Seating: 5 Trains, 5 cars per train, 3 rows per train, 2 riders per row, 30 riders per train
Walt Disney World’s premier theme park, Magic Kingdom, was opened in 1971 in Kissimee, Florida. It contained six extremely well-themed lands, five of them based on similar sections at it’s sister resort in Anaheim, California: Disneyland, which was built in 1955 as Disney’s first theme park. One of the sections of the park that was loosely replicated was Frontierland. It was based around a 19th century town in the western United States. The section opened with only three attractions; The Railroad Station,Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, and the Country Bear Jamboree. In 1973, Tom Sawyer’s Island debuted.
But there was still something missing in this northwestern corner of the park, and a huge space beckoned for something huge, innovative, and exciting. A western-themed boat ride calledWestern River Expedition was slated for construction, but the demand for a Pirate ride prompted the Magic Kingdom to build an indoor boat ride, Pirates of the Caribbean, in theAdventureland section of the park instead. This nixed the Western River Expedition project as it would have been too redundant to build right after a similar boat ride was built in another part of the park. So the Magic Kingdom went back to the drawing board for several years, and came up with a ground-breaking new ride for their park.
An extravagantly-themed Vekoma Mine Train named Big Thunder Mountain Railroad graced the skies of Disneyland in 1979, and weaved in and out of red rock hoodoos and the mining town of Big Thunder. In 1980, the Magic Kingdomfollowed suit and built their own version, in the northwest corner of the park, beside Splash Mountain. Both were one of the first coasters to be designed with the help of computers. The rock formations were slightly different in the Magic Kingdom version, and were themed to the buttes and cliffs of the American southwest as opposed to the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, which the Disneyland version was derived from. The name of the town was also changed to Tumbleweed as opposed to Big Thunder, and the town was destroyed by a flash flood as opposed to an earthquake.
The theming for both attractions was very similar. The rides were designed, or imagineered, as Disney would phrase it, to appear like the mine shafts and tunnels throughout the course of the ride were caving in or collapsing due to earthquakes, and that the deserted towns the ride passes through were haunted, causing the runaway trains to conduct themselves. In the Magic Kingdom version, the runaway trains passed through the town of Tumbleweed, where Cumulus Isobar’s rainmaking machine has flooded the town. A century later, guests could ride the town’s mining trains that used to be part of the people of Tumbleweed’s daily routine. Although the town was destroyed, the spirit of the mine trains lived on, and they began to operate themselves; without a conductor!
The queue is also magnificently-themed to Disney’s pinpoint standards. To get to the ride, guests enter through the gates and make their way down Main Street USA, to the statue in front of Cinderella’s Castle. They take the northernmost left, heading across the bridge to Liberty Square. After turning a slight left and passing Liberty Tree Tavern, they make their way toFrontierland. Guests walk straight down the Frontierland corridor until they reach Splash Mountain, where they turn right and cross the bridge, making their way up to the queue of Big Thunder Mountain. Guests climb to the loading station, themed to deserted offices in Tumbleweed, through a hillside filled with old mining equipment . Inside the two-story station, guests venture to the top and can view the entire mountain structure that surrounds and partially encases the ride. Then, they head down a ramp to the loading platform where they board one of six runaway “ghost” trains. A flashing green lantern alerts the riders that they are ready to depart on the enchanted trains, and the ride dispatches the station, turning into a dark tunnel. After an S-curve where the screeches of bats are heard above, the ride climbs it’s first lift while still in the cave. At the top, water gushes from the mouth of the cavern and splashes on both sides of the guests, making it look like the cave is being flooded. After the train emerges into sunlight it takes a sweeping left hand turn, followed by a sharp right hand turn through an outcropping of red rocks. The track then dips twice along the curvature of the mountain, passing under more buttes and a passing train. The ride then takes a rightward, 270 degree helix into a tunnel, passing under itself. The ride then takes a non-banked left turn at moderately high speed into the town of Tumbleweed, where it transcends a few bunny hops and then turns around, traveling back through the town and up another lift hill. At the top of the lift hill, the ride makes a high-banked leftward drop into a straightaway between rock outcroppings, passing under a bridge that it crossed earlier in the ride. It takes a quick, forceful pop up onto another plateau, causing riders to feel the lurch of their belly during a brief second of blissful zero-gravity. The ride then sharply turns into a leftward 540 degree helix that becomes more and more banked as the ride picks up speed. Suddenly, it traverses another air-time hill and makes a 180 degree turnaround into the mine shaft containing the third and final lift hill. As riders travel upwards, the rocks shake and rumble, as Big Thunder Mountain experiences an earthquake. The mine shaft appears to be caving in on the ride just as it crests the lift, when riders drop down, exiting the cave, and travels through two consecutive left hand U-Turns around and through the enormous red rock structure. The ride then slows as it ascends a hill that passes above the previous turn, and quickly drops and to the right, passing exposed bones of some sort of ferocious creature stuck to the side of a butte. The ride turns left again, into a giant field of geysers in the foothills of Big Thunder Mountain. The train crawls through the geyser field finale to the final brake run, where riders enter back into the offices of Tumbleweed and are free to explore the rest of Frontierland and the Walt Disney World Resort, safe from the perils and mishaps the runaway train so narrowly avoided.
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