Big Thunder Mountain Rail Road. Truly a classic not to be missed at any trip to a Disney theme park. Check out the video:
Read more about the ride>Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (or for short Big Thunder Mountain) is an indoor/outdoor mine train roller coaster located in Frontierland at several Magic Kingdom-style Disney theme parks worldwide. The ride exists at Disneyland Park (Anaheim) and the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and at Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Park (Paris) as Big Thunder Mountain. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is also the name of the fictional rail line the roller coaster depicts.
Although the details of the backstory vary from park to park, all follow the same general story arcs. Some time in the late 1800s, gold was discovered on Big Thunder Mountain in the American southwest. Overnight, the small mining town of Big Thunder (at Disneyland), Tumbleweed (at the Magic Kingdom), or Thunder Mesa (at Disneyland Paris) became a thriving mining town. Mining was prosperous, and an extensive line of mine trains was set up to transported the ore. Unknown to the settlers, the Mountain was a sacred spot to local Native Americans and was cursed.
Before long, the settlers’ desecration of the mountain caused a great tragedy, which, depending on the park, is usually depicted to be an earthquake (Disneyland Paris, Disneyland) or a flash flood (Magic Kingdom), which befell the mines and town, and the town was abandoned. Some time later, the locomotives were found to be racing around the mountain on their own, without engineers or a crew. The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was founded in the old mining camp to allow tourists to take rides on the possessed trains.
Keeping in time with the theme, the station buildings on all four versions of the ride are designed to look as though they are the abandoned offices of a mining company from the mid to late 19th century. The mountains themselves are themed to the red rock formations of the American Southwest. The rock work designs on Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are based on the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.
In the Magic Kingdom version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and in the Tokyo and Paris versions, the rockwork designs are based on the rising buttes that are located in Utah and Arizona’s Monument Valley. Special care was taken by the Imagineers to make it appear that the rocks were there originally, and the track was built around the rocks, unlike a number of earlier mine rides, which were built the other way around (by sculpting the rocks around the tracks). The action of the ride takes place completely in the sagging, rotting tunnels of the mountain. In contrast to most steel roller coasters, where the thrills come from the perception of flying through open air, the thrills on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are meant to come from the perceived instability of the mine and its threats of collapse. Sound effects of a typical locomotive operation are piped into the surrounding scenery to add realism to guests viewing the ride from observation platforms, including the steam whistle sounding, even though there is no whistle displayed on the locomotives.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was designed by Imagineer Tony Baxter and ride design engineer Bill Watkins. The concept came from Baxter’s work on fellow Imagineer Marc Davis’s concept for the Western River Expedition, a western-themed pavilion at the Magic Kingdom, designed to look like an enormous plateau and contain many rides, including a runaway mine train roller coaster. However, because the pavilion as a whole, was deemed too expensive in light of the 1973 construction and opening of Pirates of the Caribbean, Baxter proposed severing the mine train and building it as a separate attraction.
The Big Thunder Mountain Railroad project was put on hold again in 1974 as resources and personnel were being diverted to work on constructing Space Mountain over in Tomorrowland, but this delay may have ultimately produced a smoother ride as the use of computers in attraction design was just beginning when the project was resumed. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was one of the first Disney rides to utilize computer-aided design. The attraction first opened at Disneyland in 1979, with the Magic Kingdom’s larger version in Florida opening in 1980. Tokyo Disneyland added its own version in 1987 and in 1992, Euro Disneyland (now named Disneyland Park) opened with Big Thunder Mountain as an opening day attraction. Tributes to Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland
At Disneyland, a scaled-down western town sits adjacent to the queuing lines and tracks returning to station. A Western saloon, hotel, assayer’s office and mercantile appear among the buildings. This is the village of Rainbow Ridge, which used to overlook the loading platform of the sedate Mine Train through Nature’s Wonderland. Disneyland’s version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was built on the land the Mine Train used to occupy. Many of the animal animatronics throughout the attraction are animatronic animals from previous attraction. Other allusions to the Mine Train through Nature’s wonderland include:
* the Rainbow Caverns (glowing pools of water by the first lift hill)
* precariously balanced rocks in the third lift hill
* The name of the ride itself – Big Thunder was originally the name of an enormous waterfall the train passed on the tour. Little Thunder was located nearby.
At the Magic Kingdom and at Disneyland, the ride is known by its full name of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The Tokyo and Paris versions would drop the word Railroad in favor of the name Big Thunder Mountain. Tokyo Disneyland’s Big Thunder, which is almost identical to the Magic Kingdom’s, opened in 1987, five years after the park opening. Also at Magic Kingdom and Disneyland, the name of the ride is sometimes shortened to Big Thunder Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, or even just Thunder Mountain.
Imagineers rethought the attraction for Euro Disneyland, creating a layout mostly based on the Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad but with several significant changes to both the layout and accompanying structure.
