It’s no secret that Griffith Park is the site of many iconic moments in celluloid history. James Dean’s knife fight in the Observatory parking lot over which the Rocketeer once soared… Marty McFly being chased on a hover-board by Biff Tannen through the same tunnel that was the entrance to Toon Town… The earthquake that helped Robert Downey Jr. and Tim Robbins cover up the murder of a date (in the Robert Altman film, Short Cuts)… With so many landmarks dotting the Griffith map, it’s not a stretch to say that the park itself is a piece of film history.
Even one of the permanent “parks within the park,” Travel Town, was the location of a scene from The Jerk, in which Steve Martin, the engineer of a miniature steam locomotive, pays the price for focusing more on Bernadette Peters than the train of which he’s in charge, and ends up having to “rescue” the brat she’s babysitting when he commandeers it. The mini-steamers are permanent too, and though new tracks, tunnels, bridges, and buildings have been added to the Travel Town grounds, little has changed since Carl Reiner (the film’s director) yelled, “Cut!” The train ride is one of two mini-steamer lines (the other being the Griffith Park & Southern Railroad) that, with very rare exceptions, operate daily in the park, and have for decades.
Every Sunday (with the exception of Memorial Day weekend and the first weekend in October), local miniature train enthusiast organization, the Los Angeles Live Steamers, adds more rails to ride, offering donation-only spins around the huge LALS complex – just slightly east of Travel Town. At the suggested donation price of $3, it’s both reasonable, and a nice way to spend a lazy Sunday. A lot of TLC has gone into producing an experience that shows the general public just how fun the miniature train hobby can be, while showcasing some of Griffith Park’s most beautiful real estate.
At the far east corner of the property, just across from a functioning steam plant, is the “Crown Jewel,” of LALS’s section of the park, Walt Disney’s Carolwood Barn. Maintained and operated by the Carolwood Historical Society, the Disney Barn – much like Winnie the Pooh’s fabled “Thinking Spot” – was Walt’s private space, where he came up with ideas for his parks and films as he worked on his hobby, nay, his passion, model trains and railroads. If you didn’t know, the Disney family property included, for many years, the Carolwood Pacific Railroad, which ran through the 5-acre Holmby Hills estate. It was moved to Griffith Park in 1999, when, because of asbestos concerns, the current owner of the property was forced to demolish most of the Disney house.
Billed as “the birthplace of Imagineering,” the barn is where Mr. Disney got one of his first inspirations for Disneyland: an amusement park with a scale train running along the perimeter. In the late 40’s – after a trip to the Chicago Railroad Fair, he’d gotten into model trains as a way of relieving the stress of being a studio head. The barn is a scale replica of a set piece from one of the lesser known Disney features, So Dear to My Heart, designed by Disney and based on his recollections of the barn from his childhood home in Marceline, Missourri. One could even say that the barn is the flashpoint of all things Disney in that, as his favorite place to play as a boy, the Marceline barn was where young Walt nurtured his imagination with activities like putting on a circus for his neighbors.
In terms of space, it is only one room, and relatively small – in a sense, one of the world’s first “Man Caves.” A guided tour with a docent takes about 15 minutes. However if you have the desire to hear more information and stories, the volunteer staffers will gladly indulge you. Despite close quarters, and a healthy population of visitors, it’s not very crowded at all, yet the space is packed with Disney memorabilia, both from Walt’s personal collection, and Disney Studios/Parks. In the very near future, another permanent piece of Disneyana will be added to the permanent installation: a fully restored car from the first train to give “Grand Circle” tours around the park from 1955 to 1974.
The Walt Disney Barn is open to the public on the third Sunday of every month from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Like LA Live Steamers, admission is on a donations-only basis, so if you can give a little, it’s well worth the modest requested contribution – and if, like a lot of folks these days, your wallet is light, and you need every cent you can keep, nobody will glare at you in resentment. There are a limited number of picnic tables, and plenty of shade. Additionally, on select Saturday nights during the summer, they screen classic movies on the side of the barn. [BYOC – or “Bring your own chair.”] For more information on the Disney Barn, and the Carolwood Foundation, please visit the Carolwood Rail Road Company homepage.