My Disney Top 5 - Things to Love about Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at the Magic Kingdom

by Chris Barry, contributing writer
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For the past few months, I've been counting down my favorite things about my favorite Disney World attractions. After hitting just about every corner of the park, I'm still happily ticking off attractions in the very heart of Walt Disney World, the Magic Kingdom. Last time we talked about The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. This time, we'll push the thrill meter up a few notches as we head west to Frontierland for a true Disney classic, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

In about 45 days, I'll be back in Frontierland getting ready to whip through the town of Tumbleweed on a runaway train with my 17-year-old twin boys in tow. We're spending a long weekend at Walt Disney World and can't wait to be back. Big Thunder was the first Disney coaster and really the first big roller coaster that all three of our kids went on, and it's still a huge favorite for all of them. And why shouldn't it be? Is it the biggest, craziest coaster in Walt Disney World. Clearly not, but it's just about impossible to not smile and have an awesome time on Big Thunder. I'm a big coaster fan and Big Thunder Mountain has always held a high spot on my coaster list. I'm clearly not alone. It's a big draw in the Magic kingdom and has been ever since it opened in 1980.

The Magic Kingdom version of Big Thunder Mountain was the second to open after the original in Disneyland made its bow in 1979. There are also versions in Tokyo and Paris. Designed by legendary Disney Imagineer Tony Baxter, the ride had its roots in a much bigger attraction, the never built Western River Expedition, an entire area of the Magic Kingdom with multiple rides being designed by Imagineer Marc Davis. After the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, the public practically demanded that Disney build an east coast version of Pirates of the Caribbean, an attraction the company did not expect to replicate from Disneyland. Pirates put the brakes on the Western River Expedition as did the costly construction of Space Mountain. Big Thunder Mountain was extricated from the Western River Expedition and stands as the sole remnant of a much bigger plan.

If you view the concept art, one could only imagine just how awesome the Western River Expedition would have been. The fantastic theming of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, its queue, and the surrounding areas are all hints of what was almost built in this corner of the park. We're so lucky that Big Thunder was pulled out of the massive attraction and built in the wilds of Frontierland. It's an extraordinary example of Disney attraction design. What's so great about it? Let's take a look with my Top 5 things to love about the Magic Kingdom's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

5 – Interactive Queue

Over the last 10 years or so, Disney has gone to great lengths to provide entertainment to its guests as they wait in long attraction lines. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan's Flight, and the Haunted Mansion are examples of pretty simple attraction queues that were "plussed" and received really top notch treatment. These additions have followed the Disney tradition of expanding the attraction's storyline while simultaneously giving the guests something to do as they pass the time. Big Thunder received a ton of details in 2013 expanding upon the backstory that this is in fact supposed to be a mine.


Here you see explosions going off on the mountain initiated by guests in the queue. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

You can set off explosions, watch home movies depicting the day to day routines of the mine workers, as well as look into and "smell" the mine itself. There are some wonderful tips of the hat to legendary Disney Imagineers like Tony Baxter, Marc Davis, and Blaine Gibson. I love the animation wheels, the canaries in the coalmine, the references to the Apple Dumpling Gang and of course the dynamite plungers. Who doesn't want to push down on an old fashioned dynamite plunger like you've seen in cartoons and in the movies and actually see a little explosion go off out on the coaster track?

4 – Perfect First Coaster

Getting my kids on roller coasters took a long time. They didn't even want to ride Goofy's Barnstormer back in the day. I'm not sure what cracked them, but I suppose after their mother and I consistently extolled the simple, but terribly fun, virtues of this ride, they decided that Big Thunder would be their first Disney coaster, and really their first major roller coaster overall. That was a decision they certainly didn't regret as it pretty much instantly became a favorite Walt Disney World attraction for all three of them. There's good reason for that. Big Thunder Mountain really is the perfect first roller coaster ride.


Big Thunder Mountain is the perfect jumping-off point into the world of roller coasters. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

There are no big drops. It doesn't go upside down. It's rough but not too rough. It's not too fast and simply stated, it's just so much fun. Case in point, several years ago, our good friend and Disney buddy Laura took her youngest daughter, Leanna, on the ride with us for her first time. When the ride came to a screeching finish, Leanna, who typically doesn't say all that much on our trips, turned to us with one of the biggest smiles I've ever had the pleasure of seeing and jsaid to us, "Wasn't that so much fun?" We, of course, knew just how much fun it was, but her blissful reaction still stands as the top ride reaction I've ever seen from anyone at Walt Disney World. You literally saw the ride win her over in that moment. The look on her face said it all.

