As one of the three fabled mountains of the Magic Kingdom, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is much more than just a runaway mine car ride. This Disney classic attraction opened in Disney World in 1980 (a year after the Disneyland version opened).
Disney wasn't the first to create a mine car ride, but by applying the creativity and attention to detail that the Disney Imagineers are known for, this ride took the experience to a whole new level of believability and excitement.
Tony Baxter - The Disney Imagineer Behind Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
For Tony Baxter, the young Disney Imagineer assigned to work on the project in 1974, the first challenge was to make the ride look like the mountain and the rocks existed first and the ride came later. This 197 foot tall Disney World "mountain" is based on the rock work in Monument Valley in Utah.
After the initial model was built, Tony utilized computer aided design to create the final layout for the 2,780 feet of railroad track that make up the attraction.
Here is an excerpt from an interview with Tony Baxter by Didier Ghez of the Disney History Blog in 1995:
Yes, because that was the very first ride that we did with the aid of computer design on the track. I would do a design and give it to the computer artist and he would tell me, "No, it won't work. The computer wants..." There is a spiral on Big Thunder, near the beginning of the ride, where it goes around and then heads back. The computer kept moving it over, because it did not want that much track there. It wanted to shorten the length of track. And I wanted it over there because it looked good as a design. I like the composition of the three summits, the pyramid composition of shapes. The computer kept moving the track which made the ride somewhat less attractive.
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 !
They tried to do the computer design on Space Mountain in Florida. But it was so early in the evolution of computer design that much of the track profile was later worked out by hand to improve the smoothness of the ride.
Big Thunder Mountain is the first ride where it is really fluid, very smooth and a very good ride.
The Back Story You May Not Know
Every Disney World attraction has a back story that the Imagineers create along with the attraction. It's not just a ride, it is a story that you are experiencing.
For Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and it's sprawling 2.5 acres, the story centers around Gold.
Gold prospectors rushed to Big Thunder Mountain and settled the town of Tumbleweed. Life was good until a flash flood washed over the mountain and ruined the opportunity to mine any more gold.
Despite the fact that Tumbleweed's Saloon is in grave danger of sinking, the inhabitants of Tumbleweed are gathered there to spend their gold spawned riches for a raucously good time.
Additionally the Big Thunder Mountain Railroads trains that had the job of transporting the gold ore from the mines to Tumbleweed are running loose on the tracks.
A Not To Be Missed Disney World Attraction
Big Thunder Mountain is a roller coaster that utilizes a series of fast spirals and turns to keep the excitement level high without needing the giant hill or going upside down. This smooth running, high speed train ride is fun for the entire family. Try to notice the town of Tumbleweed and their inhabitants as you race by.
The next time you visit the Magic Kingdom, ride the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, several times if need be, and take in all of the great detail that exists. This certainly isn't your ordinary roller coaster