Today In Disney History ~ September 2nd
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.
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 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.
TMSM Today in Graphic by Sherry Rinaldi DeHart
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