Big Thunder Mountain Railroad At 40: A Timeless Triumph Of Theme Park Design

When the D23 Expo unveiled a series of theme-park announcements in late August, one of them was unsurprisingly focused on the upcoming Epcot attraction centered on Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy. This new roller-coaster, subtitled "Cosmic Rewind", is meant to be a 360-degree immersive ride; among its many elements, as noted in the press release, Cosmic Rewind will feature the first reverse-launch in a Disney coaster ever. That's worth noting because, while the Walt Disney Company has pioneered theme-park attractions, designs, and atmosphere for more than six decades, its attractions are not particularly intense. And yet, 40 years ago today, Disneyland unveiled a new E-Ticket attraction, presumed to be the "wildest ride in the wilderness". That, of course, would be Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a not-terribly-wild ride through a facsimile of the Old West in a mine cart. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad remains one of the most charming theme-park attractions in Disney history, not because it's truly intense or dedicated to throwing its guests through the ringers, but because of its distinctive, entirely unique theme.

Hang Onto Them Hats and Glasses

As is the case with a lot of the great Disney attractions, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad did not begin its life as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but something else entirely. Earlier in the 1970s, one of Disney's Nine Old Men of animation and a pioneering Imagineer, Marc Davis, had a vision for a Western pavilion at the Magic Kingdom called the Western River Expedition. One of the younger Imagineers working on the Western River Expedition is a Disney Legend in his own right, Tony Baxter. Davis' vision, Baxter once related, was meant to be the Orlando version of Pirates of the Caribbean: a massive attraction with all sorts of Audio-Animatronics, an adventurous story, a waterfall climax, and more.Both because of cost — had the Western River Expedition been built as Davis imagined, it would've been housed in the largest-ever (to that point) show building in Disney theme-park history — and because of the necessity to get guests into attractions sooner than construction could allow, the Western River Expedition never saw the light of day. (In its place, Pirates of the Caribbean was constructed, though the Orlando version of the attraction is roughly half as short as the one you'll find at Disneyland.) Baxter had the idea to siphon off part of the overall attraction into what would become Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The mine train didn't see the light of day until the late 1970s because of delays — the attraction was greenlit, but being held so that construction could continue on another roller-coaster, this one in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland: Space Mountain.Big Thunder Mountain Railroad may purport to be the wildest ride in the wilderness, but its charm lies in the fact that it's not at all scary or wild. Just about the scariest part of the ride, no matter whether it's at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, comes during the various short drops, some of which are placed right before facsimile versions of low-hanging bridges, and make you think you might get injured if you don't duck in time. (If you've seen the controversial indie film Escape from Tomorrow, you may recall how the opening shots play into this, as we see a person getting their head lopped off by one of the bridges.) Otherwise, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is an achievement of architectural design and good gags.The gags are one of the more underrated aspects of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's not just that you're riding a mine cart near the mining town of Rainbow Ridge, or that things get out of hand quickly. The various Audio-Animatronic characters in the attraction, from a goat holding a stick of dynamite in its mouth to a swinging opossum, add personality and flair to what could be a standard-issue roller-coaster. And the first major show scene, in which your car speeds through a tunnel full of bats, is the kind of spooky touch that's heightened depending on when you ride. (Like many of the great Disney attractions, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is best experienced at night.) The commitment to humor is one of the unforgettable ingredients of the attraction, both clever and timeless.

The Wildest Ride in the Wilderness

And what makes the whole attraction truly special in the year 2019 is that architectural design is what makes the ride stand out. Think of other marquee Disney attractions, and then think of how few of those aren't connected in some fashion to a movie or intellectual property of some kind. Some attractions only got the IP treatment later in life. For decades, Pirates of the Caribbean wasn't just the kind of attraction to inspire failed ventures like the Western River Expedition. It was a hallmark of theme-park design totally separate from the Disney film library. The presence of Johnny Depp still persists in the Anaheim and Orlando versions of the attraction (though slightly less so compared to the start of the decade). And even the aforementioned Space Mountain isn't immune to the vagaries of intellectual property. At Disneyland, Space Mountain isn't even Space Mountain anymore, but Hyperspace Mountain. That title update, of course, reflects the inclusion of Star Wars into the ride, replete with sound effects, visuals of TIE Fighters and more. (You might wonder, "Isn't there already a Star Wars land in Disneyland now? Why would there be attractions themed to the film elsewhere?" ...Good question!) The closest you can get to something like Big Thunder is the other big mountainous attraction at Disneyland, Matterhorn Bobsleds. But even that has its roots in a 50s-era live-action film from the studio.Big Thunder Mountain Railroad nearly did become a source of intellectual property recently, though most people would have no idea. ABC approved a pilot order for a show called Big Thunder in early 2013, but it never got past the pilot stage. And if you want to get very technical, you could point out (accurately) that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has already found its way into a major motion picture. The mine-cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom features sound effects that might sound familiar if you know the roller-coaster attraction, which provided those effects. 

A Triumph of Theme

Now, as the Disney parks head further into the era of intellectual property, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad stands apart because its placement in Frontierland in the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom theme parks is a dictate of theme. The placement, for example, of Star Wars in Tomorrowland arguably makes absolutely no sense. (As basically everyone knows, those films all take place a long time ago, not a long time in the future. And since Tomorrowland, by its very name, is meant to represent the future, it ought not include Star Wars. Frankly, we could have a larger discussion about how the Tomorrowland section of the U.S. parks makes no sense on the whole. I digress.) What it represents is a half-hearted presumption that a land about tomorrow is equivalent to a land about science fiction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, on the other hand, is a triumph of sticking with a theme. When Disneyland opened its doors in 1955, Frontierland existed in no small part because Western movies and TV shows were a huge part of popular culture of the period. Now, Frontierland offers some welcome throwbacks to the Old West, but in a way that feels quainter than it would have originally. The live stage performances, the trading post, the Golden Horseshoe Saloon and the Frontierland Shooting Gallery (the latter of which arguably feels uncomfortable now in ways it wouldn't have back in 1955 because of societal issues) all exist because they operate within the theme of the Western frontier, not because of intellectual property requiring their presence.Perhaps the most encouraging thing about Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is that it remains a consistently popular attraction for Disney's parks. When Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge was announced, it led to the Rivers of America at Disneyland being shrunk slightly in size to accommodate the new land. Though that truncated version of the Rivers was met with some criticism, the fact that the hallmark attractions surrounding the Rivers got to stay the same was an encouraging sign of stability. In another world, maybe if Big Thunder wasn't as popular, it wouldn't be marking its 40th anniversary at all. (And hell, if Disney's take on The Lone Ranger hadn't been a flop, maybe the attraction would've been overhauled.) What we have with this mine-cart ride is an attraction full of the wit and charm that makes the best Disney rides so special after so many years. May it live for another 40 years.