Magic Kingdom

Frontierland

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad

(November 15, 1980 - present)

 

History and photos of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad mine train roller coaster in Frontierland in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - 1971 - 01 Walt Disney World - Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - 1971 - 02

When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, Frontierland was a quiet section of the theme park.  The land had a hit show with the Country Bear Jamboree, but apart from paddling a canoe on the Rivers of America, or shooting a rifle in the Frontierland Shootin' Arcade, that was pretty much it.

Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 1984 - 01 Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 1984 - 02

The concept for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad actually began in the late 1960s in the form of Thunder Mesa, a large and extravagant western-themed section of the theme park that would involve hiking trails, mule rides, Western River Expedition (an elaborate water ride that would plunge riders down a massive waterfall), and a runaway mine train roller coaster.

The Thunder Mesa concept was being given serious attention until the death of Roy O. Disney in December of 1971.  A new leader of the company emerged, and efforts at that time were given to making the Magic Kingdom more like Disneyland.  A smaller version of Pirates of the Caribbean was added to the park in 1973.  By the mid 1970s, the nation was going through an energy crisis and attendance dropped at the Magic Kingdom.  The park was going to need another major attraction to help bring back the crowds and prove that the theme park was a winner.

The Thunder Mesa project was divided into two main attractions:  the Western River Expedition thrilling water ride and the runaway mine train roller coaster ride.  After careful consideration, the mine train roller coaster was chosen to be the next major attraction added to the Magic Kingdom.  The attraction was given a clever back story and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was set to become the first roller coaster in the Magic Kingdom.

That is, until the company's leaders paid closer attention to the nation's fascination with outer space.  NASA had successfully launched several lunar missions by the early 1970s, and there was big talk about the future of space travel.  As a result, Disney shifted its focus and Space Mountain opened in 1975, becoming the Magic Kingdom's first thrill ride.

Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 1992 - 01 Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 1992 - 02

It was across the country in Disneyland where Big Thunder Mountain Railroad became a reality.  Space Mountain was a success in the Florida theme park, and a version of the space-themed roller coaster was under construction in Disneyland.  On the opposite side of Disneyland, the classic Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland attraction was in dire need of a serious upgrade.  The number of riders had been steadily decreasing while the ride's maintenance costs had been increasing.  It was a lose-lose situation.  The solution to the Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland ride was Thunder Mesa.  Specifically, it was the runaway mine train roller coaster concept developed by Tony Baxter.

The Disney Imagineers determined that the mine train roller coaster would be a perfect replacement for Mine Train Through Nature's Wonderland.  The main concern was the smaller amount of space available for the ride in Disneyland.  In the end, the Imagineers created a mirror image of the proposed track layout for the Florida version of the ride, and they successfully squeezed it into the Frontierland section of Disneyland.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened on September 15, 1979 in Disneyland.

By the time Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened in Disneyland, the mine train roller coaster ride was well under construction in the Florida park.  Unlike in California, the Magic Kingdom had more space available for the ride, and the area for the ride was 25% larger.  Big Thunder Mountain Railroad finally opened in the Magic Kingdom on September 23, 1980.

THE STORY

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is loosely based on the curse that haunts Superstition Mountain in Arizona.  Instead of the Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine or a hole that leads to the lower world, Thunder Mountain does take a dip into the world of the paranormal.

The legend behind Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is that gold was discovered in Thunder Mountain back in the 1850s.  The town of Tumbleweed was created along with the formation of BTM Mining Company.  The mountain provided a bounty of gold and ore, and Tumbleweed quickly became a boom town.  The mountain was so successful that an entire fleet of mining trains were used to haul the minerals out of Thunder Mountain.

What the miners didn't know was that the area around Thunder Mountain was considered sacred, and a powerful supernatural force would protect the mountain itself from those who would deface it in the name of profit.

At first the mining operations went well, but as the miners dug deeper and carried more and more minerals from out of the mountain, mysterious events began to occur.  What began as strange noises and the sounds of digging from long-dead miners lead to sudden cave-ins and other destructive forces.  The events became terrifying when mining trains full of passengers began rolling out of the station and racing along the train tracks at breakneck speeds ---- without an engineer at the controls.  The supernatural forces expanded out of Thunder Mountain and sent a sudden flash flood into the town of Tumbleweed, flooding the town and ending mining operations at Thunder Mountain.

Mining operations were halted and the town of Tumbleweed became a ghost town, a forgotten relic from the past.  The mining equipment was left in place just as the workers last used it.  As far as those mine trains being driven by phantom engineers, those are still racing along the train tracks this very day.

Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 1997 - 01

LINE QUEUE

The experience at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad begins with climbing a hill and entering the old mining camp for the BTM Mining Company.  Some of the windows in the mining camp provide excellent views of Thunder Mountain and the old mine train tracks.  All around us are mining artifacts and equipment, most of them are really from the 1800s.  The line queue wanders around the camp before descending down a ramp to the train station.

