BIG THUNDER MOUNTAIN RAILROAD
BACKSTORY (Sept. 2, 1979—Present): This attraction replaced the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. The town you pass through at the end of the ride (Rainbow Ridge) was a part of the previous attraction, and many of the animal animatronics throughout the attraction were originally from Nature's Wonderland. Remains of the Rainbow Caverns are seen during the first lift.
The new attraction is an outdoor roller coaster based on the concept of a runaway train careening through an abandoned mine complex. Designed by Imagineer Tony Baxter and ride design engineer, Bill Watkins, the concept comes from Baxter’s work on the runaway mine train segment of Marc Davis’ Western River Expedition showroom, Thunder Mesa. The design is based on the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. Across the way is Big Thunder Ranch, a Frontierland version of a petting zoo. At Halloween, this area becomes The Halloween Roundup. At Christmas,Big Thunder Ranch hosts Santa Claus & his reindeer and is called Reindeer Roundup.
Starting in 2009, guests could celebrate special occasions at the Celebration BBQ, located inside of the Big Thunder Ranch area. Entertainment was provided by Woody, Jessie, and a cast of talented cast members. A delicious family-style bbq meal was served as well. Reservations can be made by calling Disney Dining, 714.781.3463.
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For awhile now, you might've heard some strange rumblin' way off in the distance. This hammerin', clankin' and poundin' is just the clappings of some new Disney thunder...BIG THUNDER.
Those folks out in "mining country" have been hard at work for some time, ankle deep in blueprints and plans, models and drawings. Most Disneyland tenderfoots probably aren't aware of what's going on out there where the "east" meets "west." Since groundbreaking in October, 1977, 1/3 of the structural steel has already been erected, and underground plumbing and storm drain lines are nearing completion.
In these early stages, it takes a lot of experienced, creative an dflexible people get a mountain out of the ground. Jim Daniel heads up the Big Thunder outfit as its General Superintendent, and is by no means a newcomer to mountain building. Jim was involved in the construction of Space Mountain, and has put in some long hours on America Sings, Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln and Walt Disney Story. His responsibilities revolve primarily around the communication and coordination aspect of construction, and he has his hands full with keeping the lines open between Disneyland, WED/MAPO and outside contractors.
From the electrical standpoint, Jerry Hefferly, Electrical Construction Superintendent, fuses together all the loose wires in this department by supervising and inspecting the installation of conduit wiring and equipment, while synchronizing its progress with WED and other crafts involved in the job. Jerry, a Space Mountain and Matterhorn veteran, feels that "construction projects are really a team effort involving practically every group in our Company as well as outside contractors and vendors." This group of electricians are installing the power lines for the facility, telephones, Ride Control System, sound system and fire alarms, and work in cooperation with architects, show effect and air conditioning personnel.
The Surveyor for the new attraction is Pat Carpenter, whose duties lie in the area of structural and utility layout. Pat feels that the Big Thuder project is "more involved
that Space Mountain (one of several Disneyland construction sites in which he was inolved) because of the complication of the ground layout."
Over in the Staff Shop, and often in a hut behind the Parade Building where walls and mountains of desert clar are forming, Staff Shop Supervisor Rod Merfield has been performing the unique task of making rocks. Rod says that Big Thunder requires "more rock work than ever before," and that "no one else has ever attempted such detail." Rod and his staff of latherers and plasterers are presently shaping steel rebar (3/8" steel wire) into amazingly accurate and detailed creations which will form the enitre terra cotta terrain of Big Thunder.
These are just a handful of the hundreds of people now involvved and to-be-involved in the creation of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. As construction progresses, representatives from WED/MAPO will be at the site contributing their knowledge, as well as the Disneyland Maintenance staff who will take over the mountain's "preservation" after construction is completed. Obviously, we're not out of the mountains yet.
