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Orange Bird Photo Hunt


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Big Thunder Mountain Model

We've got lots of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad love for everyone. This marvelous 1/4" = 1' scale model can be seen in the lobby of the "Frontierland Tower" at the Disneyland Hotel. It's the wildest model in the wilderness!


Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Origins

Young Imagineer Tony Baxter had recently worked on the install of some Magic Kingdom Fantasyland attractions prior to Walt Disney World opening. He landing work in the model shop and was working with Marc Davis on plans for Thunder Mesa and Western River Expedition. The area would have included a train ride and a very elaborate boat ride sometimes explained as “Cowboys of the Caribbean” or “Pirates of the Caribbean with Cowboys and Indians”.

Rising 1970s gas prices, lower-than-desired park attendance, and guests expecting a pirate ride ultimately led to the management-promoted idea of axing Marc Davis’ Western River Expedition and the entire Thunder Mesa complex in favor of Pirates of the Caribbean at a fraction of the cost.

Baxter himself was not very happy with the current state of his mine train ride concept. “It has no story, no theme. It’s just a train rolling across a hillside, nothing more.” The train wasn’t very thrilling until later in the ride. Baxter pitched to executives his ideas of a bat-infested cave, an earthquake, and a more thrilling experience starting from the beginning of the ride. Card Walker told Baxter to start work on a stand-alone E-Ticket runaway train thriller, independent of Marc Davis’ project.

Meanwhile the concept of Space Mountain was becoming more and more attractive to Magic Kingdom management. America had recently landed on the moon, people were more interested in space flight than the Old West, and the park needed its first “thrill”. Space Mountain became top priority amongst Imagineers at W.E.D. Space Mountain opened in January 1975 at Walt Disney World. Shortly after construction started on an entire Space Mountain complex at Disneyland which opened in May of 1977.

Everyone in both parks had thrill fever– guests and management alike. Disneyland management had grown tired of Frontierland’s great Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland and it’s high maintenance costs. They wanted yet another thrill. Tony Baxter’s mine train now had new potential. Would his Florida concept fit in MTTNW’s location? Plans were “flipped” and the more-fitting rock style of Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park was selected. The style was to allow for a nice transition between this part of Frontierland and the very nearby Fantasyland.

Disneyland’s Big Thunder Mountain Railroad opened September 1979. The name “Big Thunder” came from a large waterfall in Mine Train Thru Nature’s Wonderland. Magic Kingdom wanted a thrill for its west side and debuted their Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in November of 1980.


I, for one, love the Big Thunders. They are very well crafted, have great layouts, a touch of thrill without being obnoxious, and are super immersive. As nice as it would be to ride Mine Train Thru Nature's Wonderland (it was like three time larger in footprint than its replacement) Big Thunder Mountion wonderful. It lacks a lot of the "nature" of Nature's Wonderland and it's difficult to watch any animal for more than a few seconds (many of which were originally in Nature's Wonderland!). It lacks that charming ride narration and the ride ends much much sooner than the original but really it's a gem.


Related posts:

The Wonders of Nature's Wonderland [ PART 1 ]
The Wonders of Nature's Wonderland [ PART 2 ]
Buena Vista Street Model
Swiss Family Treehouse Model
Disneyland 1955 Model Close-ups
Mars and Beyond Robot

Reader Comments (8)

I've always been a BTMRR enthusiast, purely from being a train fan, and it was always one of the few roller coasters I'd ride before I got over my fear.

However, I stand by my belief that the best one to be found (that I've ridden) is in Tokyo. Much longer and more thrilling. However, I have yet to ride the one in Paris, so we'll see.

June 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

This is an EXCELLENT scale model. They didn't cheap out on any part of it. Having worked in the architectural model biz I can tell you this one wasn't an inexpensive build. This would have bid out for half a million easy. That's my guess anyway. Probably more. Great photos.

June 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJumperJH

Nice photos, love the tilt-shift effect. My wife and I were disappointed that the one in Florida wasn't going to be open while we were down there in April, it's one of her favorites. But we've never been to Disneyland so everything there will be new to us and Cars Land beckons, so we hope it will be open when we get out there, whenever it may be in the next couple of years.

So, Fritz, I'm a graphic designer, too, but was building models like this part of your gig at Disney while you were there? I love looking at models like this at One Man's Dream, though I wish the lighting was better for photography there (at least without being intrusive with tripods, etc., I understand why it's kept low, though).

Great post!

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDave

The original model did not include a lot of the infield added show elements and sets, that this model now has. Would be great to compare it side by side with the original design model. Disneyland was the first installed Big Thunder in 1979, and the only one with the Bryce Canyon Rockwork style. Paris Disneyland's Big Thunder is the tallest by 100 feet, the deepest going under water, biggest by 67% over Tokyo, fastest, longest, best themed, most animation, and the only one on an Island and mainland in the town of Thunder Mesa. Think it would be great to have the old Stagecoach from Disneyland near this model. PD

June 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRusty

When I see gorgeous work like this, it makes me wish Disney would create permanent Imagineering museums at Disneyland and WDW and fill them up with models and artwork. The Imagination pavilion would be a great place to host such a thing.

JumperJH, very interesting to hear your thoughts about cost. I'd love to learn more about the making of this and similar attraction models including how many artists were involved and how long it took.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlex G.

The concept model was usually sliced and diced in 1/2 sections in 3 directions in order to trace the contours of the models conceptual carved rock. This was to reproduce it in the field in steel and concrete. Thus the concept model would show all the dissections with cardboard spacers glued in between to make up for the saw cut, and to show the steel grids to the artisans in the field. It was a great tool in the field and thus many would not make it back in one piece. This "Slice and Dice" practice started with the Disneyland Big Thunder Model in 1977/78 and followed on through Florida's Big Thunder and Epcot, as well as following rockwork.

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRusty

Something I forgot to mention: while I never saw this model, I dreamed about it forever after my first (one I can remember) trip to WDW. I knew they built these models (after all, they were in all the attractions! [Peoplemover, Peter Pan, World of Motion, etc.]) and I remember always wanting my own, working model of WDW; specifically, I remember BTMRR. It's part of the reason I became so passionate about know how things worked and wanting to go into WDI; I'd just stare at all the models...

June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDerek

Disney's WED models have always inspired other artists. 1960's Shindig singing star Bobby Sherman was given a full set of Mainstreet plans to build his own scaled version, that he could actually walk through. The king of Pop Michael Jackson was always a great Disney supporter as well as Captain EO Star. With his Neverland he created all his favorites parts of Disneyland. Maybe one day Disney will have a walk through archives museum with all its treasures as the Disney family has done.

June 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRusty

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