Tuesdays With Corey: Western River Expedition and Thunder Mesa


In 1971 when Walt Disney World opened it contained much of the beloved rides and attractions that we still have today.  There was The Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World.  Peter Pan and The Jungle Cruise were also present. But there was no Pirates of the Caribbean. How could a ride that was so popular with guest today not be included in the original concept?  At the time of designing the Imagineers thought that the east coasters had no interest in a Pirates ride and thought that a more western theme would be more appealing.

In 1963 Imagineer Marc Davis had moved into Imagineering from the Animation department. In the meantime he had thought up the idea of the Western River Expedition. This was to be a boat ride that guest would be able to travel in and see all the sights of the American wilderness while floating down the banks of the Mississippi all in one ride.  The ride was planning on being used at a park that was going to be built in St. Louis. But alas that park was never to be built. So when things started be planned and discussed for a new park in Florida Dick Irvine called on Imagineers for new ideas. Davis had not forgot his ideas about the Expedition boat ride. He thought that with a few changes and tweaks he could make the ride far more superior to the Pirates ride in California.

The new concept focused more on the Wild West. Davis vision of the new attraction was so vast it could have almost considered a new land. The Western River Expedition was going to be located where Splash Mountain now sits and was going to be about 3 times as big.  The builders were to be built to blend in with the mesas of the design while one was to be flat so that guest could go up on top and see all across the park. A runaway train ride was to be built on the top of the mesa and go up and down the sides. The boat ride was going to be a direct rival of Pirates. It would take riders through a canyon and here they would encounter a singing cowboy and his cows. The riders would then encounter bank robbers, dancing Indians and gunfights with the sheriff. There would be one central song much like most of Disney’s other attractions that would continue through the ride. The spokesperson through the ride was an owl named Hoot Gibson and he would pop in and out of the ride giving advice to guest about their journey and the dangers that lie ahead.

With the vastness in size of Thunder Mesa, the project was pushed back. They knew that it would never be completed by opening and even if attempted it would slow down on the building of other attractions. But something surprising happened when the park opened in 1971. Guests were confused and questioning castmembers where the Pirate ride was.  Card Walker immediately decided that there was going to be a Pirates of the Caribbean attraction built for the east coast also.  But this would also push back Davis’s attraction even more.

In the 70’s as the years went on Disney executives were beginning to fear the decline of interest in westerns and the Wild West. The estimated  $60 million didn’t help any either.  Not wanting to waste the space where the Western River Expedition was going to be, Dick Irvine started looking for ideas and Tony Baxter was brought in to re-imagine the runaway train concept, which would become Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  This was another set back in Davis’s eyes and he even tried to take the attraction to some of the other parks, but the idea never took and he retired soon after.

But good ideas never die in the world of the Imagineers. Ideas from the concept have been used in other places. Tom Sawyer Island, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Thunder Mesa at Disneyland Paris, the Phantom Canyon scene at the Phantom Manor in Paris, and even Expedition Everest.

Below is a link to a virtual ride though lead by Tony Baxter at D23


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