Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a runaway mine roller coaster in the Disney Parks, located in Frontierland. It is the "wildest ride in the wilderness" that travels throughout the hills of Big Thunder Mountain. It is called Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland and Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Big Thunder Mountain in Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disneyland.
The story of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is about the same all over the world - gold was discovered in Big Thunder Mountain, and a nearby settlement thrived. However, natural disasters caused by spirits protecting the mountain destroyed the towns, reducing their population. There are minor differences, depending on which park one is at.
Disneyland's central town is known as Rainbow Ridge became known as the Biggest Little Boom Town in the West, and the population grew to 2,015 people. Founded in 1869, the town was ravaged by earthquakes and people came to move away, reducing the population to 38.
The main town in the Magic Kingdom is known as Tumbleweed which was built in 1880. The town was suffering from extreme droughts which caught the attention of snake-oil salesman Cumulus Isobar. Cumulus attempted to con the town by selling himself as a rain-maker but before he could take his money and flee, the entire town was flooded.
Main Article: Thunder Mesa
Disneyland Paris' town is that of Thunder Mesa, founded in 1840 by the evil Henry Ravenswood. In 1860, the mesa was hit with a massive earthquake, killing most of their residents and collapsing a portion of the settlement into a canyon. The town since managed to rebuild and get by as a quiet river town, though there are still talks of the supernatural.
Some material from the attraction suggest that all of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroads are connected and take place in the same universe.
Barnabas T. Bullion is the owner and founder of the Big Thunder Mining Company in Tumbleweed. His portrait can be found in the queue at the Magic Kingdom. According to the Disney Parks blog, a portrait of him can be found in the Panhandle Hotel in Rainbow Ridge.
Rainbow Ridge Sign
Near the end of the attraction in Disneyland, there is a sign pointing to different places and how far apart they are. The sign points to Rainbow Ridge (Disneyland), Tumbleweed (Magic Kingdom), and Thunder Mesa (Paris). The distances are references to their real world locations.
Thunder Mesa Daily Messenger
When Paris’ attraction reopened after an extensive refurbishment, the Thunder Mesa Daily Messenger made a commemorative issue to celebrate. One page contains an advertisement of cruises from the Thunder Mesa Riverboats. Thunder Mesa is connected with Rainbow Ridge, and Tumbleweed on the Rivers of the Far West. This connects all of the towns, not just canonically, but geographically as well.
After guests board their mine cars, the train travels into one of the mines surrounded by bats. They travel up a lift hill in one of the caverns, surrounded by stalactites and stalagmites. They travel underneath a small waterfall, before going down and emerging outside. The train takes sharp right and left turns, going over hills before ducking down as quickly. It passes into an underground cave, where a coyote can be seen just over its entrance, and takes a hard right turn, before coming to another lift hill.
It travels to the top of the hill, passing a wooden tower and mining supplies. A sign reads “DANGER: BLASTING AREA AHEAD” and the mine cars are surrounded by containers of explosives. On the top of a rock, a goat is chewing on a stick of dynamite. The train continues to travel fast, making sharp turns and going up and down small hills, until it dives into another cavern and into the blasting zone. The train moves up another lift hill, as kegs of dynamite are lit around it. At the top of the hill, a large collection of explosives are lit off, exploding and sending the train down another hill. After another series of sharp turns, the vehicle slows, as it re-enters Rainbow Ridge and the unloading stations.
Guests board the mine cars in the Big Thunder Mining Company headquarters, before the train dives into the caverns. They pass by a cavern of bats, as the vehicle goes up the first lift hill. It travels through a cavern of stalactites and stalagmites, with pools of coloring changing water below, and underneath a waterfall, before emerging outside. The train falls down, veering left and right, through the rock work, underneath a family of possums hanging from a tree, and through the flooded town of Tumbleweed, before coming to another lift hill
Guests pass through a wooden mining structure, before falling, again, passing behind Tumbleweed and down further into the mines. The train comes to one more lift hill, moving up a cave lit by oil lanterns hanging from the walls, before dipping down once more. It passes by some small caravans, through the bones of a fossilized tyrannosaurs rex, by natural hot springs, and man-made wells before coming back into the loading stations. Guests gather their things and disembark back into Frontierland.
The attraction is almost identical to the one in the Magic Kingdom, with some minor differences. The guests don’t pass through a western town before the second lift hill, instead diving into a cavern surrounded by coyotes, similar to Disneyland. The bat cavern is near the end of the attraction, before they travel downhill by the fossilized dinosaur, creating a splash of water when they reach the bottom of the hill.
Guests board their mine cars on the mainland of Thunder Mesa, within the old mining offices. The train dives into the caverns, travel underneath the Rivers of the Far West, and up the first lift hill. They pass by caverns filled with bats, stalactites and stalagmites, and a waterfall, before emerging outside. The train travels down, through a field of cacti, underneath a family of possums, and on the outer edge of the mountain, where they get sprayed on a splash of water.
The trains travel up the next lift hill, next to a mining camp, where a goat is chewing on someone’s laundry. They move down, again, in a helix, before going over a small bridge over the river and into the blast area. The train travels up the final lift hill, as kegs of dynamite are set off around them. They fall back down into the caverns, travel underneath the Rivers of the Far West, and come out back in Thunder Mesa and loading zone, where the guests disembark.
Behind the Scenes
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was designed by Tony Baxter and Bill Watkins. Baxter drew inspiration from Marc Davis’ unbuilt Western River Expedition for the Magic Kingdom. The park needed more attractions quickly, so Pirates of the Caribbean was built, instead. With the free real estate in Frontierland available, Baxter was asked to come up with an idea for it. After visiting Monument Valley in Utah, he built a model of a runaway coaster within a set of mountains. He constructed the track model to seamlessly flow between mountains, to further the immersion. The model was well-received and the project was green lit.
The attraction was put on hold, so that work could be completed on Space Mountain. This proved to be beneficial, as this was one of the first attractions to be built with the aid of computers. Space Mountain was, as well, but the computers were so primitive that most of the track layout and smoothing had to be done by hand. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s delay gave them more time to perfect the system to create a smooth, fluid ride.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened at Disneyland on September 2, 1979, at the Magic Kingdom on November 8th, 1980, and at Tokyo Disneyland on July 4th, 1987. It was an opening day attraction at Disneyland Paris on April 22nd, 1992.
- One of the towns connected in the Big Thunder Mountain storyline is Grizzly Gulch. Hong Kong Disneyland never received a Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, but they have their own runaway mine coaster: Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars. The town and land the ride is located in, Grizzly Gulch, is connected with the sign in Rainbow Ridge and the advertisement in the Thunder Mesa Daily Messenger.
- Barnabas T. Bullion is a member of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers, which connects all of the Big Thunder Mountain attractions and tertiary ones into the S.E.A. story.
- Rainbow Ridge, the name of the town in Disneyland, was the name of the town in Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland, the attraction that previously occupied that land.
- The advertisement in the Thunder Mesa Daily Messenger mentioned a town called Stillwater Junction. This refers to a station seen in Tokyo's Westernland along the Western River Railroad.
- Citizens of Thunder Mesa such as Sheriff Will Ketchum and B.A. Hero, Major, 8th Missouri Cavalry are named to be reminiscent of the pun-names of Big Thunder's mine-trains such as, “I.M. Brave” and “U.R. Daring”.
- Big Thunder Mountain - the location in which the attraction takes place
- Big Thunder Mining Company - the company that built the railroad
- Phantom Manor - an attraction connected with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in Disneyland Paris