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Buena Vista Street Brings the 1920s Back with Red Car Trolleys

Photo Credit: Orange Empire Railway Museum

Today, when most people think of California, they think about long sandy beaches, Los Angeles cityscapes and a maze of freeways. What most people don’t think about are the Red Cars Trolleys that once rolled alongside the city streets of downtown Los Angeles and Pasadena. However, these Little Red Cars are as much a part of the rich heritage of California as the gold rush, the miles of beaches and the urban landscape.

In the late 1800’s, the people who lived in the the “sticks” outside of major cities often had a long and hard trek. One option was the horse car but it was slow, strenuous work for the horses and many times it was just as difficult. Thus came the cable car and then the electric Little Red Trolley.

The beginnings of the first Red Car Trolley are a bit fuzzy. According to The University of Southern California, the first streetcar system in Los Angeles dates back to 1874. Judge Robert M. Widney convinced his neighbors in the vicinity of Third and Hill Streets (then considered “the sticks”) that they needed a convenient way to get to the business section of the city. Whether it was the horse car or the electric car, the transit system of California was growing at an ever increasing pace.

Photo Credit: Orange Empire Railway Museum

Seeing opportunity in a growing market, Henry Huntington began buying land in growing areas not yet reached by existing public transportation. In 1901, he established the Pacific Electric Railway and laid tracks to these holdings. Pacific Electric took over the Los Angeles-Pasadena interurban line, then built a new line to Long Beach in 1902. By 1914, you could go from downtown L.A. to San Bernardino, Santa Ana, San Pedro or San Fernando.  Pacific Electric offered low cost trips to a variety of southern California destinations.

I know what you’re thinking, big deal right? Well it WAS a big deal back then. This was before the car, before we could be across the country in just a few hours in a Boeing-747 Jet. For the first time where you lived wasn’t the only determiner of your job description.

Trolley cars didn’t become known as “PE Red” until the great merger of 1911. Where 8 companies came to be together under 1 name – Pacific Electric.   The Red Car Trolley continued to grow and expand until the 1940-50’s. At its peak, the Pacific Electric Railway was huge with 1,150 miles of track covering four counties and 900 cars. 1944 marked the highest ridership over 109 million passengers. Unfortunately, they just couldn’t compete with the automobile and the last piece of the system was abandoned in 1961.

Stack of abandoned PE “Red Cars” at Terminal Island, Los Angeles Photo Credit: Orange Empire Railway Museum

The trolley car was down, but not out. Forty-two years later, a small piece of the system was resurrected in San Pedro, at the Port of Los Angeles Waterfront Red Car Line. Although, if you’re looking for a dream come true you have to go to the place where that happens – DisneyLand, specifically Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure.

The newly expanded Disney California Adventure Park takes you through time and allows you to experience Los Angeles in the way that Walt did when he first arrived. You will most surely immediately wonder, “What are all these tracks and wires for?”. And I’ll bet that before you can even formulate a guess, 1 of the 4 Red Trolley Cars will pass thru making you think, “AHA!” I’ll bet you’ll also stop and tap your toes as Mickey and his friends sing and wave to you from the car.

Buena Vista Street Red Trolley Car Disney California Adventure

Each Red Car Trolley has a bell and a whistle and the trolley interiors showcase the soft green and cream colors of the time period. Disney went above and beyond, even featuring vintage-looking ads highlighting food locations and shops in the park.What really blew my mind was the attention to little details that the geniuses at Disney put into these cars.

Each Red Car Trolley has a number. The 623 with the number “23” is nod to the year Walt Disney arrived in California. The 717 car is inspired by the 700-750 series manufactured by the J.G. Brill Company in 1925 and  7-17 also refers to the birthday of Disneyland Park, July 17, 1955! Seriously, who would have thought? Well THEY did. There are actually a ton of these hidden gems throughout Buena Vista Street…but alas, those easter eggs are for another post at another time.

Thank you to Disney for making it possible for me to experience Buena Vista Street at Disney California Adventure. No compensation was received and all opinions are original.

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Jeana S

Jeana S

Research lab rat turned travel mom, Jeana S writes about gadgets, tech, entertainment, weddings and of course, travel. When she's not using her powers for social good, she enjoys photography, cooking and playing robots with her son. On occasion, you may also find her crocheting cute things to hide in Ben's underwear drawer.


  1. July 6, 2012 at 10:38 am — Reply

    We have a working trolley line in our town too – Love it!

  2. July 6, 2012 at 12:34 pm — Reply

    I’d love for my kids to experience a trolley ride. Guess we’ll have to wait till my little man turns 3 to do this one!

  3. July 6, 2012 at 1:22 pm — Reply

    That looks awesome! My kids would love to ride the trolley!

  4. July 6, 2012 at 1:39 pm — Reply

    This looks so neat. I would love to ride a trolley! Great post!

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