3 – Details

The Disney difference is all in the details, and Big Thunder Mountain offers up an endless amount of visual candy to look at—as long as you're not screaming too much or tearing around turns with your eyes closed. Seriously, keep your eyes open as you walk through the aforementioned queue, throughout the ride, and even after you exit and you'll see an extraordinary amount of theming and detail everywhere you look.


Some of the authentic Big Thunder Mountain Machinery. Photo by J. Jeff Kober.

Look for the animals, for the mining equipment, the dinosaur bones, the old houses and most of all the exquisite rock work that surrounds you at every turn. Big Thunder Mountain is a masterpiece of Disney design. It's beautiful to look at and given the speed at which you careen around the mountain, you're guaranteed to miss things. That just makes them more fun to discover on your next trip.

2 – The Cave

Despite all the fun you will inevitably have as you travel around the mountain in your runaway mine train, my favorite part of the whole journey has to be the first lift hill after you leave the loading area. Once you wave goodbye to the cast members at the loading platform, you turn into darkness and begin your ascent up the mountain.


Shortly after you board the train, you begin your ascent up through the caverns. Photo By Brian Bennett.

You do so through a bat-filled cave of wonders. Talk about Disney rock work. The caves off to the side of the lift hill are just unbelievable to behold. You can't believe that it's all man-made. Couple that with the bat noises, the blinking eyes, and the upcoming waterfall and you've got one of Disney's best attraction scenes of all time. It creates an air of mystery and tension as you ascend up through the darkness. It's probably one of my favorite coaster moments anywhere and the ride hasn't even really begun.

1 – Fireworks Views

I've been writing here on MousePlanet for just over 10 years. I wrote for another Disney fan site for almost two years before that. So, imagine my surprise when last summer during my big 50th birthday trip, my daughter and her friends came up to me, after spending a night in the Magic Kingdom without me, and were ecstatic about a Big Thunder tip that none of us had ever heard before. They decided to forego the fireworks and just coincidentally happened to head over to Big Thunder Mountain hoping to take advantage of shorter lines. We've skipped the fireworks before and you typically do get shorter lines with just about everyone huddled together out in front of the castle. But, I guess we never rode Big Thunder at that moment before. They were absolutely raving about riding Big Thunder Mountain while the fireworks were going off. "Greatest thing I've ever seen,' was a quote one of them threw out at me.


Head back to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad during the Magic Kingdom fireworks for an equally spectacular show. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

So, the next night, I had to find out what they meant. Right before Happily Ever After was set to begin, we made a beeline for Frontierland and were happily greeted by a ten minute Big Thunder wait time, which ended up to be more like seven minutes. I'll never forget coming out of that first cave after the first lift hill and literally being bombarded by fireworks.

You pop out of several caves on the ride and each time it was emerging from darkness and "BOOM" fireworks going off and showering you with colored light. It was absolutely incredible and I can't believe that after all these years and Disney experience I had never done this before, nor had I really heard of this as something that shouldn't be missed. Big Thunder puts you up quite a bit higher and further back from the castle and it's a different vantage point then anywhere else in the park to see the fireworks. The timing was just right and it made the ride even better. Big Thunder Mountain is a whole other experience at night and it's a whole other other experience when the fireworks are going off. Give it a shot on your next trip. It's fantastic.

Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of those attractions that I just can't get enough of. I've ridden it several times in a row when I was lucky enough to catch the park empty and the fun never gets old. It's an awesome coaster. It's packed with details and theming. The queue is entertaining and well done. It's a very different experience at night that makes it even more repeatable on any given day at the Magic Kingdom. Throw in the newly discovered fireworks element and you've got just a perfect Disney attraction. It's a ton of fun and never ceases to make me feel alive and young again, and that's what it's all about at Disney isn't it?

That's all for this time. As always, I'd like to hear what you have to say. Click on the link below to share your thoughts on my list and your own feelings about Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.

 

Comments

  1. By wdwchuck

    For me #1 is that it is the perfect speed and difficulty. I have never been a big thrill ride person and TMR has been absolutely perfect for me. Mine Train too. Perfect balance of speed and twists and turns.
    I also like the placement back there in the far corner of the park. Even when it gets super busy it seems like we can find some pavement out there by TMR.
    Thanks again Chris. We will be trying the fireworks trick the next time we go.

