“The wildest ride in the wilderness.” Do not let the highbrow country club tagline fool you. Big Thunder Mountain delivers adventure in spades. From an opening ascent through a bat cave to a thrilling avalanche climax, you would be hard pressed to find this kind of action anywhere outside of a John Ford movie.
For the first time, our series steps outside the boundaries of books, movies, and television and dives into the third dimension. Real 3-D, not this Avatar stuff. Big Thunder Mountain is a theme park ride, a take on the old runaway mine-car idea. Were it not for Miley Cyrus, it would be the Disney Company’s absolute finest creation.
Imagineer Tony Baxter came up with the concept as a way to re-use some of Disneyland’s props and scenes from the Nature’s Wonderland attraction, which had existed in some form or another almost since Opening Day in 1955 (not to be confused with Tim Burton’s Nature’s Wonderland, which stars Johnny Depp as a dark, weird miner).
Various pack mules, stagecoaches, and leisurely railcars departed Frontierland daily through a recreation of the Old West, past animatronic bobcats, rigged waterfalls, and happy stereotypes of indigenous American races. In a way, not much has changed, but it was Baxter that added a crucial story element: Dangerous Adventure. We are also very lucky that he ditched his first idea, which was runaway pack mules.
Big Thunder’s secret, like all great theme park stories, lies in its simplicity. There is no back-story that needs illuminating. No preshow to set the stage. No complex hero, no nefarious villain (unless you count whatever cursed Indian grave the Big Thunder Mining Company disturbed). It is simply a roaring, rumbling trip through iconic Western imagery, clinging for your life to a mine train that has all the self-control of Lindsay Lohan at a wine tasting.
The number of dangers we encounter is staggering. Before the train has even crested its first hill, we’ve already journeyed through a horde of bats, witnessed ethereal underground tidal pools, and basked in the spray of torrential mountain runoff. Then Big Thunder really gets going.
There are four versions around the globe, one each in Disneyland, Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, and Tokyo Disneyland. Some variations do apply, but the experience is the same. All of the rides feature hairpin curves and exciting dips and drops through “natural” rock arches. Each one has a blistering near-collision with the sun-bleached bones of an exposed dinosaur fossil while geysers rocket all around us. All of them end in a crumbling mineshaft, the track ahead obliterated, the massive boulders coming loose above us. Big Thunder indeed. That we somehow manage to escape isn’t all that surprising, considering this is Disney. Then again, this is also the same company that sent us to hell at the end of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.
While riding, and even while waiting in line, one thing really stands out: How stinky all the other tourists are. But also the attention to detail. Disney Imagineers gathered real mining equipment and props from flea markets and ghost towns throughout the United States to dress Big Thunder’s sets. It lends a sense of authenticity to help combat that nagging question about why anyone is mining for gold in the middle of a Florida swamp or the Parisian countryside.
While ostensibly a rollercoaster, at no time is the illusion ever broken that this is a real mine train. The tubular steel tracks hug every bend and valley in the faux mountain, making one wonder if the Big Thunder Mining Company ever heard of dynamite. The artistry of the mountain itself is breathtaking, requiring expert sculptors and practiced painters to transform a lump of chicken wire and concrete into a butte straight out of Monument Valley. Elizabeth Taylor’s plastic surgeons could learn a thing or two.
The animatronics here, while not as advanced as some of Disney’s famous shows like the Enchanted Tiki Room or the Hall of Presidents, are perfectly serviceable, especially considering that they have to remain outdoors, exposed to the elements. Anyway, it’s not like you have a lot of time to critique them when you’re careening past at 30mph.
Did I say thirty? It feels like ninety. Big Thunder is thrill ride for the entire family, an extra shot of adrenaline in the middle of your day with Mickey. But make no mistake about it, this is an adventure story first and foremost, and one every bit as worthy as the other titles on this list. It’s just probably the only one to require you to hang on to your hats and glasses.
Next up, #83!