Disneyland Railroad engineer shares Walt Disney’s passion for trains

Steam train engineer Mark Gonzales thinks about Walt Disney all the time when he’s aboard the Disneyland Railroad and how the Anaheim theme park might not exist today if not for its founder’s life-long locomotive love affair.

“I love the history of this place,” said Gonzales, standing on the Disneyland Railroad station platform looking out over Main Street U.S.A. “Walt Disney himself actually operated these locomotives. To be in the same seat that he was sitting in on a weekly basis, there’s a lot to live up to knowing that I’m part of that history.”

Gonzales is one of more than 70 Disney cast members featured in the “One Day at Disney” docuseries on the Disney+ streaming service and the accompanying coffee table book.

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Gonzales shares a passion for trains with Disney, who loved to hop on the Disneyland locomotives that make the park’s famed Grand Circle Tour and never wanted to get off.

“I feel the same way all the time,” said Gonzales, 37, of Whittier. “I don’t want to go home. We’re having too much fun here.”

The Disneyland Railroad was an opening day attraction that was part of a pre-opening party on July 4, 1955 that included rides on the Jungle Cruise and Mark Twain Riverboat for invited Disney animation studio artists and their families.

“We had guests on board riding around in our coaches and behind our locomotives well before Disneyland even opened its gates,” Gonzales said.

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The inspiration for Disneyland began in the backyard of Walt Disney’s Holmby Hills home that featured a one-eighth scale locomotive known as the Carolwood Pacific Railroad. Gonzales is a regular at Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn — since relocated to Griffith Park — where the backyard railroad was built and assembled.

Disneyland’s five-eighth scale locomotives are simply larger models of the Carolwood Pacific Railroad trains that ran in Disney’s backyard.

“I’m so short they call me five-eighths here on the railroad,” Gonzales said. “We have a dude that’s really tall and he’s eight-fifths. We work together all the time. He’s out of scale. I’m to scale. I can stand up in the locomotive.”

Gonzales started at Disneyland in 2005 while in college — working first in retail and moving to attractions before becoming a train conductor helping riders on and off the passenger cars. The train buff was determined to work his way to the Disneyland Roundhouse where he rose through the ranks to become a steam train engineer.

His love of trains began as a 4-year-old when his grandfather gave him a train set for Christmas. Gonzales has been a lifelong tinkerer — working on cars as a teenager before moving to automotive engines in college. Now he cares for Disneyland’s vintage trains that date back to 1894.

“I love old things,” Gonzales said. “I’m an old soul myself. I’ve always worked on old cars. I listen to old music. I also own a house from 1931 that my wife and I are trying to restore.”

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Disneyland Railroad engineer shares Walt Disney’s passion for trains

His favorite Disneyland train? The 1925 Ernest S. Marsh because it bounces around like a much larger locomotive thanks to the leaf springs designed to support the train’s 23,700-pound weight.

“It’s a very powerful machine,” Gonzales said. “It will pull anything. It could pull all of these trees out of the ground on Main Street if you wanted to.”

Gonzales loves sitting in the locomotive cab overlooking the Disneyland entrance and watching all the smiling faces coming into the park in the morning and tired faces going out at night.

“I can’t believe I do what I do,” he said.

A typical day starts in the roundhouse where Gonzales checks the engineer board to see which of Disneyland’s five steam locomotives he’ll be working on for the day and what equipment he will be pulling. After getting his train’s firebox heated up and a round of safety checks, it’s time to roll out onto the main track for the first of 12 laps he’ll make around the park during a typical shift.

“As we’re rolling along, I’ll oil the locomotive and make sure that everything’s running nice and smooth,” Gonzales said. “You don’t want metal to metal, so you always have to keep everything lubricated.”

If he’s working the night shift, the day ends with a trip back to the roundhouse where everything is polished to get the train ready for the next day.

The front cab of the Ernest S. Marsh locomotive is cramped, hot and smells of soot and fuel. The steam train engineer sits on the right side of the locomotive keeping watch on the track ahead and the passenger cars in the back. The fireman sits on the left maintaining a steady 150 pounds of pressure in the boiler.

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During a recent ride aboard the Ernest S. Marsh, Gonzales slowly opened the throttle to let steam build up inside the engine and sounded the whistle as the train pulled out of the Main Street U.S.A. station.

“Two whistles mean we’re going forward,” he said over the chug-chug of the train picking up speed.

The panoramic view of the park entrance quickly transitioned to the treed environs along the edge of the Jungle Cruise attraction before the train passed through a tunnel on the way to the New Orleans Square station. A single, long whistle let waiting passengers know the train was arriving. A rhythmic bell clanged as the locomotive pulled into the station.

The crew blew down the boiler in the station to release steam and filled the train’s tender from the water tower next to the track. A typical trip around the park uses approximately 75 gallons of water, requiring a refill about every other lap.

Disneyland’s rolling stock went green in 2009 when the five engines switched to biodiesel. Riders in the first passenger coaches often say the steam exhaust smells like french fries or hamburgers.

“Biodiesel fuel is pretty much all of the recycled cooking oils that we use around the resort at all the restaurants,” Gonzales said. “We send it off to get it cleaned. They take all the Mickey Mouse pancake batter and everything out of it. We add about a 10% mixture of regular diesel, put it into our tenders and fire it up.”

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Disneyland locomotives work hardest leaving the New Orleans Square station as they climb a slight hill and snake through a curve created by the construction of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge that introduced a left turn into a circular track layout that otherwise consists of a series of right turns.

“These machines are great because they can take a licking and they’ll still keep going no matter what,” Gonzales said over the effort of the engine.