Eighteen months ago, a quiet change came to Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Walt Disney's beloved Disneyland Railroad steam trains, childhood favorites that make clockwise runs around his namesake theme park, stopped using diesel fuel. Instead, Disney began running them on a fuel it had plenty of: used french-fry oil.
The process is a little more complicated than simply hooking up the locomotives to a diesel hose. After a few days of use in deep-fryers around the park, the used vegetable oil is stored in tanks. When enough is collected, it's shipped off-site to be processed into a fuel that the trains can consume, then returned to park property to gas them up. The five locomotives devour about 200,000 gallons of fuel a year, but the oil reclaimed from on-premises kitchens can't meet the entire demand.
Representatives from Disney Parks tell me that the process costs the company a little more than an off-the-shelf diesel purchase might, but there are side benefits, including air that isn't polluted with noxious black fumes -- an important consideration in a densely populated area such as Anaheim.
The initiative also recalls the early goals of Walt Disney himself, who made the trains one of the original attractions of the Disneyland park when it opened 55 years ago. Not only did he love his trains -- a miniature one roamed his backyard in Holmby Hills, Los Angeles -- but he was also a fervent tester of novel technologies.
Even if new ideas (sound cartoons, "multiplane" animation, Audio-Animatronics) cost a little bit more, Disney wanted to try them, and as each one met with success, they became more affordable and later, more common. This commitment to testing new technologies was an integral part of his original vision for Epcot which was supposed to be a place where residents gave new ideas a test run, but after his death, his company's stewards simplified the plans from a living laboratory to a tourist's diversion.
It's unusual to see a publicly traded company such as Disney attempt an idea that might possibly impact the bottom line, but in this case, it's symbolic of the higher ideals that the privately held version of the company had.
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