Personal Journey: Auto Train offers a relaxing ride

The writer's son and daughter, Sam and Sarah Beckley, in their Auto Train suite - before the bunks came down.
The writer's son and daughter, Sam and Sarah Beckley, in their Auto Train suite - before the bunks came down. (FRED BECKLEY)
Posted: September 16, 2013

It seems so American. Take the train? Fine. I'll take the train. But only if I can take my car with me.

And that's exactly what we did this summer on a family reunion trip to Disney World. We had taken the Auto Train a couple of times in the '70s, before Amtrak acquired it, and we decided to celebrate my father's 80th birthday with a nostalgic run. He, of course, flew.

What we learned in the '70s is that you need to get rooms. The scheduled trip is 17 hours and 29 minutes; it will take longer (see "Amtrak acquired it") - in our case, four or five hours each way. You don't want to sit in a chair that long, even a relatively comfortable railcar chair.

For our immediate family of four, we got two connecting rooms, each with a couch, small chair, and smaller private bathroom. The wall between the rooms was a pocket door, and when the porter opened it, the combined space seemed luxurious. At night, though, he pulled down bunks that occupied most of each room.

Unlike an airplane, we could bring whatever we wanted onto the Auto Train. We had a car that we overpacked, but we left most of our stuff in it. It would have cost more to check our bags on a plane than it did to put our bags in our car and our car on the train.

Onboard we took overnights, a small cooler, and a set of iPod speakers. Our rooms had big picture windows, and the glass door onto the hallway let us see out the other side. For the first few hours, I sat back with a book, the Allman Brothers, and the cooler contents, and said things like, "Isn't this great!" to the kids. My son occasionally frowned up from his laptop; my daughter smiled noncommittally. Fortunately for all, the Auto Train had WiFi.

The public areas consisted of an underused double-decker lounge car and separate dining car. In the lounge, we had plenty of room to play board games, watch the small-screen movie, and generally hang out. People talk to one another on trains. We met a schoolteacher, truck driver, several retirees, and a real-life cowboy.

In terms of activity, dinner was the main event. We filled our table of four, but if we hadn't, the staff would have added folks to our party. The meal was white-tablecloth, with wait service, a printed menu, four entree choices, and "Choo Choo Chewies" for the kids. The food wasn't very good, but the wine was free.

I took the bottom bunk, which was roomy and comfortable, and got a good night's sleep. Others in our party, especially those up top, reported differently. Midmorning, after breakfast and a shower, we arrived an easy 50 miles from the Magic Kingdom. Being American, the Auto Train is of course the world's biggest, and it goes only two places: from Washington to Disney World and back again.

Fred Beckley last wrote about his Personal Journey to a castle in France.

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