Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at 40: A Timeless Triumph of Theme Park Design

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When the D23 Expo unveiled a collection of theme-park bulletins in late August, considered one of them was unsurprisingly centered on the upcoming Epcot attraction centered on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy. This new roller-coaster, subtitled “Cosmic Rewind”, is supposed to be a 360-degree immersive journey; amongst its many parts, as famous within the press launch, Cosmic Rewind will function the primary reverse-launch in a Disney coaster ever. That’s price noting as a result of, whereas the Walt Disney Firm has pioneered theme-park points of interest, designs, and ambiance for greater than six a long time, its points of interest should not significantly intense. 

And but, 40 years in the past at the moment, Disneyland unveiled a brand new E-Ticket attraction, presumed to be the “wildest journey within the wilderness”. That, after all, can be Large Thunder Mountain Railroad, a not-terribly-wild journey via a facsimile of the Previous West in a mine cart. Large Thunder Mountain Railroad stays some of the charming theme-park points of interest in Disney historical past, not as a result of it’s actually intense or devoted to throwing its visitors via the ringers, however due to its distinctive, solely distinctive theme.

Hold Onto Them Hats and Glasses

As is the case with numerous the good Disney points of interest, Large Thunder Mountain Railroad didn’t start its life as Large Thunder Mountain Railroad, however one thing else solely. Earlier within the 1970s, considered one of Disney’s 9 Previous Males of animation and a pioneering Imagineer, Marc Davis, had a imaginative and prescient for a Western pavilion on the Magic Kingdom referred to as the Western River Expedition. One of many youthful Imagineers engaged on the Western River Expedition is a Disney Legend in his personal proper, Tony Baxter. Davis’ imaginative and prescient, Baxter as soon as associated, was meant to be the Orlando model of Pirates of the Caribbean: a large attraction with all types of Audio-Animatronics, an adventurous story, a waterfall climax, and extra.

Each due to value — had the Western River Expedition been constructed as Davis imagined, it could’ve been housed within the largest-ever (to that time) present constructing in Disney theme-park historical past — and due to the need to get visitors into points of interest before development might permit, the Western River Expedition by no means noticed the sunshine of day. (Instead, Pirates of the Caribbean was constructed, although the Orlando model of the attraction is roughly half as quick because the one you’ll discover at Disneyland.) Baxter had the thought to siphon off a part of the general attraction into what would turn out to be Large Thunder Mountain Railroad. The mine prepare didn’t see the sunshine of day till the late 1970s due to delays — the attraction was greenlit, however being held in order that development might proceed on one other roller-coaster, this one within the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland: Area Mountain.

Large Thunder Mountain Railroad could purport to be the wildest journey within the wilderness, however its appeal lies in the truth that it’s under no circumstances scary or wild. Simply concerning the scariest a part of the journey, irrespective of whether or not it’s at Disneyland or Walt Disney World, comes in the course of the varied quick drops, a few of that are positioned proper earlier than facsimile variations of low-hanging bridges, and make you assume you would possibly get injured for those who don’t duck in time. (In case you’ve seen the controversial indie movie Escape from Tomorrow, chances are you’ll recall how the opening photographs play into this, as we see an individual getting their head lopped off by one of many bridges.) In any other case, Large Thunder Mountain Railroad is an achievement of architectural design and good gags.

The gags are one of many extra underrated features of Large Thunder Mountain Railroad. It’s not simply that you simply’re driving a mine cart close to the mining city of Rainbow Ridge, or that issues get out of hand rapidly. The varied Audio-Animatronic characters within the attraction, from a goat holding a stick of dynamite in its mouth to a swinging opossum, add persona and aptitude to what might be a standard-issue roller-coaster. And the primary main present scene, during which your automobile speeds via a tunnel stuffed with bats, is the form of spooky contact that’s heightened relying on whenever you journey. (Like lots of the nice Disney points of interest, Large Thunder Mountain Railroad is greatest skilled at night time.) The dedication to humor is without doubt one of the unforgettable elements of the attraction, each intelligent and timeless.

