Origins of Big Thunder Mountain

I’ve always been a Disney World guy. I love Disneyland to death, but it’s not the park I grew up with. Disneyland had a whole generation of changes before I was even born. Whenever I get nostalgic for the Disney of the past, it’s the electrosynth big-haired purple optimism of 1980s EPCOT or the 1970s disco suited Kids of the Kingdom that I think of. Disneyland resides in the birth of the nuclear age, or the heady days of NASA’s heyday. A black-and-white Mayberry that my parents might have grown up with.

I know my fair share of Disneyland history. I may never have visited the Bathroom of the Future or eaten the Chicken of the Sea, but I more or less know what they’re about. But I lack a tactile memory of those places. I saw the World of Motion with my own eyes. I’ve literally touched Horizons when picking out my ending. But I never sat around the Indian Dance Circle or stared into that enormous eye at the other end of the Inner Space microscope (My only great theme park eyes are Mara and Odin). It’s book knowledge.

Nothing fascinates me more than finding hidden links of things I love at Disney World that began somewhere in Disneyland. There’s a lot of obvious stuff on the surface. You don’t have to be much of a Disney historian to know that Magic Kingdom’s Big Thunder Mountain was more or less designed at the same time as Disneyland’s version (Disneyland opened first). Or to recognize that Disneyland’s version replaced the Mine Train Through Nature’s Wonderland attraction, and reused certain figures and set pieces from that slow-moving tour.

But having never laid eyes on Nature’s Wonderland in person, it can be strange to see just how much of what’s in Florida can be traced back to a long-gone scenic train ride. One of my favorite tracks from the excellent Musical History of Disneyland compilation is the soundtrack to Nature’s Wonderland, narrated by an old codger of ambiguous profession (a “frontiersman” of sorts).

I thought it would be fun to dissect the script of that ride and see what jumps out at me. Disneylanders, I doubt you find anything new in here. Just a chance to laugh at how ignorant all of us East Coasters are about classic ride-throughs. Here goes:

Howdy Folks! Welcome to the little mining town of Rainbow Ridge, gateway to Nature’s Wonderland. As we head for the wilderness, a couple of suggestions. Please stay seated at all times and keep your hands and arms inside the train. The animals get mighty hungry. And, uh, no smoking please ’cause we don’t want to start a forest fire.

Right away, I think this voice sounds familiar. He speaks exactly as you’d expect this sort of grizzled Disney character to speak. Slightly illiterate, folksy, contracting his words and dropping g’s off of his verbs. As it turns out, this is the exact same voice who did Big Thunder’s first (and superior) safety spiel. You know the one. “Hold on to them hats and glasses, ’cause this here’s the wildest ride in the wilderness!” It’s the voice of none other than Dallas McKennon. The name means nothing to me, but a quick look on wikipedia tells me he voiced Ben Franklin in American Adventure, Zeke in Country Bears, and numerous voices in Disney animated films. Disney Legends, you have a new candidate. As a factoid that is of interest only to me, he voiced Chet in the animated version of the Hardy Boys. That makes him the best.

Apparently Cast Members had the option to turn off the narration and deliver the spiel themselves. I imagine this was usually painful for the guests, because it is hard to sound like an old miner if you are working your way through college. But while reading about this, I did find a hilarious translation of the script into proper English. So that’s a win.

A quick note about the reference to Rainbow Ridge. Even I knew that the Rainbow Ridge buildings were kept around and are visible in Disneyland’s version of Big Thunder (though rumored to be scrapped with this latest rehab). Disney World has a town too, though it is called Tumbleweed and more of an actual part of the ride. It is probably the biggest difference between the two U.S. versions.

Now, beyond these trees lies Nature’s Wonderland. You’re apt to see a whole lotta wildlife, so keep a real sharp hunter’s eye. As we come out of this first tunnel, we’ll be entering Beaver Valley. Looks like the beavers are building another dam. Yes sir, they’re really busy as a… well, busy as a beaver.

The beavers don’t exist in Big Thunder, but it’s interesting to see that Nature’s Wonderland traces its roots back to something even older. Beaver Valley is the name of one of Disney’s True-Life Adventure films in the 1950s. Keep a real sharp hunter’s eye indeed, because you’re going to see a lot more references to the True-Life Adventures. This line also proves the age-old scientific truth that if you have narration in a Disney ride, it will invariably take a popular saying and try to make a lame joke around it.

True Life Adventures

Them little marmots over the tunnel must be whistling at all you pretty gals. I can’t say I blame ’em.

Nothing to see here. Just a little innocent chauvinism.

If you never gone underneath a waterfall before then get set… ’cause we’re coming up on Big Thunder… the biggest falls in these here parts. You don’t have to worry though–unless the wind changes.

