35 years ago on November 15, 1980, the wildest ride in the wilderness took Magic Kingdom guests on their first rollicking ride through the haunted caves of Tumbleweed and Dry Gulch. Taking about 15 years to plan and build and costing $17 million ($300,000 of which was used to purchase authentic mining props), Frontierland was transformed to include a mountainous terrain that would be home to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Inspired by Arizona’s Monument Valley, it took over 4,000 gallons of paint, 4,675 tons of concrete, and 6,500 tons of steel beams to transform the once flat 2.5 acres into the stunning mountain range and attraction.
But how did this massive attraction evolve? It is the stuff of Disney lore. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad finds its roots in one of Disney’s most famous attractions that was never built.
As planning for Walt Disney World’s Phase One began to move forward in earnest during the mid-1960’s, it was decided that Imagineering would not build Pirates of the Caribbean in the new Florida park. Instead, Imagineering legend Marc Davis was posed with the task of creating Walt Disney World’s signature attraction. Davis proposed a massive Frontierland attraction, unlike anything seen at Disneyland. Thunder Mesa, which included the Western River Expedition, would have included a runaway mine train, elaborate boat ride, pack mule rides, and other experiences. Unfortunately, due to financial constraints and the public’s waning interest in the Western genre, Davis’ Thunder Mesa was shelved and Pirates of the Caribbean was built instead.
However, no good idea is ever gone at Imagineering and during the beginning of the thrill ride craze of the early 1970’s, Imagineer Tony Baxter pitched his idea of a runaway mine train attraction to Disney executives. Relying on a detailed back story, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad provided a roller coaster type thrill attraction that the park executives were interested in building. Taking some story cues from the original Thunder Mesa, Baxter created an immersive experience that has been exhilarating and enticing park guests for years.
Not only is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad a guest favorite E-ticket attraction, but it also belongs to a special category of park attraction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has been one of the many attractions to receive a new backstory or a story embellishment due to the massive transformation that has taken place throughout the Magic Kingdom. In Big Thunder’s case, the new backstory evolved when the old switch back que was updated with fun interactive elements. Originally, the backstory follows the little town of Tumbleweed…..
“During the height of the gold rush, men in the town of Tumbleweed began looking for gold in the nearby mountain, Big Thunder, which was also an Indian Burial Ground. Though the mountain ‘thundered’ when anyone inspected it, these men took ore trains deep down in the caverns. They removed the gold and celebrated with poker games and parlor girls. Acts of God struck back. Mysterious spirits took control of the trains and spun them out of control, a flash flood inundated the town, and an earthquake hit.
Everything was lost…”
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s story is still full of human greed and supernatural forces but instead of focusing on an entire town, the story now centers on the materialistic Barnabas T. Bullion….
“Barnabas T. Bullion is the founder and president of the Big Thunder Mining Company. The longtime mining magnate comes from a powerful East Coast family and considers gold to be his very birthright by virtue of his oddly appropriate name; in fact, he considers the ultimate gold strike to be his destiny. And that is why he is having so much trouble with Big Thunder Mountain. According to superstitious locals, Big Thunder Mountain is very protective of the gold it holds within, and the unfortunate soul who attempts to mine its riches is destined to fail. And so far that prophecy is coming to pass. The mine has been plagued by mysterious forces and natural disasters ever since. And yet the Big Thunder Mining Co. is still in operation. In fact, Bullion is discovering new veins of gold and digging new shafts every day, offering a closer look at the Big Thunder mining operation than ever before.
But a word to the wise for anyone attempting to visit the mountain: watch out for runaway trains.”
These backstories just scratch the surface of the wild wonderful world of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Along with these stories, during your run away ride, you will also find specific characters with their own roles in the history of the fictional railroad as well as furry critters and historical set pieces. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a true example of Walt Disney Imagineering storytelling at its best. So, next time you rush to the mountain, take some time to look around and see what other surprises are yet to be discovered.