Big Thunder Mountain
Published: July 29, 2016
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is an indoor/outdoor mine train roller coaster located in Frontierland at several Disneyland-style Disney Parks worldwide. The ride exists at Disneyland Park (California) 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, a small mining town became a thriving mining town (the name of the town varies from ride to ride. In the California ride, the town is known as Rainbow Ridge. In the Florida version, the town is known as Tumbleweed, and in Paris, the town is known as Thunder Mesa.). Mining was prosperous, and an extensive line of mine trains was set up to transport 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 (in the Paris and California versions of the ride), a tsunami (in the Tokyo version of the ride), a flash flood (in the Florida version of the ride), 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.
Inspired by real-life Bryce Canyon, the Hoodoos of Big Thunder in Disneyland as seen from the Big Thunder Trail that passes behind the ride.
In keeping 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 in the California version are based on the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. In the Florida, Tokyo and Paris versions of the ride, 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 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, and the Magic Kingdom’s larger version in Florida opened in 1980. Tokyo Disneyland’s version opened in 1987 and Disneyland Paris opened with its version in 1992. The Paris version’s layout and structure were mostly based on a mirror image of Disneyland’s ride, but with several significant differences.
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 its park. Hong Kong Disneyland does not have a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad attraction (or a western-themed Frontierland, for that matter). However, Grizzly Gulch has a theme similar to Frontierland. The main attraction, Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars, carries a similar theme to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Early 1970s: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is conceived by Imagineer Tony Baxter for Walt Disney World, but it is put on hold due to the construction of Pirates of the Caribbean.
1974: The project is put on hold again due to the construction of Space Mountain.
1979: Construction begins on the ride at Disneyland.
September 2, 1979: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad officially opens at Disneyland.
November 15, 1980: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad officially opens at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.
July 4, 1987: Big Thunder Mountain officially opens at Tokyo Disneyland.
April 12, 1992: Big Thunder Mountain officially opens at Disneyland Paris along with the park.
January 7, 2013: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad closes at Disneyland for a refurbishment, to include an entire replacement of new track (similar to the Space Mountain refurbishment), new trains, new scenery, and new effects.
March 17, 2014: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad reopens at Disneyland.
November 2, 2015: Big Thunder Mountain closes at Disneyland Paris for a year-long refurbishment. Its reopening is scheduled for January 2017.
Tributes to predecessor
At Disneyland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was built on the land the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland used to occupy. Several tributes to the former attraction are present in the Disneyland version. A scaled-down Western town sits adjacent to the queuing lines and tracks near the 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. Many of the animal animatronics throughout the attraction are animatronic animals from the 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) and precariously balanced rocks in the third lift hill tunnel. The name of the ride itself, “Big Thunder”, was originally the name of a large waterfall the old mine train passed on its 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 opened. 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”.
While the design of the Walt Disney World version of this roller coaster was done first, Disneyland’s version of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was the first one built. The track layout was mirrored, placing the attraction to the right of Rivers of America, if viewed from the central hub. (In Walt Disney World, the attraction is located to the left of Rivers of America.) To better fit with the adjacent Fantasyland areas of the theme park, the original Walt Disney World design had to be replaced with something more appropriate for Disneyland. The original design featured sharp-edged mountains and vibrant colors of Monument Valley, Arizona. Instead, Disneyland’s version was developed with more rounded features and muted colors resembling the Bryce Canyon hoodoos in Utah.
Upon entering the attraction, the queue winds through a narrow rock wall and passing by the tracks. The surrounding walls were originally created from 100 tons of gold ore from Rosamond.