  2. By Dave1313

    I think you've got a great list. I'd agree with most. Haven't tried the fireworks thing, but that's now on my radar (though I still have difficulty not going for a more traditional view of the nighttime entertainment at each park ).

    As kids in the early 80's (I was almost 10, my sister was 5), we did BTM as our only roller coaster, though it was the DL version (we did not do Space Mountain or Matterhorn that trip). This was probably driven by a fascination with trains in general, and the fact that you could sort of see most of the ride and it obviously didn't go upside down. (The darkness/unknown of Space Mountain gave me pause even 8 years later!). I am pretty sure we all enjoyed the ride, so it was the first (but also only) coaster for that trip.

    In the queue/details department, I am going to say I love the bird cages hanging form the ceiling (though I will admit I may be mixing WDW and DL versions here - I think both have this?). I am pretty sure a few of the cages have names of some of the birds from the Enchanted Tiki Room.

    Some of the scenes/details that you get to see when taking the WDW RR around the park are fun too. While you may get a distant quick view while on the ride, there are definitely scenes designed for those riding the train around the park (and there are no walking paths around there, so I think that's the only really good way to get to see them).

    I know it's a very small thing, but the names for the engines on each train are amusing to me also. I have to admit I may be influenced because one of them leads off with the initials of my alma mater.

  3. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by wdwchuck View Post
    For me #1 is that it is the perfect speed and difficulty. I have never been a big thrill ride person and TMR has been absolutely perfect for me. Mine Train too. Perfect balance of speed and twists and turns.
    I also like the placement back there in the far corner of the park. Even when it gets super busy it seems like we can find some pavement out there by TMR.
    Thanks again Chris. We will be trying the fireworks trick the next time we go.

    Agree completely about the far corner of the park. The crowds always seem to be right in front of Splash, but just head over a little bit to Big Thunder and it thins out, especially along the river.

    The fireworks thing was just fantastic!

  4. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    I think you've got a great list. I'd agree with most. Haven't tried the fireworks thing, but that's now on my radar (though I still have difficulty not going for a more traditional view of the nighttime entertainment at each park ).

    As kids in the early 80's (I was almost 10, my sister was 5), we did BTM as our only roller coaster, though it was the DL version (we did not do Space Mountain or Matterhorn that trip). This was probably driven by a fascination with trains in general, and the fact that you could sort of see most of the ride and it obviously didn't go upside down. (The darkness/unknown of Space Mountain gave me pause even 8 years later!). I am pretty sure we all enjoyed the ride, so it was the first (but also only) coaster for that trip.

    In the queue/details department, I am going to say I love the bird cages hanging form the ceiling (though I will admit I may be mixing WDW and DL versions here - I think both have this?). I am pretty sure a few of the cages have names of some of the birds from the Enchanted Tiki Room.

    Some of the scenes/details that you get to see when taking the WDW RR around the park are fun too. While you may get a distant quick view while on the ride, there are definitely scenes designed for those riding the train around the park (and there are no walking paths around there, so I think that's the only really good way to get to see them).

    I know it's a very small thing, but the names for the engines on each train are amusing to me also. I have to admit I may be influenced because one of them leads off with the initials of my alma mater.

    Once again, the fireworks thing is often traditional for me as well. I love to see the whole show, facing the castle, close to wear Tink flies. But this was a whole different thing and I loved it.

    I believe it's Rosita from the Tiki Birds. Awesome reference!

    Agree about the WDW RR views. Even better are the Big Thunder views from Tom Sawyer Island!

    U.R. Courageous? I.M. Loco?

  5. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by cbarry View Post
    Once again, the fireworks thing is often traditional for me as well. I love to see the whole show, facing the castle, close to wear Tink flies. But this was a whole different thing and I loved it.

    I believe it's Rosita from the Tiki Birds. Awesome reference!

    Agree about the WDW RR views. Even better are the Big Thunder views from Tom Sawyer Island!

    U.R. Courageous? I.M. Loco?

    There might be multiple bird names on the cages, but I am pretty sure you are right that Rosita is one of them. Again, I could be mixing the DL and WDW versions, so there might be different names on the cages (or maybe more named cages in one park than the other) and I'm forgetting the detail. My memory is generally good, but it's not that good . At least I don't find myself looking for bathrooms that are 2500 miles away from the park I am standing in much anymore (did that briefly once or twice years ago ).

