Ward Kimball, a legendary animator, Academy Award winning director, Imagineering consultant, trombonist, and train enthusiast, was born on this day in 1914. As Walt Disney put it “Ward Kimball is one person that I can truly call a genius.”
According to Imagineer Randy Bright, “Disney’s wife, Lillian, believed that it was Walt’s longtime fascination with trains that really provided a focus for Disneyland.” Perhaps no one nurtured that fascination with trains for Walt more than Kimball, whose San Gabriel home was surrounded by old orange groves and became home to the Grizzly Flats Railroad. Kimball often hosted “steam-up” gatherings where he entertained guests with his railroad. On October 20, 1945, Walt attended one of these parties and jumped aboard the Emma Nevada locomotive. With Kimball’s encouragement and supervision, Walt drove a full-size locomotive for the first time in his life. As Kimball put it, it was immediately clear Walt had “a railroader’s ‘high iron’ in his blood that he just hadn’t discovered…yet.”
A few years later Walt invited Kimball to join him on a trip, by rail of course, to the Chicago Railroad Fair. The event celebrated historic trains from the past century where Walt was able to see and climb into a wide variety of locomotives. Walt said “We were like two kids in a candy store.“ The pair also visited the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan while on the trip. After he got home, Walt told Lillian “That was the most fun I ever had in my life.” Around the same time, Walt added a model train in the room next to his office. In 1951, Walt added the Carolwood Pacific Railroad in the backyard of his home. For years, Walt’s doctors told him to find a hobby to distract him from the stress at the studio. Thanks to Kimball, Walt had found one and it would lay the tracks to even bigger hobbies – Disneyland.
Kimball’s direct involvement with designing and building Disneyland is somewhat narrow in scope. He explained in an interview with Storyboard magazine that “I was only an advisor to Disneyland, and helped Walt decide on the styles and designs of the steam railroad trains.” However, Kimball’s vast book collection also played a role. As he explained in an interview with Jim Korkis:
“You know, the studio borrowed my books on architecture. I used to go to used book stores and pick up tons of books on all sorts of subjects for my personal library. Anyway, they used all my books for reference for Disneyland.”
In fact, according to author Sam Gennaway, Disneyland’s train station architecture is composed of “elements from several 1890s stations found in a book from Ward Kimball’s collection called Buildings and Structures of American Railroads.”
Kimball was named a Disney Legend in 1989. Then in 2005, the Disneyland Railroad’s new Engine No. 5 was named the Ward Kimball in his honor.
Because of his truly legendary career, there are countless Kimball anecdotes and quotes. Let’s close with a serious one and a funny one, since Kimball was an infamous prankster.
Kimball and Walt could butt heads from time to time, but he deeply admired Walt as both an artist and a leader. Kimball said:
“Walt’s genius lay also in his ability to apply constant pressure on his artists to improve their work, even beyond their own goals or expectations. Walt’s demands on all of us to turn out a product that was universally entertaining as well as believable and to bring all the factions and departments together to make this possible best sums up Walt’s genius.”
Now onto the lighter side – Kimball told Jim Korkis in an interview:
“Walt would often call me up in the middle of the night with an idea or something to discuss and he’d always say ‘Ward, this is Walt.’ And I would always respond, ‘Walt WHO?’ Then he’d get upset and yell, “Walt Disney for Chrissake!” I told him, ‘Well, I know a lot of Walts.”
Finally, you can see Kimball’s Grizzly Flats Railroad locomotives and coaches at the Southern California Railway Museum in Perris, California, which is about an hour east of Disneyland.