The Vacation Kingdom of the World: Westward, Ho! to Frontierland

by Tom Richards, contributing writer

This summer, our Disney destination is the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. Why? The kids are tall enough to ride Big Thunder Mountain Railroad for the first time.

When Walt Disney built his original Magic Kingdom in California, Western films and television programs were a staple of the entertainment industry. Disney himself enjoyed great success with Western-themed films and television series, most notably the Davy Crockett series and the Spin and Marty series. Frontierland, then, was a natural fit for Disneyland's dedication "to the ideals, the dreams, and the hard facts that have created America."

The Western remained a popular genre into the 1960s with films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and others enjoying great financial and critical success. Comedy driven westerns, like the James Garner films Support Your Local Sheriff and Support Your Local Gunfighter, were also successful and kept the public interest in westerns alive and well. It was logical, then, that Walt Disney Productions would include another Frontierland in their new park as part of the Florida Project in 1971.

Over the last several decades, however, the Western has become more and more obscure. To be certain, there are successful Westerns in theaters and on the television screen, but by and large, the Western genre no longer maintains the huge hold on the public imagination that it once did. My friends in the history department theorize that this is due, in large part, to the changing attitudes towards Native Americans and their place in American history. Kids rarely, if ever, play "Cowboys and Indians" any more, and rightly so. Still, there's a natural interest in the exciting, often dangerous, world of the great American West, and Frontierland continues to capture the imaginations of guests from around the world.

To get into a Frontierland state of mind, we've been brushing up on some family-friendly Western-themed films. You might want to take a fresh look at the following Disney films if your family is gearing up for the "wildest ride in the wilderness" this summer.

Pecos Bill

This cartoon short, based on the American tall tales about a Texas cowboy, was originally featured in the 1948 "package film" entitled Melody Time. This colorful, witty retelling of the story of the "toughest cowboy west of the Alamo" features broad characters and memorable music; viewing this film will put you in the mood for a quick service meal at the Pecos Bills Café in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland.

The story opens with a wonderfully atmospheric song, "Blue Shadows on the Trail," hauntingly sung by the Sons of the Pioneers and Roy Rogers. The animation is gorgeously detailed; the scenes of the American West are as memorable as the scenes of the great American woods depicted in Bambi. The opening sequence dissolves into a live-action scene of Roy Rogers, his horse Trigger, the Sons of the Pioneers, and Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten (the young stars of Song of the South and So Dear to My Heart). Roy proceeds to tell the story of Pecos Bill to his two young friends in an amusing, rhyming, full-of-puns-and-wordplay manner that is sure to delight kids and their parents.

For the uninitiated, a toddler Pecos Bill falls off his family's covered wagon, is adopted by a family of wolves, and grows up to be "quite the cowboy down in Texas, he was the western superman to say the least" according to the very catchy theme song that weaves through the entire 22-minute film. Anyway, Pecos learns to be rough and tough from his animal friends. He saves a pony from vultures; this horse grows up to be his best friend, Widowmaker. Together, they create all sorts of natural wonders, from rivers to mountain ranges. All is well until Bill meets Slue Foot Sue, a beautiful cowgirl who arrives in town upon a giant catfish (keep in mind that this is a tall tale, after all.) The entire story is connected by reoccurring refrains of the theme song in much the same way as the later Davy Crocket episodes would be held together by a popular ballad.

At the Magic Kingdom's Pecos Bill Café, there are lots of visual and musical nods to this Disney film. His theme song can often be heard playing in the background. "Props" from the film—including Bill's rope and guns as well a pair of Sue's gloves—are also scattered around this sprawling establishment. Be sure to walk around and seek out these little details as you load your burgers and fries at the condiment table the next time you mosey over to Bill's for lunch.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffen

A grand comedy Western, this delightful farce from 1967 features a talented cast, unusual plot twists, and another memorable theme song to tell the tale of Arabella and Jack Flagg and their very proper butler, Eric Griffen.

