Because Big Thunder Mountain Railroad has become such a staple attraction in Magic Kingdom’s Frontierland, it’s often forgotten that along with Space Mountain and Splash Mountain, Big Thunder was not an original Magic Kingdom attraction when the park opened in 1971. And because Disney imagineers believed that Floridians wouldn’t be interested in a pirate story, Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t originally planned for Phase I of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, either. It wouldn’t be until September, 23, 1980, that Big Thunder would finally roll into the old mining town station, but not until after it created its own unique backstory.
Much like the Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain’s concept and genesis emerged from multiple iterations, planning stages, and story lines beginning with an attraction called Big Thunder Mesa. Although not the first phase of WDW, traces of the attraction made for a very significant component of the earliest Frontierland and Magic Kingdom concept. Imagineer Marc Davis was asked by Roy Disney to create something that exceeded anything WDI had developed at that point in its history. Additionally, Davis was instructed to create something “like” Pirates of the Caribbean, yet completely different. It was to be designed as a boat ride, make greater use of audio-animatronics, but with a different story. Basically, Marc Davis’ challenge was to culminate everything imagineering had learned and roll it into what became known as Big Thunder Mesa. That is, he was to take the load capacity and attraction philosophy from Pirates, audio-animatronics technology from Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, environmental lessons from The Enchanted Tiki Room, and effects from The Haunted Mansion. In terms of scope and sequence, this project promised to be a massive undertaking.
And Big Thunder Mesa was just that. Originally this concrete mesa would stretch from the present-day Briar Patch shop through the current Big Thunder attraction and along the Rivers of America. When art director Dick Irvine and Roy expressed their concerns about how this concrete monolith would dominate the western side of the Kingdom, Davis countered by turning the objection into a positive. Davis proposed that it be accessed by the public — people even outside the park — just wanting to get a view of the Magic Kingdom. But, Davis added, the accessible mesa “summit” will also include attractions in its own right. Because of this, hiking trails and even a native American village of some kind became a part of the concept. Even though Roy Disney was sold on the idea, there were still a couple of challenges.
First, to build such an ambitious attraction would require money that had been allocated for another ambitious project — Space Mountain. Magic Kingdom needed a thrill ride along the lines of Disneyland’s The Matterhorn and Space Mountain was the answer. Because of the Magic Kingdom’s need for a ride of this kind, the solution seemed apparent —construction of Space Mountain must move forward. But Marc Davis had an alternative. He suggested they build a thrill ride inside Big Thunder Mesa and this would be a runaway mine train ride.
By all accounts, Davis’ vision for Big Thunder Mesa went beyond anything we had seen from imagineering at that point in time. In addition to the runaway mine train, Big Thunder Mesa would also include the Western River Expedition: a western river boat ride through the great American West. Boasting a sky always at dusk with lighting reminiscent of the Blue Bayou in Disneyland, the WRE story included a stagecoach robbery, a western town called Dry Gulch, dance hall girls, a painted desert, and even a forest fire sparked by lightning. According to one source, the bandits from the stagecoach robbery scene actually intercept the passenger boat later in the ride to demand valuables from its passengers! A final waterfall and plunge punctuated the experience of this amazing attraction, at least in concept. Guests exiting the Western River Expedition could find their way to the Big Thunder Mesa silver mine.
The Big Thunder Mesa silver mine was planned to take up a fairly significant portion of the Big Thunder Mesa real estate. Of course, the most intriguing component of the silver mine was a tour. Guests loading the mine cars were led to believe they were embarking on an innocent tour of the famous Big Thunder Mesa mine. The tour, however, would take a turn when the cars accidentally became unhitched from the engine and began rolling backwards — yes, like Expedition Everest — toward a bottomless pit they had been warned about at the beginning of the ride. Of course, the engine driver would get the cars reattached just in time to save the day.
If the Big Thunder Mesa experience sounds ambitious, it is because it absolutely was. The costs alone was a deterrent, but so was the time to complete such an ambitious project in the face of a fast-approaching opening day deadline. Also working against the Big Thunder Mesa project were the repeated calls for a pirates ride “like the one in California”. The Disney imagineers were wrong in assuming Floridians wouldn’t be interested in a pirates attraction. All of these factors contributed to the decision to push Big Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition to the imagineering on-deck circle. But there was another monumental event that contributed to the decision to table this concept as well: Roy Disney’s death in December, 1971. Roy had been one of Big Thunder Mesa’s most enthusiastic supporters. Card Walker made the call. Phase 1 of the Magic Kingdom would include the safer plays of Pirates of the Caribbean and Space Mountain. It would not include the Big Thunder Mesa project. This direction was more economical while appeasing guests at the same time.
Clearly the Big Thunder concept didn’t die. Due to the concept’s obvious merit, Imagineer Tony Baxter had adapted Thunder Mesa’s mine train as a stand-alone attraction as early as 1973. The scaled model Baxter created was very close to the ride that opened as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in September 1980. The original Big Thunder Mountain backstory was based on the experience of Sam, the last of the Big Thunder miners. Apparently things had gotten bad once the Big Thunder mine was abandoned. The machinery, ore cars, and other remnants of the once-productive mine had fallen into terrible disrepair. After sluggin’ from a bottle of Old Imagineer, poor old Sam fell into an ore car that took off down into the Big Thunder abyss through bats, rainbow water and waterfalls, and many stalactites and stalagmites. The ore car sped past Spiral Butte and over Bear River Trestle Bridge before stopping in Big Thunder Town. Old Sam’s story was told and retold across the generations for years before a young Imagineer heard it and decided to check it out for himself. When he did, he thought it a splendid idea to re-open the mine and its famous runaway train to the public. He did and in doing so salvaged a thread of the original story of the Big Thunder Mesa.
Dreams of the Western River Expedition and Big Thunder Mesa were kept alive until Walker officially declared Phase 1 of Magic Kingdom complete. With this announcement most hope for getting this monumental attraction into production ended. The cost was certainly a factor, but so were the company’s plans to begin the EPCOT project that would require such significant resources. But what we got is a piece of Davis’ grand vision and a legacy from one of Disney’s most recognized imagineers, Tony Baxter, in addition to yet another great chapter in the Walt Disney World story. So Happy Birthday, BTM!