Okay, I honestly had no idea before hearing this recording. Big Thunder Mountain’s very name is a direct tribute to this waterfall from Nature’s Wonderland. Well played, Mr. Baxter. I suppose the waterfall at the top of the first lift hill is itself a reference, though it’s interesting that none of the Big Thunder Mountain backstory literature refers to the waterfall as the source of the mountain’s name. Usually it is either a reference to avalanches, angered Indian spirits, or dynamite. Which reminds me of an epically bad date I had in college.

Ladies and gentlemen, the middle side of water.

Ladies and gentlemen, the middle side of water.

Them other two falls, they call the Twin Sisters. I reckon that’s ’cause they’re always babbling.

Nothing to see here. Just a little innocent… wait, what? Suddenly Nature’s Wonderland is  popping up on a few feminist watchdog lists. What’s next? A joke about how women can’t drive the train?

We’re coming into Bear Country now, folks, and while we’re crossing the old trestle you gotta sit real still. No telling how long she’s gonna last.

Oh great! The dilapidated run-down old bridge is a “she!” To quote Steve Martin in The Jerk: “I always call a gang ‘she’, like you call a boat ‘she’ or a hurricane ‘she.'” Steve Martin used to work at the Disneyland Magic Shop. He is also a Disney Legend. The layers go deep, my friend. Deeper into the rabbit hole we go.

Oh wait, forgot to comment about Bear Country. Another True-Life Adventure.

You know, bears are one of the most playful animals there is. Lazy, too. All they want to do is lay around and scratch and fish and swim — that is, when they ain’t sleeping.

Reminds me of a certain gender I know.

You know, Nature’s Wonderland is awful purty, but sometimes she can be a mighty rugged place to live. Out here in the wilderness the struggle for survival leaves only the strong and sometimes the lucky. Say! Look on that bank ‘cross Bear Creek, there. Now there’s a struggle for survival – two stags are battling for them cow elk. Maybe you folks can tell me, though: Does getting two women-folk mean you’re the winner or the loser? Never could figure that one out.

I swear I’m not making this up. Old Dallas McKennon just took another shot at women. Chris Brown is getting jealous. Also, I am now going to start using the term “cow elk” as an endearing nickname.

As we pass through ol’ Natural Arch Bridge you can see the great Living Desert down below. You know, the desert’s a dry place and full of some pretty mean varmints. You gotta be careful of sidewinders, wild pigs and even mountain lions. But the desert’s got her beauty, too. The yellow streaks a-runnin’ through them sandstone cliffs are called Coconino. The red, we call them Supai.

And we’re back! I have received four black eyes since my last comment (two of my eyes and one each for Mara and Odin). Chicks do not dig the “cow elk” line.

For those of you keeping score at home, the Living Desert is another True Life Adventure. Also, sidewinders, wild pigs, and mountain lions all make an appearance in Big Thunder Mountain, in various vignettes. In the Florida version, the snakes are mainly visible from the Walt Disney World Railroad.

The Living Desert

Now, ahead of us, folks, is a giant saguaro cactus forest. The desert heat sometimes gets to you. Makes these here cactus take on strange shapes, like animals – and sometimes even people!

Keep in mind that I have never ridden Nature’s Wonderland and have only to this point seen very brief clips of it. But even I can guess that Disney could not resist incorporating a gag about a cactus that looks like a person. Am I right? Tell me I’m right, Disneylanders!

Saguaro cactuses are used in Big Thunder, though this can hardly be considered any great tribute. You don’t need a degree in Art Direction to come up with the idea of having cacti in your desert-themed rollercoaster.

Ha! Look down there on your left. Them wild pigs have caught up with ol’ Mr. Bobcat. He’s in kind of a sticky situation.

And where is Mrs. Bobcat? Probably out shopping for new shoes!

At any rate, I love this scene, which is exactly duplicated in Big Thunder Mountain. Why do I love it so much? Because it is a tribute to the Living Desert.

You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that's when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side -- from the other two pigs you didn't even know were there.

You stare at him, and he just stares right back. And that’s when the attack comes. Not from the front, but from the side — from the other two pigs you didn’t even know were there.

Say, uh, ever hear of the Devil’s Paint Pots? Real mystery of the desert — bubbling pots of mud in all kinds of colors. This is geyser country, too — uh-oh! There she blows! Sure glad you all brought your raincoats. Look out now. We never know when she’s gonna go off. That’s why we call her Ol’ Unfaithful. Look out now! You folks in them rear cars be ready. She’s a-threatening again!

This paragraph is littered with female pronouns. And also contains a nice reference to womenfolk’s natural propensity for unfaithfulness.

The geyser field is still around in Big Thunder Mountain of course. It’s the last show scene before arriving at the station. No bubbling mudpots, unfortunately. But you can’t have everything.

You know, I hear tell a long time ago dinosaurs roamed this area. ‘Course all you find now are cactus, snakes and coyotes. And sometimes the sun-bleached bones of an ancient animal.