Leaving the outdoor station, trains enter a bat-infested tunnel, make a right hand turn, then a left hand turn before climbing the first lift hill, which takes trains through a cavern full of stalactites. Leaving the lift hill, the train drops away to the right, then levels out and makes a left hand turn. The track then crosses under the second lift hill drop before making a right hand turn. The sounds of coyotes can be heard as the train descends into a long, dark tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, the train hits a trim brake, exits the tunnel, and climbs the second lift hill. At the top of the lift, an animatronic goat bleats at passing guests as the train drops away to the right, crosses under the lift hill, and rises up into a downward spiraling clockwise helix. Leaving the helix, the train shoots through a small canyon, then drops down into a mining camp, where it hits another trim brake. The train then makes a left hand turn, enters another tunnel, and climbs the third lift hill. As the train climbs the lift, the tunnel is dynamited, and artificial smoke is blasted in guests’ faces as the train crests the lift and exits the tunnel. The train then drops to the right, towards the river, then makes a right hand turn and passes through a short tunnel. After crossing over the drop, the trains make a left hand turn as they pass through the ribcage of a T-rex skeleton, hit a trim brake, then make a right hand turn into the final brakes. The train then travels by the buildings of Rainbow Ridge as it returns to the station.
On January 7, 2013, the ride was closed for an extensive refurbishment that included a new track, trains, scenery, and new effects on the third lift hill. The attraction reopened on March 17, 2014. The new track was fabricated by Dynamic Structures, the company that had previously rehauled the coaster track in Space Mountain.
Magic Kingdom version
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom is an almost mirror image of the Disneyland version.
In this version, riders board the trains in an enclosed loading station on a hillside. Leaving the station, trains make a left hand turn into a bat-infested tunnel, make a slight right turn, and climb the first lift hill. At the top of the lift hill, trains pass under a waterfall and drop to the left. This is followed by a right hand turn, after which the track crosses under the second lift hill and drop. After crossing under the second lift hill drop, the track goes through a 270 degree clockwise spiral and passes through a short tunnel. Trains emerge from the tunnel and pass through the flooded town of Tumbleweed. The train passes over a section of trick track (where the track is slightly banked from side to side), before entering a small mine, where it hits a trim brake. Trains then make a left hand turn and climb the second lift hill.
At the top of the second lift hill, trains drop to the left and cross under the lift hill, before rising into a downward counterclockwise helix. Leaving the helix, trains shoot up across a small hill, make a slight right turn, then drop through another tunnel and hit a trim brake. The trains then make a right hand turn into a tunnel and climb the third lift hill. As the train climbs the lift, an earthquake hits and makes the train cars sway from side to side. Leaving the lift, trains emerge from the tunnel, crest a small rise, and drop to the left towards the Rivers of America. After traveling along a short section of straight track, the ride then makes a left hand turn through a short tunnel and crosses a short bridge. The train then makes a right hand turn, and passes through the ribcage of a T-Rex skeleton as it hits the final trim brake, makes a left hand turn, and rises into the final brakes. The train then coasts back to the station.
The Florida version was allocated more space in the park, and so the Monument Valley-inspired ride structure assumes 2.5 acres, 25 percent larger than the Disneyland version.
Tokyo Disneyland version
Big Thunder Mountain at Tokyo Disneyland is similar to the Florida ride, but there are some differences in the ride layout. After going under the second lift drop, the Florida version does a 270 degree clockwise drop, then passes through the town of Tumbleweed, a short mine, and makes a left turn onto the second lift hill. On the Tokyo version, the track goes around a turn to the left and dives into an underground cave, mirroring the California version of the ride. More significantly, the final segment of the ride is different. Instead of crossing back over the drop from the third lift hill, the track makes a 180 degree turn to the right before dropping out of a tunnel, through the Boneyard/geyser scene, into a short tunnel. The track then makes a right hand turn into the final brakes. The trains pass in front of the station building, and then turn back into the loading area.
Disneyland Paris version
Paris’s version of the ride is unique, as it is situated on an island in the middle of the Rivers of the Far West, where Tom Sawyer’s Island would normally sit.
