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Visit Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn in Los Angeles

by Samantha Davis-Friedman

You may know that Walt Disney had the 1/8th scale “Carolwood Pacific Railroad” (CPRR) circling the backyard of his home in Holmby Hills, Calif, but what you may not know is that Walt’s CPRR workshop was the red Carolwood Barn (a replica of the barn from his childhood home in Marceline, Mo.) In 1999, Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn was relocated from Holmby Hills across town to Griffith Park, where it’s open to the public on the third Sunday of each month. 

Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn
Photos by Samantha Davis-Friedman

Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn

Walt's Disney's Carolwood Barn

According to Jeff, a volunteer for the Carolwood Foundation (the non-profit organization that operates and maintains the barn), the people who bought Walt’s property in Holmby Hills were going to tear down both the house and the barn, but Walt’s daughter Diane Disney Miller asked if she could have the barn – and then she had to find a place to put it.

Luckily for Diane (and Disney fans everywhere), the Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum offered part of their Griffith Park property, so the barn was disassembled and reassembled there on July 19, 1999.

“What you see is the original barn,” Jeff said. “In here are things Walt used every day, and everything you’re seeing is the way it would have been when Walt worked in here.”

Walt at the Carolwood Barn
Photo courtesy of Carolwood Foundation

When visitors enter Walt’s Carolwood Barn – which is 97% original – they’ll see a museum filled with photographs, artifacts, model trains, and Walt’s personal items (including his desk and work benches he hand-built himself), all showcasing his love of trains.

Be sure not to miss CPRR Central Track Control, the switchboard Walt used to operate the 11 turnouts (or switches) with lights to mark the train’s location on the track.

Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn - Walt's Switchboard

Also displayed in the barn is a model of “Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland,” created by artist Sam Towler, who later became an Imagineer. Paying tribute to the classic Disneyland attraction (which became Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1977), Towler’s model mine train travels from the town of Rainbow Ridge, through Beaver Valley, around Cascade Peak, over Bear Country, through the Living Desert, under Balancing Rock Canyon, and finally into Rainbow Caverns.

Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn - Sam Towler and Bob Gurr
2017 photo of Towler with Disney Legend Bob Gurr, who worked on the original attraction
Photo courtesy of Carolwood Foundation

Sante Fe & Disneyland Railroad Retlaw1 Combine

The barn is certainly the reason many people visit, but equally important to Disneyland history is the original bright yellow 5/8-scale Retlaw1 Combine coach #101 from the Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad that circled the Anaheim park on opening day.

Did you know? “Combine” is a railroad term for a coach that carries both passengers and freight. And Retlaw? That’s Walter spelled backward.

“This is one of the original five cars in the Disneyland Railroad that were built at the studio and operated the day it opened,” explained John, another Carolwood Foundation volunteer. “It says Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad rather than what it says now in the park (just Disneyland Railroad) because Santa Fe was a major sponsor of the railroad for Walt in terms of getting it built, and if you look at the opening day ceremonies, you’ll see the executives of the Santa Fe standing with Walt when he gives his speech.”

Fun Fact: According to John, when workers were installing the stones around the train tracks at Disneyland, Walt said, “That’s not right.” He then explained to the crew that, since they were building a railroad at 5/8-scale, the stones were too big, so they got smaller stones to make it look correct.

Ollie Johnston’s Station

A (literally) hidden gem is Ollie Johnston’s Station. One of Walt Disney Studio’s original animators (who, along with Frank Thomas, John Lounsbery, Marc Davis, Ward Kimball, Woolie Reitherman, Les Clark, Eric Larson, and Milt Kahl, were known as the Nine Old Men), Disney Legend Johnston was a train enthusiast who created a backyard railroad at his home in La Canada and sparked Walt’s own interest in trains.

Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn - Ollie Johnston's Station

Reminiscent of the New Orleans Square station at Disneyland, the charming little yellow train depot tucked behind the Retlaw1 combine car was originally part of Ollie’s La Canada, Calif. backyard railroad but was rescued by the Carolwood Foundation when the Johnston property went up for sale in 2007. If you listen closely, you can hear the tapping sound of morse code, just like in the park.

Meet Imagineers at Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn

When I visited the barn yesterday – Disneyland’s 67th anniversary – I was told, “you never know who will be here.” That’s because Disney experts and Imagineers from every era tend to “drop in” whenever the barn is open.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to meet Marcy Carriker Smothers, who was signing her book “Walt’s Disneyland,” and retired Imagineer Tania Norris. Norris, an  Imagineering interior designer from 1964 to 1970, worked on New Orleans Square, the Haunted Mansion (including designing its famous purple wallpaper), and Club 33, plus the Plaza Inn restaurant in Disneyland and some of Walt Disney World’s original restaurants.

Tania Norris, Samantha Davis-Friedman, and Marcy Carriker Smothers at Walt Disney's Carolwood Barn
Tania Norris, Samantha Davis-Friedman, and Marcy Carriker Smothers
Photo by Steve Russo

Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn is open from 11:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. on the third Sunday of each month (weather permitting). Admission and parking are free, but donations are accepted (and appreciated).

Click here for more information or follow Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

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