Every Disney theme park, ranked solely by their trains

The HAPPIEST PLACE ON EARTH (tm. Image: Getty.

Walt Disney: animation pioneer, ruthless tycoon, union crusher… and train fan. Ever since his childhood in the town of Marceline on the Santa Fe railroad, Disney had a lifelong fascination with trains. 

He not only included them in his films (most famously, the persistent Casey Jr. in Dumbo) but he built them too. After back injuries stopped him playing sport, he became interested in model trains, and in 1949, he built the miniature Carolwood Pacific Railroad in his garden. And every Disney park features some type of train transportation.

But which one is the best? This is the definitive ranking.

Before we start, let’s quickly set out what we mean by trains. No, rollercoasters don’t count, even if it pretends to be a proper railway (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I’m looking at you). We’re only interested in vehicles that run on some sort of rail, outdoors, under their own power. Lots of websites have ranked Disney parks by their rollercoasters, but only CityMetric will tell you which one has the best variety of rail vehicles.

6. Shanghai Disney Resort

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This is the best photo I could find of Shanghai Disney Resort station. More like, Dismal Resort. Photo: Baycrest/Wikimedia Commons.

The Disney park in Shanghai was supposedly specially tailored to Chinese tastes, and apparently Chinese people don’t like trains, because this park doesn’t have any fun ones. The only rail transport it has is a station on the Shanghai Metro. To be fair, that’s an impressive system – the second largest underground network in the world, but Disney doesn’t get the credit for that – and perhaps it explains why Shanghai residents wouldn’t think of trains as something to ride for fun.

5. Hong Kong Disneyland

You’ve got to admit – the windows are a neat touch. Photo: Hokachung/Wikimedia Commons.

At least this one has one train ride – the Hong Kong Disneyland Railroad which transports guests between the Main Street USA and Fantasyland areas – but unlike the equivalent railways in the other parks, the “steam” engines are just diesel locomotives dressed up with funnels and coal tenders. 

It also slightly one-ups Shanghai Disney Resort by having not just a subway station, but a dedicated line on the Hong Kong MTR system, and the trains on it rather charmingly have Mickey Mouse-shaped windows.

4. Tokyo Disney

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Just remember, even Tokyo DisneySea has a better metro network than Leeds. Photo: Garet/Wikimedia Commons.

From here on in, it’s nothing but good stuff. Tokyo may be on the bottom half of this list, but it still has a monorail which runs around the park and connects it to commuter rail services at Maihama station, a genuine steam-powered sightseeing train called the Western River Railroad, and an overhead electric railway in the DisneySea part of the resort. 

That said, it was a slow adopter of trains – under Japanese law, any railway line with more than one station used to be regulated as transportation. The monorail and the elevated line weren’t built until after that law was repealed.

3. Disneyland (Anaheim, the original)

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The far future, as seen from 1959. Photo: HarshLight/Wikimedia Commons.

There’s a lot to like here. The Disneyland monorail is a famous piece of retro space age engineering, while the steam railroad was directly inspired by Walt’s own model trains and those of his friend Ward Kimball, and the Main Street Streetcar is one of the few horse-drawn trams left in the world. More recently, the park has also added a tram that replicates the appearance of the classic Red Car streetcars (famous from Who Framed Roger Rabbit), although it actually runs on battery power despite having fake overhead wires.

Why doesn’t it rank higher? Well, the Casey Jr Circus Train is really just a children’s ride with only one station, and most of the others can also be found at…

2. Walt Disney World (Orlando)

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I should include a steam train somewhere. Might as well be here. Photo: Jackdude101/Wikimedia Commons.

Monorail? Check. Horse tram? Check. Steam railway? Check. No electric tram, but it does have a safari train, the Wildlife Express that runs through the Animal Kingdom, and the frankly bizarre Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover. 

Supposedly a vision of public transport of the future, the ride only actually has one station, rendering it completely useless as a people mover, but it is powered by linear induction, the same basic principle that pushes maglev trains along.

1. Disneyland Paris

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Keep your Space Mountains and your Pirates of the Caribbeans. This is all we want from a Disneyland. Photo: Remontees/Wikimedia Commons.

OK, there’s no monorail here, but there is another steam railway and another horse tram (and another Casey Jr). But there is also one thing that sets Disneyland Paris apart from all other Disney parks: le Gare de Marne-la-Vallée-Chessy. 

Buried underneath the park is a station with both local train services on the Paris RER and high-speed lines. TGV services from all corners of France call at the station, meaning you are just a few hours away from Bordeaux, Lille, Marseille, Nantes or Strasbourg. Even better, the station also gets trains from Eurostar and Thalys to destinations like Amsterdam, Brussels and, of course, London.

Some of Disneyland Paris’s direct train connections. It’s not such a small world after all. Adapted from a map by madcap/Wikimedia Commons.

The best most Disney parks can do when it comes to international experience is a quick boat ride through the pretend dioramas It’s a Small World, but from Disneyland Paris, you actually can travel to another country. And that’s why it’s the happiest place on earth, provided that your definition of happiness mainly involves trains.


 

 
 
 
 

To build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.