Guests board the trains at a station on the mainland. Immediately upon leaving the station, trains dive into a tunnel that transports them under the Rivers of the Far West to the island where the ride is located. The train makes a right hand turn, and makes a quick steep rise before starting up the first lift hill. As trains climb out of the darkness of the underwater tunnel, stalactites and stalagmites can be seen growing next to the track. The sounds of bats swooping up above can also be heard. At the top, a waterfall parting around the tracks suggests that the tunnel is flooding. Trains pop out of the tunnel, leave the lift hill, and drop around a left hand turn, pass through a small cave, then make a swooping right turn. If the trains are being dispatched timely, when the train goes through this curve, it will appear to make a near miss with a train in the 540 degree helix.
After this turn, the trains pass under the second lift hill and its drop, making a slight hop, before making a left hand turn onto a trestle. The train runs along the river, then makes a slight right hand turn as it approaches a mining camp and suddenly falls through a washed out section of the trestle. The trestle drop also contains an on-ride camera. After splashing down into the water, the trains go around a left turn on an unstable portion of trestle, enter a mining camp, and begin to climb the second lift hill.
As trains start up the lift hill, two tied down donkeys can be seen to the right side of the track, braying at passing trains, 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.
At the top of the lift, it is possible to make out The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Walt Disney Studios Paris on the horizon before the trains drop around a left turn and cross back under the lift hill. The prerecorded sound of screeching wheel flanges can be heard as trains go around the curve. As the train comes out of the drop and goes over another rise, it passes a sign warning of a broken trestle that is mounted to the water tower post (this warning sign can also be seen by sitting in the very last row of the train and looking backwards while going up the lift hill). Cresting the hill, trains cross over the broken trestle and spiral down through a 540-degree counter-clockwise helix.
Exiting the helix, the trains pass through a short cave and go over a quick airtime hill as they shoot down a canyon. As the trains drop through the tunnel and pass over a trim brake, a loud gust of wind is heard. Trains then make a right hand turn on another trestle that seems to creak under the weight of the train as they enter a tunnel with a sign reading “DANGER! T.N.T.” over the portal, and climb the third lift hill.
As the train starts up the hill, an unseen miner’s voice can be heard yelling “Fire in the hole!” After that, it becomes evident that the miners are dynamiting the cave, and the lights of blasting can be seen on both sides of the train. Midway up the lift hill, an earthquake hits. The train is seemingly rocked back and forth by a shockwave (in actuality the track is banked slightly). A vein of gold can be seen rushing out of the ceiling as the train crests the lift hill, and pop out of the tunnel. The train crests a small hill, then drops to the left onto a straightaway on the side of the water, speeding up as it races towards a tunnel portal. Trains pass into the tunnel and enter the return tunnel. The train encounters a swarm of bats in the tunnel as it makes another sharp counter-clockwise turnaround and goes down a steep drop to cross under the water. The trains continue to accelerate through the dark until it pops out of the exit portal on the mainland. The train then coasts past the station, through the loading dock, and then turns around to reenter the station.
In other media
The sounds of Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad trains were recorded and used as sound effects for the mine cart chase sequence in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Disneyland would later get its own Indiana Jones attraction in 1995, and the Walt Disney Company would go on to acquire the Indiana Jones franchise with its purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012.
In January 2013, ABC ordered a pilot based on the ride titled Big Thunder Mountain, but the idea was scrapped sometime after.
In October 2014, Marvel Comics announced a five-issue series based on the attraction that will debut in early 2015. Part of Marvel’s “Disney Kingdoms” line, the series will elaborate on the story behind the attraction and will feature input from Walt Disney Imagineering, including nods to elements of the ride.
On March 10, 1998, a 5-year-old boy was seriously injured when his foot became wedged between the passenger car’s running board and the edge of the exterior platform after the train temporarily paused before pulling into the unloading area. All of the toes on his left foot required amputation. This led to Disneyland making improvements to the ride, although the family maintains the park would not acknowledge this injury as the reason.