The revised European ride, takes the form of a large island in the center of the Rivers of the Far West, accessed from its riverside station by tunnels underneath the water. The attraction in Disneyland Paris is the only Big Thunder Mountain to have been an opening day attraction at the park. Hong Kong Disneyland does not have a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction (or a western-themed Frontierland, for that matter), however, a planned Grizzly Gulch is under construction at Hong Kong Disneyland with a theme similar to Frontierland. The planned attraction Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars will carry a theme similar to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s theme.
Disneyland’s version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is the original version of the ride.
Leaving the outdoor loading station, riders enter a dark tunnel. The sounds of bats can be heard as the trains make a right hand turn and then a left hand turn before climbing the first lift hill. To the left of the trains, guests can view a series of rainbow colored caverns. These are placed as a tribute to the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. At the top, the trains exit into the daylight and stayed slow at the drop before making a 180-degree turn drop to the right before leveling out into the left-hand turn, before making a small drop and climb, and then making another right-hand turn (passing under a tree with several opossums hanging from it). The trains then drop down into a cave (where two coyotes are howling on top of), rise up, hit a block brake, make a right-hand turn, exit the tunnel, and climb the second lift hill.
Warnings of blasting up ahead on the track can be seen by guests as the trains crest the second lift hill. Three desert tortoises and two rattlesnakes can also be seen alongside the lift hill. As the trains go slow and start to drop away to the right, an animatronic goat with a stick of dynamite in its mouth bleats at the passing guests and 2 skunks attempt to spray the passing guests. After descending this drop, the trains rise up into a 540-degree downhill helix to the right before passing over another hill, making a left-hand turn into a tunnel, and climbing the third lift hill. While climbing the third lift hill, rocks start shaking, simulating an earthquake, and appearing ready to crush the riders.
At the top, the trains exit the lift hill, slow down, and drop away to the right into a short straightaway, making another right-hand turn into a short tunnel onto a trim brake bridge. After this bridge, riders drop away to the left and pass a T-Rex skeleton as they rise up to the right into the final brake run. The trains pass by the buildings of Big Thunder before returning back to the station.
Unlike its clones, Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain is the only Big Thunder Mountain that loads and unloads park guests without a traditional station roof.
At the Magic Kingdom, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is almost an identical mirror image of the Disneyland version, except for having an enclosed loading station on a hillside, the replacement of Big Thunder with Tumbleweed, and altered section of layout before the second lift hill.
In this version, upon entering the queue, guests make their way up the hillside past old mining equipment to the station building. Once inside, the queue snakes through the upper level of the two level station. Guests can view a panorama of the ride. The queue then travels down a gradual ramp, switchbacks, and reaches the loading station. After a wait, guests enter the 30 passenger trains. On the signal of a flashing green lantern at the head end of the platform, the train is clear to leave the station.
Leaving the station, the trains immediately enter a dark tunnel and make a tight left hand turn. After a short straightaway during which the sounds of bats can be heard, the trains make a slight right hand turn and climb the first lift hill. A series of caverns can be seen on the right hand side of the lift hill track. At the top, once again, it slows down and riders make a drop away to the left, before making a right hand turn and going over two hops while passing under the second lift hill and second lift hill drop. It is typical to make a flyby with another train during this section.
After going under the second lift hill drop (which is a point where it may be possible to see the riders on another train), the trains make a tight downwind spiral to the right into a short tunnel. Emerging from the tunnel, riders find themselves in the abandoned town of Tumbleweed. The Walt Disney World Railroad’s track can be seen to the right of the guests. While passing through Tumbleweed, the track goes through several bunny hops, and the train seems to sway from side to side. The swaying is achieved by banking the track slightly. On the left, riders see the wagon of Professor Cumulus Isobar, whose rainmaking machine works too well, and a party being held on the second floor of the flooded saloon. On the right, one sees a remaining resident spinning around in a floating bathtub. In the early years of the ride, the floodwaters in Tumbleweed were much more torrential than they are today.
After Tumbleweed, the trains pass through a short tunnel called Davy Jones Mine, make a left hand turn, and climb the second lift hill. At the top, the train slows down and the riders drop away to the left and cross back under the lift hill as the trains rise up into a 540 degree downhill helix to the left, before going over another airtime hill before dropping back down. The trains make a right hand turn into a tunnel, and climb the third lift hill. An earthquake is in progress and the rocks seem ready to crush and bury the train. In the early years of the ride, the tunnel exit seemed to collapse with falling rocks. Cresting the lift hill, the trains slow down and exit out into the daylight, and drop away to the left heading for the Rivers of America, before they make a left hand turn through a short tunnel, crossing back over the drop, and then drop away to the right through the boneyard and geysers before hitting the final brake run and returning to the station.
At Tokyo Disneyland, Big Thunder Mountain is mostly identical to the Magic Kingdom version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, with three exceptions:
* The abandoned town section is replaced by a longer cave before the second lift hill.
* The station sits on columns rather than on a hillside.
* The ending is altered. Instead of crossing back over the drop from the third lift hill, the track makes a U-turn before dropping through the Boneyard/geyser scene, passing through a short tunnel, and making a right hand turn into the final brakes. The trains pass in front of the station, and then turn back into the boarding area.