The Wildest Trip within the Wilderness

And what makes the entire attraction actually particular within the 12 months 2019 is that architectural design is what makes the journey stand out. Consider different marquee Disney points of interest, after which consider how few of these aren’t related in some style to a film or mental property of some variety. Some points of interest solely acquired the IP therapy later in life. For many years, Pirates of the Caribbean wasn’t simply the form of attraction to encourage failed ventures just like the Western River Expedition. It was an indicator of theme-park design completely separate from the Disney movie library. The presence of Johnny Depp nonetheless persists within the Anaheim and Orlando variations of the attraction (although barely much less so in comparison with the beginning of the last decade). 

And even the aforementioned Area Mountain isn’t resistant to the vagaries of mental property. At Disneyland, Area Mountain isn’t even Area Mountain anymore, however Hyperspace Mountain. That title replace, after all, displays the inclusion of Star Wars into the journey, replete with sound results, visuals of TIE Fighters and extra. (You would possibly surprise, “Isn’t there already a Star Wars land in Disneyland now? Why would there be points of interest themed to the movie elsewhere?” …Good query!) The closest you will get to one thing like Large Thunder is the opposite massive mountainous attraction at Disneyland, Matterhorn Bobsleds. However even that has its roots in a 50s-era live-action movie from the studio.

Large Thunder Mountain Railroad practically did turn out to be a supply of mental property just lately, although most individuals would don’t know. ABC accredited a pilot order for a present referred to as Large Thunder in early 2013, but it surely by no means acquired previous the pilot stage. And if you wish to get very technical, you can level out (precisely) that Large Thunder Mountain Railroad has already discovered its manner into a serious movement image. The mine-cart scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom options sound results which may sound acquainted if you recognize the roller-coaster attraction, which offered these results. 

A Triumph of Theme

Now, because the Disney parks head additional into the period of mental property, Large Thunder Mountain Railroad stands aside as a result of its placement in Frontierland within the Disneyland and Magic Kingdom theme parks is a dictate of theme. The location, for instance, of Star Wars in Tomorrowland arguably makes completely no sense. (As mainly everybody is aware of, these movies all happen a very long time in the past, not a very long time sooner or later. And since Tomorrowland, by its very identify, is supposed to characterize the longer term, it ought not embody Star Wars. Frankly, we might have a bigger dialogue about how the Tomorrowland part of the U.S. parks is not sensible on the entire. I digress.) What it represents is a half-hearted presumption land about tomorrow is equal to a land about science fiction. 

Large Thunder Mountain Railroad, however, is a triumph of sticking with a theme. When Disneyland opened its doorways in 1955, Frontierland existed in no small half as a result of Western films and TV exhibits have been an enormous a part of well-liked tradition of the interval. Now, Frontierland affords some welcome throwbacks to the Previous West, however in a manner that feels quainter than it could have initially. The stay stage performances, the buying and selling submit, the Golden Horseshoe Saloon and the Frontierland Capturing Gallery (the latter of which arguably feels uncomfortable now in methods it wouldn’t have again in 1955 due to societal points) all exist as a result of they function throughout the theme of the Western frontier, not due to mental property requiring their presence.

Maybe probably the most encouraging factor about Large Thunder Mountain Railroad is that it stays a constantly well-liked attraction for Disney’s parks. When Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was introduced, it led to the Rivers of America at Disneyland being shrunk barely in dimension to accommodate the brand new land. Although that truncated model of the Rivers was met with some criticism, the truth that the hallmark points of interest surrounding the Rivers acquired to remain the identical was an encouraging signal of stability. 

In one other world, perhaps if Large Thunder wasn’t as well-liked, it wouldn’t be marking its 40th anniversary in any respect. (And hell, if Disney’s tackle The Lone Ranger hadn’t been a flop, perhaps the attraction would’ve been overhauled.) What now we have with this mine-cart journey is an attraction stuffed with the wit and appeal that makes the very best Disney rides so particular after so a few years. Could it stay for one more 40 years.

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