At the Disney parks, many key rides become larger symbols for the park and its individual lands. In the case of Frontierland, one ride is easily recognizable across multiple parks around the world: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
A vibrant representation of the frontier days in the American “Wild West”, the rollercoaster remains popular with many visitors. But there’s a lot more to this mountain than meets the eye.
Here are seven things that might surprise you about Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
1. It Wasn’t Initially an Opening Day Attraction
Despite the ride’s now iconic visage in most pictures of Frontierland, Big Thunder Mountain did not appear on opening day at Anaheim Disneyland or Walt Disney World. At Disneyland, Frontierland originally consisted of large tracts of open land. Guests could travel the area via coaches, mules, trails, and the like, as well as ride the scenic Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland past Wild West dioramas.
Magic Kingdom initially planned to develop a large section of Frontierland into a larger western-themed section to parallel Pirates of the Caribbean, before later settling on Big Thunder Mountain. After work started on Big Thunder Mountain in Disney World, Imagineers began likewise renovating Disneyland’s Frontierland for a similar attraction. Funnily enough, despite the idea first coming from Disney World, the first version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in 1979 in Disneyland, a year before Magic Kingdom’s opened.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has only been an opening day attraction at one park: Disneyland Paris. Its version is particularly unique, as it uses similar rock formations to Magic Kingdom’s but then made the attraction into its own island on a river. It essentially replaces the usual Tom Sawyer Island that has appeared at other Disney parks. This unusual set-up is intriguing and reflects larger efforts to make the mountain’s backstory more complex, as we’ll discuss later on.
2. It was First Meant to be a River Ride
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad actually originated from an earlier, scrapped idea for an attraction: Western River Expedition. The brainchild of Marc Davis, a brilliant Disney animator who also designed animatronic scenes for Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and more, Western River Expedition would have been an ambitious celebration of the Wild West. Rather than just import a second copy of Pirates of the Caribbean to Disney World, Davis wanted something unique. It would have taken guests through everything from the prairie wilderness to a classic western town to an escape from bandits down a waterfall. Davis envisioned not just a single ride but an entire pavilion, featuring other attractions like hiking trails, live pack mules, and a runaway train ride.
Unfortunately, due to the high expenses for the project and Pirates of the Caribbean coming to Disney World anyway, the plan for the full-fledged area never came to fruition. However, the grand stone mesas meant for the attraction were still created. Moreover, the train ride meant to supplement the river ride now became the main attraction — what would be named Big Thunder Mountain. The Disneyland version also used set pieces from an earlier train ride called Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland, such as various animals and an adjacent western town. Though Western River Expedition never happened, its many bright ideas fueled other rides.
3. The Lore Behind the Ride Varies
While the various versions of the ride share the similar tale of miners being cursed for digging on sacred Native American land, the exact details of the mining camp’s fate differ between park. At Disneyland, the mining camp of Rainbow Ridge never closed completely, but it’s become nearly a ghost town due to spooky happenings like the trains being haunted and moving around on their own. The continued presence of some miners explains the key surprise on the ride: a sudden explosion of dynamite. In contrast, the miners at Tumbleweed in Magic Kingdom had a grislier curse in store. After mining continued in spite of the hauntings, the mountain spirits brought down a terrible flood, wiping out the camp and leaving nothing but watery ruins.
Perhaps the spookiest story behind the curse can be found at Disneyland Paris. There, Big Thunder Mountain’s curse is tied to the hauntings at Phantom Manor (the park’s equivalent for the Haunted Mansion). Mining magnate Henry Ravenwood made a fortune mining Big Thunder Mountain, too greedy to care about warnings of ghosts until an earthquake killed him and his wife. The dreary events at his nearby homestead on Boot Hill only got worse from there on, with Phantom Manor now haunted by dozens of wicked ghosts eternally partying within. These various stories reflect the hard work that Imagineers put into designing rides that not only are fun but created original, engaging worlds for guests to explore.
4. It’s Connected to the Society of Explorers and Adventurers
If you’ve been to the Jungle Skipper Canteen at Adventureland in Magic Kingdom, then you might be familiar with the globetrotting Society of Explorers and Adventurers. This in-setting group has ties to Disney parks around the world. First founded during the Renaissance in Porto Paradiso (Tokyo DisneySea), S.E.A. has the mission of gaining and celebrating knowledge through exploration to uncharted and forgotten parts of the planet. Many notable figures such as Albert Falls, founder of Jungle Navigation Company (today called the Jungle Cruise), held distinguished titles in the club.
However, while many members of S.E.A. have been heroic and admirable, others have had darker sides to their characters, such as mining tycoon Barnabas T. Bullion. President of the Big Thunder Mining Company at the versions of the ride (except Paris), Barnabas has relentlessly pushed for more and more mining, digging deeper and deeper into the mountain in spite of the many disasters haunting his efforts. This new backstory to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad as a whole reflects larger work by Disney to create an intertwined storyline between the different parks, immersing guests in amazing, ongoing adventures.
5. A Real World Version of Big Thunder Mountain Exists
Disney strives to be as close to life as possible with many of its attractions, and Big Thunder Mountain is no exception. Imagineers in fact drew heavy inspiration from the famous sandstone formations at Monument Valley in Arizona. The Magic Kingdom version in particular resembles key features at the real-life formations.
But the Disney-grade attention to detail doesn’t stop there. Rather than make replicas of traditional mining equipment, Disney has used actual antique tools such as pick-axes, press gears, stamp mills, and much more. The attraction even features “official” certification for the property, with a signed notice saying that papers can be found at City Hall in Main Street; the U.S. Marshall signing the multiple notices, a Willard P. Bounds, refers to the father of Lillian Disney, wife of Walt Disney.
6. You Can Find Out What Happened to Rosita
Disney likes to tie its different attractions together, and one decoration links Big Thunder Mountain with the Enchanted Tiki Room, of all places. One of the key acts at the Tiki Room involves a chorus of girl cockatoos. To start out the song, “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing”, show host José wonders whatever happened to a singer named Rosita.
When you travel through Magic Kingdom’s interactive line queue, you might notice several bird cages, traditionally meant for canaries and other birds to serve as early warnings for gas leaks. One of the cages is titled “Rosita”, suggesting that she received the dubious honor of working on the railroad. But that might not be the full story. Over at the Tropical Hideaway restaurant in Anaheim’s Disneyland, Rosita has started her own solo singing career. Congratulations on working up the ladder, Rosita!
7. It Has Connections to Movies
While Big Thunder Mountain has yet to have a film of its own like Jungle Cruise, some of its set pieces have ties to various movies. For instance, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, released several years after Big Thunder Mountain opened, utilized the train noises from the ride for the film’s exciting mine cart adventure. Also, a poster advertising Hard Times Café references the hilarious Apple Dumpling Gang movies, which star the namesake bandits as they bumble their way into heroism.
In addition, a couple of “steam mule” portable engines from the western comedy Hot Lead and Cold Feet now reside at the Anaheim Disneyland version of Big Thunder Mountain. The movie revolves around a Salvation Army missionary who inherits property out west and gets caught up in a dangerous competition. Fun little cameos like this make even waiting in line fun, as you can explore and find all sorts of interesting things.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad remains a thrilling, classic rollercoaster at the Disney parks. Part of what makes it and other Disney attractions so popular is that each time, you can experience something new. Disney offers countless secrets waiting to be discovered, so keep your eyes and ears open the next time you’re at a park – you never know what you might find!
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