    I don't do TSI much, but I am sure you are right on that as well. There is also a decent vantage point (though more of an overall view than details, of course) from the Haunted Mansion queue (depends on height, of course - probably not a view at all for young kids).

    From AllEars.net : "The names of the six trains are: U.B. Bold, U.R. Daring, U.R. Courageous, I.M. Brave, I.B. Hearty and I.M. Fearless.". For me (former New Yorker), it was University at Buffalo (UB), so U.B. Bold.

  6. By CJ Brown

    Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of those rights that is popular wherever it's duplicated .... the Magic Kingdom has the best 'queue area', Disneyland's has the best 'last hill to the end' experience, Disneyland Paris (called Big Thunder Mountain) not only compliments Thunder Mesa? but you enter through a tunnel (you're going underneath the Rivers of the Far West) and the whole ride makes up an 'entire Island'!

    The sounds of Disneyland's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad trains were recorded and used as sound effects for the mine cart chase sequence in Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' 1984 film, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (now I got to re-watch that movie just to see that scene again!)

  7. By danyoung

    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the goat trick. Sure, this originated in Disneyland, but though there is no goat in WDW's version the trick still works.

  8. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    I'm surprised nobody has mentioned the goat trick. Sure, this originated in Disneyland, but though there is no goat in WDW's version the trick still works.

    OK... I admit I had to go look that up to see what the heck it meant (knew there is a goat with dynamite in it's mouth, but : a) off the top of my head would not remember which park it's in and b) never heard of that before!).

    Neat! (at least I think so before trying it - maybe if I feel nauseous like some reports suggest, I may not think it's so neat, we'll see). I'm not sure when I'll next be in DL to try it, though.

  9. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by Dave1313 View Post
    OK... I admit I had to go look that up to see what the heck it meant (knew there is a goat with dynamite in it's mouth, but : a) off the top of my head would not remember which park it's in and b) never heard of that before!).

    Neat! (at least I think so before trying it - maybe if I feel nauseous like some reports suggest, I may not think it's so neat, we'll see). I'm not sure when I'll next be in DL to try it, though.

    I have never tried this. Matter of fact I never heard of it.

  10. By danyoung

    In Disneyland there's a goat at the top of the first lift. If you turn your head and keep looking at it while the train takes the corner, you get a very disorienting and not totally unpleasant tickle. It also works in WDW, but there's no goat there - you have to imagine.

  11. By cbarry

    Quote Originally Posted by danyoung View Post
    In Disneyland there's a goat at the top of the first lift. If you turn your head and keep looking at it while the train takes the corner, you get a very disorienting and not totally unpleasant tickle. It also works in WDW, but there's no goat there - you have to imagine.

    Imagine the goat !!!

    Be the goat!!

  12. By Dave1313

    Quote Originally Posted by cbarry View Post
    Imagine the goat !!!

    Be the goat!!

    While I'm not making fun (I will probably try this! ), I can just imagine striking up a conversation about this with someone you don't know (in line, car behind you, etc). "Imagine there is a goat at the top of the lift hill and look in that direction as we go over the hill!". Then again, you could run into someone who knew exactly what you are talking about.

  13. By danyoung

    I learned about it online. . .

  14. By Dave1313

    Since the Disneyland version is celebrating it's 40th birthday today, there is a nice article on the history on the Disney Parks Blog.

    Link.

    While it's of course the DLR version written about in the article, there are some references to the other park versions, such as which actual locations each ride is supposed to represent with it's design.

    I noted the DPB article today mentions different names for the trains than the previous fan-site link I posted has. I now find myself curious if the names are maybe a little bit different at different parks or if they've changed over the years (i.e., 5 trains vs. 6, etc.). The thing that made me catch this was the "I.M. Loco" one Chris referred to above that was missing entirely from the link I posted in my earlier comment.

    I might have to try to see how many different ones I can identify operating on my next trip (obviously understanding they may not all be in operation at the same time ).

  15. By Dave1313

    Sorry for a second post, but I am just outside the edit window...

    While looking into the above, I stumbled into a neat article with pictures of a 1/4" to the foot model that is in the Frontierland Tower at the Disneyland Hotel.

    Yes, the goat is there!

    Link.

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