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Kevin Yee

Happy Trails to You, Big Thunder Barbecue

Bye Bye Big Thunder Ranch

Big Thunder Barbecue
The BBQ area is now roped off, with signs pointing interested parties to visit Rancho del Zocalo for the barbecue menu.

We've reported recently here at MousePlanet that Rancho del Zocalo, the newest restaurant at Disneyland, opened its well-themed courtyards to the world. The new restaurant replaced not one, but actually two eateries at Disneyland (not unlike the "New Tomorrowland" of 1998, which resulted in a net loss of attractions. But I digress).

My write-up of Rancho, which sits on the former location of Casa Mexicana, necessarily gave short shrift to the "other" restaurant it replaced: the Big Thunder Barbecue. So a little tribute was due here on the site. The two columns, together with an older one and the potential future need for more, gave rise to this restaurant-related column. Current plans call for this column to be updated on an irregular basis, whenever there is news to report, openings or closings, or reviews of the Disney restaurants.

It has been known for a while that Rancho would replace both Casa Mexicana and Big Thunder Barbecue, but the BBQ stayed open until just before Rancho was ready. On Sunday, January 21, 2001, the BBQ finally had its last day of operation. Let's take a trip back in time to witness this location's history, shall we?

Way back in 1984, when Michael Eisner and Frank Wells took control of the Disney organization, the Disney theme park empire was little more than Disneyland ("The Original," as they like to call it now), WDW's Magic Kingdom, and the then-new EPCOT Center. Disneyland had continued its history of growing in bursts, interrupted by long periods of nothingness: Fantasyland had just been redone in 1983, resulting in some new dark ride attractions, but the biggest news was still the exciting new roller coaster, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, which had opened in 1979.

Big Thunder Barbecue
The Barbecue shortly after its closing, with all tables removed recently enough to still spot the indentations in the earth.

Eisner was looking to expand. The fabled "first project" of the Eisner-era was Videopolis, a state-of-the-art dance facility near the Small World attraction. On the books was a simulator ride with George Lucas, based on the Star Wars franchise. Under construction in Tomorrowland was a new 3D picture called Captain EO.

New attractions are nice, but park planners spotted way to more dramatically alter the face of Disneyland. For the first time, live animals were to be used as a draw: Disneyland would have its own ranch. The walkway connecting the backside of Fantasyland with Frontierland, open since 1983, was underused. The area would provide a perfect place for the new ranch, soon to take the Western theme of Big Thunder mining town. Thus, in 1986, the Big Thunder Ranch was born.

And why a Ranch? Well, why not? It's western-themed, which fits with Frontierland, and Disney had never before offered such an attraction. The Ranch is the real precursor to Disney's Animal Kingdom - a Park which unofficially claims to be the first Disney experience with animals (Discovery Island notwithstanding). Besides, other nearby California amusement parks (most notably Magic Mountain in Valencia) had petting zoos, as they were popular with children.

There may even have been a sentimental reason for wanting a Ranch. Walt himself had owned ranchland: the Smoke Tree Ranch. Ever notice Walt's tie-tack on those old shows he hosted for television? Yup, those are the initials STR woven together. The Rocket Rods queue (sigh, I really mean the former Circlevision theater) showed clips of Walt wearing that tie-tack.

Big Thunder Ranch
The petting zoo at Disneyland, Big Thunder Ranch. Image copyright Disney.

The eventual home to Mickey Moo, a cow with the mouse-shape naturally occurring on her side, the Big Thunder Ranch was a big hit for a while. Disneyland discovered that a ranch was difficult work, especially an onstage one, and a few years later the Ranch closed down. The area was used sporadically for entertainment, most notably as a Santa's Village in winter and as a musical venue for the Festival of Fools stage show.

Mickey Moo
Mickey Moo, who joined the Ranch in 1988 and two years later bore the calf "Baby Moo" (who did not sport the Mickey shape, alas).

But the food service which opened with the Ranch, the Big Thunder Barbecue, endured in popularity. Everything about the BBQ was minutely detailed. The food service line was a semicircle of chuck wagons. The food was served on metal plates, and meals were consumed on red-and-white checkered picnic tablecloths. Tables sat on unpaved, gritty dirt, and at the center of the dining area was a roaring fire pit.

