This review is based on the round-trip my family took from Los Angeles, California to Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida on the Sunset Limited (Train #1 & Train #2), March 15, 1996 through March 27, 1996. Most of this review was written while I was on the train or during my stay at the Disney All-Stars Music Resort.
Click here for photos & more info about the Sunset Limited.
I've learned that if I don't write my review while on the trip, there is little chance that I will remember enough details to write it later. Just a warning to those of you who plan to submit reviews of your Amtrak trips to me. Keep a log of your trip along the way or write it up immediately on the completion of your trip!
The scenery is quite varied on the Sunset Limited. This is understandable since it goes from coast to coast covering over 3,000 miles. Since the route does cover the full width of Texas, you will have empty plains and desert for about one day of the trip. There were some unusual items that were entertaining with kids. We decided the train had converted itself into a boat, a plane and a car during this trip. At one point, all we could see on both sides of the train was water at track level. We couldn't see anything else out our window, so it appeared the train was traveling through a lake like it was a boat! At another point, we traveled along some elevated tracks through a city. There was no railing, so it appeared like we were flying at low level above the city like an airplane! The most unusual of all was a small town where the train went right down the middle of the street very slowly like it was a car! All we could see was curbs out each side window and people on their front porches waving to us. I'm not sure why the tracks went down the middle of a street, but it was obviously the reason why the train had to just crawl through that area. I can't imagine what it would be like in a car having a train following behind you! Unfortunately, I did not make note of the cities and towns of these unusual scenes, but I will try and find them again the next time I come this way.
A train crew can really make the difference on a trip. I think I was very fortunate to have the train crew that I did have on the first Amtrak trip. I have no idea if I would be enthused about rail travel as much as I am if that first experience wasn't so wonderful. A lot of the enjoyment of that first trip was because of the train crew.
Sleeping Car passengers are considered First Class on Amtrak and from the way we were treated I got the impression that the crew would bend over backwards to do everything to make the trip as enjoyable as possible. When I got off the train from that first trip, I couldn't wait to come back!
Why am I spending so much time talking about the train crew? Well, on my first trip on the Sunset Limited, I took my family along all the way from Los Angeles to Disneyworld in Orlando, Florida. I just crossed my fingers hoping they would have as great an experience on this trip as on that first Coast Starlight trip.
Unfortunately, the crew did not live up to this expectation. For myself, I now enjoy any trip on Amtrak, despite the lack of attentiveness of the crew. I can't exactly put my finger on it, but the general attitude seemed to be that the passengers on the train were a bother to the crew. The crew did not seem to have the new attitude that Amtrak is trying to promote, which is to make rail travel a great experience. I will make one exception to this. The person that was in charge of the diner was chipper and trying to keep everyone upbeat and one of the servers seem to really be with it. The other servers and other staff didn't do much of anything to make the trip special.
However, that all changed once we changed crews in New Orleans, Louisiana! Ms. Betty Hall was the head of that new staff. From that point on, she kept us abreast of the latest status of the train at all times and kept activities going on seemingly non-stop! She had BINGO at 11AM in the morning which the kids really enjoyed and then had a movie at 12:30. Free snacks were served during the movie and free margaritas for the adults!
To me, the real test of service is the availability of coffee in the Sleepers. At the top of the stairs you will find a large coffee urn. Most car attendants will have coffee available in the morning, but a good car attendant will have hot coffee available all day. John was our car attendant and he kept the coffee going all day. There was plenty of creamer, sugar, equal, stiring sticks, and even orange juice, but cups had run out when I went. When I asked John to make up the beds in our sleeper, I asked if he had any more cups. Instead of just getting more cups, he made coffee for my wife and I and brought it to our room! That is the type of service I had come to expect from my first trip on Amtrak.
In the dining car, Nick Porter was in charge of service there and we were very happy with the prompt and curtious service. One more item I'd like to mention. On the night that we stopped in New Orleans to change crews, the cafe in the lounge car had run out of just about everything. We asked if the cafe would re-open once it had restocked in New Orleans. The cafe attendant had no idea, but he said it would only be open for a short while, if at all, since it would be so late at night. Later, that same crew announced that the cafe was closing and wouldn't reopen until morning. I have no doubt that is exactly would have happened had this same crew been with the train after New Orleans. Instead, the new crew immediately re-opened the restocked cafe and kept it open an extra hour until 1AM!
On the return home, we had a mixed crew from Orlando to New Orleans. Some were really with it trying very hard to entertain the passengers. Others were doing their job well, but didn't go the extra mile to give you something to write home about. There were no children's movies nor games hosted by the crew, which was a shame since a lot of families were returning from Disney World on the train. Since we didn't board the train until 5pm, our Sleeping Car Attendant said he had already made a 5:30pm reservation for us, but 8:30pm was also available. If he really did go out of his way to hold a spot open for us, I appreciate it, but I suspect that those were the only two times left. It is usually the earliest and latest times that are open after everyone has made their reservation. Unfortunately we had just finished a late lunch about 2pm, so 5:30pm was a bit early to be eating again. My kids wouldn't think of waiting until 8:30pm, so 5:30pm it had to be! The Dining Car crew made up for this poor timing. I'd have to say the Dining Car crew was one of the best on any train I had been on.
