Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

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Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
The exterior of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Magic Kingdom
Land Frontierland
Cost to build 17 million
Opening date November 15, 1980 (some sources state November 8)
Ride duration 3:25 minutes
Height requirements 40" (102 cm)
Site area 108,900 sq ft
Audio-Animatronics 20
Disney Genie + Yes

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is an attraction located in Frontierland

Attraction History

The history of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad actually begins with the story of the Western River Expedition. In the late 1960s Imagineer Marc Davis was tasked with creating a Frontierland alternative to Disneyland's Pirates of the Caribbean attraction [1]. Although the ride had proved to be extremely popular, Disney felt that guests in Florida would not be interested in the attraction due to the preponderance of pirates in Florida's cultural lore [2]. Instead of pirates, Davis and his team pitched the Western River Expedition. This massive Frontierland expansion would have featured a boat ride similar to Pirates of the Caribbean, which would have taken guests through various scenes in the American Old West. Also included in the expansion would be hiking trails, a mule ride, and finally an attraction aboard a runaway train which was pitched to give the project a thrill component[3]. When pitching his project Davis suggested:

"What if we were to incorporate a thrill ride into the 'Western River' project? Maybe have a runaway mine train that rolled across the top of the mesa as well as down along the sides of the show building?" [1]
 Mickey and Goofy Thunder Mountain
Mickey and Goofy outside of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in 1980.

Although the Western River Expedition was announced as "coming soon" in 1973 [2], Marc Davis' masterpiece would never come to fruition. Contrary to Disney's beliefs, one of the most common questions that visitors to the Magic Kingdom had was "where are the pirates?" [4]After seeing the attraction showcased on Walt Disney's Disneyland TV show, guests in Florida had expected to be able to ride the famed attraction. Due to the amount of guest demand, Disney decided that it needed to built Pirates, and plans for the Western River Expedition were put on hold.

Although Marc Davis tried to keep his project alive, it was clear that the project would be too expensive. Disney was already using its funds to build Space Mountain, the Carousel of Progress, the WEDway People Mover and the Star Jets in Tomorrowland and there was not enough money to construct another large expansion [2].

The final strike against the construction of the Western River Expedition came in 1973 when Imagineer Tony Baxter (who had been tasked with fleshing out the Western River Expedition) showed his plans for a standalone mine train, thrill ride, called Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The new attraction took some the best elements of the Thunder Mesa mine train ride, but without the expensive show building [5]. Although Baxter suggested that the ride could be built next to the Western River Expansion building, only Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ever saw the light of day. After seeing the proposal, Disney green lit Big Thunder Mountain for both Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

Construction on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad began in January 1979 [6]. The roller coaster was the first attraction in Disney World to be designed by a computer, which allowed Imagineers to create a much smoother ride. When talking about the use of computers when creating Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Imagineer Tony Baxter noted:

So 9 times I did a new design that I thought would solve the problem and the computer would say no. So we built 9 tiny models to check the look until the computer said, "OK, I will accept this. This one is OK." That was the one we ended up building. But it took 9 designs before the computer approved![7]

Thunder Mountain eventually opened to the public on September 23, 1980, although its Grand Opening was officially on November 8 [8] (some sources list the date as November 15)

On January 9, 2012, Big Thunder Mountain was closed for a major refurbishment [9]. During the renovations, every single piece of track was redone and the entire attraction was repainted. Furthermore, many of the attraction’s special effects that had become non-operational were fixed [10]. In March 2013 Thunder Mountain received a new “interactive” queue [11]. At this time, the attraction also received a new backstory.

Official Backstory

On November 19, 2012 Disney announced a new backstory for Big Thunder Mountain. The backstory goes:

Barnabas T. Bullion is the founder and president of the Big Thunder Mining Company. The longtime mining magnate comes from a powerful East Coast family and considers gold to be his very birthright by virtue of his oddly appropriate name; in fact, he considers the ultimate gold strike to be his destiny.
And that is why he is having so much trouble with Big Thunder Mountain. According to superstitious locals, Big Thunder Mountain is very protective of the gold it holds within, and the unfortunate soul who attempts to mine its riches is destined to fail.
And so far that prophecy is coming to pass. The mine has been plagued by mysterious forces and natural disasters ever since.
And yet the Big Thunder Mining Co. is still in operation.
In fact, Bullion is discovering new veins of gold and digging new shafts every day, offering a closer look at the Big Thunder mining operation than ever before.
But a word to the wise for anyone attempting to visit the mountain: watch out for runaway trains.[12]

Attraction Description


In the queue, guest climb up a hill before reaching the station building. As they climb, guests will notice old mining equipment all around them. This is because the station building was at one time the offices of a mining company. In the building, guests can also see a portrait of Barnabas T. Bullion (who has a suspiciously strong resemblance to Imagineer Tony Baxter), the president of Big Thunder Mining Company. After winding through the station building, guests finally reach the loading area. As they are getting into the trains they are warned by The Prospector to keep their arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, "Because this here is the wildest ride in the wilderness!"

Music played in the Queue

The musical loop played inside the queue for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is approximately 20 minutes long and features 14 songs. The songs included are [13]:

 Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Train
A runaway train on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
  • West of the Wide Missouri
  • All Aboard the Mine Train
  • California Gold
  • Rock Candy Mountain
  • Saloon Willy
  • Old Yeller
  • Pecos Bill
  • Old Betsy
  • Tavern in the Town
  • Roamin' the Lawless West
  • Buffalo Gals
  • Rock Candy Mountain
  • Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
  • There's No Place (Like Home)

Ride Plot

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad begins with guests leaving the load station. The train immediately enters a dark tunnel and makes a left hand turn. While in the tunnel the sound of bats screeching can be heard. Inside the tunnel, the train makes a right hand turn and then begins to go up the attraction's first hill. On guest’s right, a series of caverns can be seen, before the train makes its way to the top of another hill. After another drop, the train turns right and goes up two small hills. At this time it is possible to see another runaway train pass by. The train then enters the town of Tumbleweed.