The train station is divided into two sides.  It doesn't matter which side you use as there's only one physical track on the ride.  The cast members direct us to our individual row, and an air gate holds us back until it's time to board the mine train.  Overhead, an old miner goes through the safety spiel and let's us know that Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is, ". . . the wildest ride in the wilderness!"

RIDE

WARNING --- SPOILERS!

The action on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad begins immediately as we roll out of the train station and pass through a dark caveBats squeak at us as we round a curve and begin climbing the first lift hill.  A large cavern is on our right side, and below and to the right are a series of pools of water.  Directly in front of us and at the exit of the cave is a waterfall.  Thankfully the waterfall is diverted from the train and we only get a few drops of water when passing underneath it.

After rounding the lift hill we make a left turn while descending down the outside of the mountain.  Across the water is Tom Sawyer Island.  In the previous years we used to have a quick view of a burning cabin on the island, but those flames were finally extinguished for good several years ago.  Our train picks up speed before making some sharp turns and passing through another cave.

Upon exiting the cave we pass through the flooded town of Tumbleweed.  Most of the town's residents are long gone, but a few of them still remain.  We have a very quick look at how they're dealing with the flood waters.

After passing through Tumbleweed we are slowed by a brake run and enter Dave V. Jones Mine.  It's a quick left turn through the mine and we're back outside and climbing up the second lift hill.  Riders on the left side of the mine train can look down and see more of Tumbleweed, while riders on the right side have a great view of Thunder Mountain and most of the train track that we just experienced on the first part of the ride.

We roll over the top of the second lift hill and make a left turn, again racing down the side of the mountain.  We then climb a hill and make a left 360 degree turn.  Take note that because of the speed and moderate forces pushing you to the RIGHT side of the car, the SMALLER riders should sit on the LEFT.  Otherwise, the smaller riders might feel a little bit "crushed" at that point.  After the helix we go over a couple of small hills before hitting another brake run and re-entering Thunder Mountain.

Halfway up the third lift hill there's an earthquake inside of Thunder Mountain.  The train track rolls side to side while large rocks shake and smaller ones drop from the ceiling.  The track itself breaks and we find ourselves descending on an alternate section of mine train track.

Our train races out of Thunder Mountain and then rolls down a hill and past the observation platform.  We make a high-speed turn to the left, pass through yet another short cave, and then are slowed by another brake run.  The ride isn't finished yet as we make a right turn and descend down a small hill.  Now we're riding through Dinosaur Gap and narrowly passing the exposed bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The mine train is slowed by a final brake run while dodging past some geysers of water.  Our trains take a leisurely pace while curving to the left and returning to the train station.

That concludes the adventure on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

END OF SPOILERS!

Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 2001 - 01

One of the best aspects of Thunder Mountain is that the ride itself has changed very little since its opening back in 1980.  Air gates have been added to the loading station, the train cars have been slightly modified, and the line queue has incorporated Disney's FASTPASS system.  Apart from that, most of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is still presented as it originally did in 1980.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of the best-themed rides that you'll find in the Magic Kingdom.  The attention-to-detail here is simply amazing, from the roller coaster track and the mountain itself to the authentic mining equipment found throughout the line queue and the ride.  You really need to experience this ride several times to soak in all of the details.

One of the best times to ride Thunder Mountain is at night.  The exterior parts of the ride seem a little bit more convincing in the dark, and at night your eyes are better adjusted to the already dark interior.  Be sure to experience this ride both at day and night to have the full experience of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

The only downside to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is that it's actually difficult to learn the story of the ride while you're there.  It's not exactly clear why the mining company was abandoned back in the 1800s, nor do we know why the mine trains are able to travel the way they do.  It's also very difficult to see the flooded town of Tumbleweed while on the ride.  The best vantage point is actually from the Walt Disney World Railroad.  After departing the Frontierland railroad station, the train tracks pass right next to Thunder Mountain and offer great views of the ride along with the town of Tumbleweed.  Just make sure that you're sitting on the RIGHT side of the train for the best vantage point.

But those are minor issues to an otherwise nearly perfect thrill ride.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad isn't one of those roller coasters that drops 200 feet or sends you through corkscrews and vertical loops.  This is a rather simple mine train coaster ride that delivers small amounts of thrills combined with amazing levels of theming.

Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 2013 - 01 Magic Kingdom - Frontierland - Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - 2013 - 02

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad can be extremely busy at times, and during peak times of the year the stand-by wait time can flirt with the 120-minute mark.  The shortest wait times are in the morning and near the park's closing time at night.  During the rest of the day the stand-by wait time can be anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes.

Do NOT miss a chance at riding Big Thunder Mountain Railroad during your visit to the Magic Kingdom!  This isn't a major thrill ride by today's standards, but the theming is fantastic and the ride is a lot of fun.

FASTPASS Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is a FASTPASS attraction.
HEIGHT REQUIREMENT You must be at least 40" / 102 cm tall to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
TIP Some of the best views of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are from the Walt Disney World Railroad, Liberty Square Riverboat, and various spots on Tom Sawyer Island.

 

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