A Different look at Disney...

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(In case you missed it, Part One of this story is at this link.)

The late Ken Kohler began his Disney career in the mid-1950s as a conductor on the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad. Through the years, Kohler’s work was recognized, and in 1961 he rose to the rank of Superintendent of Monorail/Steam Train Maintenance, although he was a controversial figure among those who worked for him.

Mike Bronstein visited Kohler in the 1970s, and recalls Kohler describing Walt Disney: "Walt told me to take the damn things (Retlaw 1) off the track because they were hard to load and unload quickly. I asked him, ‘Why don’t we place them in the shops and use them when the place gets crowded?’ Walt yelled, ‘KOHLER…I TOLD YOU TO TAKE THOSE DAMN THINGS OFF!!!’" While Kohler may have been in charge of the roundhouse, it was most definitely Walt’s railroad.


Walt may not have wanted the entire Retlaw 1 train in service. But several years after Walt’s passing in 1966, Kohler had the foresight to see that there might be a future for Grand Canyon. In 1974, Kohler had one whopper of an idea.

Ken Kohler, left, discusses operations with a brakeman (a now-obsolete cast member
position that would equate today with a conductor) and another Disney executive.

In that year, America was quickly gearing up for its 1976 Bicentennial celebration, only two years away. Kohler had the idea that perhaps car 106, Grand Canyon, could be revived as a "Bicentennial Car," decked out with red-white-and-blue bunting. Eventually, according to a Disneyland newsletter, "Ken’s idea evolved into a plan to rebuild her as an elegant private railcar for distinguished guests."

According to Michael Broggie’s book, Walt Disney’s Railroad Story, "Bill Cottrell, Retlaw’s president, liked the idea; the work was begun in July 1974 to completely renovate the coach."

This drawing by Preston Nirattisai, shows the differing
window arrangements on both sides of the car.

Along with a complete restoration, the car would receive a new name as well. Borrowing the tradition of naming ships after women, it was decided to give the car a lady’s name, and no one deserved the honor more than Lillian Disney. So, the car would be re-christened Lilly Belle, as Walt no doubt would have wished.

Work on re-designing the car began in earnest. According to Kohler, "There are no set rules for building a private car. They were all built to individual tastes." As written in an undated Disney memo of the time that may have been used for cast member training, titled Preliminary Notes and Fact Sheet for Railroad Car #106 "Lilly Belle," "The concept of the private car was carefully planned with Mrs. Lillian Disney Truyens to carry out the theme and the personal taste with memorabilia of Walt’s interest in trains."

All of the restoration work was done under Cottrell’s personal direction. Research was conducted using books on private rail cars of the era, with the understanding that the car should reflect the personal tastes of the owner. Walt had a great interest in the Victorian era, and as such, a strong Victorian theme resulted in the car’s decoration.

Some of the Victorian "bric-a-brac" that was installed in
the car to contribute to the theme. Photo courtesy Matt Walker.

The actual rebuild of the car began by completely gutting the interior. The seats were removed, and the linoleum flooring was ripped out. The Preliminary Notes states that the crew, "Start[ed] with a red Victorian carpet with a rose pattern as a first stage of refurbishing the train." Some of the original four-abreast seats were reupholstered in a deep claret mohair to complement the decor. Externally, one of the double sets of windows on the left side of the car were paneled over, giving that side of the car a non-symmetrical look typical of 19th century private cars.

The floor plan of the Lilly Belle as it was originally conceived and how it was restored.
The four-seat bench on the right had been replaced with freestanding chairs.
Drawing by Preston Nirattisai.

Broggie continues, "The interior mahogany paneling was sanded and varnished, and Victorian gold leaf designs were stenciled onto the curved ceiling panels." Outside, the car was given a coat of luxurious burgundy paint, followed by coats of varnish to give it a high gloss. A new drumhead was created, to honor America’s Bicentennial.

Proud Disneyland Railroad cast members have their photo taken in the
roundhouse beside the newly rebuilt car in 1975. Times certainly
have changed: note the CM on the right holding a pipe.

The Lilly Belle’s original drumhead is now in a private collection.

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© 2008 Steve DeGaetano

A Different look at Disney...
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