Neatorama Facts: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

Disney fans rejoice, it’s time for yet another set of Neatorama Facts featuring the Happiest Place on Earth. This time, we’re taking a detailed look at “the wildest ride in the wilderness,” Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

Image via Mastery of Maps [Flickr]

Conceived and Created In Different Parks

Most of the definitive “Disney” rides seem to have been created specifically for Disneyland long before they were added to Disney World and the other parks, but Big Thunder Mountain started out in exactly the opposite way. This time, the ride was originally conceived as part of a new Magic Kingdom area called the Western River Expedition, a Western-themed area similar to Frontierland. The area would look like a big plateau and contain a number of rides, including a runaway mine train roller coaster. Unfortunately, because the park just opened Pirates of the Caribbean, the area was considered too expensive to install, so Imaginer Tony Baxter proposed building just the coaster as a separate attraction, which would instead be added to Disneyland park first. While that idea was approved, the project way put on hold so the team could focus on Space Mountain.

More Computers, More Problems

The delay in the project actually turned out to be a good thing though, as it meant the developers were allowed to use computers to design the coaster, allowing for a smoother ride than one designed by hand.  Big Thunder Mountain was actually the first ride to use a computer to design the track, but because it was a brand new technology, the creation process was actually anything but smooth.

While ride designers knew what would look good, the computer wanted the ride to be as simple and smooth as possible. So the imagineers had to submit nine different designs before the computer finally accepted one without automatically making changes that would make it less attractive. Eventually the design was accepted upon by all parties and construction started. The ride opened first in Disneyland in 1979 and a larger version opened in the Magic Kingdom a year later.

Image via Sally Ann French [Flickr]

There Is Actually A Plot

While the railroad coaster may not seem to have as much of a storyline as some of the other rides, it actually have a pretty detailed story. Essentially, gold was discovered at Big Thunder Mountain and the nearby town quickly became a thriving mining town. Unfortunately, the miners who built the mine trains to transport the ore didn’t realize the mountain was sacred to the Native American tribe and that those who disturbed the mountain were cursed. The earthquake in the tunnels destroyed the mines and killed enough workers that the town was quickly abandoned.

I’ve been riding the mine carts for years and never once realized that there’s supposed to be a significance to the fact that there’s no engineer in the train. As it turns out, that was very intentional. The carts are supposedly running on their own because they are possessed. Tourists are now asked to enjoy a trip through the haunted mines in the possessed trains. Scary, right?

Shoutouts to The Past

Before Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was built in Disneyland, there was already a somewhat similar (although significantly slower) train ride in that spot. The Mine Train attraction featured a small mining town, glowing pools of water and two waterfalls, named Big Thunder and Little Thunder. After tearing the old attraction down, many of the features were kept around and incorporated to be part of the new ride. The ride itself is named after the large waterfall in the Mine Train ride and the town at the end of the ride was from the old ride, the rainbow caverns at the beginning of the ride, and most of the animatronics are all from the previous occupant of the space.

Image via kalavinka [Flickr]

Acquiring Other Design Details

The rock formations themselves are based on real landscapes found in Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah (the landscape at the other parks is based on Arizona’s Monument Valley). As for all those fun decorating details like the ore-crusher and the hauling wagon that sit just out of reach of the tourists, those are real relics from the American Southwest that were purchased specifically for use on the ride.

Sound Familiar?

If you’ve kept up on all of these Neatorama Disneyland articles, you’ve probably noticed that Disney was big on using the same voice actors over and over. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is no exception to this rule. The narrator that warns you to keep your hands and arms inside the ride while you experience the "the wildest ride in the wilderness” is Dallas McKennon. If you think his voice sounds a little familiar, that’s probably because you’ve heard him talk in many other Disney roles, including the fox in Mary Poppins, the Owl in Sleeping Beauty and a number of supplemental characters in Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. He also did the voice for Archie Andrews in the Archie cartoons of the 60’s. Image via iheartlatkes [Flickr]

By The Numbers:

  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad can reach a top speed of 30 miles per hour, but usually travels around 24.

  • The ride lasts an average of three minutes and fifteen seconds.

  • There are six trains on the ride and they all have terrible puns in their names, all of which start with U.R., I.B. or I.M. The full list is: U.R. Courageous, I.M. Brave, I.M. Bold, U.R. Fearless, I.B. Hearty and U.R. Daring.

Do you guys like Thunder Mountain, or is it a little to fast for you? Also, how many of you actually knew the ride had a plot? Be honest.

Sources: Wikipedia, Mental Floss, All Ears


Disneyland fans! See more Neatorama Facts: Neatorama Facts: Haunted Mansion Neatorama Facts: Sleeping Beauty Castle Neatorama Facts: Pirates of the Caribbean Neatorama Facts: The Jungle Cruise Neatorama Facts: Space Mountain Neatorama Facts: The Enchanted Tiki Room Neatorama Facts: Christmas at Disneyland Neatorama Facts: It's a Small World

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For many years this was the only roller coaster I could ride. I can still only handle very tame ones, like the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz. I thought of BTMR as safe in the extreme, until that death on the ride in 2003 -- and then stories came out about failed attempts to warn supervisors about degrading conditions, etc. Forget it, I'm sticking to the merry-go-round...
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I always thought the ride was designed after the rocks at Squaw Valley. Walt Disney hosted the Winter Olympics there in 1960, and reportedly send a team of artists up there on horseback to sketch the landscape for use in the ride. At least that's the spiel we always gave when I drove the Cable Car.)
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No factoids about the person that was killed on the ride?

This is still one of my favorite rides at the park after Star Tours (but I haven't seen that since they changed it), and I had no idea there was a plot at all! I'll have to listen for it next time we go- =)
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