This week we will be taking a look at Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland. It has a unique history that dates back to the time right when the park opened in 1955. Next week on September 2 BTMR will be celebrating it 40th Birthday at Disneyland in Anaheim. Let’s dive into the history of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
When Disneyland opened in 1955 Frontierland was the biggest land in the park taking up nearly a third of the park space. Most of the space in the land was taken up by rivers of America and the Mark Twain attraction. Walt was spinning his wheels to figure out how to fill the space. With some help and inspiration from his good friend Walter Knott, owner of Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park. He had moved a ghost town and stagecoach and other western-themed attractions to his park, so Walt had done the same thing and had the same type of attractions built at Disneyland to help fill the space.
Walt still wasn’t happy with and got with his Imagineers to develop a small mine train to fill more of the space. On July 2nd, 1956 The Rainbow Caverns Mine Train opened. The attraction was an instant success and was patterned like the jungle cruise to fun and educational as well. Even though the attraction was a success guests loved it but complained that it was too short. So in 1960 Walt had decided to expand the train and have Disney legendary Imagineer take over the development. In 1959 they had decided that they would have to get rid of the stagecoach to make way for the additions that had to be done. Walt knew that Marcs fun brand of humor is just what they needed to make it perfect. On June 12th, 1960 the newly named Mine Train through Natures Wonderland opened and right away become one of Walt’s favorites.
After Walt passed in 1966 and his brother Roy passed in 1971 the studios were operating a loss. Disneyland and Walt Disney World were carrying the company through tough times. Everyone knew that the parks had to be kept up to the high standards everyone was used to which means it was time to expand and upgrade the parks. The guests wanted more e-ticket attractions and Disney was quick to deliver. With the success of Space Mountain at Disney World in 1975, they decided to bring a scaled-down version to Disneyland Imagineers had decided to bring another thrilling roller coaster to Walt’s original park.
Tony Baxter started his career scooping ice cream on Main Street and worked his way all the way up to become an Imagineer. He was picked to be the one to come up with the idea of the new roller coaster, and with help from his mentor Claude Coats they had come up with the idea of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. When Disney World opened guests were upset there wasn’t a Pirates of the Caribbean ride there as well but Marc Davis was already developing a western theme version of it for Florida.
However, when the company decided to build an exact copy of the BTMR in Florida the only place they could put is right where Davis had planned his attraction, Davis was not happy at all. Tony Baxter’s plan for the runaway railroad was to be built right over his re-imagined natures mine train. This led to speculation that Tony Baxter and Marc Davis were always in a feud. This has never been confirmed just talked about.
The mine train closed January 2nd, 1977 and work began on demolishing the site. Baxter had such a respect for the Imagineers before him that he saved as much of the animatronics and whatever artifacts he could and had them input in storage even sending some things to Florida for its attraction. Baxter’s idea for the train was the mountain destroyed by earthquakes but native American spirits have taken over the trains. The folks living in the nearby town starting calling the mountain Big Thunder Mountain because of all the earthquakes. Baxter and his team searched all over the country to find abandoned mining equipment had it brought back to Disneyland for the new attraction. Most of the Town of Rainbow ridge was saved and still sits right by the boarding area.
Baxter’s design for BTMR was to be 124 feet tall. But Tony was huge fan of Walt’s Matterhorn and didn’t want to compete with so he had the mountain built 20 feet into the ground. Also, the water splashdown was another nod to the Matterhorn and the Dinosaur bones were to honor the dinosaur for the original mine train.
On September 2nd, 1979 Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roared its way into all of our hearts. Its twin was opened at Walt Disney World on November 15th, 1980. It was instantly a huge success and has been ever since. There is even scientific proof that the design of the ride can help get rid of kidney stones. This works about 65 percent of the time. The track in Anaheim is smoother than the one in Florida. So if it doesn’t work in California just head east to Florida and remember to hang on to them hats and glasses.
Check out our friends over at Fastpass Facts and their video on 5 facts you need to know about Big Thunder Mountain at Disneyland.