Recently, John Patrick Burke, a former show set designer for Walt Disney Imagineering contacted me about his work on the original Big Thunder Mountain attraction. Here are his memories, which were inspired by the photos on the left and right from the Daveland archives:
Looking back at Frontierland at Disneyland, I'm reminded of some of my favorite icons that are now missing, like Cascade Peak with its roaring falls; the old Nature's Wonderland train with its native furry passengers that have been removed. Leaving Big Thunder's exit, I look across to Beaver Creek and noticed the old Big Thunder Mine scene that once occupied the Nature's Wonderland cave is also now gone and wonder why? Originally, back in 1978 after Nature's Wonderland was being removed and parts of it were relocated to Big Thunder, like the town of Rainbow Ridge and many natural inhabitants, the old train trestle was brought up. Most of it was being dismantled, but I was asked by Big Thunder creator Tony Baxter about the old train tunnel at its end and if I could do anything with it. I suggested doing a mine scene to complement Big Thunder and did a few sketches. Instead of natural logs as in Nature's Wonderland use, I suggested using milled wood Timbers to match Big Thunder's mining construction through out the new attraction. A short trestle was constructed and track laid down on its upper deck for use by the authentic mine cars. One was a very rare shovel nose end dumper with spoked wheels and wood under carriage. A hoisting post and beam were added for raising and lowering by old wood blocks and tackle, an ore bucket down to the waters below where a row boat was once sitting. Wood ladders were fabricated and fastened to the trestle, so that the miners could climb up and down to the cave from the boat. While the Beaver Creek was drained we also rebuilt the jumping fish which had been silent for some time. There sure were a lot of sun glasses and Polaroid cameras in the drained pond. The themed lighting was also upgraded for the new mine scene, and at night one could see the flickering lanterns throughout the scene which was quite scenic and helped attract your eye to the jumping fish. All the natural trees and growth from Nature's Wonderland helped frame in the entire scene. In about 2006, I noticed the whole scene had been removed and the vegetation cut way back. It looked like a forest fire may have wiped out all of the mining scene. The ore cars were gone as was the wood trestle they sat on. The landscaping and overgrowth were now all cut back or gone. Recently I was told the scene had been removed rather than rebuild it, which seems very sad, much like the fate of the Cascade Peaks. While they are rehabbing Big Thunder this year maybe they can restore this missing Big Thunder mine scene in the old tunnel above the still jumping fish.
John Patrick Burke grew up in the Mojave desert in California, surrounded by old abandoned gold and silver mines. He joined the WED model shop after graduating from art school in 1972. His first projects included the Walt Disney Story, America Sings and Space Mountain before applying his trademark show set design, often involving skillful arrangements of authentic antique props, to all four Big Thunder Mountain rides, all four Indiana Jones attractions, three versions of the Jungle Cruise and many other classic Disney attractions. JP also designed the original Pinocchio dark ride and parts of Splash Mountain for Disneyland. In addition, JP was also the tracker and artifact buyer of all the antique show items. Disneyland's Splash Mountain Load /Unload building and Toad Hall were a few of his Architectural contributions for Tony Baxter.
UPDATE: A Daveland reader noted that the trestle was victim to a 2006 windstorm, with a fallen tree that damaged the trestle.
One time we went to Disneyland and had a crowd of 18 people with us—WOW! My favorite part of that trip was watching the cast members’ faces when they asked for the number of people in our group and we said “18.” Quite a few jaws dropped, though I’m sure there have been bigger groups than that at the park.
My family and I went last March (2009) and had a blast! It was just the four of us, which is pretty unusual. It was my mom, my dad, my brother, and me. My mom had gotten exhausted early on in the day and went back to the hotel. It was about 11pm on our last day at Disneyland. Originally my dad wanted to leave the park, but my brother and I convinced him to let us go on one more ride. We chose Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which has always been one of our favorites (the goat chewing on dynamite reminded us of our dog, may he rest in peace, which was one of our favorite parts). We got on the attraction and all was going well until we entered the tunnel where the rocks are “falling.” The train stopped and everything got quiet. I turned and looked at my brother and smiled. This was the first time we had ever gotten stuck on an attraction before (we were on our ninth trip), and it just so happened to be one of our favorites. Luckily we were in a train full of funny people that all liked to talk, so we all chatted and cracked jokes for about ten minutes (or so it seemed) until a few cast members came to let us out. We were able to walk through th eattraction next to the tracks and take pictures/videos. Now that's what I call Disney magic! Sadly both the videos and pictures were lost when my dog chewed up the memory card, but I will always have the memory!