The Quick 10: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the fastest ride in the wilderness

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With the addition of Splash Mountain and recent revamp of Space Mountain at the Magic Kingdom, not to mention other parks’ thrill rides like Tower of Terror and Expedition Everest, I think Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is often overlooked. It’s a speedy little coaster ride, but it’s not going to drop you from dizzying heights or spiral you in a series of upside down loops. I think that’s part of its charm. Hope you enjoy part three of your vicarious Disney vacation – come back tomorrow to learn a bit about the classic Dumbo ride.


Photo from
Chimaira 500, Wikimedia Commons.

2. All of the mountains and rock formations on the ride are based on specific structures that already exist in nature. For instance, Disneyland’s rock spires were inspired by the hoodoos of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park; the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo and Paris rides all feature buttes found in Monument Valley.

3. This roller coaster was the first Disney ride to use computer design for the track, and there were apparently a lot of challenges doing it. Said designer Tony Baxter:

There is a spiral on Big Thunder, near the beginning of the ride, where it goes around and then heads back. The computer kept moving it over, because it did not want that much track there. It wanted to shorten the length of track. And I wanted it over there because it looked good as a design. I like the composition of the three summits, the pyramid composition of shapes. The computer kept moving the track which made the ride somewhat less attractive. So 9 times I did a new design that I thought would solve the problem and the computer would say no. So we built 9 tiny models to check the look until the computer said, “OK, I will accept this. This one is OK.” That was the one we ended up building. But it took 9 designs before the computer approved !

4. The punny names of the runaway trains (cue Soul Asylum) include U.B. Bold, U.R. Daring, U.R. Courageous, I.M. Brave, I.B. Hearty and I.M. Fearless.

5. If you’ve ever looked at some of the props scattered throughout the queue and the ride and wondered how Disney did such a great job creating them, the answer is… they didn’t. Actual antique mining equipment was purchased for the rides at auctions and stores throughout the Southwest. Things that were actually used include a double-stamp ore crusher, a hauling wagon and a mill that extracted the gold from the ore.

6. About 20 animatronics are scattered throughout the ride, including a rainmaker named Professor Cumulus Isobar.

7. When Disneyland first opened, the ride where Big Thunder Mountain is now was a somewhat similar (but much tamer) attraction called “Rainbow Caverns Mine Train.” This was replaced by the “Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland” in 1960, which was a lot like the Jungle Cruise set in the American Southwest. If you check out the pictures over at Yesterland (where the photo is from), you’ll see that many of the elements of the Mine Train rides were recycled for the more-thrilling roller coaster that debuted in 1979.

8. In fact, the name “Big Thunder Mountain” itself pays tribute to the rides that came before it. “Big Thunder” was the name of a waterfall riders passed on the Main Train rides; “Little Thunder” was just a stone’s throw away.

9. Though it’s certainly not the fastest or craziest ride in the parks, Big Thunder has claimed a life. In 2003, a man riding the coaster at Disneyland was killed when a train derailed, causing the locomotive piece to jump up off the track, hit the ceiling of a tunnel and come back down on the first car. Ten other riders were also injured.

10. The voice of the prospector who narrates the ride belongs to Dallas McKennon. It’s possible that you’ve heard him in any number of Disney projects: as Ben Franklin at the American Adventure in Epcot, as the Owl in Sleeping Beauty, as the fox in Mary Poppins, or as a whole cast of minor characters in both Lady and the Tramp and 101 Dalmatians. Non-Disney projects included the “voice” of Max in How the Grinch Stole Christmas and Archie Andrews in the Archie animated series of the ‘60s.

February 24, 2011 - 10:13am
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