On September 5, 2003, a 22-year-old man died after suffering severe blunt trauma and extensive internal bleeding in a derailment of the Disneyland Resort Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster that also injured 10 other riders. The cause of the accident was determined to be improper maintenance. Investigation reports and discovery by the victim’s attorney confirmed the fatal injuries occurred when the first passenger car collided with the underside of the locomotive. The derailment was the result of a mechanical failure which occurred due to omissions during a maintenance procedure. Fasteners on the left side upstop/guide wheel on the floating axle of the locomotive were not tightened and safetied in accordance with specifications. As the train entered a tunnel the axle came loose and jammed against a brake section, causing the locomotive to become airborne and hit the ceiling of the tunnel. The locomotive then fell on top of the first passenger car, crushing the victim.
Incidents at Disney parks
List of current Disneyland attractions
Magic Kingdom attraction and entertainment history
Tokyo Disneyland attraction and entertainment history
Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars
^ “How to Make the Most Out Of Your Euro Disney Holidays”. Retrieved 2015-09-12.
^ Birnbaum’s Disneyland Resort Official Guide 2003, pg. 65, (c) 2003 Disney Editions
^ Jump up to:
a b “Interview with Imagineer Tony Baxter”. Archived from the original on February 6, 2012.
^ Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains Imagineering at Its Peak, Disney Editions, New York, 2007. pp. 60-75.
^ Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains Imagineering at Its Peak, Disney Editions, New York, 2007. pp. 67-69.
^ Jim Fanning (2009). Disneyland Challenge. Disney Editions. p. 23. ISBN 978-1-4231-0675-3.
^ Glover, Erin (March 7, 2014). “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad to Reopen March 17 at Disneyland Park”. DisneyParks Blog. Retrieved March 7, 2014.
^ “Products”. Dynamic Attractions. Retrieved October 28, 2013.
^ Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains Imagineering at Its Peak, Disney Editions, New York, 2007. p. 72.
^ Slater, Tyler. “Five Things You Might Have Missed Aboard Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland Park”. Disney Parks Blog. Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. Retrieved 8 December 2014.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “UPDATE: Big Thunder Mountain Drama, Projects From Mark Gordon, Ryan Reynolds & Martin Campbell Get ABC Pilot Orders”. Deadline.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “Melissa Rosenberg To Run ABC’s ‘Big Thunder’ Drama Pilot – Deadline”. Deadline.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “Jay Hernandez Joins Fox’s ‘Gang Related’, Ana De La Reguera In ABC’s ‘Big Thunder’ – Deadline”. Deadline.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “ABC Pilot Castings: Andrea Savage Boards John Leguizamo Comedy, Matt Oberg Joins ‘Pulling’, Zahn McClarnon In ‘Big Thunder’ – Deadline”. Deadline.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “Scott Bakula Joins TNT’s Bounty Hunter Pilot, ABC’s ‘Big Thunder’ Casts A Lead – Deadline”. Deadline.
^ Nellie Andreeva. “ABC Pilot ‘Big Thunder’ Finds Lead, CW’s ‘Oxygen’ & ABC’s ‘Influence’ Add To Casts – Deadline”. Deadline.
^ Jump up to:
a b Russ Burlingame (18 October 2014). “Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Comic Coming From Marvel’s Disney Kingdoms Line”. comicbook.com. Retrieved 11 December 2014.
^ Saffian, Sarah (May 2000). “The Hidden Danger of Amusement Parks”. Redbook.
^ “Theme Park Accident, 11 Injured”. KABC-TV. 2003-09-07. Archived from the original on September 6, 2003.
^ “Big Thunder Railroad Death Brings Big Admission From Disney”. Legal Examiner. December 4, 2005. Retrieved September 12, 2015.
^ “Verdict settlement for BTMRR”. Archived from the original on March 15, 2009.
Wikimedia Commons has media related to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Disneyland – Attraction Profile
Magic Kingdom – Attraction Profile
Tokyo Disneyland – Attraction Profile
Disneyland Resort Paris – Attraction Profile
Video footage from riders’ POV