At Disneyland Park (Paris), Big Thunder Mountain sits on an island in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West, where Tom Sawyer’s Island would normally sit. Unlike all of the other versions of the ride, this version has an elaborate backstory concerning the town of Thunder Mesa, founded by Henry Ravenswood to support the mining in the mountain. This backstory influences not just Big Thunder Mountain but also Frontierland’s other major attraction, Phantom Manor, Disneyland Paris’s equivalent of the Haunted Mansion.
Although the ride itself is located on an island, guests board the trains at a depot on the mainland. The overall layout of the ride is influenced by the Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but is significantly altered, with tunnels to allow trains to travel under the river to the station on the mainland.
Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland Paris is much more heavily themed than the other versions of the ride.
Leaving the station on the mainland, the trains descend into a long and dark tunnel, before making a right hand turn, sharply rising up, and climbing the first lift hill. This tunnel takes guests under the water and onto Big Thunder Island in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West. Stalactites and Stalagmites can be seen growing next to the track. The sounds of bats up above can also be heard. At the top, a waterfall parting around the tracks suggests that the tunnel is flooding. Riders leave the first lift hill, slow down a little bit, and drop away to the left, before making a right hand turn. If the trains are being dispatched timely, a dueling illusion can be made between the guests’ train and a train in the helix.
After this turn, the trains pass under the second lift hill and its drop, before making a left hand turn onto a bridge. A vista of the ride can be seen as the trains make a slight right hand turn, before suddenly falling through a washed out section of the bridge within view of Phantom Manor. An on-ride camera is present here to take pictures of the riders, which can be purchased after the ride at the Big Thunder Photographer shop near the ride’s exit. After the washed out bridge, the trains make a left hand turn on the remaining, rickety section of the bridge. Entering one of the camps of the Big Thunder Mining Company, trains start climbing the second lift hill. Two tied down donkeys can be seen to the riders’ right, baying at passing guests, with an empty watering pail in front of them. A goat can be seen pulling on a piece of clothing hanging on a clothesline to the riders’ left, as the trains pass a parked steamroller and mine elevator, and travel under a water tower. Guests are also treated to views of Frontierland and Phantom Manor as the trains climb the lift hill.
At the top of the second lift hill, riders can see The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney Studios Paris on the horizon. Cresting the second lift hill, the trains drop away to the left into a short straight segment. The squealing of the wheel flanges on the curve can be heard as the train starts down the drop. As guests rise up the hill, one might notice a sign reading “BEWARE! BROKEN TRESTLE!” attached to the water tower at the bottom of the second lift hill (this sign is also visible if one sits in the very back of the train and looks backward as the train climbs the second lift hill). Then the trains cross over a broken trestle as they travel through the downhill 540 degree helix.
Following the helix, the trains pass through a short cave and go over a quick rise and drop as they shoot down a canyon. As the trains drop through the tunnel, a loud gust of wind is heard. Then the trains make a right hand turn atop a rickety trestle into a tunnel with a sign reading “DANGER! T.N.T.” over the entrance and climb the third lift hill. As the train starts to climb the third lift hill, an unseen miner can be heard yelling “Fire in the hole!” After that, it becomes evident that the miners are dynamiting the cave the riders are going through, and blasting can be seen on both sides of the train.
As trains climb the lift hill, an earthquake hits and the rocks violently begin to shake. The tunnel is in danger of collapsing, and a lantern on the left hand side of the train starts swinging back and forth, while a lantern on the right hand side goes out. As the trains crest the lift hill, gold can be seen rushing out of the ceiling before the trains exit the tunnel and travel along a very short straight section of track. Riders get a view out over Frontierland, as well as Space Mountain in Discoveryland off in the far distance, before dropping away to the left into a straightaway heading for a tunnel portal. The trains then enter a tunnel that seems to go on forever. This is the tunnel that takes guests back to the mainland and back to the station. Guests encounter a swarm of bats in the tunnel. The trains continue to accelerate until suddenly rising out of the tunnel, now back on the mainland. From here, the trains travel past the station, through the loading dock, and then turn around to reenter either station track.
Big Thunder Mountain in Paris can sometimes be considered as having four lift hills, if one counts the chain that aids in preventing trains from rolling back into the final tunnel as a lift hill.
The screeching of wheel flanges on the second lift hill drop is an effect achieved through a sound effect. Anti-rollback dogs before the second and third lift hills give off a sound effect for the bridges on these turns. The anti-rollback dogs on the washed out bridge before the second lift hill were added in 2009, with the ones before the third lift hill being added in 2008. Anti-rollback dogs are also used on the hill in the canyon after the broken trestle.
A 22 year-old man was killed on the Disneyland incarnation in a derailment on September 5, 2003, purportedly as a result of neglected ride maintenance. The court case surrounding this was settled out of court in 2005 and a scholarship fund was set up at Brooks College, a Southern California university, in the victim’s name for aspiring animators as he was seeking a career in animation.