The crew changed again in New Orleans on the way back. The crew from New Orleans to Los Angeles was very good, though not a match for the crew from New Orleans to Orlando. Our car attendant called himself Mr. Ed and did everything to take care of us. He was one of the most attentive car attendants during the trip and made sure their was coffee, creamer, cups, sweetners, juice and ice available in our Sleeping Car. He also made sure we had a newspaper under our door in the morning and sweats on our pillow at night, something the Amtrak brochures claim but doesn't always appear. My daughter went up to the diner in the evening and got a couple of pieces of Devil's Food Chocolate Cake to bring back to the room. After Mr. Ed saw her bring them back to our room, he came by to let us know it would be no problem for him to bring anything to our room for us next time.
(NOTE: On October 4, 1997, I had "Mr. Ed" as my Car Attendant again while taking the Sunset Limited out of Jacksonville, Florida to Los Angeles, California. I asked "Mr. Ed" what his real last name was. He said: "Sourpuss." I said: "No, really ..." and then looked at his name tag to quickly realize that I will never forget his name again with that answer. His real name is Ed Lemons!)
Mr. Ed noticed the freehand drawing that one of my daughters, Jodina, was doing of characters from the movies "The Lion King" and "Bambi". She is really good at art and he commented on that. Later, Jodina did a special sketch just for Mr. Ed and couldn't wait to give it to him. At breakfast, Mr. Ed told Jodina that he'd like her to make a drawing for him before the end of the trip. Jodina was greatly delighted to tell Mr. Ed that she had already done one for him and handed it to him. Mr. Ed thanked her and said he'd treasure it. Little acts like this by the crew can make a trip a really special event for children.
So, pray for a good crew on your trip! If you don't get one, don't evaluate all of Amtrak on that basis. You will get an excellent crew on Amtrak quite often and that will make all the difference in the world, especially if traveling with Children.
There were no games on this trip, but they did play a couple of movies. Unfortunately, my kids had already seen "A Kid In King Arthur's Court" on the way out and didn't want to see it again on the way back. Actually, the only movie shown on the train every day was "A Kid In King Arthur's Court" followed by "Kingfish". I am not sure why they played the exact same movie every day. Although some people get on and get off enroute, it is not very accomodating to cross-country passengers. I don't think people that take shorter trips would mind if the movie changed daily and that would definitely please the long haul passengers, especially those with children. The same is the problem with the menus. We had the same menu for every day on the way to Florida. There was one change in the menu on the way back. Personally, I think the menu should be changed daily, or at least once every other day and certainly should not be the exact same menu in both directions. The menu starts to look stale after you've seen the same one 3 times per day for several days in a row, especially since there are not that many different selections on the menu. In defense of Amtrak, even with the same menu, you have far more selection and food that is fresher and better prepared than any first-class airline food. You also have much better seating and viewing accomodations while eating, included fresh real flowers, clean linen napkins and real silverware.
We had a real talker on this trip. I think it was the Conductor. He had to be from Texas. His accent sounded Texan. Over the Public Address (P.A.) system he described the scenery, towns, geology, history and other curious facts and legends of Texas non-stop. The odd thing was that all I saw out the windows was miles of endless flat land in every direction! If he had so much to say about miles of emptiness, I could only imagine how much he'd have to say abou the Rockies!
During the night they attached the Texas Eagle to the end of our train in San Antonio, Texas. Evidently they just stick it on the end of the train. We had a private car at the end of our train. They had to reconfigure the train so that the private car would still be at the end of the combined Sunset Limited/Texas Eagle. The Texas Eagle Sleeping Car was at the end of that part of the train which meant those people had to walk all the way through all the coach cars of both trains and to get to the Diner. We were fortunate in that we were the Sleeper right next to the Diner and the Cafe/Lounge Car was right after that.
On the way from Los Angeles to Florida, there is about a three hour lay over in New Orleans from about 7:35pm to 10:55pm. I suspect that the train probably often pulls into New Orleans late giving you less time to look around than you might have liked. If it does pull in early or on time, then you will have time to catch a cab and visit the French Quarter, maybe stopping for a nice dinner and some jazz. Our train came in late and we had little more than about 90 minutes, so we just stopped into the station and purchased a submarine sandwich from the "Subway Store" there.
On the way back, the train arrived 30 minutes early giving us a total of 3 hours from 9:45am until 12:45pm in New Orleans. We decided to just stay in the train. I took a few pictures of the engines, the cars, and the SuperDome, which is right next to the train station. The SuperDome is 3 times the size of the AstroDome. I suspect that the train usually arrives early into New Orleans. We had been running almost an hour late right up to the station before New Orleans. Looking at the milage covered, the schedule gives the train 2 hours and 40 minutes to cover only 44 miles! That appears to be some buffer room to allow late trains to get themselves back on schedule, a common item in most Amtrak schedules.
While in New Orleans, they usually like you to either stay on the train the whole time, or get off and then don't reboard until boarding is announced. There shouldn't be much problem re-boarding before the announcement if you just walk confidently and briskly back to your car and stay out of the way of people working on the train. It is for your own safety that they wish you to keep off the platform while they service the train.