From the very beginning, Disney theme parks have been closely tied to their corporate sponsors. This was born of necessity; Walt had to rely on those sponsorships to get Disneyland built in 1955, and it’s a tactic that the company has used ever since to differing levels of success or taste. The effect of this heritage on Disney fans is rather odd when you stop to think about it, and it shows in the end how successful these deals were for the sponsoring companies. For those of you who are long-time park goers, think about it: how many of your perceptions of specific corporations were shaped by their sponsorship of Disney attractions? In many cases, there’s a friendly nostalgia in generations of fans for corporations or products that they never use or that might not even exist anymore.
How many young visitors from Walt Disney World’s past now have a powerful affinity for the defunct Eastern Airlines because of If You Had Wings? How many long-time Disneylanders harbor a love for Monsanto, despite that company’s dark history of pollution and injurious behavior, because they brought us the Mighty Microscope of Adventures Thru Inner Space? When I first started driving, I only bought gas at Exxon because they sponsored Universe of Energy (a habit which soon changed because of their general air of evil). Think of the others – Dole, Kodak, Kikkoman, or Bass. And how many of our ears perk up when we hear the name United Technologies, because they sponsored The Living Seas? Now raise your hands if you actually know what United Technologies does.
But outside of all the famous sponsors from years past, there are some that remain less well-known. One of these, which came as a surprise to me when I found its ad in a 1977 guide to Walt Disney World, was the auto-train. auto-train!
Instead of driving all the way to Florida, why not eliminate all that hassle? In 1970, a 33-year-old lawyer and civil servant named Eugene K. Garfield founded the auto-train Corporation. Building on a federal study from the 1960s that indicated a market for rail service for passengers and their vehicles (similar services existed already in Europe and Canada), Garfield purchased some used equipment and began a route from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida in December of 1971. The service was incredibly popular, allowing Garfield to upgrade the company’s rolling stock, and was considered to be such a success that auto-train sought to expand its service to other routes.
It was during these flush times that auto-train became, as the above ad states, the “official family railroad of Walt Disney World.” The ad is from 1977; according to Widen Your World, the sponsorship ran only from roughly 1976 to 1977. So, for that one brief year, Disney had its first and perhaps only official family railroad. But that’s not all!
That’s right, auto-train sponsored the Walt Disney World Railroad. I never knew that the WDWRR ever had a sponsor, so this was quite a surprise. But what better sponsor for the grand-circle tour of the Magic Kingdom than the official family railroad of Walt Disney World? And, when you’re done, don’t forget to stop at City Hall or the Travel and Tour Desks at the Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village Resort or Lake Buena Vista Hotel Plaza hotels to book your tickets home!
Sadly, things didn’t work out for auto-train. The expanded service to new destinations was unsuccessful, never matching the popularity of the Virginia to Florida route, and an added route to Louisville, Kentucky proved a critical drain on the company’s finances. An ensuing drop in maintenance and service quality, along with several prominent derailments and accidents, led to the company’s bankruptcy and the end of auto-train service in 1981.
Despite its problems, the auto-train service to Florida had remained popular until the end and demand for a similar service continued. Thankfully, in 1983 Amtrak recognized the market demand for such a route and purchased the former auto-train depots and much of the existing equipment and rolling stock. The revived Auto Train service is still in operation today, where it continues to be Amtrak’s highest grossing and most profitable train. A new depot has since been built in Lorton, Virginia, and the outmoded facilities on the Florida end are now being replaced thanks to $10.5 million in federal stimulus funds. The new, more spacious terminal is scheduled to open in 2010.