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Planes, Trains, and John Lasseter: An Inspiring Story of a Father Figure and a Dream

 

(left to right:) Sean Bautista, Planes director Klay Hall, and Bruce McElhoe

(left to right:) Sean Bautista, <em>Planes</em> director Klay Hall, and Bruce McElhoe

The word “father” is more than simply a description of a male biological relationship. A father is a person who loves and cares in a way that goes beyond duty or obligation — whether he is biologically-related to the younger person that benefits from his influence or not. There are people who act as surrogate fathers and they make just as big of an impact on our lives. We see that dynamic in the movie Up, for example, when Carl slowly comes to love Russell and adopt him as the son he never had.

I had the pleasure recently of speaking with Sean Bautista, a pilot and train expert, and technical adviser for Planes and the upcoming Planes: Fire & Rescue. He told me a story that evoked that of Carl and Russell — but his was centered on two other important (real life) Disney characters: John Lasseter and his mentor, animator and Disney Legend Ollie Johnston.

As Sean tells it, when John first worked at the Disney animation studios, Ollie had taken him under his wing, paying special attention to him. Ollie passed down to John not only his incredible knowledge about animation — but also his love of trains. Even before Walt owned the Lilly Belle at his house, Ollie owned a backyard steam train. Later, he restored a narrow gauge steam engine he called The Marie E, after his wife Marie Estelle, and it was housed at Ollie’s vacation home where it was quite beloved by Ollie.

In the cab of the Marie E, (left to right:) Sean Bautista, John Lasseter, Ollie Johnston and Ollie's son

In the cab of the Marie E, (left to right:) Sean Bautista, John Lasseter, Ollie Johnston and Ollie’s son

While at a social function together, John noticed that Ollie looked a little down in the dumps and asked his mentor what was wrong. Ollie stared up at John with obvious sorrow in his eyes and said, “I think I’ve made a mistake.” He told John about how he had finally sold the vacation house along with his beloved train, and he was worried about the “baby” (the train) he had left behind. He said to John: “I don’t think they’re going to take care of her the way she’s supposed to be taken care of.” John looked at his mentor and right away he knew what he must do. He called his agent and said, “You need to buy Ollie’s train for me. I don’t care what it costs. Just find out where it is and get it.”

John’s agent did just that and soon the Marie E was in John’s possession. Indeed, Ollie was right and the train needed some serious work, so John’s agent found one of the most capable restoration experts: Sean Bautista.

Sean worked hard on the train, but train restoration is slow work. John came to Sean one day and told him he wanted to be able to surprise Ollie, who was then 90 years old, while he was still capable of operating the train himself. He came up with all sorts of ideas to come through for his old friend and mentor and asked Sean if it would be alright to let Ollie come to Reedley and operate the train there at the ranch. Of course, Sean agreed, but Ollie’s family told John that the trip would just be too much for him. Suddenly, a light bulb went off in John’s head and he said to Sean, “What if we could get the train to Disneyland? Would it work there?” And Sean kiddingly told him, “Well, yeah, if somehow you could transport this entire train over the Grapevine, have it installed on the tracks at the park, and convince park management to let you drive a privately owned train on their tracks along with all the insurance liabilities that go with it, sure it can be done.”

Needless to say, John almost miraculously made all of that a done deal.

Pulling into Frontier Station with Ollie hogging and Dave Derfelt from Hillcrest Shops Firing

Pulling into Frontier Station with Ollie “hogging”

With the train now at Disneyland, they still needed to find a way to surprise Ollie. A Disney train enthusiast group had wanted to honor Ollie for his lifetime work in the train community and so John coordinated the ceremony to be held before park opening. Everyone was gathered in front of the New Orleans train station where they had a quiet and beautiful ceremony to honor Ollie’s work. After the award had been presented, John told Ollie, “This isn’t the only reason we wanted you here today Ollie.” He gave the signal to have Sean bring the train into the station, and Sean blew the whistle as they approached. Ollie, without even seeing it, said, “It’s my baby!” He knew his train from just the whistle sound alone.

When the train came into the station, Ollie was beside himself with joy. He cried along with every other person at the ceremony. He was able to run the Marie E two full times around the park and John was able to fulfill a promise to a man who was much more than just a friend — he was truly an important father figure.

Planes: Fire & Rescue, which Sean Bautista was a technical adviser on, flies into theaters on July 18th.

The photos accompanying this piece were provided by Sean and Melissa Bautista.

Find more of Craig’s writing on his blog!

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