Disney Stuck on the Drawing Board – Thunder Mesa and the Western River Expedition at the Magic Kingdom

There’s not a more fitting way to restart this (now forgotten) series, than to look at one of the biggest undertakings that Disney almost went through with. This attraction truly epitomizes the term “stuck on the drawing board”, as it was never fully realized, but we can certainly see many pieces of it in the parks today.

As part of phase one of Magic Kingdom, Thunder Mesa would have been located on the current plots of Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The show building that would have housed the Western River Expedition would have been larger than any show building in Magic Kingdom at the time, larger than any ever actually built for the park in years since. To understand the immense size of space that Thunder Mesa would have encompassed, consider this: If you were to stand on the bridge looking at Splash Mountain, you might be inside the building, as would most of the area currently houses Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain.

Thunder Mesa was to be Walt Disney World’s version of Pirates of the Caribbean. It was thought by many Disney higher ups that a Pirates ride would not be popular in Florida because of the close proximity to the Caribbean, and the history the state shares regarding pirates. Because of this, Marc Davis, a former Disney animator and creator of the Pirates attraction in California, was given the task of creating an attraction that would mirror Pirates in concept, but would revolve around a theme that the visitors from Florida would enjoy. Among the ideas that were pitched within WED Enterprises was a concept revolving around the Old West, which would the Disney higher ups believed would be a hit with Florida guests. The plan that was created out of Davis’ thoughts, concepts and models was eventually called Thunder Mesa. The ideas around this concept were endless, a runaway mine train (eventually realized), a series of hiking trails amongst waterfalls and Indian villages, and possibly a pack mule ride. The prize attraction within this massive show building would have been the Western River Expedition, an indoor boat ride that would take guests through the heart of Thunder Mesa and show scenes of cowboys and historical America.

These attractions were so far along that, on top of a scaled model being completed and presented to Disney brass, Buddy Baker was working on a score for a theme song for the Western River Expedition attraction. Also, full size model Audio Animatronics were being produced to show higher ups what the attraction could look like when finished. The real testament to how far along this attraction got was Disney was heavily promoting the attraction on parks maps after the opening of Magic Kingdom, and at The Walt Disney Story, an audio animatronic owl named Hoot Gibson (who would be the narrator of the boat ride) spoke to park guests about what was coming while presenting a small model.

Disney was ready to pull the trigger on this attraction just prior to the park’s opening in October 1971. So what exactly is the reason that we do not see this immense building in Frontierland? Why is it that most people have never even heard of Thunder Mesa? Well the answer seems simple, yet it becomes complex.

The problem was the crowds that poured into Walt Disney World in 1971 fully expecting to see the Pirates attraction within the confines of Magic Kingdom. Unlike today, where our connection with social media allows for us to know practically everything that goes on in the parks, guests were blindsided with the lack of a Pirates attraction. What they found was not a single pirate, buccaneer or scalawag. There were many complaints about this considering many people remember seeing the Pirates attraction at Disneyland on Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color television show (with so few channels in the 1960’s, most of America knew about this ride and had seen it on TV). Now they were arriving to see Disney didn’t put this attraction in their new Florida resort.

Once 1972 rolled around, it was clear that Disney World needed a version of Pirates. That decision obviously put all of Thunder Mesa onto the back burner. As a matter of fact, the attraction was believed to be scrapped altogether. To the contrary, it simply was shelved for what was thought to be temporarily.

Marc Davis became increasingly upset by the lack of progress on his crowning achievement, and when an attraction named Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a project of another Disney Legend Tony Baxter, was green lit as a separate attraction from the original Thunder Mesa, Davis all but believed he could least get the Western River Expedition green lit (on a smaller scale and missing much of what made the original idea special). That sadly was not to be. By then, Disney was putting the finishing touches on Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom and Davis was informed that he would have to cut costs significantly to get his project a green light. One idea was adding the Western River Expedition to the completed Big Thunder Mountain, which had been put on hold in 1974 due to the costs of the construction of Space Mountain and the country’s oil crisis. Big Thunder was to be built on the land specifically reserved for Thunder Mesa. Davis made a compromise here. He would scale down the attraction, among the ideas was canceling the trails above the show building and cutting the length of the attraction down, and reusing Pirates animatronics with new skins and costumes. The attraction would become almost an afterthought, but it would have become a reality.

The final death knell for the project occurred in roughly late-1974, while construction was beginning to come to conclusion in Tomorrowland. The Walt Disney Company decided to put all of its resources on a project that was close to Walt Disney’s heart, EPCOT. Any future projects not currently in construction or planned would be put on permanent hold. This pretty much ended any conversation regarding Thunder Mesa, the Western River Expedition or any of the concepts created prior to the parks opening. This did not sit well with Davis, and by 1979 (when Tony Baxter’s Big Thunder Mountain as finally being built) he had left WED. The Western River Expedition was Marc Davis’ final masterpiece, and its lack of addition to the parks affected him greatly.

Today, we have Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain, which seems to be a cartoony take on the original concept with quite a few changes. Unfortunately, it seems that Thunder Mesa will remain permanently on the drawing board, as the land it was positioned for is gone, and the tremendous cost to the company would likely far outweigh its benefit in 2018 Walt Disney World. Today the parks are creating lands and attractions based on independent properties, and there is rarely any entirely unique concepts that are being used. If only the Lone Ranger film was any good.

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