun but also rescued a company that is now a world leader in the items it makes. Here is that story….
In 1900, Joshua Lionel Cowen founded Lionel Manufacturing Company. The company was renamed The Lionel Corporation in 1918, and by the 1930s had become an innovator in toy train production. But the Great Depression took its toll, and by 1934, Lionel went into receivership to avoid bankruptcy.
In the days that followed, Disney merchandising genius Kay Kamen went to the Lionel Corporation with an idea: A Mickey and Minnie wind-up handcar.
Lionel like the idea and the wind-up handcar went into production and was offered in either red or green, running along a circular O-gauge track. In less than four months, over 253,000 sets were sold. By December 31, 1934, Lionel paid its debts in full, and the company left receivership the following month. That $1 toy was credited with saving the company.
Jim Korkis, Disney history wrote -“It was not just the sale of the Mickey Mouse Handcar but the fact that the company was associated with Mickey Mouse that made the rest of its products and the company itself popular.”
For both companies, there were great days on the horizon. Lionel continued to thrive and innovate in model train production as The Walt Disney Studios rose to new heights in the world of animation. Into the 1940s, as the Studios expanded and faced greater challenges, Walt found himself in need of a new hobby. The stress and pressure was a lot for him to carry and he was looking for an occasional distraction. His ongoing love for trains caused him to turn back to the company that his creations had helped to save. Walt decided that a Lionel train set might be the very distraction he needed, so in 1947 he acquired one.
Animator Ollie Johnston remembered, “One day in early December 1948, Ward Kimball came into my office and said, ‘There’s something up in Walt’s office you’ve gotta see.’ We walked in and there was a complete Lionel layout he had built. Walt turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t know you were interested in trains, too.’”
The Lionel layout in Walt’s office gave him a nice break from the studio work, he would run the train, relax and for a few minutes escape the rigors of running the company. He found others around him that shared his love of trains so there was something new they could talk about and have in common with their boss.
Eventually Walt expanded his love of trains to a larger scale version in his Carolwood Pacific Railroad. But his background of model trains were very much a part of that creation in his backyard. Imagineer Roger Broggie recalled, “We approached the challenge of laying the rails first as was done in full-size practice. But we abandoned it for what we termed the ‘Lionel Method’ as being more practical.” With the Lionel Method, the studio made complete sections of the rail, ties, and other parts of the train in a similar manner that model railroad layouts were done—that could be installed in pieces.
Today, Lionel still proudly produces Disney-themed products, including two O Gauge handcars, one with Mickey and Minnie, the other with Mickey and Goofy. The relationship between Disney and Lionel has always been one of mutual benefit and respect, and afforded Walt the opportunity to further indulge in one of his greatest passions.
For Walt, trains were a part of his world that he considered fun. He found in them some relaxation and escape to be sure. At the same time, he also found a search for inspiration and that ignited some ideas that eventually made their way into his theme park design. All of the segments of our lives are interconnected. Each individual is put together like a puzzle and each piece is important and has a place in helping to make us who we are. In order to become the very best version of ourselves, we must always make sure that we pay attention to each piece, give each area the care it deserves, be willing to honestly evaluate whether it is making us better and then find the best way to fit it into the bigger picture so our lives are lives that will touch and change the world.
– The Walt Disney Family Museum
– Greenberg, Bruce C. Greenberg’s Guide to Lionel Trains 1901-1942: O Gauge. N.p.: Kalmbach, 2000. Print.
– Korkis, Jim. The Book of Mouse: A Celebration of Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse. S.l.: Theme Park, 2013. Print.
– “Lionel and Railroads in America.” Lionel Train History, Lionel Past and Present. Lionel, n.d. Web.
– Peri, Don. “Interview with Ollie Johnston.” Working with Disney: Interviews with Animators, Producers, and Artists. Jackson: U of Mississippi, 2011. N. pag. Print.
This article is compiled by Jeff Dixon. Jeff has written a series of novels set in and around Walt Disney World entitled, The Key to the Kingdom, Unlocking the Kingdom, Storming the Kingdom, and Terror in the Kingdom. He is also the author of The Disney Driven Life. The book that draws life lessons and leadership principles from the history and life of Walt Disney. Some know Jeff as Dixon On Disney – and he resources and comments on Disney history, attractions, and news. He is a researcher that draws heavily on the incredible works of Disney historians and biographers with an attempt to understand and apply the life lessons that are uncovered. He is also a storyteller that transports readers into a world beyond their imagination.