And the cuisine itself seemed authentically rustic: smoked beef or pork ribs, barbecued half chicken, corn on the cob, red beans, and cornbread. Giant portions with correspondingly high prices became the trademark of the restaurant.

The eatery even made culinary history, at least in Disneyland terms. It was the first restaurant to roll out "pre-ordering." Think about it. Until the BTBBQ, your choices were full table service, fast food counter service, or the cafeteria-like tray slide. The BBQ was different: here you would pre-order your food, and it would await you as you journeyed down the trayslide. The experiment worked, and preordering spread to Caf Orleans the next year, with some variation used (with mixed success) at other buffeterias such as Plaza Pavilion, Plaza Inn, and the French Market.

The advent of food-court style service, called "Scramble System," spelled higher profit margins and marked the BBQ's days as numbered. As scramble-style food courts proliferated (Redd Rockett's Pizza Port, the new Plaza Inn, Rancho del Zocalo), the preorder buffeterias Caf Orleans and Big Thunder Barbecue were increasingly kept closed. It just made financial sense to close down the Barbecue with Casa Mexicana and roll over the two menus into a "best of" conglomeration.

Here, for the sake of posterity, is the final menu at the Big Thunder Barbecue when it closed forever:

Turkey Leg - $8.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Beef Ribs - $9.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Pork Ribs - $13.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Barbecued Chicken - $8.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Pork Ribs & BBQ Chicken - $9.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Beef Rib & BBQ Chicken - $8.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Pork Ribs & Beef Rib - $9.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
Trail Boss Sampler (Beef & Pork Ribs and BBQ Chicken) - $13.99 - with corn/cob, beans, slaw, cornbread.
BBQ Beef Sandwich - $7.49 - LUNCH ONLY.
BBQ Chicken Sandwich - $7.49 - LUNCH ONLY.
Vegetable Platter - $10.99 - DINNER ONLY - Portobello Mushrooms, baked potato, grilled vegetables.

The location was memorable for a few other reasons as well. For example, during the run of the Hunchback-themed show "Festival of Fools," the BBQ's name was temporarily changed to "Festival of Foods."

In recent months, the restaurant was the home to the entertainment group "Billy Hill and the Hillbillies," who had been displaced out of the Golden Horseshoe when the Toy Story-themed "Woody's Roundup" rode into town. Entertainment on the stage has always been sporadic, usually unknown acts would perform western-themed music, but most often the stage was simply empty and quiet.

Big Thunder Barbecue
The barn at Big Thunder BBQ was home to the backstage kitchen, the restrooms, and the outdoor stage, which you can see in the center.

Cast Members know that the BBQ was a haven for cats; there has been at least one family living in the general Ranch area for years even before it was developed. These are assumed to be direct descendants of the cats which lived in Sleeping Beauty Castle, before Walt conceived the idea to do a walk-through of the attraction. Legend tells of Walt touring the area prior to construction and running back out, frantically swatting at the millions of fleas which had infected the cats.

So you see, the Big Thunder Barbecue is like most locales in Disneyland: imbued with history and overflowing with trivia. Us long timers are sad to see it go. On that fateful Sunday in January, the last day of operation for the Barbecue, commemorative mugs were sold that proclaimed it to be "the end of the trail."

Indeed it was the end of the trail, and in more ways than one. Remember the initial Eisner projects mentioned at the start of this article? Now that the Big Thunder Barbecue has closed, the last remnant of the Big Thunder Ranch is gone. More interestingly, all those first Eisner projects Videopolis, Captain EO, and the Big Thunder Ranch are now all part of history. Videopolis reopened as a venue for musicals, and Captain EO was replaced by "Honey, I Shrunk the Audience." Eisner may well have saved the Disney organization in 1984 with his financial wiles, but we now see that his first forays into theme park expansion were destined not to endure through the ages.


1986 - Big Thunder Ranch opens

1988 - State Fair begins at Disneyland

1988 - Mickey Moo arrives at Disneyland

1990 - Baby Moo born

1996 - Big Thunder Ranch closes the petting zoo

1996 - Festival of Fools musical arena opens

1999 - Festival of Fools musical arena closes

2001 - Big Thunder BBQ closes, signaling the real end of the Ranch expansion


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