Perhaps the single most iconic image in Big Thunder is the bleached T-Rex skeleton sticking out of the rocks. I didn’t know he was a holdover from Nature’s Wonderland. Very cool stuff.

There’s the voice of the desert. The coyote.

The coyote actually howls on the soundtrack to the ride. There’s no coyote sound in Big Thunder that I know of, but it’s eerily close to the Howling Dog Bend sound effect just across the Rivers of America outside Haunted Mansion (though not exactly the same track).

Now folks we gotta get through Balancing Rock Canyon. Look out! They’re starting to tumble!

The Balancing Rocks are one of the more recognizable set pieces of Nature’s Wonderland. They’re a little over the top, with teetering boulders spinning around on top of rocky pylons with impossible physics. It does not take much imagination to realize the Balancing Rocks morphed into the avalanche scene in Big Thunder, which up until recently was played more for realism (until all the effects either broke or were turned off).

Watch that wildcat, lady! Oh, glad he stayed up there. We’ve known these critters to take on a full growed deer more than ten times their size and weight. You know, last trip a mountain lion showed up right over that tunnel – Oh! There’s one now, so you better all be real quiet.

I like how he specifically warns the lady to watch out. The menfolk of course can handle any old wildcat.

Also, it appears we got two separate wildcats in this scene, to go along with Mr. Bobcat from earlier. That’s now three looming feline predators.

Now we’re going deep into the earth to view the dazzling Rainbow Caverns. You’ll see giant stalagmites, stalactites and colorful falls on every side. Say, if you look real careful, you’ll see Geyser Grotto and even the Witches’ Cauldron.

The Rainbow Caverns were the climax of the trip through Nature’s Wonderland, but Big Thunder steals their essence for the first scene. In Florida, the pools and caverns of the first lift hill are not overtly rainbow-ish, but they do have an ethereal quality to them. I would not characterize them as geysers or cauldrons though. Also, did you know that witch hunts were often an excuse for men to exert power and dominance over women, in a brutish attempt to oppress the different sensibilities of the opposite sex?

Well, I see we’re coming back into Rainbow Ridge again. I hope you all enjoyed your trip back into Nature’s Wonderland. Uh, please stay in your seats ’till I get the train stopped, will you? Then just lift up the jump seat in the middle and the door will come right open. Now to find the exit, folks, just head right for the front of the train. And if you got a mountain lion sitting next to you, don’t feed him… just tell him to hop out and hightail it back to his own stompin’ ground. Well, thanks for riding along. And come on back again when your out in these here frontier parts, will ya? So long!

Standard exit spiel stuff, but Dallas couldn’t resist yet another chance to run the mountain lion jokes into the ground. It does make me sad that there are not more big cats in Big Thunder. Think of all the “cat lady” jokes that are just sitting there for the taking!

A quick note about the train itself: It’s easy to spot similarities between Nature’s Wonderland and the Big Thunder coaster trains. The former obviously inspired the latter, though the coaster is squatter and more toylike by necessity.

After doing this little dissection of the script itself, I actually came across a recording of a session from the D23 convention over the summer, where Tony Baxter essentially does the same thing I just did, pointing out a few of the inspirations for Big Thunder and even warning of some un-PC references. It’s definitely worth a look for those of you like me who haven’t been aware of it. Lots of good footage of the original ride. Great photos of cow elk, if you know what I mean. And you can feel vastly superior to a living Disney Legend because Tony totally mixes up Coconino and Supai. He’s such a blonde.

 

9 thoughts on “Origins of Big Thunder Mountain

  1. Thanks for the informative and entertaining post! It is really cool how Disney re-uses and references their older attractions in their newer ones. Over time the parks build up this fascinating layer of history. It’s one of the things that make them so fun to learn about.

    It’ll be interesting to see what the next version of Big Thunder brings when it opens in Disneyland. I haven’t heard about any major changes, but who knows. I’ll be sad if the Rainbow Ridge buildings are gone.

    • Yeah, it can sometimes get screwy. For instance, in the latest WDW rehab, you get a more layered backstory which pays homage to Tony Baxter, who himself paid homage to Nature’s Wonderland when building Big Thunder, which borrowed liberally from the True Life Adventures. If we can just trace the True Life Adventures back to Marceline, we’d really have something!

    • The Rainbow Ridge buildings being torn down was the popular rumor for a while, but it turns out it was only a half-truth. Yes, the buildings were torn down during the renovation due to their age and periods of maintenance neglect (the ’90s sucked), BUT they were faithfully rebuilt to look just like they always have (albeit with a fresher coat of paint).

      • That’s good news! To be honest I hadn’t checked on the progress of the BTM rehab lately, so it’s good to know the remnants of the past will stick around.

      • If you read the comments, they are referred to as the “Seven Dwarf Cacti”, so you’ve also got a Snow White reference in there too.

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