As a teenager, Tony Gebbia got a job driving a train at a tourist attraction near his hometown.

That first job helped launch him on a 21-year career with the company that had him planning events, handling logistics and working with marketing and fabrication.

Now, the 50-year-old Gebbia is ready for a new challenge at Strasburg Rail Road that offers an historic twist on that first job as a monorail pilot at Disney World.

“I always wanted to work with steam locomotives,” said Gebbia, the new general manager of the tourist railroad that operates historic steam locomotives and wooden passenger cars.

At Strasburg Rail Road, Gebbia oversees a 180-employee enterprise that annually welcomes 300,000 visitors. While that’s a fraction of the 52 million people who visit Disney World every year, Gebbia says he plans to replicate Disney’s high standards.

“Their focus — and what our focus will be moving forward — is the guest is first, but we always take care of our team,” Gebbia said. “Guest first and team always. You’re focused on creating a great guest experience, but you want to have a great working environment for your team.”

An enthusiastic outsider

At Strasburg Rail Road, Gebbia succeeds the late Craig Lefever, a longtime employee who took over in December 2018 from Linn Moedinger, whose parents were among Strasburg Rail Road’s original stockholders in 1958.

But Lefever died this past June. An interim leadership team oversaw the railroad’s daily operations until a new leader could be found.

Since he doesn’t have years of experience at Strasburg Rail Road or the mechanical expertise about its locomotives and passenger cars, Gebbia, who began the job last month, says he will be relying on the employees that do.

“From a leadership perspective it’s about providing leadership and supporting the team that’s already doing an amazing job here,” he said. “This place isn’t broken. It’s not something that needs to be fixed.”

Gebbia says his own lack of technical expertise actually could benefit employees, who will need to take ownership of their jobs.

“That gives them the opportunity to elevate and to rise,” he said.

Also, because he’s simply a train enthusiast with an event planning background, Gebbia said he may be able to bring a different perspective to what Strasburg Rail Road is doing.

“I was not an expert in the (steam locomotive) field. What I am is an expert at producing events,” he said.

Gebbia said he will consider ways he might add to the existing special events at Strasburg Rail Road. These include rides with Santa and the Easter Bunny as well as the popular Thomas the Tank Engine train.

As he considers new possibilities, Gebbia says he will be careful to preserve, and even strengthen, the historical authenticity of the railroad where, unlike at Disney, he said, “Our brakemen are brakemen. Our conductors are conductors.”

“It’s families that are coming to visit and we want them to have that authentic, turn-of-the-century experience,” he said.

Family connections

The 4.5-mile spur line from Strasburg was built in 1832 by a group of businessmen because the main Pennsylvania Railroad originally bypassed the town.

The line goes from Strasburg to the main Amtrak line near Paradise. In 1958 the spur began operating as a tourist line, although it still handles some freight trains.

Today, the privately owned railroad features five working steam locomotives and 20 operating passenger cars. It also has a mechanical shop that repairs and restores its own stock and that of other heritage railroad companies.

Gebbia, who spent his early years in New Jersey, remembers that his uncles and cousins used to visit the Strasburg Rail Road and stay at the nearby Red Caboose Motel.

But Gebbia’s family moved to central Florida when he was 7 years old, so Disney World was the nearby attraction that he got to know best.

When his parents retired, their travels took them around the country, including Gordonville, where they fell in love with the area and bought a retirement house.

After Gebbia and his wife had a daughter three years ago, his parents moved back to Florida, but soon returned to Gordonville because they could no longer stand Florida summers.

Wanting his family to be close to his parents, who are both in their late 70s, Gebbia started looking for jobs in the area this summer, finding a posting for one at the Strasburg Rail Road in July.

The timing of the posting for the job, its location and the way it played on his experience at Disney all made it seem perfect.

“My mom cried when she found out I was coming here,” he said.

For now, Gebbia, his wife, Gaia, and their 3-year-old daughter, Kadence, are living in their camper at Mill Bridge Village Camp Resort north of Strasburg as they look for a house in the area.

“If I could choose, it would be on main street in Strasburg,” he said.