‘Just as special as Disneyland,’ backyard trains draw crowds


A model train moves past Woody and Jess from “Toy Story” in the section themed after Frontierland at Dave Sheegog’s backyard garden railroad in Anaheim. Photo by Susan Valot.

Dave Sheegog’s Anaheim backyard is a mini magical wonderland. The colorful Casey Junior Circus Train chugs by tiny replicas of Disney attractions: the Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, the Disneyland sign. Three-inch tall figurines of the Disneyland Band blast a classic tune in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle, where statues of various princesses line up. Nearby, the Peter Pan kids “fly” above a pirate ship below Belle’s Castle from Beauty and the Beast.

Sheegog grew up in Garden Grove, where he could watch the park’s fireworks at night and hear the Disneyland Railroad’s whistle, and worked the Davy Crockett canoes a few summers during college. But he insists he is not a Disney nut. He just became inspired to build a garden railroad for his young kids, whom he and his wife home-schooled. 

“I thought there’s so many things that would be fun to do, and they could be learning,” he says. “The kids could learn about hydraulics, with all the waterfalls; or civil engineering, like how you build retaining walls; or botany, if you’re into life sciences; or maybe they’ll be koi ponds, maybe they can take care of fish. I just thought … it was going to be a learning laboratory.”

And so it was.

But Sheegog didn’t build it to be a temporary kids’ science project.

“It was like, ‘Okay, you’re going to put in a train. That’s fine,’” recounts Sheegog’s wife, Frances Sheegog. “But I was very upset when I saw the first mountains going up in concrete. I said, ‘Who’s going to buy the house with these concrete mountains?’ And he very quickly said, ‘You know, obviously somebody who loves Disney.’”

That was about 25 years ago. 

The Castle Peak and Thunder Railroad display in Anaheim includes concrete replicas of the castles and mountains in Disney parks, including Sleeping Beauty Castle, Splash Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion. Photo by Susan Valot.

The Sheegog family started opening their display to visitors around 2001, initially only for train groups or Disney superfans. But then neighbors started to wonder what was up. 

Sheegog says someone at church told him that there was a thread online, where people were wondering what “the gumballs” were on Serrano Avenue in Anaheim Hills. 

Those “gumballs” were actually the back side of Sheegog’s display of the house from Up being carried away by a cluster of balloons. From the street behind the yard, they looked like the top of a gumball machine.

Sheegog agreed to have an open house. They set up an RSVP invite.

“And the next morning, I had like 2,700 RSVPs all saying, ‘See you on Saturday,’” Sheegog remembers.

To prevent Disneyland-sized crowds in a quiet suburban neighborhood, they had to cancel it until they could come up with a better system, limiting the number of people. 

They now hold an open house for eight weekend days each spring and fall. Guests have to reserve a free spot ahead of time, capped at 250 people per day. Those slots usually fill up within minutes.

Visitors gawk at the Disney park trains, point out details, and search for Hidden Mickeys.

“A lot of times, I’ll just sit back on a bench and watch it,” Sheegog says. “When you see all these happy faces and families and kids running around, and just the joy it brings to a lot of people … it makes you actually want to do more.”

Dave Sheegog interacts with a young guest who’s dressed as Snow White at his Disney-themed garden railroad. Behind them is Belle’s Castle from “Beauty and the Beast.” Photo by Susan Valot.

Phil Lubman, a Disney Imagineer himself, stopped by the spring 2024 open house with his 8-year-old son, who ran around with his buddy, pointing out the different characters and trains. 

“I get to play with the real trains at Disneyland, but I also love garden railroads,” Lubman says. “I’ve been living up here for 18 years, and I’ve seen over this fence the castle and that, and I’m like, ‘What is going on there?!’ And then I researched it and I’m like, ‘Wow, that Dave guy, he did what I wanted to do.’”

Lubman also appreciates the effect it has on his son, who is on the autism spectrum and has struggled with socializing and going outside. At the Disney garden railroad, officially known as the Castle Peak and Thunder Railroad, the boy ran around, engaged in his surroundings.

“My son, just hanging out with his buddy, eating popcorn, looking at the stuff – you’d never know he has a problem,” Lubman says. “To me, it’s just as special as Disneyland.”

He now hopes to build something similar in his own yard, and invite Sheegog over to see.

Frances Sheegog says the display has grown on her over the years. Now she’s the greeter at the entrance and loves seeing the excited faces. She even makes little bags of popcorn for the kids to grab at the “Tiki bar.”

“It’s such a simple, little thing,” Frances Sheegog says. “We’re going to have this in our backyard anyway, and why not share it with people who can appreciate it?”

Each open house, Sheegog tries to add something new. And just like Disneyland, he has plans to expand into Star Wars. Sheegog is already building a model of it in the garage.



Susan Valot