When the patriarch of a well-to-do Boston family passes, he wants to ensure that his grand children—Arabella and Jack—inherit his sense of adventure and self-determination. His young grandson, Jack, stows away abroad a ship bound for San Francisco and the promise of gold. His faithful butler, Griffen (charmingly played by Roddy McDowall) follows him and together, they seek fame and fortune in the golden West. A villainous (and uncharacteristically humorous) Karl Malden follows them every step of the way and complicates their quest for gold. Spunky Arabella, played by the always appealing Suzanne Pleshette, follows after her brother and butler. Along the way, the reserved butler learns to take chances, the adventurous boy learns about responsibility, and the sheltered Bostonian lady becomes a dance hall singer (and even gets to sing a snappy little Sherman Brothers song entitled "The Girls of San Francisco").

The main titles and the entertaining interludes between episodes are cleverly animated by Disney Legend Ward Kimball. The animation is very reminiscent of that used in Epcot's "The American Adventure" during the "age of exploration and invention" sequence.

The Adventures of Bullwhip Griffen captures that fun and adventure still to be found in the Magic Kingdom's Frontierland. Check it out for some good old-fashioned shenanigans and belly laughs.

The Apple Dumpling Gang

In a previous piece, I wrote about this popular film and my theory that this film is linked thematically with the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's worth mentioning the favorite film again, however, because it provides so much fun for the entire family.

The story is set in the town of Quake City, California, during the infamous gold rush era. Through an extended series of mishaps and misunderstandings, the unlikely duo of gambler Russell Donovan (Bill Bixby) and the stagecoach-driving Dusty Clysdesdale (Susan Clark) find themselves stuck with three orphaned children, appealingly played by Clay O'Brien, Brad Savage, and Stacy Manning. In a series of misadventures, the children stumble upon a huge golden nugget. Suddenly, every malcontent in town wants to adopt the three parentless children.

With the help of the bungling duo of would-be bandits Theodore (Don Knotts) and Amos (Tim Conway), Donovan and Dusty try to procure a good home for the children. Throw in a revenge seeking gunslinger, a helpful curmudgeon of a sheriff, several chase scenes (one involving a mine car and one involving a hook and ladder), lots of slapstick, and a healthy dose of heart and you have all the necessary ingredients for a successful family film.

While the film does include many scenes with its capable "grown-up" stars, it also includes many sequences focusing exclusively on children. Much like other popular Disney films such as The Parent Trap, it is this focus on the kids and the adults that makes the film appealing to a wide audience.

As is typical of most Disney live-action films, the sets and scenery are wonderfully detailed and authentic. The town of Quake City was created on the Disney backlot, using the same Western Street featured in many classic Disney films including Texas John Slaughter and Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus. The authentic sets capture an idealized view of the old West, complete with a saloon, an upscale Victorian restaurant, an imposing bank, and a street complete with wooden sidewalks. Many of Frontierland's colorful storefronts echo the look of Quake City. The combination of Victorian woodwork and western ruggedness works. Watch The Apple Dumpling Gang and then stroll the streets of Frontierland: you'll sense continuity

Another memorable set, a spooky abandoned gold mine, was created in one of the Walt Disney Studios larger sound stages. At one point in the film, the three children climb aboard a mine car for a rollicking, uncontrollable ride. Big Thunder Railroad's runaway train shares more than a striking resemblance to this film scene.

The look and feel of the gold mine scenes are echoed in the design of the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. The queue, for instance, is filled with atmospheric details like authentic mining antiques, southwestern plants, heavy weathered beams, and dark, winding passageways. The newly added interactive elements further the storytelling connection between this film and the attraction.

Disney Details

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is receiving attention on both coasts: the Magic Kingdom's queue continues to receive enhancements as Disneyland's version gets a complete overhaul. Before heading to the parks this summer, watch a few of these comedy Westerns—all available on DVD—to get in the mood. These little connections to much-loved Disney films may go completely unnoticed by many guests, they are very satisfying to countless Disney fans. It's a tribute to Walt Disney's talented team of filmmakers that so many of the films produced by Walt Disney Productions are of such high quality that they continue to entertain new generations as well as inspire Imagineers as they design and build Walt Disney parks.

So "holds onto your hats and glasses" and enjoy the ride.