LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — For most of Disney’s Animal Kingdom
guests, Wildlife Express to Rafiki’s Planet Watch is a novel way to
travel by rail behind the scenes. It runs from the African village
of Harambe past state-of-the-art animal care facilities to Rafiki’s
Planet Watch, an interactive, fun-filled center of activity
focusing on animals worldwide.
But for railroad buffs, the puffing steam engines and their
open-air carriages provide a nostalgic adventure extending the
legends of British railroading in the mountains and jungles of
Engines like these were first produced by British boiler works
150 years ago. For nearly 100 years they were shipped to places
like South Africa, Rhodesia or India carrying European explorers
and the native population to the animal lands, mines and
agricultural areas of the two continents.
The model for the new Disney engines, discovered in the archives
of the Indian Peninsula Railroad, features an unusual Aspinwall
side-tank 2-4-2 design first built in 1898 in England’s Horwich
Locomotive Works. Its passenger carriages are partly enclosed by
waist-high, wood-louvered shutters with carpet bags, boxes, crates
and wicker luggage stacked high on its weathered rooftops –
definitely an “Out of India” theme.
The Express travels a 1.2-mile circle-tour route built in
narrow-gauge (3.3-foot rail width) to fit the scale of its Disney’s
Animal Kingdom surroundings. The smaller scale was used in many
remote areas where narrow-gauge was easier to build along canyon
walls and around horseshoe bends.
Three engines and two sets of cars were built in 1997 only a few
miles from William Shakespeare’s cottage in Stratford-on-Avon by
the model-railroad firm of Severn Lamb, Ltd., at Alchester,
England. The company makes trains, large and small, for parks
throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, including one for
Disneyland Paris. Each five-car train seats 250 passengers on
contoured benches facing sideways.
The stubby-looking locomotives — engine and tender all in one
– look very different from the Magic Kingdom American-style
engines with their bells and low-moaning B&O whistles. Wildlife
Express whistles sound like the scream of a wounded piccolo. You’ll
recognize them right away from a dozen British mystery movies.
The classic depot is patterned after stucco structures with
archways surrounding an open-air waiting area built by the British
in East Africa during the early 1900s and complete with colorful
travel posters on the walls and a corrugated-metal water tank
nearby. Next to formal, wrought-iron railings is a “local addition”
made of thatch-and-pole construction.
The train makes its way down a shallow valley between Africa and
Asia for a behind-the-scenes look at ultra-modern animal care
facilities which provide nighttime shelters for lions, elephants,
warthogs and antelope herds. All of these animals and many more
spend their days in the forests and grasslands of Africa along the
route of Kilimanjaro Safaris.
At Rafiki’s Planet Watch, guests enjoy up-close encounters with
small animals, interactive videos showing animal researchers and
conservation programs around the world, and a complete veterinary
hospital with medical procedures in progress. Television screens
provide intimate views of animals during feeding, health care and
other daily activities within backstage animal care facilities and
at locations in the Africa and Asia animal lands.
Supervising design and construction of the trains for Walt
Disney Imagineering were Joel Fritsche, technical director of
mechanical engineering, and veteran Disney train-maker Bob Harpur,
who came out of retirement to help with the project.
Harpur ran a model train factory before joining Disney in 1966
to help locate and rebuild antique trains from Mexico for Magic
Kingdom and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground in
The Wildlife Express job involved overseeing tracklayers on
site, traveling to England to check on construction of three
engines and 10 carriages, and directing final theming and
“weathering” by Disney experts at the Walt Disney World site.
Although some of the 19th century trains may be still operating
with makeshift repairs and unreliable schedules in isolated areas
of the world, the last of the vintage steam trains in England
retired nearly 50 years ago, relegated to places like the National
Railway Museum in Yorkshire. None will ever again carry as many
passengers as the Wildlife Express will carry at Disney’s Animal