Dominating the skyline of the Magic Kingdom® Park’s Frontierland® is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®, a runaway mine train through the treacherous abandoned town of Tumbleweed. Since it’s opening, Big Thunder has become a quintessential Magic Kingdom attraction with a rich back story. So let’s explore this runaway train, after all it’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!
Big Thunder made its debut in Disneyland® on September 2, 1979 when it replaced the attraction Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland. When the original attraction was shut down, certain animatronics and props were saved and reused including the classic dinosaur bones that have fossilized and can be found jutting out of rockwork towards the end of your journey. Following Disneyland, Walt Disney World®’s Magic Kingdom opened Big Thunder for testing on September 23, 1980 and held a grand opening on November 15, 1980. In WDW, the attraction came about after the failed concept of Thunder Mesa. Conceptualized by Imagineer Marc Davis, Thunder Mesa was to be a Wild West themed land featuring a boat attraction titled Western River Adventure. Thunder Mesa unfortunately never became a reality as guests were clamoring to experience those buccaneers in Pirates of the Caribbean®, so that attraction was built at the time instead. However, the idea of the Wild West stuck, eventually leading to the creation of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®. In addition to Disneyland® and the Magic Kingdom, Tokyo Disneyland® opened Big Thunder Mountain on July 4, 1987 and Disneyland® Paris followed with a grand opening on April 12, 1992.
Immediately when you step into Frontierland® and even from across the banks of the river near the Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad® rises up out of the distance. Disneyland®’s attraction was modeled after Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park which prominently features a magenta color palette. WDW’s attraction is based instead on Arizona’s Monument Valley which has a more angular and earthly-toned structure. Either way, at 197 feet this mountain is a wild ride with average speeds of 30 miles per hour and a top speed of 33 miles per hour.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®’s rustic charm begins the moment you enter its queue by passing under a weathered sign bearing its name. Be sure to look for a crate along the queue labeled “Lytum & Hyde Explosives Company”. Just don’t get too close! As you enter into the covered part of the queue where the switchbacks are located, be sure to take your time and take in all of the amazing new details which were installed during the recent addition of an interactive queue. There are some great puns and details scattered on props and signs which really add depth and more of a back story to the mining town. There are also interactive elements such as triggers to detonate things on the mountain itself as well as views down into the mines.
As you then proceed to make your way down the ramps into the loading area, check out the great names featured on the six trains: I M Brave, U R Courageous, I B Hearty, U B Bold, I M Fearless, and U R Daring. Looks like Barnabus T. Bullion, the founder of Big Thunder Mining Co., had quite the sense of humor. As you board your train, you will hear one of the most iconic quotes throughout all of WDW- “Hold onto those hats and glasses, ‘cause this here’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!”
Immediately you are off and plunge into darkness in a bat infested cave. As you make your way through the abandoned town of Tumbleweed, you come to realize just why it’s been abandoned in the first place- a flash flood. Despite the bad luck with the flood, there are still residents to be found. You can find dozens of animals including pigs, goats, and a bobcat throughout your journey as well as some of the town’s remaining residents throwing a party each night upstairs in the saloon. My favorite Tumbleweed resident is good old Cousin Elrod having a cool down in a bathtub on the mountain- see if you can spot him the next time you ride. Check out all of the tiny rods featured on each peak of the mountain throughout your ride as well- they are all lightening rods!
A great detail that used to exist which could be spotted quickly during your train ride was a burning building across the river near Tom Sawyer Island. There used to be a continually burning cabin, adding an additional sense of danger and recklessness to your time in the Wild West, however in recent years the building has been extinguished. Although it’s not burning anymore you can still spot it if you look quickly across the river. If you can find the burning cabin, be sure to try and find some of the Hidden Mickeys scattered throughout Tumbleweed as well. As your journey comes to a close and you are about to enter back into the station, look to the right hand side of the train for three gears lying on the ground which form a classic Hidden Mickey. Be sure to look quickly though as your train is still moving pretty fast. You can also find the profile of a Hidden Tinkerbell in the rockwork directly outside the exit when you enter back into Frontierland.
From a flash flood to weaving through abandoned caves filled with bats, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad® has been thrilling guests since 1980 and will be thrilling new generations to come for years. So next time you are in the Magic Kingdom be sure to stop by and experience the wildest ride in the wilderness!
What is your favorite part of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®? Have you ever spotted Cousin Elrod? How about the Hidden Tinkerbell? Be sure to let me know by leaving a comment below, I would love to hear from you!
(Pictures are from the author’s personal collection.)
Caitlin Corsello was born and raised in New York. She graduated from Adelphi University with a Masters in Mental Health Counseling in 2012. Her love for Disney started as an infant and has continued to grow with family vacations to Disney parks almost every year since. She holds a particular interest in WDW’s parks and attractions, never passing up an opportunity to visit. She looks forward to continuing to explore and learn about all things Disney and to share that passion with readers.