 Cousin Elron Tumbleweed Thunder Mountain
Cousin Elrod, one of the last inhabitants of Tumbleweed.


When guests enter Tumbleweed they will notice that town has been flooded. On the left hand side of the town, riders will see the Dry Good Store and the Gold Dust Saloon, which seems to be having a party on the second floor. On the right side of the tracks, a Tumbleweed sign says that they population went from 8015 to 247 to 15, before now reading "dried out". Next to the sign, guests can see one of the few remaining residents of Tumbleweed, Cousin Elrod, who floats along in his bathtub. Also in Tumbleweed on the riders left hand side is the rain man, Professor Cumulus Isobar, whose rain making machine seems to have worked a little too well. As the train passes through Tumbleweed riders will notice that the train seems to be swaying from side to side.

Dave V Jones Mine and Boneyard

As guests exit Tumbleweed and head towards the boneyard, the train passes through another tunnel called the Dave V Jones Mine. As riders continue on, they go up another hill and eventually down a 540 degree helix to the left. At this time, there is a lot of scenery to see including: Audio Animatronic mules, a billy goat, a road runner and a snake, which all populate the mountain landscape. After passing the animals, the train enters another tunnel, when suddenly an earthquake hits. As the rock rumble and shake, it seems that they will soon crush and bury guests, however The train makes it out just in nick of time. Now in daylight, the train drops away to the left towards the Rivers of America, before making another short turn and entering another tunnel. The train then enters the boneyard scene.

In the boneyard scene, guests pass the bones of a dinosaur in the side of the mountain. As the train rolls on, it passes through geysers which shoot up on either side of them. The train then hits a final break run and returns to the station.

Fun Facts and Trivia

 Thunder Mountain Barnabas T. Bullion Tony Baxter
Barnabas T. Bullion, the president of the Big Thunder Mining Company looks suspiciously like Imagineer Tony Baxter.
  • The town of Tumbleweed was called Dry Gulch in promotional material prior to 1980. Dry Gulch was the name of a western town in Mac Davis' unbuilt Western River Expedition [14].
  • The mountain that houses the Big Thunder Mountain was modeled after Monument Valley in Arizona[15].
  • The path that guests exit Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is called Nugget Way[16].
  • The proprietors of the Dry Goods Store in Tumbleweed are D. Hydrate and U. Wither [17].
  • In the queue for the attraction guests can see crates from the fictional Lythum & Hyde Explosive Company.
  • Another crate in the queue comes from the Clarksdale Miners Supply. Clarkdale was an Arizona mining town founded in 1912 by William A. Clark [18].
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad takes up approximately 2.5 acres of land [19].
  • Barnabas T. Bullion looks very similar to Imagineer Tony Baxter
  • The track length of the attraction is 2,780 feet [19].
  • In the Big Thunder Mountain queue, guests can find a plaque that reads "Joshua Hendry Machine Works, S.F. Cal." Not only did the Joshua Hendry Machine Works make real mining equipment in the 19th Century, but Arrow Development founders Andy Anderson, Karl Bacon, William Hardiman and Ed Morgan also worked at the company. Arrow Development would be instrumental in the creation of many of Disneyland's early attractions [20]
  • According to Imagineer Frank Mezzatesta, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was the first attraction to have a "lamp test" button on the dispatch controls. This was due to the fact that the lamps did not use LED lights and burnt out from time to time [21].

Jason Surrell Backstory

According Jason Surrell in his book “The Disney Mountains: Imagineering At It's Peak” Tony Baxter came up with this back story:

"In the Disneyland version, gold was discovered in Big Thunder country in the 1850s, shortly after the Gold Rush began near John A. Sutter's Mill in California, leading to the formation of the BTM Mining Company. But the locals believed Big Thunder Mountain and the land around it to be sacred, and a protective supernatural force dwelt deep within the mountain to protect it from anyone who might deface it in the pursuit of profit. At first, the mining operation went along without incident, but as the miners began using explosives to blast deeper and deeper into the unforgiving rock and laying tracks for the mine train they'd use to retrieve its golden bounty, the mountain's ancient fury was unleashed. Strange noises emanated from a newly opened mineshaft. The spirits of long-dead miners could be heard tapping on the boarded walls of abandoned tunnels. Cave-ins became common occurrences. And then the narrow-gauge engines began rolling out of the station with no human hands at the controls. Entire trains, most times packed with unsuspecting passengers, would race driverless, at breakneck speed, along the spiraling steel and wooden track. The miners began to concede that perhaps the locals were right all along. Maybe the mountain --and their mine -- was cursed. They abandoned their posts, the BTM Mining Company went bust, and soon Big Thunder became just another ghost town dotting the Old West." [22]

This backstory was given with the opening of the Disneyland version of the attraction in 1979 and may or may not be the backstory for the Walt Disney World version. Mr. Baxter’s backstory has since been superseded by the official Disney World backstory released in 2012.


  1. 1.0 1.1
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2
  19. 19.0 19.1
  22. Surrell, Jason. The Disney Mountains: Imagineering at Its Peak. New York: Disney Editions, 2007. Print.